ALEXANDRIA – Eliminating sexual assault and improving the Army’s culture of intervention starts with changing how leaders and Soldiers view the problem, emphasized the Army’s vice chief during the 5th annual SHARP Program Improvement Forum July 16.
“Sexual assault and sexual harassment are a deliberate fratricide (against another Soldier). That’s how I want people to think about it.” McConville said at the forum that provided insight into current topics impacting the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention community.
The forum brought together senior leaders, program managers, sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates from around the Army. They collaborated on different ways to refine and enhance the SHARP program. The forum took place a few months after release of the DOD FY2018 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, which outlines the number of sexual assaults reported by service members.
Recognizing that sexual assault is often an underreported crime, the Pentagon also conducts an anonymous survey every two years to get a better understanding of prevalence, or the estimated occurrence of unwanted sexual contact. The 2018 study revealed an increase in Soldiers who say they’ve lived through some form of sexual assault.
“We’re not going in the right direction, so let’s own it,” McConville said, taking responsibility on the setback, while adding, “We've got some work to do.”
The latest survey also indicates 17- to 24-year-olds are at the highest risk of being assaulted, and occurrences typically happen between two people who work, train or live in close proximity of each other, indicating the perpetrators are peers of the same age range and are of similar rank as their victims.
With the increase in prevalence shifting to a slightly younger demographic who are relatively new to the Army, “we need to teach them what to think before we teach them how to think,” McConville said. “They should be thinking, ‘We cannot have this – sexual assault and sexual harassment – in our squads. We cannot stand for this.’”
McConville added that with 120,000 Soldiers joining the Army every year, it’s an issue that needs to be changed “from the bottom up” by “empowering squad-level leadership.” Through the reinforced actions of ground-level leaders, “we can change the Army’s culture,” he said.
“My No. 1 priority is people,” McConville emphasized. “People are what the Army is all about, and it’s our people who make the U.S. Army the greatest in the world. … That's why SHARP is important. Without programs like SHARP, trust is broken.
“We’re asking the American people to send their sons and daughters into the military, to wear this uniform, and we’re asking them to trust us,” McConville further observed. “We’re telling families, ‘If you send your sons and daughters, (it’s our job) to take care of them.’”
However, when the American people don’t believe leaders will take care of Soldiers, he said they’ll stop allowing their sons and daughters to enlist. The detrimental impact among those already wearing the uniform is enormous as well because a cohesive unit is built on trust, the vice chief said, and cohesive units win on the battlefield. This is a battle the Army will win by shaping its culture.
“I have three kids who serve; I expect and my wife demands we provide a safe and secure environment for them,” McConville insisted. “I see things and I think to myself, ‘that could be my daughter or son.’”
McConville referenced the heroic actions of Soldiers across the Army – individuals who are saying it’s in their culture to do the right thing – and gave examples of troops who have done incredible feats at the risk of their own safety, like “running into a burning building to save someone,” or “rescuing someone from drowning.” He said Soldiers often do less dangerous but selfless actions, like stopping along the road to help someone change a tire.
“Soldiers know when to intervene,” he said. “It’s who we are.”
That said, he wanted to know how to convince more Soldiers to intervene during a potential sexual assault. The answer is to change the culture and teach them to “know what to do, when they don't know what to do,” he said.
Changing culture begins at the ground level by teaching Soldiers how, and when, to intervene, McConville noted. “That’s how you get someone who intervenes right away. That’s how they run into those burning buildings. That’s how they go after cars underwater … Soldiers will do it; we need to reinforce that type of thinking moving forward.
“Treating everyone with dignity and respect (and) protecting each other (is) just the right thing to do,” McConville said. “People who don’t do that, are not part of us. We are the most respected institution in the United States, and that’s earned.”