Prevention Starts With Who? Understanding Our Role in SH/SA Prevention
Army leaders and Soldiers can work together to change the culture, build trust, and create a command climate that does not tolerate sexual assault. (Photo Credit: (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. ShaTyra Reed)) VIEW ORIGINAL

Although April is the official observance of Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, the Army’s efforts to eliminate sexual assault are continuous. This means there is work to be done – by Army leaders and Soldiers – to achieve this goal.

The Army has many strong, unifying values such as loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage that are consistent with fundamental sexual assault prevention and bystander intervention strategies.

However, misplaced loyalty for battle buddies engaging in harmful behaviors can be detrimental.

Some may misconstrue this value to justify or ignore harmful behaviors from those on their team, said David S. Lee, Deputy Director of ValorUS, a national organization committed to ending sexual violence.

“(They may think) … I'm going to defend my battle buddy, no matter what, even if they harm someone else, I'm going to stand by them no matter what and collude with the abusive behavior,” Lee said. Instead, true loyalty toward fellow battle buddies means supporting sexual assault prevention by calling out these behaviors, he said.

“Battle buddies, don't harm other people, whether they're in our unit or not,” said Lee.

Lee also explained how prevention efforts can be strengthened by cultivating a dedicated workforce to train on prevention activities. He provided the example of how the program Coaching Boys into Men, a healthy relationship skills and sexual violence prevention program for teenage boys, can serve as a model of how investing in program curriculum and those who instruct it can yield positive results with participants and create change.

“It's a set of lesson plans that a coach gives throughout the season and if they're doing that throughout the season, and becomes part of the culture of the team, it actually can build a stronger team, and it becomes something that becomes a reinforced message, and it's been associated with lower incidents of sexual violence perpetration. ... We want to be able to find ways (for) this to become ... part of our ongoing work as opposed to a once-a-year piece,” Lee said.

He also believes noncommissioned officers, can play an integral role as a part of a dedicated prevention workforce.

“NCOs actually are the people who build the culture literally within the Army. Higher-level officers, they set the tone, but they're not the people on the dayto-day interactions. And NCOs are the daily interactions.”

The work does not stop there. Leaders can also contribute to shifting the culture to better support prevention efforts by creating healthy unit environments for Soldiers.

"Leaders need to regularly participate in sexual assault and harassment training efforts and model the behaviors they want other members of the organization to use. Leaders model these behaviors through their actions, language, intolerance for unhealthy behaviors and empathy for persons who are treated in ways that are disrespectful and jeopardize their safety,” said Dr. Sharyn Potter, Executive Director of Research, University of New Hampshire Prevention Innovations Research Center.

Lee encourages Soldiers to hold each other accountable for their actions, which includes calling out harmful behaviors that can lead to sexual assault. “We want to be able to say something, even if it's going to be unpopular, even if we're going to be seen as the party pooper or downer … we need to be able to say ‘you shouldn't act that way.’ So, if it's up to one individual, it's very difficult to come forward. But if multiple people come forward … It's a lot easier when multiple people do it.”

Soldiers can use the Army values to support sexual assault prevention, Lee said.

“…There shouldn’t be anything more natural than how we treat our peers with respect. That we honor them, and that we support their integrity because we want to see no one harmed. That we do not want to see our peers, our battle buddies, harming others … unit cohesion is such an important part of the Army that contributes to our combat readiness, that contributes to our eventual success. Strong cohesiveness is paramount and allowing people to harm others will undermine that.”

Reinforcing sexual assault prevention boils down to encouraging a culture which supports a safe, professional environment where Soldiers and leaders are bonded by trust. For SAAPM resources, please visit SAAPM-2022/index.html. To learn more about what you can do to prevent sexual assault, sexual harassment, and retaliation, visit the ARD website.