By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (Feb. 03, 2014) -- Soldiers who are victims of sexual assault are showing more willingness to report crimes against them, a sign that there is growing confidence in the Army's commitment to investigating such crimes and providing support to victims, according to Army leaders.
Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh spoke about preventing sexual assault, his top priority, Jan. 28, at an Army Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention conference at Joint Base Andrews, just outside Washington, D.C.
The secretary outlined both his concerns -- and the Army's growing list of accomplishments -- to the more than 300 officers and senior enlisted personnel in attendance at the event aimed at promoting the Army's effort to curb sexual assault in the ranks.
McHugh cited findings from the Army's provost marshal general that found the number of reports of violent sexual crimes in the Army has increased over the last three years. A greater willingness to report may be the result of a victim's trust in their leadership, unit, and the Army, representing a shift in Army culture.
"Victims feel as though they not only can come forward, they should come forward ... and they know they won't be victimized a second time by a leader who doesn't care, who doesn't believe them, who doesn't take them seriously," McHugh said. "And they won't be harassed when they go back to the unit by other Soldiers for blowing the whistle on someone. I think we have made great progress down that path. I think our efforts are working."
As evidence of that, McHugh noted that many of those reports -- nearly 40 percent -- involve incidents that happened in years past. That, he said, is a likely indication that the increase in reporting is not necessarily an increase in crime, but rather a new willingness of Soldiers to open up to their leadership about having been victimized.
"That, I think, is such a clear signal that those who have been assaulted do trust you, that you are making an effort, that you are changing the culture," he told those in attendance.
In fiscal year 2012, the Army had a prosecution rate of 56 percent for founded rape allegations in which the Army had jurisdiction over the offender. This resulted in a conviction rate of 78 percent for those rape cases tried to findings. These rates are significantly higher than those in the civilian community.
Additionally, the Army's special victim investigation course is a DOD best practice, he said, and the Army has trained military special investigators and prosecutors "not just for ourselves, for the Army, but across all services."
The service has also assigned full-time Army civilians and Soldiers as sexual assault response coordinators, known as SARCs and victim advocates at brigade-level units. And he said the Army is making sure that those positions are filled by qualified individuals who have both the passion for the work, as well as the expertise to do it correctly.
"[We are] ensuring that those who serve in such a position of trust are the right people," he said. "Making sure that commanders don't just take who happens to be available, but pick those who are truly qualified and able to serve."
The Army also recently created the special victim counsel program that ensures victims get an Army lawyer dedicated to them, to advocate on their behalf and to help them navigate the complexities of the criminal justice system while perpetrators of the crimes against them are prosecuted. There are 81 special victim counsels now trained across the Army.
"We also ensure now that we initiate separation or elimination proceedings, and prohibit overseas assignment for Soldiers who are convicted of sexual assault, where the convictions don't result, for whatever reason, in a punitive discharge or dismissal," he said.
And Soldiers recently found changes to the evaluation and reporting system that takes into account their own efforts to foster a "climate of dignity and respect, and most importantly how those officers and NCOs are adhering, or not, to our SHARP program," the secretary said.
Despite the encouraging news, McHugh cautioned attendees that they need to be more vigilant in ensuring that resources are available to victims of sexual assault. The Army Secretary reported that a study by the Army Audit Agency found that only 73 percent of calls designed to test the victim support network were answered successfully. Examples of failures included voicemails that were not returned, unanswered phones, disconnected numbers, and numbers on websites that were incorrect.
"That is outrageous," McHugh said. "This isn't a failure of a website, or a number or the phone company. This is a failure of leadership. I don't know how we can make it any clearer to those in charge who are commanders. It cannot and it will not be tolerated. Every time a victim reaches out, we have got to be there. We have to provide the help that we say is available."
Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Ray Odierno said "this is about leadership accountability and development. We need to change the culture and train our young leaders. The communication aspect of this is also vital; we need to continue to relay the importance of this issue to our formations. We need to continue to take care of our victims; empower them to feel comfortable and trust their chain of command to do the right thing. We need to be aware and actively seeking to prevent individuals from committing these acts against our own brothers and sisters in arms."
Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III, in an interview with Defense Media Activity broadcasters at the conference, said that fixing the problem of sexual assault in the Army starts with leadership that will follow through and demonstrate to Soldiers that there are repercussions for those who fail to respect their fellow Soldiers.
"Solders want leaders to take action," he said. "If the Army tells Soldiers to treat each other with dignity and respect, that sexual assault and sexual harassment are inappropriate and intolerable in the Army, they want to know that action is being taken."
He said Soldiers want to see that perpetrators are being dealt with.
"We have got to do a better job of that, more widely publicize that information," Chandler said, noting that it could be done with using names. "We can tell our formations that a person in our organization was investigated for an alleged sexual assault, was found guilty, and this is the result. If Soldiers understand that, that leadership is taking action, it is a deterrent."
He said Soldiers want to see that perpetrators are held accountable.
Chandler also said that Army training regarding the Army position on sexual assault must move beyond classroom learning, and must become a matter of regular interaction between the most junior Soldiers and the first leader in their chain of command.
"There are places where large group sessions work," Chandler said, "especially when you are introducing a new program or policy. But I think that small group instruction, which facilitates dialogue amongst a group of peers is important. I think the most effective training is going to happen between the sergeant and the Soldiers they lead, because they are going to see those individuals on a day-in and day-out basis. And the leader can then check and adjust what he has taught them in order to individualize the training to the person they are trying to teach. I think that is the most effective way."
He also said vignettes, real stories with real outcomes about victims and perpetrators of sexual assault, are also a powerful tool for teaching Soldiers.
While there are many resources across the Army for educational material on a myriad of subjects, Chandler cited the Center for the Army Profession and Ethic as an excellent starting point for material on both sexual assault and other ethics and Army professional material.
"It's a tremendous website that is very user friendly, that any person can go to and get a complete lesson plan and the training material to help our Soldiers learn and grow," he said. "It even has the instructor guide as to what you are supposed to say and when. I challenge anyone to go take a look at these stories, personalize that Soldier as your brother or sister, and to learn from that and become a proactive member and go and make change."