Combating Sexual Assault—An All Hands Evolution

This blog was written by the Vice Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mark Ferguson.

Adm. Mark Ferguson, Vice Chief of Naval Operations (VCNO), talks to Sailors during an all-hands call while visiting the Medical Education and Training Campus (METC), home to Navy’s Corpsmen “A” school. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Cmdr. Christopher Servello/Released)

Preventing sexual assault in our Navy is not a new effort, and in some areas, we are starting to see real progress. The daily reports of Sailor on Sailor violence, however, remind me that it’s not happening fast enough.

Eliminating sexual assault from our ranks requires a long-term effort to bring about positive change. It demands the attention of our leaders at every level of the chain-of-command along the following lines of effort:

1) Acknowledge the problem. Plain and simple, sexual assault is a crime that directly impacts readiness, retention and morale. We need to shift our thinking and treat sexual assault as we do other operational issues such as safety.  A long-term aggressive all-hands effort on safety has brought about positive change. We must apply that same level of effort to prevent this crime.

2) Conduct Training across the Force. This year, we have focused on providing Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) tools, knowledge, and resources to educate and empower our Sailors. We’ve delivered sexual assault prevention and response training to our leadership E-7 and above. Our next step will be delivering training to E-6 and below. The curriculum is standardized, tailored to the audience, and conducted by certified training teams. For our leadership, the focus is on command climate and accountability. At the E-6 and below training, we have emphasized what Sailors can do to prevent this crime–what we call bystander intervention. We have incorporated bystander intervention training at the entry level for all newly accessed Sailors at “A-School” teaching young Sailors strategies to prevent sexual assault. SAPR training is also a mandatory part of Command Leadership School for all prospective Commanding Officers, Executive Officers and Senior Enlisted Leaders. This layered approach ensures we are educating at every level of our leadership and reaffirms our commitment that this is not just a “once and done” training effort.

3) Establish clear standards. Preventing sexual assault is about fostering a culture of professionalism, trust, personal dignity and respect. It is about encouraging positive decision-making, responsible use of alcohol, and professional behavior on and off duty. I need you to ask yourself—am I encouraging positive behavior or am I condoning off-color humor or other behaviors that isolate individuals and diminish the professionalism and respect of our people? I recently visited Pensacola, where I had the opportunity to talk with more than 1500 of our newest Sailors about this topic. I was struck by their candor and how they are simply looking for their leaders to set a positive example. They want to make positive lifestyle choices and desire leaders who will encourage them to not only look out for their shipmates, but also speak up and take action when they see something is wrong.

4) Hold Leaders Responsible. Leaders must be committed to aggressively prevent sexual assaults, support victims, and ensure allegations of misconduct are appropriately addressed. In the last year, a number of policy changes have enhanced the concept of accountability.

Within DoD, we have elevated the disposition of all sexual assault cases to the O-6 or higher command level, taking advantage of the experience of more senior officers who also have legal advisors to counsel them. Finally, we are requiring that all commanders who have a reported incident within their command to review the command climate with the first flag officer in their chain of command.  Our goal is to have serious and frank discussions and appropriate leadership attention on not only the reported sexual assault, but also potential contributing factors based on command climate or other issues.

In addition, NCIS—the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, reviews every reported sexual assault. Through the new NCIS tip line [Text to 274637 (CRIMES)], anyone who has information about a possible sexual assault can make an anonymous tip, either by text or voice, and NCIS will respond.

Measuring our Progress.  We have proven success in reducing the incidence of sexual assault at Naval Station Great Lakes with committed and proactive leadership. Since 2011, leadership from five independent Great Lakes area commands–Navy Region Midwest, Naval Service Training Command, Naval Station Great Lakes, Training Support Center Great Lakes and Recruit Training Command–have collaborated to develop an effective and well-focused sexual assault prevention strategy.

Beginning with an introduction to sexual assault prevention on the second day of boot camp, Sailors are immersed in a zero tolerance culture. As part of a training continuum for new recruits, Sailors take part in a variety of discussions and formal training events on preventing sexual assault that encourage lively engagement.

The initial success of the Great Lakes area program is not just about senior leaders making an impact. All Hands are involved, and together, alongside members of the local community, they are making a significant difference. The program has fostered increased awareness both on and off base. Combined with a proactive and enthusiastic peer-mentoring program [CSADD -- Coalition of Sailors Against Destructive Decisions], commands in the Great Lakes area are working together and have figured out a way to make reduce the incidence of sexual assaults.

My Message.  Sexual assault is a crime and we cannot and will not tolerate it in our Navy. This problem will not solve itself—it’s our responsibility to promote a culture of professionalism, trust, personal dignity and respect.  Leaders at every level must act to prevent incidents rather than merely wait to respond after an event has already transpired.  Our duty is to live and lead by the Navy Ethos.

In the coming months, our leadership will be very engaged on this topic. More to follow…