WASHINGTON -- The new director of the Defense Department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office hit the ground running after being in the field for many years and hearing firsthand service members' concerns about sexual assault and harassment.
Army Maj. Gen. Clement S. Coward, the former commanding general of the 32nd Army Air and Missile Defense Command, joined the SAPRO team in early September.
"Major General Coward's leadership experience over his distinguished career will bring a critical perspective in our fight against sexual assault and harassment," Elizabeth P. Van Winkle, the Executive Director of DOD's Office of Force Resiliency, said. "His previous successes as a commander will generate greater understanding and collaboration across the Department, and I am confident that his leadership will prove vital in our efforts."
The general said he understands, personally, how sexual assault can affect servicemen's and servicewomen's readiness and other factors in their lives. As a result, he said sexual assault awareness and prevention must be a priority for commanders, as it was for him in the field.
"Ensuring we have a ready force capable of high-level performance is my top priority. However, that can only come with treating all who serve with dignity and respect," Coward said. "Every service member must be able to trust that unit commanders' and leadership's response to sexual assault and harassment occurs with "zero-defects" — we must get this right, every time."
Dr. Nate Galbreath, SAPRO deputy director, testified in July before the House Armed Services Committee that data shows the estimated prevalence rates of sexual assault in DOD has decreased by more than a third in the past 14 years, and reporting sexual assault is four times what it was in 2006.
However, Dr. Galbreath also noted that the DOD's most recent survey of active duty personnel in 2018 showed an increase in the prevalence of sexual assault on women. Additionally, that year, about 24% of active-duty women and 6% of active-duty men indicated experiencing behavior consistent with sexual harassment in the year before being surveyed. His message to Congress was that work still needs to be done. Coward agreed 110%, he said.
Coward acknowledged that some men and women continue to be reluctant to report sexual assault out of embarrassment or fear of retaliation. He stressed that service members deciding to report an incident is a personal decision and they can confidentially check with their local sexual assault response coordinator or victim advocate. He added that everyone is working hard to provide service members with the help they need to recover. Coward also stressed the special responsibility that command holds to ensure service members can rely on leaders when making a report.
Major General Coward also noted that unit culture plays a role in the occurrence of sexual assault in the military: DOD data show that workplaces with high levels of sexual harassment or incivility also have higher rates of sexual assault.
"I've always worked in diverse organizations, even in the air defense branch, which is considered to be a 'combat arms branch.' Diversity makes us better warriors, whether those differences be in gender, race, education, or experience. When the Army introduced, for instance, women in infantry and other traditionally male units, sexual assault and sexual harassment remained at the very top of my list of non-negotiable behaviors. It simply must not happen in the profession of arms. Zero tolerance. However, if it does happen, we want everyone to pick the reporting option that is right for them and get the help they need."
Fighting the battle against sexual assault and harassment is what motivates Coward each morning to give his best: "I ask myself 'What can I personally do to make a difference and carry the water of the young servicemen and women out there in order for them to do their jobs?' I spend the rest of the day working with the SAPRO team on sustainable, adaptable answers to that question."
To find out more about sexual assault reporting options and support, contact the DOD SafeHelpline, the sole hotline for members of the DOD community affected by sexual assault, call 877-995-5247 or visit https://safehelpline.org. The 24/7 Safe Helpline is a completely anonymous, confidential, and specialized service to provide help and information to members of the military community anytime, anywhere.