The military's behind-the-scenes struggles in the campaign against sexual assault
WIESBADEN, Germany — In early 2012, Natasha Schuette was nearly done with basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., when a male drill sergeant lured her into an office and sexually assaulted her.
As horrendous as it was, the assault was only the beginning of her ordeal.
When she tried to report the assault, Schuette’s leaders refused to believe her. One told her the attack “couldn’t have happened.” Rather than investigate the case, her leaders started paperwork to kick her out of the Army.
Instead, less than two years later, her attacker is in a military prison. Her former first sergeant and commander are under investigation. She’s a private first class stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., and spends most of her time explaining what happened to her with the hope that telling her story can prevent its repetition.
At the start of a two-day sexual assault summit here with the Army’s top leadership in Europe, a roomful of generals, senior commanders and senior noncommissioned officers listened to her describe her “nightmare,” which isn’t over yet.
It’s largely because of her determination that she’s still in the service to talk about it.
Her leadership, she says, “didn’t do what they were supposed to do.”
That’s something that Lt. Gen. Donald M. Campbell Jr., who brought in the top officers and enlisted leaders from all major Army units in Europe for the summit, wants to change.
“It’s no secret in the Army that we now have senior-level commanders and NCOs who, because of their lack of action, are being held accountable,” he said in his opening remarks.
Designed to give senior leaders additional tools, resources and ideas to quash sexual assault and harassment in their ranks, the summit was in some ways similar to sexual harassment and assault prevention classes attended by virtually every member of the armed forces. But it it revealed the behind-the-scenes struggles that commanders, the military justice system and victims deal with each day in fighting a crime that officials said is forcing more and more soldiers to leave the services.
Stars and Stripes attended the summit but agreed not to identify speakers or participants, to encourage openness among attendees.
The summit revealed internal debates over the service’s goals and doubts about whether they’re achievable. It also showed leaders working earnestly to figure out how to change Army culture and find ways to uncover the full scope of the problem so they can tackle it head-on.
Admitting the problem
Leaders called to attend the summit were told to expect that as they push to increase the reporting of sex crimes in the military, the problem will look far worse before it gets better.
In its latest report on sexual assault in the military, the Defense Department estimated there were roughly 26,000 acts of unwanted sexual contact throughout the services in fiscal 2012, though the number of actual reports of such incidents was much lower. The DOD estimates that only about 11 percent of sexual assaults are being reported.
Still, according to the report, the Army alone received roughly 1,600 reports of sexual assault in fiscal 2012. If that number represents just 11 percent of the actual number of assaults, as the DOD suspects, the actual number of assaults would be closer to 14,500.
According to statistics provided at the summit, USAREUR, received 198 reports of sexual assault between Oct. 1, 2012-Sept. 18, 2013. If the rate of underreporting in USAREUR is similar to the rest of the force, the actual number of assaults might have been nearly 1,000.
One general had harsh words for other leaders who believe that sexual assaults aren’t happening on their watch: “If you do not think you have a problem, you do not know your unit.”
Some leaders’ attempts to flush out sex offenders appear to be proving that point.
In one unit, junior female soldiers — the demographic that most often falls victim to sex crimes — meet weekly in small groups and write down accounts of harassment and assault they’ve heard about or experienced. They swap and share the stories, pseudo-anonymously, in the presence of personnel trained to respond to allegations of sex crimes.
“There’s a lot of intel that comes out of this,” one of the unit’s senior NCOs said.
Another unit has taken a more comprehensive approach.
In the spring, trained personnel — the majority of them women — canvassed the ranks to find out everything they could about sexual assault and harassment in the unit.
“I know we had stuff going on, but I had no clue,” one of the senior NCOs involved in that survey said. “When we went and actually did a look on ourselves, holy cow.”
The results of that survey turned up a slew of data that largely echoed the Army as a whole. Young females who were new to the unit were most likely to be targeted. Most incidents happened in the barracks and motor pools. Alcohol was often involved.
Those findings led to a number of changes in the way the unit indoctrinates newcomers and handles young and newly arrived soldiers. The organization’s subordinate units used to have the responsibility to get newcomers situated. Each would have a sponsor, sometimes a member of the same sex, sometimes not. That model may have been creating opportunities for predators to isolate potential victims. Now, a vetted and trained cadre of reception personnel welcomes all new arrivals in a centralized reception unit, mentoring them and introducing them to life in Europe and their new base.
The findings also resulted in a number of sexual assault and harassment reports – how many wasn’t disclosed – many from “third parties” who knew of incidents and reported them on behalf of their colleagues.
Unit leaders followed up in each of those cases, treating them as “restricted reports” that don’t lead to investigations unless the victim gives permission. .
The unit’s efforts were applauded and questioned by attendees at the summit. Some participants were concerned that victims who didn’t want to report their assaults were pressured to do so.
“I’m not saying there wasn’t collateral damage in this,” said an officer who was involved in the process. “Believe me, I am fighting through that daily. It’s the risk we took. And I don’t know if it’s the right answer, either.”
