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Report underscores Army's ineffectiveness to prevent sexual assaults in Korea

Filipino women stand in the doorway of a juicy bar in The Ville, just outside Camp Casey in South Korea, as soldiers walk by in July, 2009. U.S. Forces Korea has banned servicemembers from buying drinks for workers in “juicy bars,” which have long been suspected of involvement in prostitution and human trafficking.
Sexual assault task force report 8th Army task force executive summary

SEOUL – Failed leadership, easy access to alcohol and mixed messages about questionable off-post establishments have rendered the Army’s sexual assault prevention programs in South Korea largely ineffective, according to a military study.

Stars and Stripes obtained a copy of a 28-page draft report produced by a sexual assault task force formed in spring 2011 to study the problem. For nearly two years, Eighth Army officials have refused repeated requests from Stars and Stripes for the report, instead providing a one-page summary this month.

The draft report documented the Army’s inability to respond to what it described as “special circumstances” in South Korea that might contribute to sexual assaults, including widespread underage drinking.

It was particularly critical of the Eighth Army’s sexual assault prevention training, which is “perceived as a mandated check-the-block requirement to be quickly completed rather than training to a level of working knowledge.” PowerPoint presentations were often used when interaction and small group discussions would have been more appropriate, and leadership was often not directly involved in training, the draft report said.

Among the task force’s other findings:

  • There is a lack of knowledge among leadership about how to handle reported sexual assaults. The report implied that leaders, along with their subordinates, might not even be able to distinguish between consensual sex and sexual assault. “Questions remain about what constitutes consent,” the draft said.
  •  Victims who are under the legal drinking age were afraid to report an attack if they had been drinking, fearing punishment by the military.
  •  Leaders often felt inadequately prepared to handle sexual assault incidents, and inadequate response training for leadership at the company- and small-unit level was problematic.
  •  The lack of leadership presence in the barracks was a source of widespread concern and criticism among soldiers. Security problems were also noted.
  •  There was an inappropriate blurring of lines between superiors and subordinates. “The chain of command needs to reinforce with officers and NCOs the separation between the ranks, fraternization policies and appropriate superior-subordinate relationships.”
  •  There was a lack of female unit victim advocates at small, predominantly male installations, and victims at these small outposts had to be transported to distant medical facilities for forensic evaluations. The report also noted that most commanders did not understand the role and responsibility of unit victim advocates.
  •  Soldiers had few options for late-night activities besides visiting local bars and nightclubs, some of which may reinforce behavior and attitudes that contribute to sexual assault. The draft report noted the “contradicting messages portrayed in the facilities patronized off-post, which send a message in support of sexual activity and contrary to the values of proper conduct. This may lead the malleable to engage in conduct that they know is not acceptable.”

Notably absent from the report was any direct mention of the infamous South Korean “juicy bars,” the seedy entertainment establishments that commonly cluster near the gates of U.S. military bases across South Korea. Human rights groups, as well as the U.S. State Department, have cited the juicy bars as conduits for prostitution and human trafficking, but American commanders continue to allow U.S. servicemembers to patronize the bars as long as the establishments have not been caught directly engaging in illegal activities.

The military said it has taken a number of steps to address the problems pointed out by the task force and has made significant progress in informing soldiers about their rights and the Army’s policies and procedures regarding sexual assault.

“I think the first and primary objective that we’re after is to make sure that soldiers feel that they can come forward if they’ve been a victim of sexual assault,” said Brig. Gen. Chris Gentry, the current head of the task force. Gentry is the Eighth Army’s deputy commanding general for sustainment.

The Eighth Army’s Prevention of Sexual Assault Task Force was formed in 2011 to assess the climate in South Korea regarding sexual assault among soldiers and the effectiveness of the Army’s current programs. According to military officials at the time, the task force was initially scheduled to present its findings to the Eighth Army commander within a matter of months.

However, nearly two years later, Eighth Army officials say that the report has yet to be finalized and approved by leadership, even though some of the task force’s recommendations, such as the installation of closed-circuit cameras in barracks, were enacted more than a year ago.

Officials who gave Stars and Stripes a background briefing on the report described the draft as a “living document” that was constantly evolving as the task force continued its work. They said the document has not been finalized because the task force still meets on a monthly basis and because of turnover of its membership.

“This is a continuing process,” one official said. “It isn’t as clean as just establishing a task force and then delivering a report and tying a bow at the end.”

Said another: “I think as the task force evolved, the report became less and less important than the actions that the task force was taking to mitigate the problem here on the peninsula.”

The task force conducted focus group sessions at Army installations of varying sizes across the peninsula, including Camps Humphrey, Carroll, Walker, Red Cloud, Casey, Yongsan and Suwon Air Base. More than 200 junior enlisted troops, senior noncommissioned officers, commanders and personnel tasked with responding to sexual assaults were interviewed or participated in facilitator-led discussions, and random interviews were conducted with other servicemembers.

