The Army is considering turning to an all-civilian corps of victim advocates to handle the "epidemic" of sexual harassment and assault complaints in an effort to regain the trust of women in the ranks, Army leaders said Monday.
"Maybe the victim advocate should only be a civilian," said Army Deputy Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg said during an informal aside to reporters at the start of a two-day conference for top Army officers and enlisted personnel on sexual assault.
But whether the Army relies on uniformed personnel or civilians as Sexual Assault Response Coordinators, "It's got to be someone who's not afraid of pushing against the chain of command," said Bromberg, the Army's personnel chief.
Bromberg and other leaders were frank in acknowledging the criticism from Congress that they "just don't get it" on sexual assault and agreed that troops fear coming forward with complaints. But they pushed back against legislative proposals to strip commanders of their authority to convene courts martial in sex abuses cases.
Too many commanders have ignored the problem and failed to take a critical look at themselves and their units, Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army's chief of Staff, said in opening the Army's 6th annual Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) conference at Andrews Air Force Base.
"We still have people out there who tolerate sexual assault and harassment, and until we solve it, it's gonna' get worse," Odierno said. Too many times when he questions commanders, Odierno said, "the answer is ‘I don't have a problem here.' That's baloney. That's the problem – we're not seeing ourselves" as others do.
"We might have taken our eye off the ball in the last 10 years of war,' Odierno said, but now leadership has to "set the tone" in combating sexual assault, which Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey has made a top priority for the military.
Odierno stressed that commanders will be held strictly accountable. Just last week he and Army Secretary John McHugh relieved Maj. Gen. Michael T. Harrison, commander of U.S. Forces Japan, for allegedly failing to pursue a sexual assault case.
Odierno echoed Dempsey in stressing that a good record in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan will no longer serve as a shield against charges of harassment and sexual assault. Too often, the Army has looked the other way "because he's a good warrior," Odierno said. "We have lots of good warriors who don't do that kind of stuff."
At one point Odierno also pressed the need for civilians to handle the growing number of complaints of unwanted sexual contact in the military.
A Defense Department report last month said that the complaints in 2012 rose to 26,000 compared to 19,000 in 2011, according to an anonymous survey.
"We have no choice, we're going to shift money around" to hire the civilians despite the budget cutbacks forced by the Congressional process called sequester, Odierno said.
The Army has already hired more than 800 full-time victim advocates and sexual response coordinators who are nationally certified. In addition, the Army has taken on 20 special prosecutors for sex abuse cases, 30 lab technicians and 10 special advocates who work directly with commanders to assist in their understanding of the nature and scope of the problem.
Gen. Robert Cone, head of the Training and Doctrine Command, said commanders have often been guilty of "naiveté" on the problem of sexual assault, and pointed to himself as an example.
As head of the Combined Security Transition Command in Afghanistan, Cone said "I was stunned" to learn from a female captain working for him of the dangers to women at Forward Operating Bases.
The captain had informed him that she told two women "you need to carry a knife if you're going to walk around the FOB" at night to protect against sexual assault.
"It was absolutely eye-opening," Cone said. When he pressed the captain on why she hadn't told him before about the problem, the captain responded "First of all, I figured you knew," Cone said.
"If I have a soldier afraid to walk around the FOB at night" for fear of assault from U.S. troops, "I have a problem," Cone said.