General encourages social courage to combat sexual assault

21 Apr 2014 | Amaani Lyle

With Sexual Assault Awareness Month underway, the Defense Department Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office director encouraged "social courage" and a recognition of the cues and behaviors that lead to the under-reported crime to help eradicate it.

"Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines of all ranks know what right looks like, because it's instilled early in their careers," said Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Snow. "When they see something that isn't right, social courage is having the moral courage step up to address it on the spot or tell somebody else of equal or higher rank so that something is done about it."

Snow said over the last decade, DOD leaders have gained a greater understanding of the nature and complexity of the problem. "We knew this was an under-reported crime in the military and recognized that there was no 'silver bullet' to addressing sexual assault," he said. "It would take a multidisciplinary approach."

Snow explained a number of recent policy changes made to the SAPRO program, particularly the need for a confidential reporting system, professionalized advocates, mandatory investigation of sexual assaults and transparency from the time of reporting through disposition.

But perhaps the last two years, Snow noted, have shown the most fundamental evolution in victim support.

"We've taken steps to ensure that all of our sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates are credentialed, [and] we've fielded specially trained investigators and prosecutors," he said. "There's now a certification program to ensure that we are identifying and training the individuals who have a very important role in our sexual assault response."

The general also reported that the DOD has provided critical support to victims through enhanced legal advocacy. "We've put a support system in place that ensures victims have access to dedicated legal representation from the time they report, through the disposition of their case," he said. "Counsel is there for the victim to navigate the system and some that have worked in this field for a number of years categorize this as a game-changer."

Officials continue to gain greater awareness of factors and behaviors that may contribute to an incident of sexual assault occurring. For instance, sexual assault is more likely to occur in environments where crude and offensive behavior, unwanted sexual attention, coercion, and sexual harassment are tolerated, condoned or ignored. Though leaders have learned much about sexual harassment and assault, Snow added, there is still work to be done to promote a climate of dignity, respect, team commitment and values.

"The vast majority of our force is doing the right thing," Snow said. "We want to make sure that leaders are emphasizing the right things so that individuals are sensitive to the behaviors, actions and attitudes of individuals so if they see something that is not right, they can take action to intervene.

"We are a leader-centric organization," he continued, "so I think our ability to leverage leaders to get after this is an advantage."

Leaders, he said, have balanced options to eliminate the chance of victims coming in further contact with their alleged offender by establishing a policy for expedited transfers. "It gives commanders the ability to either transfer the victim or the alleged offender," he said.

Since Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel brought in key leaders from across the enterprise to discuss efforts to combat sexual assault, Snow said, the secretary has approved a number of initiatives based on promising practices.

"Once we've taken steps to implement them, he wants to make sure we're holding ourselves accountable and that each service is in compliance with a particular initiative," the general added. "Civilian and military leaders are committed to doing whatever is necessary to get after this problem."

Snow urged victims of sexual assault to see a sexual assault response coordinator or a victim advocate, who will treat them with confidentiality and link them to necessary medical and legal services to make an informed decision on whether they want to file a restricted or an unrestricted report.

He noted that referrals to military treatment facilities are immediate, as all sexual assaults are treated as medical emergencies.

"We're there for survivors," the general said. "All they've got to do is reach out."

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