FORT LEE, Va. -- The #MeToo movement is a sweeping social phenomen, encouraging and inspiring multitudes to share their experiences as a way of calling attention to the prevalence of sexual offenses.
It has proved to be a huge megaphone on an enormous stage, producing ever-expanding ripples across all sectors of society. Comparatively, it has dwarfed April’s Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month campaign in visibility, but the two share the same cause as thought-provoking wakeup calls to raise awareness and promote prevention.
Ironically, the military’s MeToo-like wakeup call occurred a few years ago when several well-publicized incidents exposed shortcomings in training and response measures. The Army has since poured a significant amount of resources into education and prevention, victim support, law enforcement and other areas to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, the problem.
Having made great strides in its quest, the Army has not only continued to focus on education and prevention, but has put in place the underpinnings to change its culture. It has been embraced as a readiness issue from the top down and has become inculcated throughout the ranks.
“Despite it being Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, we treat every day as an opportunity to make Soldiers aware and prevent sexual assault under the tenets of prevention and intervention,” said Lt. Col. David L. Thompson, 832nd Ordnance Battalion commander.
Thompson’s statement was one day removed from his regularly scheduled newcomer’s briefing for advanced individual training students that serves to reinforce lessons learned in basic training – that sexual harassment and assault have no place in the Army. Additionally, students receive Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program training over the course of their stay here and later at their units of assignment. The goal is to build a culture of trust, said Command Sgt. Maj. Patricio CardonaVega, 16th Ord. Bn. CSM.
“To me, trust is the bedrock of our Army profession,” he said. “We have nothing without trust. It starts from when we are born – we trust our parents; we trust they’re going to nurture us, take care us and help us find our way… all we can do is trust their love will be the driving force to get us where we need to be. It is the same in the Army. Trust is all about professional love and caring for our Soldiers. When we exhibit compassion and care from a standpoint of professional love for what we do, for our country and for those who fight alongside of us, we can go onto a battlefield and confidently perform our missions.”
In more direct terms, Command Sgt. Maj. Lisa Haney, 23rd Quartermaster Brigade CSM, said Soldiers deserve the assurance their concerns and complaints relating to sexual offenses will be taken seriously.
“If something was to happen to one of my Soldiers, can they trust a cadre or a permanent party staff member to do the right thing to help them out? SHARP and trust go hand-in-hand – do I trust you enough to let you know what I’ve experienced? Do I trust you enough to turn in someone who is harassing me?
“Do I have enough confidence in you as a leader to know you will help me?”
Those are questions, observed Haney, Soldiers should not have to wrestle with, and she said the brigade leadership is doing everything in its power to spare them.
“We have a zero-tolerance policy,” she said, noting a strategy to stop sexual misconduct “on day one.”
“Stop It On Day One” is in fact a campaign and the name for a series of videos produced by the brigade. It stars cadre members and explores the origins of sexual offenses and how to avoid them. The 23rd’s Sexual Assault Response Coordinator, Sgt. 1st Class Cheryl D. McNutt-Kalbach, said the point of the videos is clear: Stop it before it starts.
“The purpose is to help our newcomers understand the intent behind sexual harassment that leads to sexual assault,” she said. “The videos focus on how it starts, how it escalates and how to put an end to behavior and actions that are not acceptable.”
The video, which will be shown to incoming students beginning April 9, covers student-to-student interactions and relationships as well as those involving cadre and their charges – each as aggressors and targets, said McNutt-Kalbach.
“The video is very powerful, very touching and sets the tone for what we’re trying to achieve,” she said.
Prevention through education is only part of the solution, though. The level of leader buy-in, said Dr. James Walker, CASCOM’s SHARP program manager, determines how troops respond to efforts in general.
“Leadership involvement is vital to the success of the SHARP program,” he said. “Leaders at every level must answer the clarion call to prevent sexual misconduct and provide holistic support for victims when needed.”
Haney said leaders are responsible for ensuring an environment where troops can make unfettered contributions to the mission. Part of that is providing Soldiers access to leadership, she added.
“When I was a private, I don’t think I ever saw my brigade sergeant major,” said Haney. “Now, Soldiers have full access. We do newcomer’s briefs; we have an open-door policy; and we’re visible – out and about on B Avenue doing PT; out at the field training site; and at the dining facility. Soldiers know our names.
“You have to be that approachable leader in today’s Army.”
Dramatic decreases in sexual offenses will require still more than leader emphasis. The latest Department of Defense statistics show the prevalence of sexual assault is down and reporting is up, indicating some progress compared to previous years.
Still, it has shown to be a persistent problem but not one that cannot be overcome.
“The Army is on the right track, but it is going to take time,” said Staff Sgt. Lisa Roberts, 16th Ord. Bn., Equal Opportunity representative and an 18-year Soldier.
What can turn the tide in helping to eliminate the problem? Leadership emphasis and persistent education and prevention efforts have made inroads, said Roberts, but the game-changer could be shared individual responsibility.
“Everyone has to embrace the same goal,” she said, “and those who can’t do it should be held accountable.”