Task force members also visited barracks, medical facilities and reviewed unit sexual assault statistics and the disposition of cases.

When asked to provide the statistics reviewed by the task force, Eighth Army officials said last week that they did not know what data was used, and they were unable provide statistics about the frequency of sexual assaults among its troops.

In May 2011, then-Brig. Gen. David Conboy, a former Eighth Army deputy commanding general who headed the 11-member task force in its early days and has since been promoted to major general, told Stars and Stripes that the group was not being formed in response to a single incident, but as broader effort to study the unit’s sexual assault prevention and response measures.

“We just can’t afford to have anybody lost from our formation here in the fast pace of Korea,” he said at the time.

The Army’s one-page summary focuses mostly on the task force’s background and methods for gathering information.

Also included in the summary was a list of risk factors for sexual assault contained in a 2009 Department of Defense report, as well as nine vague recommendations made by the task force, including “establish better leadership awareness” and “create a culture of accountability and foster healthy relationship(s).”

Gentry said the military is measuring the success of the task force’s efforts not by statistics, but by responses from servicemembers.

“I think what we rely on primarily is the feedback that we get from leaders and soldiers, and what we’re getting back to this point indicates that there is increased awareness of the issue of sexual assault,” Gentry said.

The report paints a grimmer picture of the climate surrounding sexual assaults in Korea than that portrayed by U.S. military officials.

“Local policies and procedures abound which attempt to control alcohol use, reduce after hours and weekend indiscipline, define barracks safety, govern training, and define handling of victims,” the report stated. “These policies are often not well enforced, fail to establish adequate accountability, are widely misunderstood, and vary sufficiently to cause confusion within and external to organizations.”

The Eighth Army task force draft report described a typical sexual assault as taking place between a low-ranking female soldier who recently arrived on the peninsula and an older male non-commissioned officer who is no longer considered new in country and has exhibited “mixed evidence of predatory behavior.” The soldiers are usually acquainted, even if they only met a few hours earlier, and the assault is often “date rape” that occurs in the barracks.

Alcohol is usually involved, which is the case in many sexual assaults in the military, regardless of where in the world they take place. However, curbing the use of alcohol presents an especially difficult problem for the military in South Korea, where heavy drinking is socially acceptable and is even viewed as a healthy way for friends and coworkers to bond. Alcohol is cheap and easily available, and the legal drinking age is lower than the States.

And even though U.S. Forces Korea policy sets the legal drinking age at 21, the report said the combination of “extraordinary” peer pressure and a culture among junior enlisted soldiers that encourages alcohol consumption led to problematic underage drinking.

Frequent field exercises and training programs may also encourage heavy drinking by creating “extended periods of prohibited alcohol consumption throughout the year,” the draft report said.

“In many cases, Soldiers are at the greatest risk of indiscipline immediately following long exercises, due to the compulsion to make up for lost social life,” it said.

Making changes

As a result of the task force’s work, the Eighth Army has taken a number of steps aimed at preventing and better responding to sexual assaults, though it was unclear whether those measures have reduced the number of assaults or had any effect in changing the underlying attitudes and behaviors that contribute to them.

The draft report offered an extensive list of recommendations, from purchasing training mannequins for medical personnel to use to practice forensic exams to finding activities for soldiers that do not involve drinking, such as U.S. Army Garrison Daegu’s Dodgeball Against Sexual Assault program.

Also recommended was the installation of closed-circuit television cameras in barracks. While touting the cameras as a preventative measure and a possible source of evidence in criminal cases, the draft report noted it was uncertain if the cameras – which cost an average of $10,000 per barracks – would thwart sexual assaults, and that “effective programs by leadership, not technological security, are more effective deterrent(s).”

Gentry noted that training is a continuous process in a theater with rapid turnover of soldiers, many of whom are on their first assignment. He said leaders now hold small group discussions with soldiers about sexual assault, with younger leaders receiving more training about sexual assault prevention and incoming commanders receiving briefings from sexual assault response personnel.

The Eighth Army also tried to tackle drinking by issuing an order in November 2012 that stopped alcohol sales at on-base shoppettes and liquor stores at 10 p.m. and limited the amount of alcohol soldiers can keep in their barracks room. It also mandated that on-post clubs take steps to identify underage patrons, such as issuing wristbands, and prohibited the sale of pitchers of beer that could easily be distributed to underage drinkers.

More than a year ago, the Eighth Army began allowing soldiers to go off-post only if they are accompanied by a “battle buddy” during their first 90 days on the peninsula.

Officials said the Eighth Army task force has been so successful that similar efforts are under way at the U.S. Forces Korea and Pacific-wide levels. Meanwhile, the task force continues to hold monthly meetings about sexual assault with senior officials from all Eighth Army commands.

"I don’t think anybody is under the illusion that we’re ever going to eradicate the problem, but I think what we can do is mitigate it through prevention, response and care to the best of our ability,” Gentry said. “We’re absolutely committed to that.”

rowland.ashley@stripes.com

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