FORT BELVOIR, Va., April 4, 2014 – A senior Pentagon official signed a proclamation here today designating April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month and urging military and civilians to support and protect survivors of sexual assault and eradicate the crime through cultural change.
Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, director of the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, acknowledged that sexual assault is an underreported crime in both the military and civilian realms, but he called for more involvement, awareness and accountability at all levels to prevent the offenses and support victims who report.
“Sexual Assault Awareness Month is an opportunity for the entire community to reaffirm our commitment to eliminating sexual assault and supporting victims of this crime,” Snow said.
Last week, the general said, he met with six survivors of sexual assault across the services, and he was inspired by their resolve to come forth and share their stories to help others.
“Every individual’s case demonstrated how this crime takes an emotional toll in its victims,” he said. “Most of them suffered from post-incident trauma, clinical depression and anxiety, not only as a result of the assault, but also from the insensitive treatment they received after reporting.”
He assured survivors who may be facing an internal battle to come forward, noting recent policy changes that provide them greater discretion, resources, legal and mental health assistance. “You’ll be treated with the privacy you desire, the sensitivity you deserve and the seriousness that this crime demands,” he said.
But in addition to his weekly meetings with Pentagon leaders to discuss progress in sexual assault prevention efforts, much work remains to be done, Snow said. “We’re dealing with a highly complex crime and a multifaceted societal problem, and it’s going to take all of us to eliminate sexual assault from our ranks.”
The general noted the necessity of keeping trust, honor and fidelity as the foundations of the military institution.
“It means taking action when we recognize situations that pose the risk for sexual harassment, sexual assault and other criminal behaviors,” Snow said. “It means empowering survivors of sexual assault to take the difficult step to come forward through the many avenues that are available and when they do so.”
With the support of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Snow said, senior leaders have established a comprehensive system for victims to have the full range of services and care they need. Recent policy changes, he added, ensure survivors will have their safety concerns addressed with greater control of the manner in which they choose to heal and report.
“We put a support system in place that ensures victims have access to trained advocates and dedicated legal representation from the time they report through the disposition of the case,” the general said. And every case, he asserted, will be fully investigated by a trained and independent investigator –- not the commander or people in the victim’s unit.
Over the past year, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has directed a wide range of initiatives, taking actions to expand victim rights, improve victim legal support, elevate oversight, enhance commander accountability, and assess the military justice system, Snow reported.
But policies alone, the general emphasized, will not solve the problem with the same impact as intervention, support and attention to survivors.
“Social courage is having the guts to safely step up and stop it or to seek help when you see inappropriate or illegal behavior,” Snow said.
And while military leaders continue to learn a great deal about sexual assault, Snow said, they have found one thing to be certain. “Sexual assaults occur in environments where crude and offensive behavior, unwanted sexual attention, coercion and sexual harassment are tolerated, condoned, or worse, ignored,” he said.
Policy changes more rigidly hold officers and noncommissioned officers accountable for establishing a climate of dignity and respect and for responding appropriately for reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault, the general said. He also noted an increase in the cadre of first responders to more than 25,000 professionally certified response coordinators available around the clock worldwide to provide support and care to survivors.
“We’ve established a requirement to conduct troop surveys at every unit at every location to assess the climate and provide leader insights into their commands,” Snow said.