A fast-developing sexual assault prevention program at Joint Base Lewis-McChord has the Army mustering up new victim advocates, spreading a “zero tolerance” message down the ranks and cracking down on misbehavior in the barracks.
It’s intended to reverse a rising number of reported military sexual assaults across the Armed Forces that is fraying relationships among service members and causing lawmakers to consider changes to the Army’s justice system.
“When you have sexual assault in the military, it breaks down the fabric of trust in our organization,” said Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza, who this week canceled training activities for the 20,000 Lewis-McChord soldiers under his command and focused them on sexual assault programs for a single day.
Lanza began the reforms last October when he arrived at the base south of Tacoma to launch the 7th Infantry Division headquarters. He held a series of discussions with female soldiers of various ranks who encouraged him to confront a culture that seems too tolerant of sexual harassment.
“We can’t have this in our military,” he said this week.
Similar training sessions are taking place at the Army’s other installations.
Last month, the Pentagon published a report showing a rise in known sexual assault cases from 3,192 cases in 2011 to 3,374 cases in 2012. The same report suggested that as many 26,000 military service members faced unwanted sexual contact but might not have reported it.
Meanwhile, the military saw a string of embarrassing cases over the past year, such as the prosecution of one-star Army general on sexual misconduct charges stemming from his affair with a captain and Air Force commanders granting clemency to two officers convicted of sexual assault.
Those scandals lent a sense of urgency to discussions around Lewis-McChord this week. Soldiers seemed to understand the long-lasting consequences if sexual assault tarnishes the Army’s reputation, dissuades recruits from enlisting and discourages families from steering their children toward uniformed service.
“The Army is at risk of losing the trust of America’s mothers and fathers,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Sean Mayo, the top enlisted soldier in the 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment.
Mayo’s squadron can be as macho as any at Lewis-McChord. It has a handful of women in an intelligence company and some female medics, but it’s mostly composed of men who aspire to be Army scouts fighting enemies in austere conditions.
“We don’t do it because it’s enjoyable; we do it because it’s hard,” said squadron Commander Lt. Col. Robert Halvorson, appealing to his soldiers’ shared experiences in combat in his talk with them about deterring sexual assault.
He and Mayo wanted the roughly 400 soldiers under their command to view sexual assault prevention as another way to protect fellow troops, just as they do when they’re under enemy fire.
“We need to engage before the assault. If it gets to the perpetration of the act, it is too late for us,” Halvorson said.
He urged his soldiers to shame sexual assault offenders to demonstrate that those service members “are not worthy” of their uniforms.
“We will throw them out and we will be a better organization for it,” he said.
Down the ranks, soldiers are working overtime to keep up with Lanza’s goals for the division’s prevention program.
“It can consume seven days before you blink,” said Sgt. First Class Adam Tymensky of the cavalry squadron. He stayed up until 1 a.m. Tuesday going over the material he prepared for that day’s programs.
Since last fall, Lanza has handed down new standards limiting the kinds of alcohol soldiers can keep in their barracks. He appointed an experienced sexual assault response coordinator for his headquarters, and created a policy matching soldiers newly assigned to Lewis-McChord with more experienced “sponsors” who guide them around the base connecting them with resources.
Lanza also revised the qualities he wants from combat units when they select victim advocates.
They should be good listeners, said Master Sgt. Carol Chapman, the division’s chief sexual assault prevention program manager. She has had a 21-year-military career with the last nine spent on sexual assault prevention.
“I was in when it was old school,” she said, back when the Army did not pay as much attention to preventing sexual assaults. “All those things that used to be OK aren’t anymore.”
Now, with the Army encouraging victims to come forward, Chapman is hearing from male and female soldiers who experienced sexual abuse in the past. She steers them to counseling if the cases can no longer be prosecuted.
“If they can’t prosecute, at least I can learn from them,” she said.
Many units appointed sexual assault response coordinators in the spring. They went through training and prepared for sometimes uncomfortable work weighing sex assault complaints.
Staff Sgt. Ryan Ventura was one of them. He had some apprehensions about the assignment because he had little experience with it. He said he’s grown into the job, though, because he knows his commanders “have my back” in making difficult decisions. Two cases have already crossed his desk since April.
“Everything they talk about is zero tolerance” for unwanted sexual contact, said Ventura, a soldier in the 296th Battlefield Support Battalion.