Sexual assault and chain of command

The sexual assault epidemic in today’s military is appalling and threatens the safety of all of our brave men and women who put their lives on the line to defend our nation. In a nation that has been at war for over 12 years, it significantly undercuts military readiness.

The Pentagon understands the fragile nature and urgency of this issue and has moved combating sexual assault to the forefront of priorities. Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno has said that fighting sexual assault is the Army’s number one priority. Change will not happen overnight, but they have begun the process, and that is the first step towards handling this crisis.  Prevention of sexual assault is the goal.  Rash and emotional legislation taking away command authority will not move us towards that goal.

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One must understand how the chain of command functions in the military’s sexual assault procedures. It is speculative and unfounded to imply that removing command authority will fix sexual assault in the military and ensure every victim will come forward. In reality, this crisis will not be fixed by creating a new law that does not address the problem. The chain of command is not the problem. A fundamental change to military culture is the only answer to reducing sexual assault within the military.

We should not fail to acknowledge the military procedures and methods that are currently in place for sexual assault victims:

  • Each unit has a nationally certified Victims Advocate (VA) or Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC), whose sole mission is to handle sexual assault cases and provide support care for the victims.
  • Service men and women are taught in mandatory courses the methods that are available to them for utilizing the VA or SARC. This allows an unbiased assessment of the situation, outside of the chain of command, and ensures all victims are treated with dignity and respect.
  • Victims may decide to report the assault confidentially (a “restricted report”), so no one within their chain of command/co-workers/friends is aware of the assault. This also prevents any possibility of retaliation or coercion when reporting a sexual assault. There is also the option of an “unrestricted report,” which involves the chain of command, but it is solely at the discretion of the victim.
  • Mandatory Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention or Sexual Assault Prevention and Response training is required for every military individual.
  • 24-hour hot lines and “Safe Help Room” online support groups are available.

The military culture has already begun to shift away from command involvement in sexual assault and is focusing on utilizing the victims’ advocates and sexual assault response coordinators. While this does not remove command authority, the military has recognized the fragile and specific needs of the victim. Reporting has increased, meaning service men and women now feel like their report will be taken more seriously.

Stripping military commanders of the authority to manage sexual assaults will have significant repercussions. The military is a government bureaucracy like any other government agency, but the reason it is able to operate as an effective and efficient organization is because of the chain of command. It creates an environment of respect, authority, and command.  It operates well, because of the backbone of the command and rank structure. Without it, the military would not be as capable and accomplished.

Commanders are involved in all aspects of their soldiers’ lives, especially legal issues. And they have to be. They are tasked with maintaining situational awareness of everything that weakens combat readiness. And sexual assault not only weakens combat readiness, it poisons the entire unit’s morale and esprit de corps.  You train as a team, and you fight as a team. Removing military commanders’ authority to contribute to the process of sexual assault cases discredits their influence to lead their soldiers, weakens them as leaders on the battlefield, and, therefore, weakens the entire military force.

We must move beyond political factions, personal preferences, and posturing and address the culture at hand. The problems do not begin and end in the military, but there is an opportunity for the military to lead from the front and set the tone for society. If our nation’s military leaders lead in restoring dignity and respect, then the nation will have a unified force serving as an example for the rest of us.

Nance is the president and CEO of Concerned Women for America, the nation’s largest public policy women’s organization. For more information visit concernedwomen.org.  Barno is a military adviser to Concerned Veterans for America. She is a former U.S. Army helicopter pilot who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. For more information visit amberbarno.com