The Department of Defense is not on a sexual assault “witch hunt,” but troops are either “part of the solution or part of the problem,” servicemembers across Europe and Pacific were told last week.
Troops gathered in town-hall style settings at U.S. military bases worldwide to discuss sexual assault, at the behest of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. The stand-downs, as they are being called, must be done before July 1, and include commanders and leaders talking about prevention measures and responses. The events also serve as refresher training and qualification reviews for recruiters, sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates, according to a May 17 memo issued by Hagel.
The estimated number of sexual assaults in the military rose from 19,000 in fiscal year 2011 to 26,000 in 2012, according a Defense Department report released last month.
Sgt. Maj. Bryan Battaglia, senior enlisted adviser to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, told airmen at RAF Mildenhall on Thursday that sexual assault affects everyone in the military.
“You know as well as I how sexual assault and sexual harassment is beating us down literally to parade rest,” he said during an enlisted all-hands call. But “we’re going to get around it, there’s no doubt about it.”
At Yokota Air Base, Japan, airmen were shown a video message from Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, commander of U.S. Pacific Air Forces, who warned that supervisors should have zero tolerance for inappropriate comments, sexual assault or sexual harassment.
“It is unconscionable that sexual assaults are continuing to take place within our services at an alarming rate,” he said.
Servicemembers must do everything in their power to keep them from happening.
“If you see a situation that could possibly lead to sexual harassment or sexual assault, I expect you to intervene,” he said.
In light of a series of high-profile cases, members of Congress have taken military leaders to task for not doing more to get the problem under control, and have introduced legislation to curtail military commanders’ role in the review and prosecution process.
Members of Congress were particularly outraged by the overturning of a sexual assault conviction by an Air Force Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, at Aviano Air Base in Italy. He was convicted in November of aggrevated sexual assault and sentenced to a year in jail, forefeiture of all pay and dismissal from the service. His conviction and sentence were overturned in February by Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of Third Air Force.
During a sexual assault briefing Thursday at Aviano, the new wing commander and his senior enlisted adviser told airmen that everyone’s goal should be to eliminate the problem.
“I want our rate to be at absolute zero,” Brig. Gen. Jon A. Norman said during one of three commander’s calls on the issue. “We’re better than that.”
Norman told airmen that it was in their best interests not to engage in any misconduct — including sexual assault — that would result in a court-martial or other legal proceedings.
Carlisle, the PACOM commander, didn’t mince words in his video message.
“Your malicious behavior will absolutely not be tolerated,” he said. “I will use all means at my disposal to identify you and deal with you.”
Col. Mark August, 374th Airlift Wing commander at Yokota, said 96 percent of reported sexual assaults are genuine and that less than 4 percent have indications of false reporting.
“Are we on a witch hunt now?” he asked. “No. We are going to assume everyone is innocent until proven guilty.”
The Air Force receives about 700 “unrestricted” reports triggering investigations of sexual assault each year. U.S. Forces Japan gets about one each week, August said.
Sexual assault can range from rape to unwanted fondling. Ninety-five percent of incidents involve alcohol, August said.
“‘No’ means no; unconscious means no; asleep means no and intoxicated means no,” he told the airmen.
August told airmen that sexual misconduct is a betrayal of trust.
“We can’t afford to betray that trust any longer,” he said.
At Aviano, Norman urged airmen to watch out for each other. He said his advice to the troops is similar to what he tells his 19-year-old daughter attending college: Be smart and watch out for your friends.
At Aviano, that means men watching out for women, men watching out for men, women watching out for women and women watching out for men, he said.
“Be a friend,” he told airmen. “A real friend wouldn’t let someone else get involved in any situation that led to this.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Adam Mathis contributed to this report.