Sexual Assault: The Danger of Isolation

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The Pentagon announced Tuesday that there will be more training for commanders and senior leaders to help prevent sexual assault in the ranks. “The men and women of the U.S. military deserve an environment that is free from the threat of sexual assault,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says. “Service members and their families must feel secure enough to report this crime without fear of retribution and commanders must hold offenders appropriately accountable.”

As with suicide awareness, we have been hearing the calls for more training for years. But the Joint Base Lackland scandal has gained our national attention.

I am troubled, once again, by the use of old, already tried/tired (failed?) methods for reducing sexual assault.

As I wrote about suicide awareness, service members do not need more PowerPoint slides and annual reports on the topic for nearly a decade.

Training to reduce sexual assault tends to focus on two issues:

Army values (you should not rape a fellow Soldier).
— The battle buddy system, which pairs troops together to reduce the chances of such assaults.

What I believe, having been closely involved in these issues since the drill-sergeant scandal at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Grounds in 1996, is that command needs to recognize patterns and circumstances in which sexual misbehavior is likely to occur.

There are three common scenarios that are repeated over and over:

— The recruit scenario in which recruiters, drill sergeants or male superiors victimize numerous recruits or basic trainees of a lower rank.
— The “date-rape” scenario, where two service members of more or less equal rank meet in a secluded place (the park bench, the barracks), drink too much, and sex happens; the question later is whether the sex was consensual.
— In the theater of war, two service members become close, and then sex happens. A similar question: whether or not it is consensual.

The common theme among these situations is isolation, whether on a secluded base, park bench, barracks or the CHU (container housing unit).

The concept of behavioral drift is useful here. In an isolated environment, with no oversight, bad things happen. Lord of the Flies comes to mind.

Another useful concept is the subset of these cases involving sexual predators, and how they  select their victims. They touch their knees, probe, make friends, see who reacts, who is afraid to tell.

In the military-recruit environment, if potential victims resist, such instigators bring up the failed physical training tests, past psychological issues, and other vulnerabilities.

Bottom line: the training of commanders should include not just Army values, or traveling with your battle buddy. It should include how to ensure that the military environment does not have training bases with lax supervision, picnic tables with no lights, and, of course, responsible use of alcohol.

And how to empower potential victims to report.

Many have said that rape is an occupational hazard of being in the military. I think we can best change that by being aware of, and altering, the environmental hazards of isolation.

Battle buddies never hurt.