Secretary of the Army's Remarks at National Discussion on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at America’s Colleges, Universities, and Military Service Academies 2023

By Brandy MejiaOctober 24, 2023

On behalf of Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth, the U.S. Military Academy hosts the 2023 National Discussion on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment. This year’s theme, "Empowering Student Communities to Cultivate Healthy Climates," serves as a call to leaders, students, and experts at higher learning institutions nationwide to exchange prevention practices and implementation strategies, highlighting the collective commitment to the prevention of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and associated retaliation. October 24, 2023, U.S. Military Academy, West Point. (U.S. Army photo by Christopher Hennen)(U.S. Army photo by Christopher Hennen, USMA)
On behalf of Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth, the U.S. Military Academy hosts the 2023 National Discussion on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment. This year’s theme, "Empowering Student Communities to Cultivate Healthy Climates," serves as a call to leaders, students, and experts at higher learning institutions nationwide to exchange prevention practices and implementation strategies, highlighting the collective commitment to the prevention of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and associated retaliation. October 24, 2023, U.S. Military Academy, West Point. (U.S. Army photo by Christopher Hennen)(U.S. Army photo by Christopher Hennen, USMA) (Photo Credit: Christopher Hennen) VIEW ORIGINAL

Thank you, LTG Gilland, and thank you all for being here to join in this discussion. I’m glad to see such great participation from our cadets, sister services, and academic institutions.

This is a difficult topic, and one that the Army and our sister service academies have been grappling with for decades.

The problem of sexual harassment and assault is not unique to West Point, the Army, or the military.

With an all-volunteer force it’s important that our servicemembers and cadets reflect the nation that they defend. Along with all the benefits of the rich diversity of race, thought and experience that our country has to offer, the military also inherits many of the problems and unhealthy behaviors that we see throughout our society. But the impacts of sexual harassment and assault in particular within our armed forces have the potential to erode our ability to defend the nation and should rightly be treated as a significant problem we need to address.

In the Army, from the moment a soldier enters basic training we work hard to build cohesive teams. Every soldier learns the Army values from day one - values like respect, honor, and integrity. We rely on these common values to set the foundation for shared trust: trust between soldiers on a battlefield and in garrison, trust between soldiers and their leaders, and trust between the Army and the American people.

Sexual misconduct damages that trust. It damages the trust that binds our soldiers together and makes them effective on the battlefield. It undermines soldiers’ confidence in their leaders’ ability to maintain their welfare and accomplish the mission. And it erodes the trust the American people place in us to take care of the soldiers who have volunteered to serve our country.

The impacts of this are far-reaching: from decreased faith in the military as an institution to decreased readiness to complete the warfighting mission. It hurts recruiting, where the fear of sexual assault is one of many factors that can turn away qualified individuals from serving in uniform.

Simply put, we cannot afford to let sexual harassment and sexual assault continue to erode this trust.

We owe it to our soldiers and the American people to identify, implement, and institutionalize the most effective methods of prevention and proactive approaches to healthy behaviors.

And frankly, despite years of working on this issue, we still haven’t solved the problem. And that’s due in part – as many of you here know – to the reality that this isn’t an easy problem to solve.

As many of you know, Secretary Austin and the rest of the Department’s senior leadership, including myself, have been disturbed by trendlines suggesting that sexual harassment and assault are on an upward trend across the military service academies. Earlier this year, he directed an evaluation of the military service academies, and the results were sobering. They pointed to underlying issues with the training environment and overall climate at all three academies, and the need for significant change.

Secretary Austin has rightfully decided that each of our military departments needs to develop a plan of action to counter the trends in harmful behaviors. The Army and our sister services are finalizing these plans as we speak.

As Secretary of the Army, I am committed to doing all I can to reduce harmful behaviors. As a woman, I know firsthand how corrosive sexual harassment and assault can be for an individual and how these incidents can sow distrust and pull cohesive teams apart. And that’s why we need your help in this forum to look for new and novel solutions to address the problem of sexual harassment and assault.

Earlier this month I spoke about the need for Army innovation and charged our leaders with embracing change and making investments into our future. We need to take the same approach to address the problem of sexual misconduct. We need new methods to deal with this problem or we will face potentially severe consequences in the years ahead.

