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Army secretary calls sexual assault 'sickening,' vows continued action

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (May 09, 2013) -- The Army's secretary told lawmakers that leadership across the Army is not pleased with the number of sexual assaults occurring in the ranks, and that any progress made thus far to combat it is simply "nowhere good enough."

Both Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh and Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Ray Odierno spoke on Capitol Hill, May 8, before the House Appropriations Committee, subcommittee on defense.

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"It's hard to capture a single emotion," said McHugh, addressing legislators. "All of us, we're frustrated, we're angry -- but what we aren't is dissuaded from continuing the fight and meeting the challenge. This is so contrary to everything upon which the Army was built.

"To see this kind of activity happening in our ranks is heart wrenching and sickening," he continued. "We've tried and will continue to try to approach this at virtually every level."

The secretary told lawmakers the Army has now, as directed by legislation in the fiscal year 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, placed two full-time positions within each brigade. That includes both a Victim's Advocate and a Sexual Assault Response Coordinator.

The Army is also in the process, he said, of hiring nearly 500 victim assault counselors to place as deployable personnel "so even out of the country Soldiers will have the confidence to step forward to know there will be someone there who is trained and who will be sympathetic to them and hopefully diminish the fear that too many Soldiers continue to have: if they step forward they will be victimized again by the system."

The secretary also told lawmakers that the Army's "propensity to report" sexual assault -- the willingness of victims to come forward -- has gone up to 42 percent from 28 percent, "but that is nowhere good enough," he said.

The Army will continue to hire those it needs to combat the problem, he said, and the Army is also focused on aggressive, thorough training to combat the problem.

"Training of all Soldiers at all levels and all ranks is occurring, not just one day, not just at one touch point in initial military training -- but really as a career-long activity," he said.

He also told lawmakers that during meetings with new brigadier generals, he's let them know that the issue of sexual assault is a top priority.

"I told them you can do everything from this point forward in your military career perfectly, but if you fail on this, you fail the Army," McHugh said.

Odierno said the Army must make Soldiers feel comfortable that if they are sexually assaulted, they are safe to come forward and report. And if they are sexually assaulted, the service must protect them when they do come forward.

"We have to protect them, and have them feel comfortable that we have systems in place that will protect them before -- and then, if unfortunately something happens, that we have systems in place that protect them after the event," he said.

Also, he said, the Army must affect a cultural change that can prevent sexual assaults from happening in the first place.

"We get individuals from all parts of society," he said. "We must engrain them into the Army culture. And we have to do this by several methods. We have to incorporate this into our institutional training. We have done this from the time they enter as an officer or Soldier -- it is at every level of training. We have to eliminate that bystander mentality -- it's no longer acceptable. We have to understand about accountability. You have to be accountable for your own actions and you have to be accountable for your command."

While the Army works from the top level down to inculcate Soldiers about the service's stance on sexual assault, Odierno said a point of failure can be at individual units, where the command climate must reflect that of the whole Army.

"We have attacked this at all angles, but we still have lots of work to do," Odierno said. "Institutionally, we can do well. But if you go into a unit and the climate is not right, it will tear down everything we've tried to train in the institution. So we are really focused on ensuring that in our operational force, we have the training mechanisms necessary to educate, and ensure people understand the importance of this issue. We will continue to work this. We have a long way to go but I think we are moving forward in the right direction."

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