WASHINGTON — To better protect Soldiers from sexual harassment and assault, the Army will establish an office designed to make decisions to take action on such crimes, the service’s top civilian leader said Sept. 7.
“We have a moral responsibility to take care of our Army family like it’s our own family,” said Secretary of the Army Christine E. Wormuth during a livestream of the National Discussion on Sexual Assault and Harassment Prevention at America’s Colleges, Universities and Service Academies.
Under direction from the Defense Department, each of the nation’s military branches will create similar offices amid growing concerns of sexual harassment and sexual assault cases in the armed forces. Previously, commanders bore the responsibility of prosecuting sexual assault cases, but now the new offices will assume that role.
“For too long, far too many survivors have suffered in silence,” said Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin, a former Army general. “One assault is too many … the number of sexual assaults in the military is still too high. This is a top priority for me.”
The Army announced earlier this year that it will overhaul its Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, or SHARP, following an independent review of command culture at Fort Hood, Texas.
While Wormuth did not disclose the full details of the office, the change will be among the sweeping reforms the DOD will take to combat incidents.
Wormuth said the branch will focus on three areas in an attempt to eradicate sexual assault and harassment from its ranks.
The first will be prevention, which she said begins with Army commanders and leaders at the squad level. The focus area aligns with the service’s “This is My Squad” initiative, which promotes unit cohesion at the service’s most basic levels.
“We must ensure that all our leaders are focused on building a culture of caring for each other,” Wormuth said.
Next the Army will focus on upgrading its response to incidents. The Fort Hood Independent Review Committee concluded that the service needed to improve its response to sexual assault and harassment cases at the installation.
Jill Londagin, Army SHARP director, said in March that the Army was working to develop a single, uniform regulation to guide SHARP leaders and counselors. The service has also begun to restructure the Army Criminal Investigation Command.
Army leaders must respond swiftly not just in sexual assault incidents but also if a Soldier experiences harassment, discrimination, or physical or verbal attacks, their peers should take action and inform leaders, Wormuth said.
“It’s critical that we respond effectively and sensitively when sexual harassment or assault does happen,” Wormuth said. “It’s our responsibility to make sure our leaders have the resources they need to take care of our Soldiers and their families when something happens.”
Following reported disappearances and deaths of Soldiers at Fort Hood and the passing of Minnesota resident George Floyd, the Army instituted a measure called Project Inclusion, a holistic effort that encourages diversity and inclusion. The Army has also engaged in a speaking tour where Army senior leaders visited Army installations in an effort to connect leaders with Soldiers.
“We have to demonstrate the courage to take action,” she said.
Finally, the Army will strive to improve its accountability during such incidents. That’s where the new office will step in, along with further reforms, she said. She added that the Army will focus on having practical, evidence-based programs in place to help aid all three areas of focus.
Austin ordered a 90-day independent review commission to identify solutions to solve the military’s sexual assault and harassment problem. Based on the IRC’s recommendations this summer, the DOD developed evidence-based options to hold the Army and other military branches to greater accountability. The measures will help create a culture of inclusion while pledging to better care for survivors.
The DOD has asked Congress to add sexual assaults and harassment as an “offense” under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
“We are working closely together with Congress to remove decisions about whether to prosecute sexual assaults and related crimes, including domestic violence, from the military chain of command,” Austin said.
The secretary said that commanders ultimately bear responsibility to combat such incidents. By protecting service members from unwanted harassment and assault that will strengthen readiness and help the military protect the country, he added.
“We’re going to keep our country safer by keeping our people safer,” Austin said. “We have to stop sexual violence before it happens. And that starts by building a culture and climate of inclusion, one where all service members can serve free from fear and with the dignity and respect that they deserve.”