I hope that the collaborative nature of this forum will help us gain a better understanding of the problem and yield some new ideas about what we can do as institutions, as leaders, and as individuals to combat harmful sexual behaviors.

For those of us representing the Army, I ask all of you to approach this discussion with an open mind. To the cadets in the audience, don’t be afraid to speak up. You are the future of the Army, and this affects you more than anyone else in this room.

For the experts here, I look forward to hearing more about the research that you’ve conducted on college campuses, and how it may help our military service academies. I would ask that you also consider ways that we might scale up your recommendations to apply to the rest of the Army and other services.

I am looking forward to hearing from our keynote speakers, Drs. Hirsch and Khan. Their research vividly demonstrates that the factors and environmental conditions that contribute to sexual assault on college campuses are complex.

The structure and requirements of the military add even more complexity.

Like college students, our cadets and soldiers come from diverse backgrounds, with a wide range of experiences and education that influence their views of relationships and healthy sexual interactions.

Unlike college students, every member of the Army receives a rank and a status as either an officer, warrant officer, cadet, non-commissioned officer, or enlisted soldier. The authority that comes with rank, and the rules that govern the separation of ranks introduce unique power dynamics that the rest of society doesn’t face.

Our soldiers and cadets are also expected to uphold standards of professionalism that are not expected of college students. Cadets are not allowed to show physical affection in uniform, and as you can see here at West Point, they spend almost all of their time in uniform. As any cadet will tell you, dating at West Point can be an unusual experience to say the least.

We apply those standards and expectations to barracks rooms and living areas, creating what doctors Hirsch and Khan might call “problematic sexual geographies.” And these conditions extend across our Army to all of our unmarried soldiers, where barracks visitation is restricted to designated hours.

So we face different and more challenging environmental conditions and individual factors than you might find on college campuses.

At the same time, we have much in common with college campuses. We have a diverse population of young adults who spend time together in campus-like locations, live in shared housing similar to dorms, and very often consume alcohol at social gatherings or by themselves.

I am hoping that through our discussion we can learn from our civilian academic colleagues, and gain insight into how to adapt some of their best practices to our own military environment.

And in turn, I hope we can share some of the improvements that we are making in the Army.

I am encouraged by the cadets here today who are part of the ACT program. These trained cadets conduct peer-led conversations and plan and execute prevention weeks throughout the year. They are dedicated to leading the charge in educating their fellow students and developing new ways to prevent sexual harassment and assault.

Student-led change here at West Point translates directly into change for the Army, as these cadets will graduate and lead platoons of soldiers around the world. Cadets, I expect and need you to be agents of change for the Army in this area. I am proud of the impact you are making here at the academy, and we need you to continue to lead the way as you commission as second lieutenants.

It’s also encouraging that over the past few years, we have improved the way that West Point staffs prevention programs, conducts intervention training, protects victims from adverse actions, and handles cases of sexual assault.

And we are making similar changes across the Army.

We are professionalizing our prevention and response workforce with dedicated, full-time personnel. And we have established a special trial counsel that will independently review cases of alleged sexual misconduct to ensure impartiality.

But I remain acutely aware that we still need to seek out better ways to proactively address the conditions that contribute to sexual harassment and assault well before it even happens in the first place.

A large part of that is helping soldiers and cadets develop healthy relationships.

From an educational standpoint, it’s encouraging that the cadets here at West Point are required to take courses like General Psychology for Leaders that includes modules on building healthy relationships, communication, and reducing sexual violence.

And I hope that as part of the discussion in this forum, we can identify similar proactive approaches that are scalable across our entire Army.

Because while the Army reflects society in ways both good and bad, it can also be a mechanism for change within society itself.

The Army has long been at the forefront of change, from breakthroughs in medicine to racial integration, and we have seen that society benefits from Army innovation.

I view this as no different – the Army must be at the forefront of tackling the issue of sexual harassment and assault.

And that is why it is so important for all of you to be here today –cadets, sister service academies, civilian colleges, and academic experts – we need all of you and your unique perspectives in this fight. We need your help and ideas.

Thank you for caring about this issue and being here today.