The tsunami sirens are wailing. For over 20 years this warning signal of rising seas and mounting waves of sexual assaults have sounded in the military. What is alarming is while the number of sexual assault reports are increasing, the number of those court martialed decreased (1). The Department of Defense (DOD) is ineffective in preventing sexual assaults.
Too many of our leaders turn a blind eye and allow their subordinates to be devastated by this fratricide. Worse, leaders focus on protecting the institutional brand at all cost, then themselves, and shield their own peers, who often are the perpetrators.
In 1996, I uncovered what is referred to in the U.S. Army’s as its most extensively reported sexual abuse scandal on record at the Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG), Maryland. I subsequently authored the book, “The GAMe, Unraveling a Military Sex Scandal” (2). This book documents what occurred, and despite the best efforts of some, there has been little to no progress in preventing sexual assaults.
Rape continues to be the most unreported felony crime (3) and, as I understand it, the only one where the victim is termed the “accuser”.
I am calling what the military is facing, the Institutional Weaponization of Power © and broadly defining this term as any institution/organization that is based upon power, whether it is a military chain of command, financial power (e.g., private sector business, sports, entertainment), or influence (e.g., Congress, religious organization, and boards of directors).
The virulence of sexual assault is a result of four military systemic fundamental flaws.
One: Many still do not acknowledge the problem; therefore, it cannot be fixed.
In 1997, the Secretary of the Army said that “sexual assault was an aberration only occurring at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland” (4). This was not true. Sexual assault is a documented problem throughout the Army for over 50 years and thus, systemic.
With this false premise, Army leadership sent a consistent and toxic message: “There is no sexual assault problem. If you report a problem, you must have caused it.”
Two: There is an inherent conflict of interest and possible power abuse when criminal investigations and prosecutions are under the same chain of command. There is an ability to influence and, thus, control both the scope of the investigation which then governs the ability to prosecute.
Tragically, what the Army and Pentagon really learned from APG was that they didn’t want to know the sexual assault crisis’ full depth and breadth. As a result, the Army never again did in-depth, system-wide, detailed investigations using trained criminal investigators to interview all potential survivors.
Three: Currently, when senior leaders are found to be the perpetrators, the Army’s position is to force these perpetrators to retire at a lower grade,
However, lower level officers and non-commissioned officers (NCO) don’t see this punishment as acceptable, at all. The perception, expressed to me by several soldiers, is that “high ranking officers and NCOs get off, while lower ranking officers and NCOs get hammered”, i.e., sent to jail.
Four: This embedded rank imbalance and abuse of power continues. As #MeToo founder Tarana Burked stated, “Toppled men – lose their jobs & reputations, but not their financial power. There is no residual business or financial damage for men, yet their misconduct patterns of behavior continue for decades (5)”. Equally upsetting, these military perpetrators often move into the private sector and are allowed to work for civilian businesses with government contracts or as direct government civilian hires.
Let’s take a look at the institutional cultural underpinnings these 4 broad abuses of power create. An October 2018 Smithsonian internet survey revealed that 66% of women and 6% of men were sexually assaulted or harassed in the Service (6). This is a marked increase when compared with a 2015 DOD study that documented only “27% of women experienced sexual assault or harassment (7)”.
Equally troubling are the number of “senior official misconduct” complaints that are investigated against those who are responsible for setting and enforcing standards of conduct. The number of investigations is declining: 74% in 2008; 34% in 2015; and, 19% in 2018 (8).
Worse, in 2016 only 13% of cases were referred to courts martial. This dropped in 2017 to 11%, a 15% decrease (9).
Another devasting and insidious trend is the increased number of survivors subjected to retribution (10). This passive aggressive, punitive cultural reaction to reporting the truth makes it evident that many in leadership positions still maintain the corrosive façade of commitment.
In 2012, Congress put the full force of law behind the Army’s established Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) Program. The trained professionals in the program are outstanding specialists who are dedicated to daily dealing with extremely emotionally draining issues. They work tirelessly to help survivors and assist commanders in their responsibility to prevent sexual misconduct in the formations.
