WASHINGTON -- While the U.S. Military Academy has made strides against corrosive issues like sexual assault and racism, the academy has far more work to do, its superintendent told lawmakers Tuesday.
Although those aims won’t happen overnight, they will be met through “a sustainable cultural change" at the academy, said Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams during a virtual hearing on Capitol Hill.
“Effective prevention [will] require cadet involvement and ownership,” he added.
Williams, Lt. Gen. Richard M. Clark, superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy and Navy Vice Adm. Sean Buck, superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, testified before the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee regarding the state of their academies.
No topic was off the table for the trio, who addressed questions from sexual assault, suicides, how racism and extremism can plague the student body, to the growing need to combat climate change and bolster cyber capabilities.
Nearly every topic was rooted in one elemental driving force: “Developing leaders of character,” Williams said.
To do this, he said cadets should trust their peers and confidently bring issues up to them at the lowest levels.
“We recognize cadets are often more comfortable discussing personal challenges with their peers, so we continue to build our peer assistance capability within the corps,” Williams said.
By setting up various resources at the student-level, such as being able to advise the cadet chain of command on topics related to the Army's Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, peers who may struggle with the impact of sexual harassment/assault have more outlets to rely on.
“Our peer support counselors receive professional training and certification to provide support for cadets struggling with mental wellness,” Williams said.
A new pilot course, called Relational Character, or RC101, was implemented to educate cadets on healthy relationships and facilitating difficult discussions. After course completion, students are integrated into all 36 cadet companies to support the chain of command and their peers.
So far, over 100 cadets have been trained, he said.
“We have made tangible and permanent improvement in our sexual assault response capabilities and policies,” he said. “To encourage reporting, I have instituted a policy that ensures victims will ordinarily not be punished for their minor misconduct discovered in the resulting investigation.”
The Army’s Master Resilience Trainer Course was even brought to West Point. The course gives cadets a chance to receive the skill identifier, “but more importantly [they] return to their companies with a fresh skill set for identifying and helping those in need,” he said.
According to Williams, the academy’s motto -- duty, honor, country -- is based on the idea that “character is taught through culture, developmental experiences, and sought to inspire individuals,” he said. “We firmly believe character equals readiness and we are allocating resources accordingly.”
Through invested time and resources, cultivated change can be enabled. Williams has zeroed-in on character development programs at the school’s highest levels. For example, the Character Integration Advisory Group was formed to progressively impact character development over the 47-month span each cadet spends at the academy, he said.
The group is comprised of 10 newly-hired personnel who work directly with cadets, he added.
Also, the Keller Army Community Hospital, nestled by the school, now has a full-time sexual assault nurse examiner for victims to get immediate care, because according to Williams, “an important motivation for increasing sexual assault reporting is effective, responsive, and compassionate victim advocacy.”
In addition, the Army Criminal Investigation Command has a special victims investigator to allow for timely and effective investigations, he said, adding the legal capability has also been increased with a full-time special victims prosecutor and two special victims counsels.
Honorable Living Days
Another way the school is influencing change is through a series of stand-down events, called Honorable Living Days. The fourth installment of the series is scheduled for late March.
During the events, all classes are set aside so cadets and staff can assemble to confront difficult topics like sexual assault/harassment and racism, Williams said.
“These efforts are creating a culture at West Point that encourages the tough conversations that create a human connection, build trust, and make people feel like they are a part of a team rather than merely being on a team,” he said.
Although scheduled on a single-day basis, the Honorable Living Days are not intended to be stand-alone events, he said.
Instead, they are a point of departure for a larger journey across the academy to help individual character development, by providing skills needed to eliminate corrosive behavior from within Army ranks.
“These events provide our cadets the skills, time, and space to think critically and practice the leader's actions we seek to instill,” he said.
Another way to spark cultural change is through cadet empowerment. Cadets have dedicated time and resources to help encourage honorable living, resiliency, and the elimination of sexual assault/harassment and racism, he said.
For example, the class of 2021 first captain, Cadet Reilly McGinnis, implemented daily “Tree Talks” that required small-group conversations among a diverse mix of cadets to listen to each other with an intent to learn, rather than respond.
McGinnis, tasked with overseeing 4,400 of her peers, helped set the foundation to develop the upcoming Honorable Living Day that focuses on racism, Williams said.
“[Our cadets] are changing the academy’s culture to promote and integrate character development as part of a comprehensive prevention strategy to eliminate sexual assault, sexual harassment, and racism,” he added.