The largest ever investigation into sexual assault in the military finished up its work about a year ago, but the Defense Department still has years of work ahead of it to implement the suggestions the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military flagged for the Pentagon.
DoD has a staggering amount of work to do to implement more than 80 recommendations made by the panel, and some critics say the Pentagon’s five year roadmap to getting there is too slow considering service members are bearing the brunt of assault and harassment every day.
However, the department is moving forward and a focus on assault prevention is a high priority because of the commission’s suggestions. The final report held 19 recommendations on sexual assault and harassment in the context of a broader integrated prevention approach.
“The next kind of evolution of prevention has been leveraging what works and what has been shown to work within the military context,” Dr. Andra Tharp, senior advisor at DoD’s Force Resiliency Office, said during a Monday meeting of the Defense Advisory Committee for the Prevention of Sexual Misconduct. “The next major evolution is then focusing on quality implementation.”
Tharp noted to the committee that evidence-based prevention is not difficult, but scaling it to hundreds of locations and thousands of individuals is a challenge.
DoD is basing its next moves in stopping sex crimes on its Sexual Assault Prevention Plan of Action 2.0, which was released in May and signed by DoD Personnel and Readiness Undersecretary Gilbert Cisneros. The plan’s primary prevention process is based on a four-step trajectory of understanding the problem, creating a comprehensive approach, quality implementation and continuous evaluation.
The Pentagon hopes to reach a goal of integrated prevention where multiple factors of assault – like alcohol abuse, unhealthy command climates, harassment and other at-risk behaviors – are taken into account holistically. DoD will target leadership, bystanders of assaults, those who commit assault and victims for these programs.
“We’re talking about carefully knitting together these skills and these policies, so that they can have this cross cutting impact across harmful behaviors,” Tharp said. “That might mean working across different offices, that might be taking different approaches and changing the way that we think about doing this work to really achieve integrated prevention.”
Of course, all of these concepts are tied into primary prevention – like teaching people about harassment and assault – and building community.
The next step in implementing the process is DoD’s Prevention Workforce Model. That model creates a Prevention Collaboration Forum (PCF) that brings together each of DoD and services’ top offices that work in assault, suicide prevention, drug abuse and other areas. Tharp said the breaking the silos of those offices will allow DoD to better implement its integrated prevention model.
“The PCF really breaks through those different organizational structures and brings all of those executives into one body to guide the decision making around integrated prevention within the department so that we can ensure that all of these equities are taken into account as we’re shaping policy and building a workforce,” Tharp said.
The office that gives the PCF its bite, Tharp said, is the Violence Prevention Cell.
“The office is really charged with working across those different policy offices on those activities that are integrated prevention,” she said. “So the first three that I’ll mention are the immediate actions that the Defense secretary directed last February. That first action was to assess compliance with policy at every DoD installation in the world. The second action was to conduct on-site installation evaluations, and, the third, to provide quarterly climate reports.”
The office currently only has two employees, but will soon expand to five.
The cell’s small staff brings up a larger issue of hiring prevention professionals within DoD. The review commission recommended DoD build a prevention workforce that would be a first resource for service members.
The Pentagon approved a six-year plan to hire 2,000 professionals by 2027, when it reaches full operating capability.
“A big focus of this effort is ensuring we’re reaching the right talent to put the right people in these new and critical positions. So as we’re taking this phased approach with approximately 400 individuals hired on each year,” Tharp said. The employees could be trained in six to 12 months.
DoD is working other prevention measures as well. Tharp said DoD drafted guidance for values on prevention and leadership development and modernizing education.
Though DoD is working some of these issues, the timeline is still worrisome for those working in the military sexual assault sphere.
“If you think about World War Two, we went from a peacetime army to an army that defeated both the Germans and the Japanese in less than four years,” said Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders and former chief prosecutor for the Air Force. “We planned the D-Day invasion in a matter of months, not years. The military can do amazing things when they require it to be done quickly.”
Christensen said he is hearing some resistance from commanders.
“This long-term timeline allows those who are entrenched against reform to push back against it,” he said. “They can hold out hope that a new secretary of Defense comes in or hoping a new administration comes in and try to derail some of these reforms.”