Fort Riley quickly overhauls its sexual assault program
As much as Army Sgt. Aiden Hinkley believed in the concept of a one-stop shop of services for sexual assault victims in the military, he and his supervisor weren’t certain anybody would show up.
After all, only two other U.S. Army installations in the world have tried it.
But on April 9, the day of the grand opening, someone did show up.
Just hours after news media and Fort Riley brass toured the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response & Prevention Center on the base near Junction City, a soldier stepped quietly down the nine steps into the basement at 8071 Normandy Road to report an incident that he alleged occurred a month earlier.
Hinkley consulted with the soldier and directed him to legal counsel about 10 steps down the hall. Prior to that day, victims wishing to speak with a lawyer in the staff judge advocate’s office needed to go from Hinkley’s desk at Adams Hall to Building 216, a 10-minute drive.
Anyone seeking to press charges would be referred to the criminal investigation division in Building 403, another 10-minute drive.
With each trip, victims of sexual abuse would pass fellow service members in the parking lots, stairwells and at the occasional checkpoint, complicating a sensitive situation, Hinkley said.
Now the offices share the same hallway in a low-traffic building with other Army functions, allowing people to enter discreetly.
“We want to keep the number of people who know to the smallest possible” until victims decide the best course of action, he said.
The idea struck Hinkley and others within the 1st Infantry Division’s assault response team in the wake of urgent calls from Congress and the Pentagon to address a crisis of sexual abuse.
At a January SHARP conference in Washington, D.C., the Army’s chief of staff, Gen. Raymond Odierno, told those attending that military culture had to change with regard to sexual assault, according to the Army News Service.
“We have to stop it,” said Odierno, calling sexual offenders “an insider threat” to the Army.
Hinkley was there. He and about 30 other Army sexual assault response coordinators from around the globe completed three months of training in late March.
Upon Hinkley’s return to Fort Riley, he and the base’s SHARP program manager, Lt. Col. Andrew Turner, scrambled to put sexual assault reporting, victims’ advocacy and investigative resources under one roof.
They pulled it off in two weeks.
Furniture from base storage was moved into vacant office space to accommodate a waiting room. Posters and banners around Fort Riley encouraged victims to “Speak Up.” News releases announcing the consolidated facility showed up on soldiers’ cellphones.
“We’re already seeing dividends,” Turner said.
It’s not that the SHARP center has been a whir of activity in its first days of operation. At the end of the hall, Capt. Alex Boettcher, special counsel to assault victims, said five people contacted him last week about new or existing cases, slightly more than usual.
For most soldiers reporting sexual harassment or abuse, the first point of entry at Fort Riley is a 24-hour hotline. Many go no further than that.
Hinkley said the SHARP center stands ready to offer counseling and anonymity to victims, even if they choose not to file a report.
Those who seek counseling but want to keep the military out of it are referred to the Crisis Center, a nonprofit civilian agency off base.
“We serve a lot of military-affiliated persons who don’t want to talk with anyone within the military structure,” said Crisis Center executive director Judy Davis.
Most cases she sees stem from domestic violence.
“Boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives,” she said.
A survey last year by the Defense Department found 26,000 troops reporting anonymously that they experienced sexual abuse in 2012, while fewer than 3,400 filed reports.
The findings and a number of scandals related to the prosecution of military personnel spurred Congress to pass legislation sponsored by U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, to strengthen sexual assault prevention programs and training.
Lawmakers resisted calls to remove the prosecution of sex crimes from the military chain of command. But the reforms do require the armed services to keep victims safe from retaliation against their allegations, McCaskill said.
She said the reporting of sexual abuse on military bases has jumped 50 percent since reforms were initiated.
“What Fort Riley has done is a terrific idea,” McCaskill said, “and the fact they did it so quickly is an indication that the message has gotten through.”
Hinkley, who enlisted in 1996, said the Army had been moving toward a more aggressive posture regarding sexual assault before the issue erupted in Congress.
“About 2011, I noticed a change” in the tone and attention given the matter at annual training meetings, he said.
Training before then tended to focus on discouraging soldiers from conduct that might lead to victimization, such as excessive drinking or flirting.
Hinkley said the focus now is on identifying and changing the behavior of the potential offender.
“For me, it’s all about making sure the victim is taken care of and gets the resources that person needs,” he said.