On the heels of a boozy pool party that led to the firing of a US Navy captain for skinny dipping with subordinates, top Navy officials say that they need to take a tougher look at the “command climate” that could contribute to sexual assaults, saying they erode trust and readiness throughout the force.
The key, says Adm. John Harvey, Jr., head of US Fleet Forces Command, is that commanders simply acknowledge that such events are not “a remote possibility but a likely possibility” and recognize those situations that can lead to their taking place.
Two to three sexual assaults were reported daily throughout the Navy in 2010, the most recent year for which figures are available. Of those, more than half – 55 percent – are “blue on blue,” or an assault perpetrated by a sailor against a fellow sailor.
“More staggering, these were only reported cases,” says Admiral Harvey, who estimates that “there could be 60 to 70 percent more” sexual assaults annually throughout the force.
The net impact of these assaults is devastating, eroding “the trust which holds us together as a Navy,” says Harvey, speaking Tuesday at a roundtable discussion with reporters at the Pentagon. “It destroys – I want to emphasize that word – destroys the readiness of the force.”
Such frank acknowledgement of the prevalence of sexual assault is beginning to lead to key policy changes that could eventually begin to bring down the incidents of the crime.
This week, the Government Accountability Office issued a report that found that the Department of Defense has now fully put into place half of the GAO’s recommendations regarding the reporting, documentation, investigation, and training in sexual assault prevention.
“Over time, the Pentagon has notoriously ignored the advice of experts, including its own task forces and studies – so it is encouraging that the DOD is taking steps to implement the GAO’s policy recommendations,” says Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine Corps captain and director of the Service Woman’s Action Network.
Yet some critics say the Pentagon must take further steps to address a culture that might lead to such assaults. Harvey acknowledges that it’s important to not “pretend that because we’ve set some training out there you’ve completely mitigated the possibility” that assaults could occur.
In most cases, “the key factor involved was alcohol,” he adds. “This is larger than just the Navy or a fleet issue,” he says. “It is cultural – it is what we believe about ourselves and how we act.”
Yet even in the midst of efforts to prevent sexual assaults, the admiral says, “we haven’t moved the needle” in terms of bringing down the number of rapes in the force or focusing in on some of the factors that might contribute to assaults.
The key is that commanders must acknowledge that assaults are “a likely possibility,” adding, “It’s the human thing when you put men and women together.”
For this reason, it is the commander’s responsibility to begin to “interrupt” the chain of events that can lead to assault. “Rarely are these spontaneous events that don’t have a trail.”
He cited as an example a group of sailors too young to drink alcohol legally who might come into a port of call and decide to get a hotel room and have someone buy liquor for them. “I know getting three to four people together requires planning,” and people might overhear this planning, Harvey says. In many cases, this group might include at least one female soldier. “Bad decisions start to get made,” Harvey says.
The key is for leaders within the Navy to keep their ears open and stop it. “When you’re the captain of a ship and you ... come into port, do you think of all that bad things that could necessarily happen?” Harvey says, or “someone in the crew who’s made a target of the young female sailor and is waiting for a target of opportunity?”
In most cases, “you tend to mentally say, ‘This wouldn’t happen in my ship, squadron, submarine.’ ”
“But it’s happened two or three times a day across our Navy for the last couple of years.”
So, he adds, commanders have to think, “Okay, no matter how great I think my sailors are, we’ve got an issue here that I’ve got to deal with.”