Vice chief: Combating sexual assault relies on building cohesive units

By Thomas Brading, Army News ServiceJuly 18, 2019

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ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Eliminating sexual assault and changing the Army's culture on intervention starts with changing how leaders and Soldiers view the problem, said the Army's vice chief, during the fifth annual SHARP Program Improvement Forum Tuesday.

"Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment are a deliberate fratricide (against another Soldier)," McConville said at the forum providing insight into topics currently impacting the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention community. "That's how I want people to think about it."

The forum brought together senior leaders, program managers, sexual assault response coordinators, and victim advocates from around the Army. They collaborated on different ways to refine and enhance the SHARP program. The forum took place a few months after release of the DoD Fiscal Year 2018 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military.

Every year, the Pentagon releases a report outlining the number of sexual assaults reported by service members. With sexual assault often being an underreported crime, an anonymous survey is also conducted every two years to get a better understanding of prevalence, or the estimated occurrence of unwanted sexual contact. The 2018 anonymous survey revealed an increase in Soldiers who say they've lived through some form of sexual assault.

"We're not going in the right direction, so let's own it," McConville said, taking responsibility on the setback, while adding, "We've got some work to do."

The increase in prevalence, since the 2016 survey, indicate that 17- to 24-year-olds were at the highest risk of being assaulted, and occurrences typically happened between two people who work, train, or live in close proximity of each other, indicating the perpetrators are peers of the same age range and are similar rank, as their victims.

With the increase in prevalence shifting to a slightly younger demographic--17- to 24-year-olds--who are relatively new to the Army, we need to teach them what to think before we teach them how to think, said McConville. They should be thinking, "We cannot have this--sexual assault and sexual harassment--in our squads. We cannot stand for this."

McConville added that with 120,000 Soldiers joining the Army every year, it's an issue that needs to be changed "from the bottom up" by "empowering the squad-level" leadership. Through the reinforced actions of ground-level leaders, we can change the Army's culture, he said.

"My No. 1 priority is people," said McConville. People are what the Army is "all about" and it's "our people" who make the U.S. Army the greatest in the world, he said, adding that's why SHARP is important. Without programs like SHARP, trust is broken, he said.


"We're asking the American people to send their sons and daughters into the military, to wear this uniform, and we're asking them to trust us," McConville said. We're telling Families, "If you send your sons and daughters, (it's our job) to take care of them."

However, when the American people don't believe leaders will take care of Soldiers, he said they'll stop sending their sons and daughters. A cohesive unit is built on trust, he said, and cohesive units win on the battlefield. This is a battle the Army will win by shaping its culture.

"I have three kids who serve; I expect and my wife demands we provide a safe and secure environment," McConville said. "I see things and I think, that could be my daughter or son."


McConville touted heroic actions of Soldiers across the Army, saying it's in their culture to do the right thing, and gave examples of Soldiers who have done incredible feats at the risk of their own safety, like "running into a burning building to save someone," or "rescuing someone from drowning." He said Soldiers often do less dangerous but selfless actions, like "stopping along the road to help someone change a tire."

"Soldiers know when to intervene," he said. "It's who we are." That said, he wanted to know how to convince more Soldiers to intervene during a potential sexual assault. The answer is to change the culture, and teach them to "know what to do, when they don't know what to do," he said.

Changing culture begins at the ground level, by teaching Soldiers how, and when, to intervene, McConville said, adding, "That's how you get someone who intervenes right away. That's how they run into those burning buildings, that's how they go after cars underwater -- Soldier's will do it -- we need to reinforce that type of thinking moving forward."

Treating everyone with dignity and respect, protecting each other --- it's just the right thing to do, McConville said. "People who don't do that, they're not part of us. We are the most respected institution in the United States, and that's earned."

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