March 30, 2023
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Commentary: Military must combat sexual harassment and assault

In the past few weeks, the Department of Defense has been shaken by a nude photo-sharing scandal that began with the Marine Corps and spread to the rest of the military. While these actions may not be indicative of all in uniform, the seemingly empty calls of “zero-tolerance” and “never again” by military leaders are reminiscent of historic events such as Tailhook and Aberdeen and reflect a breeding culture of sexual assault.

The original scandal involved a private Facebook group of around 30,000 members called “Marines United” that shared naked photographs and identifying information of female service members, with comments encouraging sexual assault. Further investigations revealed more groups and websites involving every branch of the military. Several leaders issued public condemnations against the “toxic behavior,” including Gen. Robert Neller, the commandant of the Marine Corps, and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson. These service chiefs are probably correct in their assertions that these incidents only reflect a small minority; however, they are tolerated by far too many.

The blemish of sexual harassment of female Marines and service members at-large has existed for decades. Women in the military are at higher risk of sexual assault than their civilian counterparts and are more likely to be assaulted by a fellow service member than killed by enemy fire. Despite these alarming statistics, initiatives to truly overhaul the underlying culture are few and far between, and military leaders seem to lack the political will to make curbing sexual harassment a top priority.

Congress members have pointed to the command climate and the military justice system as promulgating a culture of sexual assault in the military. For instance, the current structure gives commanders the authority to prosecute sexual assault cases. In 2013, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand spearheaded an effort to move this authority outside the chain of command, a bill that received heavy pushback from military leaders and ultimately failed. In return, commanders vowed to take ownership of any further incidents.

If the military considers the ability retain command authority as a case in leadership, it must act in that manner, beginning with proactive measures to fight sexual assault. Gen. Neller has taken ownership of the issue, but generals and flag officers cannot be the only ones decrying this behavior; the culture must be changed from the bottom up. Commanders from the lowest levels must advocate for their female colleagues. Studies show that white males are the most effective allies for the advancement of women in any workforce; white males are also the largest demographic in the military and the officer corps. Additionally, the Marine Corps should look toward addressing segregated training and physical fitness standards, which both male and female Marines have reported as promulgating negative attitudes against women.

To the Pentagon’s credit, it has instituted a number of changes over the past few years to address sexual harassment and assault. Commands have also introduced a system of restricted reporting, which allows victims to anonymously report incidents; all victims also have access to legal counsel, a provision not found in the civilian world. These are commendable initial efforts that also need to be more widely publicized.

Today, the question is no longer about the military’s resources, but a lack of political will and priority. In the late 20th century, the Pentagon was able to effectively curb its widespread drug abuse problem by instituting a real zero-tolerance policy, which resulted in an enormous drop in drug usage by service members. Throughout history, the military has created numerous methods of reinforcement to encourage or discourage certain behaviors; sexual assault has to be a part of that equation. The message must be given to service members that engaging in harassment and assault, even online, results in dismissal from the armed forces. “Zero-tolerance” must mean true zero-tolerance.

In his video to the Marine Corps, Gen. Neller stated that success is “based on mutual trust and respect.” Respectfully, Sir, that trust has now been broken twice: first by the perpetrators, and second by the leadership. If the U.S. military seeks to create true unit cohesion and solve this issue for good, it needs to earn female service members’ trust back. And to do so, it must make sexual assault a priority.