Odierno: Dialogue at platoon level key to preventing sexual assaults

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Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno speaks during the 2015 Sexual Harassment/Assault Response & Prevention Summit in Arlington, Va., Feb. 18, 2015.  Photo by David Vergun
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno speaks during the 2015 Sexual Harassment/Assault Response & Prevention Summit in Arlington, Va., Feb. 18, 2015. Photo by David Vergun

Odierno: Dialogue at platoon level key to preventing sexual assaults

by: David Vergun | .
U.S. Army | .
published: February 24, 2015

WASHINGTON (Feb. 18, 2015) -- The Army continues to have sexual predators in its formation, said Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno. "Anybody who thinks we don't have a problem should reassess."

At the same time, the number of sexual assaults in the Army went down during Fiscal Year 2014 compared to 2012, said Army Secretary John M. McHugh, adding that the number of victims reporting assaults is up.

That data, McHugh said, shows measurable progress in the service's efforts to "drive the scourge" of sexual assault and harassment from the ranks.

"Without question, in this vital issue, we have momentum. And I believe we have much to be proud of," McHugh told attendees during the 2015 Sexual Harassment/Assault Response & Prevention, or SHARP, Summit, Feb. 18, where he, Odierno and other senior Army leaders addressed dozens of general military officers, senior enlisted leaders and senior civilians.

"But we all must still realize that we still have a long way to go," McHugh said.

Odierno advocated for informal discussions between leaders and Soldiers down to the platoon level, rather than just having PowerPoint presentations and a check-the-block approach to education.

A culture of trust needs to be developed, and that has to come from a continuous dialogue between non-commissioned officers, or NCOs, and their Soldiers, Odierno said.

"If you want to get something done, you need our non-commissioned officers to be fully involved in solving this problem," Odierno said.

However, it would be a mistake to assume that all sergeants fully understand what behavior is acceptable and what is not, Odierno said, meaning that senior NCOs and officers also have a responsibility to ensure the right climate and training is being implemented.

There are no overnight fixes to this problem, Odierno said. It could take a generation of effort to change the culture, but that effort must start now.

Other steps need to be taken as well, Odierno said.

Consistency of message throughout the Army is important, Odierno emphasized, irrespective of the installation.

If SHARP is taught in Basic Combat Training, but Soldiers see it's not taken seriously at their first permanent duty station, then "we've lost them," Odierno said.

Another thing, leaders have to be "ruthless about accountability throughout the chain of command," Odierno said, adding that improvements are being made in this area.

McHugh said senior leadership must remain vigorously engaged in battling sexual assault and harassment in all its forms. The positive momentum the service has achieved must be maintained.

"In my time as Army secretary, I've learned that a loss of momentum is often due to a loss of perspective," McHugh said. "We can't and won't let that happen here. Therefore, keeping this momentum alive is a matter of gaining and regaining our perspective."

EFFORTS PAYING OFF

Soldiers are becoming more confident in their chain of command. There are more people coming forward to report assault or harassment but it's still not where it should be, McHugh and Odierno both cautioned.

Lt. Gen. James McConville, the Army's deputy chief of staff, G-1, who spoke later during the session, backed up the secretary and chief's remarks about victims being more willing to report.

Even as the prevalence of the incidents of unwanted sexual contacts is coming down, reporting is going up, McConville said, adding that over time, he expects to see the reports taper and then trend down along with the prevalence of incidents. That would be a measure of success.

Two years ago there were some 26,000 unwanted sexual contacts in the military, McConville said. Now, it's 19,000.

McConville credited these recent trends to an effective SHARP training program and an environment more conducive to holding people accountable.

STILL MORE WORK NEEDED

McHugh and Odierno pointed out problem areas that need special attention.

Retaliation is still a major problem, both leaders said. McHugh said he was convinced that eliminating retaliation against victims is a key to further progress.

"I agree with former Secretary of Defense [Chuck] Hagel who said we must tackle this difficult problem head on, because, like sexual assault itself, reprisal directly contradicts one of the highest values of our military - that we protect our brothers and our sisters in uniform," McHugh said.

And although chain of command or peer retaliation still exists and those are the first types that come to mind, Odierno noted that retaliation also occurs on social media, where bullies can hide behind the screen's anonymity. It is something that needs to be addressed.

"The predators need to become the pariahs, not the victims," Odierno said. "That's one of the major challenges we have."

Another problem, Odierno said, is that some Soldiers feel that there's an overreaction to SHARP training and feel that their behavior could be misconstrued.

As long as Soldiers are interacting the way they normally do, with respect, they should not feel uncomfortable, Odierno said, admitting that it is a tough subject, particularly since Soldiers come into the Army with a variety of societal norms and values.

Lastly, one of the least recognized forms of sexual assault pertains to male victims, Odierno said. Although the percentages are small compared to females, the numbers are pretty high.

McConville said 3,200 females reported unwanted sexual contact last year, while 5,300 reports were filed by males.

Odierno said he thinks that the numbers for males could be even higher because of the stigma of reporting, which is hard for both sexes, but especially for males. "I'm not sure we understand the scope of the problem when it comes to the male side of this."

Lastly, McConville said more focus needs to be on ensuring retaliation does not occur in any of the ranks, particularly the junior ranks, where the perception of retaliation was reported to be several times that of senior female officers.

McHugh said that all victims need to be treated with dignity and respect, and "they need to be embraced, not ostracized."

"Two years ago I said this is our number-one mission,"Odierno concluded. "I still believe that. The fundamental basis for what's most important in our Army is trust between Soldiers and between their leaders. Also, trust between the Army and the American public.

"The one thing that will erode that trust is if they believe we won't take action," he added. "We must stay engaged, be vigilant and don't ever get self-confident when it comes to sexual assault and sexual harassment.

"I watched the Army evolve, innovate and adapt through tough times and wrestle with tough issues," Odierno said. "I believe we can solve this problem."

McHugh quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson who prophetically noted, "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us."

"Let's keep the good work going. Let's seize and sustain the momentum," McHugh said. "Let's show our Army and the world what lies within us."

(For more ARNEWS stories, visit www.army.mil/ARNEWS, or Facebook at www.facebook.com/ArmyNewsService, or Twitter @ArmyNewsService)

Army News Service
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