Army Thanks Soldier For Confronting Offensive Behavior Online

Lt. Gen. James C. McConville, the Army's deputy chief of staff for personnel, presents 1st Sgt. Katrina Moerk with the citation for her Army Commendation Medal. (U.S. Army Photo)
Lt. Gen. James C. McConville, the Army's deputy chief of staff for personnel, presents 1st Sgt. Katrina Moerk with the citation for her Army Commendation Medal. (U.S. Army Photo)

WASHINGTON  -- Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and senior Army officials met with a senior non-commissioned officer Dec 15 to thank her for leading by example and defending Army values, despite facing harassment after confronting Service members who were behaving unethically online.

First Sgt. Katrina Moerk, now the first sergeant of Charlie Company, 741st Military Intelligence Battalion, was browsing a social media network's community page earlier this year, when she came upon a video that she found offensive and sexist. When she commented as much, several respondents attacked her with insults. Some of these respondents were wearing uniforms in their profile photos, the first sergeant said, so she wrote to them directly.

"I looked them up, introduced myself and explained to them why they were stupid. And I [copied] the director of the Army SHARP program to help their units improve their SHARP training, because it was obviously lacking. And it's kind of blown up from there," Moerk said.

SHARP is the acronym for the military's Sexual Harassment Assault Response and Prevention program.

Online Backlash

This wasn't the first time Moerk had experienced online harassment, she said, but it was "the first time I've put my foot down, and was very adamant about correcting what was wrong with them."

The response was "vicious," she said.

"I tried to explain why I didn't care for it," she added, "and [said], 'If you don't know who you're talking to, be careful what you say in an open public forum on the Internet,' and it just made it worse. When I started calling them by rank, they figured I was in the military and made jokes about calling people out on the Internet, or [that] pulling rank on the Internet is like calling somebody out in a bar."

Things died down online, she said, but Dr. Christine Altendorf, the SHARP director, brought Moerk's email to the attention of Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, then the Army's deputy chief of staff for personnel. Shortly thereafter, the Army launched three administrative investigations, because Soldiers from three separate major commands were involved, either through producing the video or making inappropriate comments.

"Everyone was kind of pulled to the carpet and called in, and training changed," the first sergeant said.

For her willingness to stand up and defend Army values, Moerk received an Army Commendation Medal from Lt. Gen. James C. McConville, who succeeded Bromberg as the Army's personnel chief, during a ceremony Monday, at the Pentagon.

Leading by Example

"What she did is the epitome of being an NCO and a Soldier, and of course a leader," said Command Sgt. Maj Leslie Hudson, the 741st Military Intelligence Battalion senior enlisted adviser. "I think that Soldiers out there can learn from the example that she set, and I think that she has set the standard for what leaders are expected to do."

Though she's probably not the first person to call people out on the Internet for being unprofessional and behaving contrary to Army values, Moerk said, in many troops' minds there's no connection between their professional and private lives.

This needs to change, she said.

If the Army is going to really effect change and eliminate these kinds of problems, its organizational culture has to change, said Army Capt. John Larue, Charlie Company commander. "And we need this kind of leadership -- people stepping up to do that -- because, ultimately, if you're in the military, you're always representing the service, no matter where you are."

Troops who are amazing while on deployment or mentoring troops in garrison are not good Soldiers if their private lives demonstrate a lack of character or integrity, Moerk said.

Case Study in Professionalism

"Trust is the foundation for everything we do as military professionals, and we expect our Service members to conduct themselves with integrity and character," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Defense Department spokesman. "We have a commitment to uphold the dignity and respect of our Service members and provide a safe environment in which every Service member and DOD civilian is free from the threat of sexual harassment.

"It is important that an uncompromising culture of accountability exists at every level of command," he continued, "and that we confront any inappropriate, unprofessional or unethical behavior head-on."

To help shift the culture, Moerk agreed to speak on camera with a representative from the Center for the Army Profession and Ethic, to serve as a case study for other members of the Army profession.

"You can accept the way things have always been, or you can make things right, the way you know they should be," Moerk explained.

In her CAPE video, Moerk noted that the Army is putting considerable effort into helping people who have been victimized by unprofessional behavior. "Units are doing right by victims -- they're helping them," she said. "They're getting them the support that's needed. We're not putting them in a dark corner, in a dark closet."

Moerk said she's not one to go along with the "'Well, this is the way we've always done it' philosophy. So that's the way I teach my Soldiers, and that's the way I'm taught [by] my sergeants-major mentors. That's the way I'm helping my commander, and he's helping me."

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