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Acting Navy secretary makes mental health, sexual assault prevention top priorities for fleet

Thomas W. Harker, acting secretary of the Navy, speaks to U.S. Marines at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California on April 22, 2021.

ISAAC VELASCO/U.S. MARINE CORPS

By ANDREW DYER | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: April 28, 2021

SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Harker is looking to make the most out of what he believes will be a limited run atop the department, launching initiatives to prevent sexual assault and encourage sailors to seek mental health care after a year of coronavirus stress, he told The San Diego Union-Tribune in an interview.

Harker spent a week in San Diego touring Navy and Marine Corps facilities. He stepped into the role on a temporary basis upon President Joe Biden's inauguration, replacing former President Donald Trump's last Navy secretary, Kenneth Braithwaite.

The position has been in the political crosshairs as the Navy's civilian leadership found itself at odds with Trump and with the sailors who serve under them.

In 2019, Richard Spencer was fired after a high-profile rift between him and Trump over the president's multiple interventions in the war crimes case of former Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher.

Then, in 2020, Thomas Modly, serving as acting secretary after Spencer's firing, himself resigned after delivering an ill-received speech on board the coronavirus-stricken aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in which he insulted the ship's recently fired captain.

Braithwaite was only confirmed last May in the wake of Modly's resignation.

Harker, who has also served as the chief financial officer of both the Navy and Pentagon as well as an assistant Navy secretary, said he recognized the challenges Spencer and Modly faced and respects both men.

"(Spencer) served two full years and I thought he'd done a great job," Harker said in the interview, held last week. "Secretary Modly, also a good person. He made a mistake, he resigned, he took responsibility for his mistake. I'd still work for him again."

Given the upheaval at the top of the Navy's civilian leadership during the last 13 months of the Trump administration, Harker said people should have confidence in the leadership at the top of the department.

"All of the people that I've worked with have been devoted, patriotic Americans coming in to do the best they can to help support the Navy and Marine Corps," he said. "But, it has been a challenging time for the Navy and I think that it will be good when President Biden has a permanent appointee in this job."

When that appointee will be named is unknown. Harker said he thinks he'll only be in the job a "few more months."

Harker, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, worked on the accounting side of the service and is a licensed C.P.A. He said that experience has informed how he approaches one of his top priorities in the Navy, preventing sexual assault.

To address the issue, Harker said the Navy and Marine Corps have data compiled over the last couple of years that can be used to identify which units have a higher risk of having an assault. Among the factors that put units at risk of having assaults, Harker said, is sexual harassment and discrimination.

"If you have a climate where sexual harassment is tolerated, the predators can hide easier," he said. "If you have a climate where sexual harassment is not tolerated some of the behaviors that a predator might do ... are less tolerated, so it's easier to go in and find people."

Harker said the Navy identified five key areas and several behaviors for commanders to watch for. He's also directed more funding for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service to hire more agents, he said.

Harker said he's made addressing mental health among sailors another priority. To do that, Harker said more ships need more Navy corpsmen trained to help sailors with those issues.

"With the younger generation coming out there's not as much stigma and so they're seeking more mental health treatments — we have to make sure we have sufficient resources deployed," Harker said.

To encourage sailors to seek mental health care, Harker recorded a video message to the fleet in which he details times he himself sought counseling.

"There were three times in my life that I've sat down and spoken with a mental health professional," Harker says in the video. He goes on in the video to talk about his parent's divorce, his own divorce and the trauma he faced when, as a member of the U.S. Coast Guard, he participated in rescue and recovery of the victims of the 1993 Neptune ferry disaster off the coast of Haiti.

Harker's ship, the Coast Guard Cutter Dauntless, recovered the bodies of 80 men, women and children, Harker says in the video. The Coast Guard sent counselors to talk with the crew when the ship stopped at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"It was the most important port call I've ever had and I'm convinced it continues to help me to this day," he says in the video. "In the course of your service, you may see and experience things most Americans won't even think about ... don't shelve those experiences away."

Harker is from San Diego and his family has been here since the 19th century. He grew up in Point Loma and graduated from Point Loma High School before going to college at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the great-grandson of early San Diego developer Col. Ed Fletcher, who developed Del Mar, Mount Helix and for whom Fletcher Hills and Fletcher Parkway is named.

As the Pentagon continues shaping its defense policies toward competition with Russia and China, Harker said San Diego will continue to be a key location in the coming years.

"I think we're good tenants, we're good participants in helping to improve San Diego," he said.

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