WASHINGTON — Prevention of sexual assault and other harmful behaviors can pose a significant challenge for an institution as large as the Army. That’s why members of the People First Task Force believe true prevention begins with a holistic community approach that addresses the factors that lead to harmful conduct.
Speaking during an Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting and Exposition panel on Oct. 12, Maj. Gen. Christopher Norrie, the task force’s director, outlined how Army communities with robust protective factors helps diminish the risk of harmful behaviors such as suicide, harassment and sexual assault.
Norrie cited suicidal ideations as an example. He said the typical response upon learning that a Soldier has suicidal thoughts would be to send the Soldier to seek behavioral health services.
But treatment isn’t always so simple, so the Soldier in crisis may require services beyond a mental health intervention to resolve complicating factors like financial difficulties, spiritual fulfillment or physical challenges, Norrie advised.
“We’re naturally overloading one part of the system, behavioral health, and then possibly underutilizing the remainder of the environment to help solve or reduce that specific behavior,” Norrie said. “The goal is to align resources with problems, and then problems with resources, from a whole-of-system, whole-of-community approach.”
While raising awareness about sexual assault and sexual harassment should be encouraged, members of the task force said prevention begins in the community — in the environment surrounding Soldiers on post and at home. The environment that Soldiers, families and civilians experience on an installation should be rife with protective factors and be actively, deliberately inhospitable to harmful behaviors.
“Training and awareness alone isn’t enough to change behavior. We really need to be focusing on the underlying conditions and the environment that contribute to harm,” said Angela Major, People First Task Force prevention lead. “We’re really trying to change how we see the problem — not … as a harmful behavior that exists, but start to think about the problem as, ‘How do I improve those conditions in the environment where we all live, work and play?’”
Earlier this year, the Army established the Integrated Prevention Advisory Group, or I-PAG, to help compliment and extend the ongoing work of the prevention workforce on installations.
The I-PAG’s work will focus on developing and measuring processes and outcomes to assist commanders and leaders in assessing the effectiveness of prevention activities and advise on the allocation of resources based on this data.
The Army originally created the People First Task Force to implement the recommendations from the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee’s report, published in December 2020.
In August, the task force released a handbook titled “Integrating People and Training – Considerations and Concepts,” which contains best practices that Army leaders can incorporate into their leadership strategies for integrating Soldiers from different walks of life, while treating each individual with dignity and respect.
The task force’s Cohesion Assessment Team has also been active, visiting units to provide commanders an in-depth assessment of several factors and focus areas impacting unit cohesion.
The CAT was designed to receive candid feedback that was facilitated and compiled by a team of experts that will help a unit better understand itself. The CAT is comprised of a group of experts to evaluate Army brigades and below on inclusivity, communication and command climate. The CAT is being institutionalized at Army Training and Doctrine Command.
Through the People First Task Force, the Army is also testing a fusion directorate concept that streamlines the delivery of services to victims of sexual assault in a timely, integrated and supportive environment. The fusion directorate unites services under one leader, makes victim services more accessible, and provides enabling systems and practices, Norrie said.
In addition to the 81 prevention specialists being hired at five Army installations in the past year, Secretary of the Army Christine E. Wormuth announced plans to hire 200 more specialists in 2023.
Task force member Jonathan Hunter said Army installations must focus on bolstering protective measures — including developing coping skills, learning positive norms and beliefs, emotional regulation, crime prevention and social connectedness — while focusing on decreasing risk factors such as poor command climate, social isolation, economic insecurity, substance abuse, unhealthy relationships and crime.
“We have to find ways to prevent harmful behaviors instead of responding to them after they occur,” Hunter said.
Norrie said the goal remains to develop well-trained, fit, cohesive units of Soldiers. He said troops who successfully serve in a united team represent more than themselves. The task force follows the Golden Triangle model of the Army’s chief of staff in building Soldiers whose commitment to duty is underpinned by strong family relationships, strong peer support and strong leadership teams.
“That’s a representation of a Soldier that’s connected to family, [their] unit and their friends,” Norrie said. “That is foundational. It is essential. It’s who we are as an Army. And fundamentally, this is what ‘people first’ means.”