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Displayed giveaways at an event on April 1, 2022, at Fort Shafter in Hawaii. Members of the 402nd Army Field Support Brigade received prizes for correctly answering questions about the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program and ways individuals can prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault for occurring.

Displayed giveaways at an event on April 1, 2022, at Fort Shafter in Hawaii. Members of the 402nd Army Field Support Brigade received prizes for correctly answering questions about the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program and ways individuals can prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault for occurring. (Katie Nelson/U.S. Army)

The Defense Department and service branches are hiring 2,000 civilians to serve as training experts and special-victim advocates, replacing the previous standard of assigning service members to do the job, military leaders told lawmakers on Wednesday.

Reaction from members of the House Armed Services Committee subpanel on military personnel were split to this change, which is one of 82 recommendations the military is implementing after an independent review of its handling of sexual assault and harassment within the ranks.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., chairwoman of the subpanel, praised the move to hire professionals from outside the military.

But Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, said it was troubling to hire people without “a coherent plan for a new prevention program.”

The hearing Wednesday focused on whether progress has been made by military leaders to implement the recommendations of the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military, which submitted its report in July 2021 to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. He established the commission shortly after becoming secretary and in September 2021, he laid out the plan for implementing the recommendations.

Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Gilbert Cisneros told the committee that defense officials hope to hire the 2,000 civilians by the end of fiscal 2027.

“We've assigned people tasks as a collateral duty in order to do this,” he said. “Our goal is to professionalize that workforce. It's going to be a civilian workforce. The prevention workforce is going to do the training, and it's not just on sexual assault and sexual harassment. They're going to cover child abuse. They're going to cover suicide prevention. They'll cover other subjects as well.”

Defense officials said earlier this month that they were speeding up the hiring efforts of the 2,000 personnel after an annual report on the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment in the military showed a 13% increase in 2021. Speier called the report “catastrophic news.”

“Sexual assault and harassment in our military is a readiness issue. It makes our force less lethal. It makes recruiting a challenge. It makes young men and women scared to serve,” she said.

Speier cited a July memo from the Army on the reasons why young people are less likely to enlist that showed 28% fear sexual harassment and sexual assault.

“With the most recent report, I know we still have a long way to go. But I also know the department is working hard to implement new prevention strategies,” she said. “I feel confident that if the Department of Defense keeps their foot on the pedal, and Congress doesn't turn a blind eye, this is the beginning of the end for those who wish to harm their brothers and sisters in arms.”

The undersecretary from each of the military services also testified at the hearing and said each branch is on track to meet the timelines established to implement the recommendations. The most impactful reform — the creation of a special prosecutor’s office in each military service — is on track to be operational in each by December 2023, the deadline mandated by Congress. Each service already has at least a dozen attorneys certified as special victim counsel to work in these offices, the officials told lawmakers.

The Air Force will conduct a six-month pilot program to locate its new civilian workers in facilities with other victim services, said Undersecretary Gina Ortiz Jones. The service plans to have 223 prevention officers in place by the end of 2023.

“This pilot aims to improve the response to and outcomes for personnel who experienced harm and violence such as sexual assault, sexual harassment, domestic violence, stalking and cyber harassment,” she said.

The Army will first direct its new hires, about 81, to five bases, Undersecretary Gabe Camarillo said. Those bases are Fort Hood in Texas, Fort Sill in Oklahoma, Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, Camp Humphreys in Korea and Fort Riley in Kansas. They were chosen because of the risk factors identified at those bases, the variety of the units, and the different mission sets.

The Navy is in the process of hiring 82 new prevention personnel, Undersecretary Erik Raven said. The priority is Norfolk in Virginia, San Diego in California, and Hawaii.

Cisneros and the branch leaders stressed that passing a defense budget through Congress as soon as possible will help them meet their hiring goals.

Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, told Cisneros that she fears the military isn’t moving fast enough on any of the recommendations and pushed him to implement stricter deadlines.

“There was a minute there that I was encouraged,” she said. “But I'm beginning to lose that encouragement because I keep hearing of more cases. I would strongly urge you to make sure that all the branches have the resources, the people power, the facilities, the training, the education and the skill set … [to] get it done as quickly as possible.”

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Rose L. Thayer is based in Austin, Texas, and she has been covering the western region of the continental U.S. for Stars and Stripes since 2018. Before that she was a reporter for Killeen Daily Herald and a freelance journalist for publications including The Alcalde, Texas Highways and the Austin American-Statesman. She is the spouse of an Army veteran and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in journalism. Her awards include a 2021 Society of Professional Journalists Washington Dateline Award and an Honorable Mention from the Military Reporters and Editors Association for her coverage of crime at Fort Hood.

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