So, as you know from Military Missive Part One, I’m having an adventure in military life and culture this week. Through out the briefings I’ve attended, the facilities I’ve toured, and the panels I’ve observed, a few things have been foremost on my mind–first among them my interest in holding the military accountable for the epidemic of military sexual assault that takes place.
First I have to admit that this whole experience has been far more trees than forest. In other words, we’ve focused much more on the nuts and bolts of military training, protocol, and infrastructure than we have on bigger social, organizational, and moral questions. Thus, it’s been sort of hard to figure out when to ask various military leaders about my concerns. (For official military speak on the issue, go to thise site.) In any case, you know that a little awkwardness can’t keep me quiet, so here’s an account of my attempts to get answers:
First I questioned a strategic communications officer–a likable guy who told us all about the army’s changing philosophy of “engagement.” According to him, the priority is to become “an agent of change” (yes, they are using this exact language) and shift the army’s reputation from “cumbersome and bureaucratic to coordinated, collaborative, and cooperative.” Great, I asked him, then what is the army doing about the military sexual assault problem. His answer:
I personally have never experienced an issue with gender.
I questioned two female drill sergeants on Fort Leonard Wood who are in charge of initiating the brand new recruits in their first few days. They claimed that sexual assault prevention is a key part of the entire training process, including at the very beginning, when recruits are told that there is no tolerance for that kind of behavior.
When I asked for clarification on what the recruits are told, one of the more senior officers told me that she likes to do a little role play where she pretends to be speaking inappropriately to one of the male recruits and then has the whole group tell her what’s wrong with what she’s doing. And that’s it. As she explained this educational tactic, she laughed, obviously finding the whole task to be an opportunity to have fun with the green recruits. My guess? Not. Very. Effective.
Finally, I asked Major General Gregg. F. Martin, one of the most senior leaders around. His response, while more savvy than the other two sources, was nonetheless unsatisfying. He admitted that there was a military sexual assault problem, and said that the leadership was aware of it and doing anything they could to prevent it. “One sexual assault,” he said, “is too many. We have no tolerance policy.”
Unfortunately, his conviction wasn’t backed up by much. He mentioned that the increase in deployments that the overtaxed soldiers experience raises stress and results in things like domestic violence, suicide, addiction, and assault. All of this is being lumped together and treated with increased attention to the mental health of soldiers, most notably the new Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program and the Resiliency Training.
I’m super excited about these programs, don’t get me wrong, but it’s clear that the army still isn’t specifically addressing the gender dynamics that play out in such egregious ways in the contemporary military. Grouping drug addiction and sexual assault, for example, is not going to shift a culture that still largely accepts sexual harassment and sexism, in general.
Overall, a disappointing first-hand experience of military leadership and their understanding of these issues. It only inspires me to keep writing more, keep questioning, and keep supporting organizations like the Service Women’s Action Network that are supporting women veterans directly.