But many who spoke at the conference, including experts in the field, said that getting victims to report assaults will be key to driving down such crimes.
“I really believe we’ll win when we get the reporting right,” Campbell said.
Can culture be changed?
For reporting to rise, many leaders believe Army culture needs to change.
There was debate at the summit about how to change the culture and how the Army’s unique sub-culture plays out in preventing or promoting sex crimes.
Every year, the Army takes on 80,000 new recruits. Those 80,000, one expert on military sexual assault said, come from the same society “that calls ‘Jersey Shore’ entertainment.”
The reality show, which ran on MTV from 2009 until the end of last year, was targeted at teens and young adults and featured the outrageous behavior of eight “housemates.”
In one episode, one of the show’s main female characters passed out drunk. A male partier who was at the “Jersey Shore” house went into her room and had sex with her. The next morning, she had no idea what happened. Her housemates laughed as they described it to her.
“That’s entertainment for your soldiers,” the expert said. “That’s what we call a crime, a felony crime.”
Schuette, the young soldier who was assaulted in basic training, said the Army is still trying to identify its cultural problem.
Having spent much of her short career in forums similar to the summit called by Campbell, Schuette said it’s clear to her that senior-level leaders grew up in a world far different than what exists today. Some of the older leaders don’t understand the culture that new recruits come from well enough to identify the underlying problems they need to address.
In more than a decade of war, she said, the Army relaxed its standards and recruited people who never should have worn the uniform. Some, like her attacker, rose through the ranks and were considered good soldiers by their peers and leaders because he was good at his job.
Campbell described that kind of thinking as misjudging competence for character, and told his subordinates not to make the same mistake.
As for how to change Army culture, Campbell doesn’t have a similarly catchy solution. He acknowledged that the military’s efforts are swimming against a swift stream of popular culture whose values differ substantially from the Army’s vision of itself.
“It’s going to take leadership,” Campbell said. “It’s going to take engaged leadership.”
Misjudgments not rare
That leadership, however, has to know right from wrong before they try to pass along their wisdom.
Reading from a court-martial transcript, a prosecutor who presented at the summit tried to illustrate why Congress is considering stripping commanders of the authority to prosecute sexual assault cases. The transcript was of an exchange between the prosecutor and a sergeant major who took the stand during the sentencing phase of a court-martial for an NCO found guilty of rape, sodomy and maltreatment of two of his subordinates.
The sergeant major, in making his case for leniency, testified that he would have no difficulty taking the NCO back into his unit.
“And the squad, I don’t care if it’s males or females, I would put him back in my squad as the squad leader,” the sergeant major said.
“I don’t know all the facts of this case,” he said, but he refused to concede that the crimes could have happened. “He isn’t capable of rape,” he said.
“I’d like to say that transcript was from a case that I tried six years ago,” the prosecutor said. “This case just happened last year.”
The sergeant major, the prosecutor implied, had already judged the case before it went to trial.
Commanders’ authority to try similar cases is under scrutiny by Congress because of a perception that those kinds of misjudgments aren’t rare.
The prosecutor cited two cases, Capt. Matthew S. Herrera and Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, Air Force officers whose sexual assault convictions were thrown out by generals who substituted their own judgment for that of courts-martial panels.
Without explanation, Lt. Gen. Susan J. Helms granted Herrera’s request for clemency in 2012 against the staff judge advocate’s recommendation.
In January, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin wiped out Wilkerson’s conviction, writing in an explanatory memo that he found Wilkerson more credible than his accuser, in part because he doubted Wilkerson would risk his family and career by engaging in sexual misconduct.
“We need to change how we think,” the prosecutor said. “Change has to be made. And if we don’t make those changes, the power that you all have as commanders is going to be stripped from you, because our transparent system is exposed to the public, and right now the public doesn’t think we’re doing a good job.”
The prosecutor’s basic message: Commanders need to let reports of sexual assault work their way through the system and “let the lawyers do their job.”
System can work
For Schuette, once her immediate leadership was taken out of the equation. the system worked. She’d reported her assault to two drill sergeants, one of who told her not to “open that can of worms.” The other instructor reported the assault up to the training unit’s top enlisted, a female first sergeant — THE SAME ONE who told Schuette the assault couldn’t have happened and informed her she was getting kicked out.
At a training event just before she was about to be separated, she saw a sergeant major observing the exercise. She approached him and explained what happened to her.
Later in the day, the sergeant major pulled in other female recruits from Schuette’s training company for a meeting. Eventually, Schuette said, other victims came forward.
Lots of victims don’t want to come forward on their own and shouldn’t be forced to if they’re not ready, Schuette said. But the lack of reporting, she said, also pointed to soldiers’ belief that Army leaders won’t hold offenders accountable.
She noted that she’s still waiting for the results of the investigation of her former leadership.
But the system works, she said, “once the chain of command lets it work.”
If it hadn’t, she said, “I’ll be honest; I don’t know if I could walk around knowing that he’s still leading soldiers knowing what he did to me, what he did to my battle buddies.”