JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. – Secretary of the Army John McHugh Tuesday detailed a new directive that will make the Army the first military branch to require behavioral health screenings for those who counsel sexual assault victims.
During remarks at the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention, or SHARP, conference, held at Joint Base Andrews, Md., McHugh also said that he has directed Army leaders to devise a plan to incentivize and reward those who serve as counselors and victim advocates, creating more effective means to identify and acknowledge the best qualified Soldiers and civilians to serve in those positions.
“These are positions of intense, personal trust, and we need to make certain that those selected have the right tools and skills needed to carry them out effectively,” he told Army leaders attending Tuesday’s conference. “Moreover, these jobs are often stressful, and we owe it to those who serve in them the means to better ensure their own continued behavioral health and well-being. This new system will benefit both victims and their advocates alike.”
In addition to the screening, McHugh wants Army personnel officials to devise a plan that would incentivize service as a sexual assault response coordinator, or SARCs, or sexual assault prevention and response victim advocates, or SAPR VAs.
“Under our current design, there really is no reward for Soldiers who do their job well, no recognition as there are in other fields and occupations in the Army for taking these assignments and doing them well, something to help them advance their careers,” McHugh said. “As in other fields, we have to incentivize this mission, not just to encourage commanders to pick their best, but to ensure that Soldiers who serve honorably and do what we expect of them will be duly recognized in appropriate ways as well.”
McHugh said he first raised the idea of incentivizing SARC and VA positions during a recent White House meeting where service secretaries and chiefs of staff discussed their respective plans to combat sexual assault. Afterward, President Barack Obama offered public support for the concept.
“I think Secretary of the Army McHugh made a very good point, which is I’m not sure we’ve incentivized some of our top people to understand this is as core to our mission as anything else,” said Obama, May 16, “and we’ve got to reward them, not think of this as a sideline for anything else that they do, but incentivize ambitious folks in the ranks to make sure that they understand this is important. So that’s part of accountability.”
McHugh’s directive also places new restrictions on who can hire SARCs and SAPR VAs, those whom the Army secretary called “front-line forces” in the fight against sexual assault. McHugh is limiting the ability to appoint SARCS to the first general officer or civilian equivalent, a member of the Senior Executive Service, within the chain command. Only brigade commanders, or their equivalent-level commander or civilian supervisor, may appoint SAPR VAs. Hiring authorities may not be delegated.
“It will not only help to better ensure we select the very best people for these posts, but that the chain of command knows what we expect of them, and how important that work is to the Army,” he said. “In short, I believe elevating the appointment authority within the chain of command will increase responsibility, accountability as well as oversight.”
McHugh stressed that his action is not a reflection on the nearly 10,000 Soldiers and civilians currently serving in those positions.
“We have committed, dedicated and well-trained people currently serving across the Army, who work with victims compassionately, responsibly and effectively,” McHugh said. “But we believe we can do more to make the system better, and are committed to doing so.”
McHugh first outlined details of the directive during testimony before the Senate’s Defense Appropriations subcommittee, May 22. It comes amid a DOD-wide requirement to re-train, re-credential, and re-screen all sexual assault prevention and response personnel and military recruiters prompted by a number of high profile sexual assault and abuse cases in the military.