October 3, 2008 – The Army is launching a new war against an old foe: the lingering problem of sexual violence within the military.
Last month, 80 high-ranking generals gathered at a hotel in Alexandria, Va., for a mandatory, weeklong summit devoted to combating the crime. In a Sept. 22 essay in Army Times, Army Secretary Pete Geren and Gen. George Casey, the service’s chief of staff, said it was “repugnant to everything a soldier stands for” and promised a “zero tolerance” policy for harassment or assault.
The approach comes in direct response to a batch of new Pentagon data indicating that 2.6 soldiers per 1,000 reported a sexual assault last year. In the Marine Corps and Navy, it was 1.1 per 1,000; in the Air Force, 1.6 per 1,000. The Army began tracking the numbers only in 2006, and officials say they don’t have enough comparable data to determine whether the problem is getting worse over time.
Army leaders hope a major change in their strategy for combating these acts of violence can bring the numbers down. The service has long focused on dealing with the aftermath of an assault. Now it will try to prevent the crime from occurring in the first place.
The centerpiece of the new effort — known as “I AM Strong,” with the I AM standing for “intervene, act, motivate” — is a call for soldiers to confront peers who are abusing alcohol or exhibiting other possible harbingers of an assault, such as making suggestive comments. The Army also wants soldiers to alert higher-ranking personnel if their colleagues’ behavior doesn’t improve.
“We’re trying to change the culture,” said Carolyn Collins, the program manager for the Army’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program. “We want soldiers to look for red flags and take steps to address them before they turn into something serious.”
The military has been wrestling with the problem for decades. But some female veterans say the Army’s macho culture has enabled soldiers to behave in ways that would be unacceptable in the civilian world.
“We’ve heard all of this talk before, but nothing ever seems to change,” said Wanda Story, the national commander of the United Female Veterans of America, an advocacy group. Ms. Story said she was raped twice by fellow soldiers, in 1985 and 1986. She said she continues to be contacted by young veterans who say they were assaulted at the hands of other military personnel.
The Army’s first formal attempt to curb sexual violence was put in place in 2004 after a spate of high-profile cases. It focused on deploying “sexual assault response coordinators” to all military installations and expanding the range of counseling services.
It also allowed victims to choose whether they wanted the Army to open formal criminal probes into alleged assaults or to receive medical and psychological assistance confidentially. Army officials concede that the program fell short.
“We’re four years down the road, and we’re not where we want to be,” Ms. Collins said.
An August 2008 Government Accountability Report found that the military’s efforts to combat sexual violence had been hampered by a lack of support from some senior commanders and by a shortage of qualified mental-health professionals.
The survey found that 103 service members at 14 military installations said they had been assaulted within the preceding 12 months. But only 51 of the victims reported the crime to the authorities, with the remainder worrying that coming forward would hurt their careers, according to the report.
“Most people keep quiet because they don’t want to believe it happened to them or because they’re scared of what will happen if they speak up,” said Susan Avila-Smith, an Army veteran who runs Women Organizing Women, an advocacy group.
Ellen Wainwright, a former medic, says a higher-ranking enlisted soldier forced her into his room on a large U.S. base near Baghdad in early 2006 and raped her. Afterward, he warned her not to tell anyone. Ms. Wainwright kept quiet for two months and says he raped and sodomized her repeatedly before she finally chose to speak out.
In April 2006, she gave a sworn affidavit to agents from the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command. She was sent back to the U.S. on emergency leave. A few days later, Army officials told her she was being involuntarily discharged for psychological reasons. Ms. Wainwright says it was retribution for speaking up.
Army investigators said that they had “probable cause to believe” the alleged assailant had made inappropriate comments to Ms. Wainwright and made an unwanted overture to another female soldier. The investigators said they could not “establish sufficient evidence to prove or disprove” the assault allegations.
Efforts to reach the man were unsuccessful. Army spokesman Paul Boyce said the service “carefully investigates” all sexual assault allegations but avoids “discussing matters naming individual victims or alleged victims” because of privacy concerns.
Ms. Wainwright was unemployed for nearly two years after leaving the Army and says that she and her husband continue to litigate the terms of their divorce, including custody of their young son. Ms. Wainwright’s husband couldn’t be reached for comment.
Ms. Wainwright said that she had reluctantly concluded that her alleged assailant was right when he told her to stay silent.
“It would have been better for me to have kept my mouth shut,” she said.