The death of a Fort Hood, Texas, soldier last year has led to an overall Army examination of sexual assault and harassment.
Following the death and disappearance of Spc. Vanessa Guillen, Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy spoke out when Guillen’s family told media she told them before her disappearance that she was experiencing sexual harassment at the installation.
Guillen, 20, was found almost three months after she was reported missing, and another soldier suspected of killing her died by suicide.
“The murder of Spc. Guillen has become a catalyst of highlighting sexual violence and sexual assault within the military … , ” McCarthy said during a news conference in August. “Vanessa’s story has served as a tipping point where survivors spoke out on social media and shared their own trauma … . One harassment and one assault is one too many.”
Guillen’s death prompted the creation of the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee, which was tasked with determining if the command climate and culture at Fort Hood reflects Army values that include “respect, inclusiveness, and workplaces free from sexual harassment,” Army officials said.
The committee’s findings were publicly released in December and include references to reported crimes at Fort Bragg.
McCarthy again spoke out about sexual assault after a CBS News investigation of military sexual assaults that featured families of soldiers who died by suicide because of harassment and fear of reporting their sexual assaults.
“Leaders, regardless of rank, are accountable for what happens in their units and must have the courage to speak up and intervene when they recognize actions that bring harm to our soldiers and to the integrity of our institution,” he said.
McCarthy said his preliminary review of the Fort Hood report and media coverage “hardened his belief” that the Army’s Sexual Harassment Assault and Rape Prevention Program “hasn’t achieved its mandate to eliminate sexual assaults and sexual harassment by creating a climate that respects the dignity of every member.”
Once the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee report was released, McCarthy said its findings “impact the entire Army and more than 1.2 million soldiers.”
“This report, without a doubt, will cause the Army to change our culture,” he said.
What the report says about Fort Bragg
The report looks at reports of sex crimes during the 2018 and 2019 calendar years and part of the 2020 calendar year through Aug. 31.
Using data from the Defense Sexual Assault Incident Database it shows there were 51 violent sex crimes reported at Fort Bragg in 2018; 49 in 2019; and 36 in 2020 through August.
In 2018, there were 20 rapes or attempted rapes reported; 14 in 2019; and at least seven in 2020.
The report shows no forcible sodomies were reported at Fort Bragg in 2018; two were reported in 2019; and at least one was reported in 2020.
The Defense Sexual Assault Incident Database does not track juveniles, domestic and “certain other sex crimes,” the report states.
However, officials have said reported crimes don’t always reflect how many cases of sexual assault have happen.
On Thursday, the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade hosted a “what works in sexual assault prevention” virtual enrichment session, which was part of the Pegasus Priority Program that was started last summer.
“This is not a new problem,” said Kerry Irvin, a senior adviser for the brigade’s Soldier and Family Readiness Group. “What is new is more and more leaders throughout the ranks, more teammates and more family members are stepping in the void to say no more — not in my unit, and not in my community.”
Thursday’s presenter was Lindsay Orchowski, a staff clinical psychologist at Rhode Island Hospital and associate professor for research at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University.
Orchowski was involved in a $2.7 million study approved in 2017 that was a collaboration between Fort Bragg’s Womack Army Medical Center, Brown University, Rhode Island Hospital and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte to address sexual assault and high-risk alcohol use on military installations.
Orchowski presented data Thursday to more than 100 viewers, which showed that during the fiscal year 2019, there were 7,825 reports of sexual assault military-wide.
However, during the same year, 39,966 people called the Department of Defense Safe Helpline, with Orchowski saying 87% of the callers said they experienced a sexual assault.
Of the 87%, one-third were men, Orchowski said, calling it a myth that sexual assault is just a “women’s issue.”
During Thursday’s discussion, Orchowski focused on detection and prevention measures.
She said Mothers Against Drunk Driving is an example of having a “similar culture shift” in which that organization helped shift norms of wearing seatbelts.
“The U.S. military is not alone in facing issues of sexual assault,” Orchowski said. “It is just one institution of a larger society that has shared this problem.”
Orchowski said national surveys and data show it is a problem within colleges and with youth and adolescents, too.
“Preventing sexual assault is something that we need to do across a lifespan,” she said. “This is something that we need young and in middle school and high school, before individuals enter military service. “
Those who commit sexual assaults tend to view relationships as adversarial, perceive sexual behavior as supported by peers, have a sense of entitlement and “see sex as a social status,” Orchowski said.
Among prevention measures, she said, are shifting the norms, and said surveys show most people don’t realize others would speak out against injustice and most know the norm is to have consent before sexual behavior.
Describing a bystander approach, she said standing up is speaking out against a sexist joke, and not laughing when someone says something offensive and intervening in situations where alcohol is involved.
“It starts by noticing the problem, labeling it as a problem, believing that this is my community and responsibility to say something even if it means maybe I’m sticking my nose somewhere it doesn’t belong and taking action.”
Reporting and resources
Capt. Aaron Fennell is a regional special victims program manager for the Army and special victims legal counsel at Fort Bragg.
There are six licensed trained attorneys at Fort Bragg who have all recently undergone new training with North Carolina prosecutors about representing victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.
“We’re ready … we make sure of that,” Fennell said.
The lawyers are available for soldiers and family members — adults and minor children — who are victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, he said.
“Victims come to us during all different stages in investigation — sometimes it’s directly after the report, and sometimes it’s after the law enforcement investigation has begun,” he said. “We take everybody in whatever stage of the process they’re in.”
Fennell said anyone who reports sexual assault in the chain of command can ask for a special victims counsel upfront to provide an escort during law enforcement interviews; and as the case moves through prosecution, lawyers will explain the process, from the time of the court-martial to the time when a victim is called the testify.
The counselor will also let a victim know about other resources that are available, which includes emotional and financial support and resources through the Family Advocacy Program.
Counselors will also introduce the victim to a victim advocate who can be a “voice of the command” if the victim wants to transfer to another unit.
“There’s constant communication with everyone,” Fennell said.”We work together as a team.”
If a victim wants to transfer to another installation, Fennell said he or she can list three locations to request to be transferred to.
He said it is up to the victim whether he or she wants to change members of their team who are handling the case, whether it’s the special victim’s counselor or victim advocate.
Those who are accused are flagged and not allowed to transfer until the investigation is complete.
And once the case is over, Fennell said victims are updated on whether their attacker is moved to a different prison or whether they’re released.
Sexual assault or domestic violence victims who are service members or dependents and who don’t want to go through the chain of command or Army can call the Fort Bragg special victims counsel at 910-908-1158.
“Our legal advice is always unbiased,” Fennell said. “We advocate for whatever the victim wants to happen. That’s our goal.”
Victims can also call a victim advocate at the Army Community Services Hotline at 910-322-3418, Fort Bragg Sexual Assault/Harassment Hotline at 910-584-4267, military police at 910-396-0391, Department of Defense Safe Helpline at 877-995-5247 or Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673.
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