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U.S. Navy Command Culture Builds Respect and Trust to Lead the Way in Sexual Assault Prevention

By Capt. Karl O. Thomas
Commanding Officer, USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70)

Over my 29 years in our Navy, I’ve experienced several major cultural shifts to include women’s roles and responsibilities, a focus on fitness, smoking cessation, widespread acceptance of sexual orientation and most recently sexual assault awareness and prevention.

These cultural changes in our Navy often preceded societal changes, and typical ingredients to success were awareness, education, standards and enforcement.  Underpinning each of these traditional ingredients and their success is positive command culture and climate. In my experience, creating a culture of transparency, open communication, and clear expectations helps build trust.

Sailors that trust their command to handle issues and discipline fairly and swiftly will be more likely to bring forward and report difficult issues like sexual assault.

Commands that build trust and respect up and down the chain will have shipmates that have the courage to step up and to intervene.   Trust and intervention are key ingredients to preventing sexual assault, and they are cultivated by command culture and climate.

As we continue Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, it is worth reflecting on these ingredients and assessing our success as a command and a Navy.

Awareness. Over the past three years, the Navy has dramatically changed awareness of sexual assault and prevention. Whether we like it or not, sexual assaults and inappropriate harassment have always occurred.  The major development is that now as a Navy we talk openly about it; we measure it; our Sailors are on the look out for it; and clear lines have been established regarding what is acceptable or consensual, and what is assault. We have made great strides in awareness.

Education. Sailors are educated at boot camp and at command indoctrination. Bystander intervention is a term understood by all and is synonymous with being a good shipmate — a shipmate that has the courage to intervene. We have a strong program to educate our victim advocates so that they can rapidly and effectively assist victims. Over the past three years, we have focused our effort on raising education across the board and our Sailors are much smarter on the topic of sexual assault.  Successful commands embrace and nurture this education.

Standards. Clear standards have been established across the Department of Defense. The only intangible that often clouds sexual assault is alcohol. Unfortunately, alcohol is an ingredient in too many sexual assaults.

Enforcement. There is no better way to prevent sexual assault than demonstrating strict adherence to the legal process. The legal process is enhanced when the enforcement is swift and fair. Unfortunately, this is not always achievable due to the strain that has been placed on our investigative and judicial resources. Fortunately, as we add more resources and sexual assault and prevention response education and awareness take hold, we will continue to reduce the time it takes to fairly adjudicate sexual assaults — a benefit to both alleged victims and offenders.

Trust and Respect. By our very nature and warfighting ethos, most of us are trusting individuals. Our job and close living conditions demand it. Strong commands have trust up and down the chain. Peers that work hard and play hard together earn each other’s trust. Peers that trust and respect one another will step up and intervene when they see or experience something inappropriate. When this trust is violated and a sexual assault occurs, the trust that has been built within the command will often determine whether a sexual assault is reported (and many sexual assaults unfortunately go unreported).

Although we have received great scrutiny in Congress about our handling of sexual assaults, I contend that the Navy is in front of society on this widespread societal issue. We have the structure and framework for success in place and have educated our work force — a young work force demographic that mimics colleges across America.

Just like racism of the 60’s, drug abuse of the 70’s, women equality of the 80’s, tobacco cessation of the 90’s, and fitness enhancement of the 00’s, we will continue to lead society and make great progress in sexual assault prevention this decade.

We have a leg up on society in that we have an intangible — command culture.  Commands that build on a culture of respect and trust will lead the way in sexual assault prevention.

Sexual Assault Awareness & Prevention Month Ribbon Bleed (1)




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