Sexual assault is not who we are

  • Published
  • By Gene Kamena and Dr. Tony Klucking
  • Air War College, Squadron Officer College
Editor's note: April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

I will always place the mission first.
I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade.

- Soldier's Creed

I am an American Airman.
Guardian of Freedom and Justice,
My Nation's Sword and Shield,
Its Sentry and Avenger.
I defend my Country with my Life

- Airman's Creed

A class action lawsuit, filed in February against the Department of Defense by 17 members and former military members, is more than disturbing. It is sickening to think service members are capable of committing sexual and physical assault against another person who wears the same uniform. The victims of these assaults, mainly young men and women who volunteered to serve this nation in a time of war, were betrayed by those closest to them -- their peers, comrades, supposed friends and by persons in positions of leadership. These crimes against other service members violate the essence of our service creeds. This is not who we are!

Given the gravity of these accusations, we know what is coming, an institutional emphasis on sexual assault, with lectures, training, education, and yes, articles like this one. While warranted, these efforts will only serve to confirm what we intuitively discern -- sexual assault is an insidious and devastating crime. And as insidious and devastating as these assaults might be, they are also all too frequent.

The Service Women's Action Network says more than 16,000 service members reported rape or sexual assaults throughout the military in 2009. Assault victims often choose to remain silent, and when they do come forward, frequently they must bear callous scrutiny by peers and leadership blaming the victim.

Service member attacks on other service members have consequences not only for the victims themselves but also on the cohesion, morale, discipline and effectiveness of units and organizations. Victims feel betrayed not only by their assailants but also by their service institution and, many times, by their own chain of command. We must do better as leaders and as an institution; our nation has entrusted us with their sons and daughters. When sexual assault occurs against these young people who are in our charge, we fail them, our nation and ourselves. There is no act, legal or illegal, that is punishable by sexual assault. A victim is never at fault, and blaming victims is not who we are.

My experience informs me that we are beginning to see the tip of a disgusting iceberg. Unfortunately, we have been here before with sexual assault incidents at Aberdeen in 1996, and with the 1997 trial of Gene McKinney, the then-Sergeant Major of the Army. The young people involved in this most recent lawsuit have displayed true courage in telling their personal stories. Think about the character required to come forward and speak out. Some reports indicate that 80 percent of all sexual assaults in the military are not reported, and when reported, many are not acted upon. Again, this is not who we are!

As a crime, sexual assault can be difficult to prove. Sometimes evidence is reduced to conflicting statements. Unfortunately, over the course of a long career, we directed several assault investigations as a brigade commander and also served as investigating officers and as members of courts martial in sexual assault cases. The story and statement of the 17 service members now suing the Department of Defense brought back memories of just how unpleasant sexual assault situations are. Every investigation from our past bared an ugly truth; assaults could have been prevented. At least one person in every case knew what might or would actually occur but they did not act. Being a bystander and doing nothing is the same as being an unwitting accomplice. This is not who we are.

The assaults we have personal knowledge of ranged from peer-on-peer assault to superior-on-subordinate attacks. Too often, influence, rank and power were factors. In every instance, we were surprised at who was accused, because a few of my subordinate leaders lived dual existences -- one as a Soldier, the other as a predator. Convictions were not easy to obtain, trials were painful, and often lives were destroyed. Given my past experiences, my emotions once again ran high as we read and listened to the statements of these assault victims -- disbelief, disgust and anger. We are mad as hell because we know this is not who we are.

Even today, we wish we had done more to prevent the assaults. Units were wounded for a period of time after each incident. Camps were formed, those for the victim and those for the alleged perpetrator. An atmosphere of mistrust and betrayal permeated what had been a good military organization. Time, leadership and communications eventually healed these wounds; however, the injuries to the victims lingered long after the unit recovered.

In an earnest attempt to transfer a few hard-learned lessons about sexual assault, the following is offered for leaders and commanders to ruminate upon.

Beware of chameleons. Predators sometimes hide behind the facade of professionalism. They are often charming but always calculating. Watch for irregular work hours and undue attention given toward another service member. In cases of superior-on-subordinate assault, I was always taken aback when charges were levied. Predators are good at concealing who they really are and their intentions. Do not be fooled by the false professional. This is not who we are.

Someone knows what is going on. In every incident, there was at least one person, and sometimes several, who knew something was awry. They either saw or sensed irregularities in actions, yet they did not act. When asked afterward why they did not come forward before the assault, many said they did not want to draw attention to themselves or they were not sure. There is pressure on junior service members not to "rock the boat." Leaders are obligated to relieve this pressure, to provide a way out and make it possible for even the most junior of service members to come forward. Open lines of communications built on trust are important in preventing these assaults. This is who we are.

Command climate, alcohol and drugs are catalysts for assault. Small things matter. Off-color jokes, inappropriate comments, cat-calls and even running cadences that are in poor taste contribute to environments that might foster assaults. This is not about being politically correct -- it is about having respect for oneself and others. Take action to correct the small things before they get out of hand.

Alcohol and drugs are often part of the equation leading to an assault. Rendering a victim helpless is usually inherent in a predator's plan, and drugs and alcohol serve as accomplices in the majority of assault cases. This is one area peers must do more to care for their buddies and friends on- and off-duty. Everyone has a role in creating a command climate of respect and dignity, free of the abuse of alcohol and drugs used to victimize each other. This is who we are.

Protect the vulnerable. The first 90 days are important. The most vulnerable in our ranks are those newly arrived service members, particularly those reporting in from basic training. Predators are always searching for victims, and they will befriend someone who has yet to establish ties and relationships.

Leaders must stress situational awareness to all newly reporting members. Sound sponsorship programs and a good buddy system allow people to get established and understand their new environment. This is who we are.

Part of the solution to this predator-like cancer living within our military is increased awareness of the problem, a change of attitudes and education. The impending classes and focused emphasis by leaders will help. These efforts alone, however, will fall short in eradicating sexual assault. Eradication must be our goal. One assault is one too many. What is also demanded is that every service member recommit to their buddies and peers. Needed is the same commitment demonstrated daily in Iraq and Afghanistan, the same sense of genuine care, concern and willingness to give all for each other on the battlefield must be carried over and instilled in every unit and organization regardless of location. Just as it takes teamwork to defeat our enemies in battle, teamwork is required to isolate and defeat the sexual predators within our own ranks. This is who we are.

To the vast majority of service members serving honorably and with distinction, we say take care of each other, keep alert for predators inside our own wire and take action before things go too far. To the small number of sexual predators lurking among us, we say your actions are shameful and will not be tolerated. Seek appropriate and readily available assistance or counseling before you act. You do not represent us. You are not who we are.

Although a sensitive issue, sexual assault must be discussed, confronted and eliminated. This will take time because we will have to face some distasteful truths. We may have to change our attitudes -- not an easy task, but we will succeed. We will succeed for several reasons, among them honor, pride, love for each other and -- this is who we are.

Courtesy of Gene Kamena, professor of leadership, Air War College and Dr. Tony Klucking, Squadron Officer College