This year is my ninth year covering the Defense Department. Seven of those years I spent at Federal News Network sticking microphones in military officials’ faces, recording the snuff of Cassion platoon horses, flying on jets with deputy secretaries and almost losing my lunch during simulated combat maneuvers on an experimental helicopter.
I could mark time by the passage of National Defense Authorization Acts, Pentagon budgets and changes of Defense secretaries. It suffices to say I’ve seen a lot happen. Now, as my tenure here at Federal News Network comes to a close, I have an opportunity to talk about some of the things I’ve noticed over this near decade, especially in the realm of personnel, where I’ve curated my expertise.
DoD has done a lot of good things. It’s become more self-aware, realizing that the old canons of the 20th century talent management system aren’t working in today’s society. Service members aren’t interchangeable cogs. They have spines that can be damaged long-term from the stresses of physical exertion, they have brains that sustain trauma from concussive hits and they have minds that are scarred by the things they see and experience.
DoD is working with medical professionals to better impact training, it’s starting an independent commission on suicide, the services did reviews on discrimination after George Floyd was murdered and the Defense Health Agency now has a center of excellence based on brain trauma.
None of these issues are fixed. They are far from it. But the self-awareness is at least a start. Without getting political, none of this means that the military is going soft. It means it’s getting smart. If the military is going to follow its National Defense Strategy of staying ahead of near-peer competitors, then it needs the backing of its service members, it needs to be a competitive employer and it needs to take care of its service members after they go through the wear and tear of service.
I’m not the one telling you this. It’s been documented time and time and time and time again by studies from former military officials, think tanks, independent commissions and it’s been reiterated by the military’s top leaders.
Self-awareness is the beginning of positive change. But one problem, despite some self-awareness, that the military can’t seem to kick is sexual assault and harassment.
I’ve spent a lot of my time at Federal News Network covering sexual harassment and assault. I even conducted a two-year investigation on how women in the military are harassed online and DoD is failing to come to their aid.
There’s a lot of clichés in the military, one being that it takes a long time to turn a big ship. In some cases, that is true. Brain science is not going to be solved overnight, there are preventative measures, but we still have a lot to learn.
But when it comes to sexual harassment and assault, one quote from Protect Our Defenders President Don Christensen always sticks in my mind.
The upshot of what he said is that the military planned D-Day in short order, a massive tactical undertaking, and yet somehow sexual assault and harassment prevention and response is always left on the cutting room floor or delayed or underfunded.
The Pentagon can track every object in the Earth’s orbit the size of a softball or bigger, it helped invent the internet, it created the stealth bomber and runs logistics all over the world. That same military is now talking about moon bases and deploying troops via rocket, but it just can’t get this issue under control.
According to figures the Pentagon released last week, sexual assault is more common than at any time since DoD started keeping data. Reporting, meanwhile, is down, as is military members’ level of trust in the military justice system.
The department’s estimates for 2021, based on survey data, are that 35,900 service members were victims of unwanted sexual contact during the year. That’s up from 20,500 in 2018, the last time DoD calculated a similar estimate, although with a slightly different survey methodology.
This issue isn’t going away. It’s not going to be swept under a rug and if the military doesn’t do better, it will eat it from the inside through problems with retention and recruitment.
My next assignment will be with NPR member station WYPR in Baltimore. I’ll be covering health there, and sexual assault and harassment falls under my purview. I won’t let up on holding organizations accountable. I’ll still be watching, listening, writing and recording.