21st Century Fragging: Sexual Assault

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Navy Times reports this week that “Navy leaders are calling for educational standdowns in April to communicate the service’s policy of zero tolerance for sexual assault while encouraging sailors to work harder to prevent attacks.” It’s part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, an effort to raise awareness of the issue and what can be done to reduce it.

While I appreciate the Navy’s effort, I suspect that in many commands neither the officers, nor the senior enlisted personnel, will be present, and the “standdown” will be presented by a second or third class petty officer who is as bored with the topic as his or her students.

When I was in command and we had such standdowns, I usually walked around the ship to see who was, and more specifically who was not, present. Even with the grumblings of the officers and chiefs, I felt that their presence at these meetings was important for a couple of reasons.

Number 1: it showed that the chain of command supported the presentation, providing importance to the issue (it was, and still is); and 2: if there were any misinformation given, it could be corrected by the officer or chief.

A third reason, (though not an issue in my command since I was the only woman on board), is that the officers and chiefs are not exempt from engaging in sexual harassment or sexual assault behaviors. This is evident in almost every issue of Navy Times that I’ve seen since my retirement 12 years ago.

This month, not only was a chaplain removed for alleged misconduct, but another Command Master Chief (the senior enlisted adviser to the Commanding Officer, and the key liaison between the enlisted folks and the CO) was fired for allegations of sexual harassment — the fifth this year. Another Commanding Officer was fired for conduct unbecoming an officer for failing to curb lewdness at a subordinate’s party, and for taking part in the “festivities” himself. He was one of 22 COs fired in 2011. Yes, officers and chiefs do need to pay attention to this training as well.

Ray Mabus, the Secretary of the Navy, made a startling statement about this issue. Referring to the 900 reports of sexual assault on a sailor or Marine in 2010, he said, “That’s almost three every…single…day of the year… Three times a day, somebody that wears the uniform of this country and has sworn to protect it, is being assaulted. Three times a day. ..If somebody was being shot at three times a day, we would do something about it!” Especially if somebody was being shot by his or her own crew. It is another form of fragging!

So yes, doing something about it would be a very good thing. The standdown is a good idea, but only if it is taken seriously by all levels of the chain of command. Only if it is more than just a nod to the “requirement” of holding the training. Only if there are some real people providing real life experiences of sexual assault and harassment. Only if it discusses date rape and the acknowledgement of what yes and no means. For example, silence and lack of enthusiasm for sex does not mean yes.

If a woman doesn’t seem to be enjoying it, perhaps you should stop and ask, “Hey, what’s going on?” I know you’re thinking, yeah right. But, that would be a very good thing to do. Then there would be no question of he said, she said. I challenge all in the Department of the Navy to make this standdown a worthwhile effort and encourage sailors and Marines to stop harassment and assault when they witness it, and protect your buddies, male or female.

Yep, reducing sexual assault and violence would be a very good thing, but it has to be supported by the Command and work its way down.