A directive from Secretary of the Army John McHugh that makes retaliation against those who report crimes a crime itself, has gone one step further to provide a safe environment for victims of crime to speak up.
In a document released June 17 titled "Prohibition of Retaliation Against Soldiers for Reporting a Criminal Offense," McHugh states that "no Soldier may retaliate against a victim, an alleged victim or another member of the Armed Forces based on that individual's report of a criminal offense."
The new directive is an addition to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 (NDAA) that was signed by Congress in December 2013, which made significant changes to the military justice system to broaden protections for victims of sexual offenses. McHugh's latest directive does not specifically target sexual offenses, but is aimed at any crime.
While retaliation itself was not allowed on military installations across the nation, until now it has not been a criminal offense unless it violated another law, explained Capt. Michael R. Tregle, Jr., Chief of Military Justice Division for the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate on Fort Belvoir.
"Even before the NDAA of 2014 and this directive, personnel were still forbidden by law and regulation from retaliating against Soldiers who reported crimes," Tregle said. "However, until now, they could not be punished criminally for the retaliation itself unless it violated some other law, such as Cruelty and Maltreatment, for those types of retaliation described (in this new) directive. Now, the retaliation itself is made a crime as a violation of this regulation."
Gwendolyn E. Gayden, Fort Belvoir Installation Victim Advocate for the Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention Program (SHARP) lauded the decision that she says will make the process of reporting a crime a little easier on the victims.
"This is great news for victims," she said. "The U.S. Army is such a tight-knit community, so when one feels threatened, other members rally around them. As in all communities this is not a perfect stance. A victim coming forward is seen as a traitor to the unit and the actual perpetrator is perceived as the victim."
Tregle agrees that the new directive will make it easier for victims.
"This directive reinforces that Soldiers should feel comfortable and protected when coming forward to report misconduct," he said. "An additional layer of protection has been added, which will ensure that appropriate action can be taken against anyone found to have retaliated against a victim or witness who has come forward to report a crime."
The consequences for any Soldier who retaliates against a victim or witness are severe under the new directive.
"Any servicemember found to have violated this directive by retaliating against a victim or witness who comes forward may be punished under Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice," Tregle said. "Article 92 makes it a crime, punishable by up to two years of confinement and a dishonorable discharge, to violate this punitive directive."
Gayden believes the new directive will encourage a potential harasser to pause and perhaps abandon the idea of retaliating against a fellow Soldier.
"The U.S. Army has always had a no-retaliation policy, but making it a criminal act will give victims a sense of security because the harassers are now putting their jobs on the line," Gayden said. "Most Soldiers want to do the right thing but pressure from your battle buddy can make you do things, like harass a victim into not cooperating with the investigation or judicial systems. Your battle buddy is there for you but not at the expense of his or her career."
According to Gayden, the typical victim of sexual assault is between 18 and 25 years old and fairly new to the Army. Their desire to fit in with their new unit, combined with being far away from Family members and their support system, may cause them to remain silent.
"The biggest fear I hear from victims is being ostracized," she said. "It is really important to a Soldier to fit in with his/her unit. Soldiers who are far away from home, especially for the first time, look at their unit members and community as their extended Family -- and Family comes first."
That Family atmosphere isn't necessarily where the pressure to stay quiet comes from, Gayden said. Often a victim of sexual assault convinces him or herself to stay quiet.
"A lot of victims feel not just pressure from their battle buddies but from within," Gayden said. "They do not want to end the career of one of their own. A lot of victims do not want to come forward because the perpetrator is married and has children and they don't want him or her to lose their Family."
The new directive comes as all levels of government target sexual offenses in the military.
"This directive is one facet of the Army's continuing initiative to combat sexual offenses in our ranks and ensure victims and witnesses feel comfortable and secure when coming forward to report such crimes," Tregle said. "In the past year, those initiatives have been reinvigorated by concern at all levels of government over the problem of sexual offenses in the military."
Tregle and other partners on Fort Belvoir will be working to get the word out about the new directive so Soldiers can become aware of their rights.
"We will work very closely with our counterparts in the military (and community) police, law enforcement investigations, Criminal Investigation Division, SHARP, Family Advocacy, Inspector General and other organizations that routinely deal with victims and witnesses to ensure that victims and witnesses are advised of these protections as soon as they come forward," Tregle said.
Gayden said the news is welcome, as SHARP works to support sexual assault victims.
"Victims feel as if they are alone but the SHARP community is gaining more momentum every day, which helps victims feel they have an ally, and they can and should stand up against the perpetrator," she said.
To speak with a victim advocate contact SHARP's 24/7 helpline at (703) 740 7029. The Department of Defense's Safe Helpline is (877) 995 5247.