Sadly, I continue to hear, regularly, about ongoing inconsistent command leadership and lack of enforcement of sexual assault rules because some commanders do not use their SHARP professionals as intended. Specifically, some commanders establish road blocks for SHARP professionals that deny them 24/7 direct access.
There are 5 key actions that can make immediate and long-term differences in changing the “institutional weaponization of power” © within the existing military culture.
One/ Prevention of sexual harassment and sexual assault should be seen as a critical Force Protection mission.
Force Protection is one of the six key overarching mission command functions for all Army leaders. At the Pentagon level it should be overseen by G3, the Army Staff section who is responsible for Operations; not the Personnel staff, who is the G1.
The commander’s staff officer, who is responsible for determining how best to protect combat organizations from external terrorist attacks, should be the same one responsible for protecting it against internal terrorists, i.e., sexual predators who inflict fratricide. Prevention of sexual assaults is a Force Protection/Unit Readiness issue, plain and simple.
Two/ Hold senior leaders accountable. Recommend that the FBI randomly, on a recurring basis, select a sample of Flag Officers to investigate with regard to their personal and professional conduct. Specifically, do they set the correct example for others to emulate; do they participate in, and/or: do they condone sexual misconduct? These investigative reports are provided to the U.S. Senate who confirms military promotions/advancements.
I know this is draconian and will drive individuals nuts who want to maintain the sanctity of the Chain of Command, but something different and innovative must be done. Senior leaders are entrusted with the care of this Nation’s most important assets — our sons and daughters – who deserve to be led by only the best.
Three/ Routinely publish a list, in open source media, of leaders punished for sexual assault/harassment crimes.
This list must include those who are both administratively and legally punished for sexual misconduct. Further institute and enforce that these individuals are subject to a life-time ban from working for governmental agencies at all levels, contractors working for government agencies, or any educational institution. There must be consequences for bad and illegal behavior.
Four/ Make proactive enforcement of sexual assault /harassment policies and its procedures a part of the officer and NCO performance appraisal systems.
My experience is that if it impacts your efficiency report (the key factor in determining promotion), it becomes a priority. There need to be clear, consistent, and positive consequences for leading the fight to stop sexual assaults and related misconduct. Those who set and enforce the highest standards for personal and professional conduct are the only ones who should be allowed to rise to the top.
Five/ Laws: Felonies, such as sexual assault, need to be prosecuted through a separate legal channel within the military, but outside of the Chain of Command.
Commanders are neither qualified, nor trained to deal with felony criminal cases like murder, sexual assault, armed robbery, etc.
Commanders should spend the bulk of their time on “good soldiers” and not on alleged perpetrators of very serious criminal behavior. The chain of command, however, needs to continue to process uniquely military offenses like absent without leave, misappropriation of government property, disrespect to an officer or NCO, etc.
In conclusion, it is no longer tolerable to ask our country and citizens to wait while the military “gets it act together”. The above 5 recommended CHANGES need to be implemented NOW.
- Corey Dickstein, “Military Sexual Reports Rise in 2017 but fewer members faced courts-martial”, Stars and Stripes, April 30, 2018.
- Robert D. Shadley, “The GAMe, Unravelling the Military Sex Scandal” (Edina: Beaver’s Pond Press, 2013).
- “Get Statistics”, National Sexual Violence Resource Center, nsvrc.org, 2018
- Robert D. Shadley, Op.Cit.
- Tarana Burked, New York Times, Gender Letter, October 19, 2018
- Emily Schugerman, “Two in three military women say they have been sexually assaulted or harassed”, The Daily Beast, January 2, 2019.
- Geoff Ziezulewizc, “DOD Inspector General investigating fewer allegations of senior official misconduct”, Military Times, militarytimes.com/news/Pentagon-congress, December 7, 2018.
- Corey Dickstein, Op.Cit.