JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. — Nearly every soldier who wears two or more stars gathered near Washington on Monday to rally around the idea that fighting sexual assault is priority No. 1 from the top to the bottom of the Army.
Some 250 generals and top noncommissioned officers attended the Army’s sixth annual Sexual Harassment/Assault Prevention summit at Joint Base Andrews, Md., for sessions that included emotional talks by servicemembers about their own experiences of sexual assault.
This year’s conference takes place amid a deepening scandal over military sexual assault, with a recent Pentagon report indicating incidences of unwanted sexual contact rose sharply from 2011 to 2012. It may also carry added resonance for commanders because one of their own, Maj. Gen. Michael T. Harrison, commander of Army forces in Japan, was suspended Friday by Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno for allegedly failing to properly investigate a sexual assault complaint.
Odierno would not discuss Harrison with reporters Friday, but suggested that some Army leaders haven’t seen the sexual assault problem clearly as it built in intensity.
“The amount of reports that are now coming out — people willing to go public, which I think is a good thing — has brought this to a head for me,” he said. “Maybe we have a bigger problem than I imagined.”
While the sessions at the summit were themselves off the record, a succession of top generals spoke with media members, and told them that zeroing in on habitual sexual predators is key.
“There’s no unit who doesn’t have a problem,” Odierno said. “There’s a predator, probably, in almost every unit of some size.”
Gen. Robert W. Cone, who runs Army Training and Doctrine Command, said the recruits and trainees in his command are a uniquely vulnerable group in the Army, but even well-intentioned leaders haven’t always seen that.
“In some cases, I think we’re naïve” about how sexual predators operate, he said. “You have to understand that there are going to be people who try to find the gaps and seams in those procedures.”
The Army, Cone said, has recently made background checks for recruiters, trainers and other more comprehensive, with the controversial possibility of looking for psychological indicators of potential predators being studied.
Odierno said that despite financial difficulties imposed by sequestration, the Army has set aside money to hire 902 new sexual assault response coordinators — many of them civilians outside the Army chain of command to make victims more comfortable reporting crimes.
Cone said some of his own ignorance was stripped away as a commander in Iraq, when he learned a female captain under his command had advised women journalists to carry knives if they walked around a forward operating base at night.
“If I’ve got soldiers who are afraid to walk around the forward operating base at night,” he said, “I’ve got problems as a leader.”