WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced today a sexual assault retaliation prevention and response strategy, saying both sexual assault and retaliation against those who report it are attacks against the values of the military.
“Wherever sexual assault occurs — whether it’s on the front lines or here at home — it not only undermines our values, it undercuts our ability to execute our mission, which is to protect our people and make a better world for our children,” Carter said at a Pentagon ceremony today.
According to a statement released today by the DoD’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, the strategy includes standardizing the definitions of retaliation; improving data collection and analysis; building strong and supportive systems of investigation and accountability; providing comprehensive support to reporters; and creating a culture intolerant of retaliation. It also extends to first responders, including sexual assault response coordinators, and witnesses of sexual assault/harassment or retaliation.
The strategy aims to improve how the department supports service members who experience retaliation, while aligning prevention and response efforts across the services, Carter said.
“While there is much work that remains to be done to eliminate this overall scourge of sexual assault from our military, today we’re taking an important step with the release of this strategy,” he added.
Strategy Upholds Commitment to Survivors
Army Maj. Gen. Camille Nichols, the director of the SAPR Office, called the policy an important step forward.
“Supporting those who make the difficult decision to report sexual assault or harassment not only upholds our commitment to them, but also influences others who may be considering whether to make a report,” she said in the statement.
She said service members reporting sexual assault or sexual harassment should be able to do so without the fear of retaliation by their peers or leadership.
“Reporting the crime is the only way offenders can be identified and held appropriately accountable,” Nichols said.
The new strategy provides a framework for strengthening support for those who experience retaliation in connection with reporting sexual assault or harassment and for clarifying the retaliation response process, Carter said at the ceremony.
The Defense Department must do everything it can to provide the proper protections and support for those who come forward, he added. “Honor and trust are the lifeblood of the profession of military arms. Every sexual assault is an attack on those values, so too are acts of retaliation against those who report these crimes,” he said.
Improved Systems to Streamline Reporting
The Defense Digital Service is combining forces with the DoD SAPR Office to launch a project to improve the systems that underlie the reporting databases, Carter announced.
“This will allow for more streamlined, timely and accurate reporting,” he said, noting it will reduce the burden on sexual assault response coordinators and investigators, allowing them to spend more time with survivors.
According to Carter, the project will help the department understand sexual assault data in a more meaningful way. That, he said, will ultimately lead to greater transparency with advocates and others.
Eliminating Retaliation, Removing Barriers
Allison Greene-Sands, deputy chief of staff of the SAPR Office, said the department took action because it is so egregious that a sexual assault survivor would face retaliation in addition to the trauma the person already suffered.
“The fear of retaliation can be a barrier to reporting any crime,” Greene-Sands said, in an interview with DoD News.
The Defense Department learned from best practices in industry and the corporate world that removing barriers and having increased protections will help those who want to come forward and report a crime, she said.
Retaliation is a symptom of a poor command climate or a lack of professionalism, she said.
“When you have retaliation tolerated in a command climate that also coexists with the risk of sexual assault,” Greene-Sands said.
Survivors or witnesses can report retaliation to their chain of command, or to a sexual assault response coordinator or other appropriate personnel, she said. They can also anonymously report retaliation atsafehelpline.org, which will report the incident directly to the SAPR Office.
“At the end of the day, if these things are happening, then we have a readiness issue. We’re not going to be able to respond to missions in the way that we’re supposed to,” she said.
The DoD conducted several data gathering efforts to capture sexual assault victim experience with retaliatory behavior in 2012 and 2014. Surveys indicated that well over half of military women who experienced a sexual assault and reported it to a DoD authority perceived some kind of retaliation. In May 2015, Carter directed the development of a departmentwide strategy to address retaliation.
The DoD SAPR Office can be found at SAPR.mil. The DoD Safe Helpline, safehelpline.org, can be reached 24/7, toll-free, at 877-995-5247.