The commanding general of Fort Bragg and the 18th Airborne Corps took aim Wednesday at what he views as misplaced loyalty among some of the nation's troops.
Lt. Gen. Paul J. LaCamera, providing the opening remarks at Fort Bragg's fourth annual Special Victims Summit, said some soldiers were using loyalty to their fellow troops as an excuse to shield them from accusations of sexual assault and other crimes.
Speaking to more than 850 military and community leaders, LaCamera challenged that belief while setting the tone for the day-long summit.
"This misdirection of loyalty is causing some major problems in our formation," the general said.
He noted that Army leaders swear an oath to the Constitution.
"Your loyalty begins with that," LaCamera said. "Not your buddy."
The Army exists to "protect the unprotected," he added. And for that to happen, he said, soldiers must be willing to stand up when they see wrongdoing.
"We have that in our formation," LaCamera said. "We have tremendous people who are moving to the sound of the gun. But we don't have enough."
The summit brings together leaders from nearly every facet of the community's sexual assault prevention efforts, including law enforcement, medical professionals, legal officials, victim advocates, nonprofit organizations and prevention counselors.
Womack Army Medical Center has hosted the summit since 2014, when it began as a gathering of about 200 people. Organizers said it was LaCamera who suggested inviting unit commanders and other stakeholders on post.
Kelly Taylor, Womack's sexual assault medical forensic examiner program manager, said it made sense to expand the scope of the event, not only to include more military leaders, but also to include people from the surrounding community. This year, participants traveled from across the state and New York, Georgia, Texas and Michigan.
Fayetteville police, Cumberland County sheriff's deputies and officials from Cape Fear Valley Medical Center were among the attendees.
Taylor said a goal of the summit is to raise awareness and be proactive about how to combat sexual assault, harassment, domestic violence and homicides.
"We all need to train together, and we all need to learn together, because this affects not only our Fort Bragg community, it affects our entire community," she said.
Col. John J. Melton, the commander of Womack Army Medical Center, said the majority of the Fort Bragg community lives off post. It makes sense to involve civilian authorities.
Sexual assault is an uncomfortable topic, he said, and not one the military can address alone.
"This demonstrates a commitment from the community," Melton said. "It's an opportunity to be better tomorrow than we are today."
The summit, held at the Iron Mike Conference Center, featured remarks by experts on sexual assault and cold-case investigations, strangulation-related crimes and the protection of legal rights during an investigation.
Cumberland County District Attorney Billy West spoke about the 2012 murder of Pfc. Kelli Bordeaux and the county's efforts to prosecute human trafficking and sexual assault cases.
LaCamera said the summit has challenged the way Fort Bragg leaders have thought about sexual crimes while dispelling myths. He cautioned attendees against any form of victim blaming. The event was all about education and collaboration against a pervasive threat, he said.
"The enemy is out there," he said. "There is evil in the world. And I've got no disillusions that there's no predators in the room right now."
LaCamera said sexual assault has a direct impact on readiness and the ability of victims to function normally. Caring for victims is a priority that doesn't change, regardless of results in a courtroom.
LaCamera singled out the dozens of unit commanders in attendance, asking them to stand.
"You are charged with providing a safe and secure environment," he said. "It's that simple. You are responsible for maintaining good order and discipline."
LaCamera said commanders, not their legal team, noncommissioned officers or anyone else, would ultimately be held responsible for what happens within their command.
"Let me make it very, very clear to you. You own it," the general said. "If you don't want to own it, please see me afterwards and we'll find somebody else who can do it.
"This is not something you delegate," LaCamera added. "When you have a victim or you have ill-discipline in your organization, the first place you should be looking is at yourself."
Fort Bragg has more than 150 sexual harassment/assault response and prevention counselors on post who conduct regular training for leaders and soldiers.
LaCamera thanked them but reiterated that the responsibility for combating wrongdoing within the force extends to every soldier.
"The standard is pretty clear," he said.
The summit is among the ways Fort Bragg leaders have attempted to address an issue that plagues the entire U.S. military. A nearly $3 million study is aiming to create a program to help prevent sexual assaults and high-risk alcohol use on post, and other programs meant to reinforce prevention through theatrical education.
The post also has a monthly sexual assault review board where commanders at every level are expected to update the garrison commander on the status of sexual assault cases in their units.
This article is written by Drew Brooks from The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.