If you’re looking for a smart take on military sexual harassment and assault, as well as the awful recent sex scandal at West Point, look no further than Donna McAleer, the author of Porcelain on Steel: Women of West Point’s Long Gray Line.
Today McAleer lectures on leadership, but she has worn many hats. She was a Cold War-era Army officer after graduating in 1987 as president of her West Point class, she ran for Congress in Utah in 2012 and she
was a member of competed in trials for the United States Olympic Women’s Bobsled team.
Leadership, unsurprisingly, is where she believes the buck stops. Sexual assault and harassment are typically fueled by poor command climates and a lack of supervision, she says. How commanders handle such cases should be considered when they are considered for promotion.
“Leaders are responsible for setting that tone, setting that climate, and when they don’t there’s significant ramifications for that,” she said.
Although recent cases have focused a media barrage on the military’s problem, it has persisted for decades, she said.
A report earlier this month suggested that about 26,000 troops were the victims of sexual assault last year, according to anonymous surveys conducted by the Defense Department. Yet the number of sexual assaults officially reported is fewer than 3,400, according to the report.
The news is not all bad. The last few years have seen the issue amplified by lawsuits, documentary films–and coalition building between recent veterans, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle and organizations like the Service Women’s Action Network. What’s more today’s technology allows direct communications that subvert the ability of a hierarchical organizations like the military to control the message, she said.
McAleer spoke with Army Times in a week where the press’ focus on each new military sex scandal seemed to fuel Congress’ resolve to act. Several lawmakers were drafting legislation that would revoke military commanders’ broad authority to handle sexual assault allegations lodged against troops under their command.
We reached out to her as news broke that an NCO at West Point made sexually provocative films of West Point cadets without their consent.
“It’s not that sexual assault is a complex issue, sexual assault is a crime and it undermines unit cohesion, it undermines discipline, it degrades readiness, it affects recruiting–and it goes against the basic American values the military defends,” McAleer said. “How ironic is it that it is happening within our own ranks, among those who have sworn to uphold the Constitution and volunteered in the profession of arms.”
It’s important to acknowledge what has worked, she said. The Army has implemented of victim’s support programs, UCMJ reform, strengthening of assault investigation process, all under Congress’s enhanced reporting and oversight. Lawmakers have passed measures to guarantee confidentiality and access to legal assistance for victims.
Today survivors of sexual assault have more confidence in their ability to report, McAleer said, and that’s good.
“The bad is there hasn’t been a focus on the perpetrator, the institutional accountability or the prosecution of these violent sex crimes,” she said. “DoD hasn’t created a deterrent through consistent prosecutions.”
Institutional accountability includes holding accountable the chain of command of sex offenders. At West Point, the accused is charged with 35 specifications that cover several years. McAleer questioned the supervision he received.
As a tactical NCO, the accused was responsible for the health, welfare and safety of future Army leaders, and has a power over young cadets that requires competent oversight. He would have “seeped through all the screens, so what’s going on?”
“He has a chain of command that reports up through the brigade tactical officer, on up to the commandant of cadets and the superintendent,” she said. “We have to look at how the chain of command has handled these, what is the tone and climate they’re setting.”
The transfer of the accused to Fort Drum, N.Y., after the allegations surfaced, she said, sends a poor message–particularly for victims–and is a sign there’s more work for leadership to do to investigate such crimes and prosecute.
“They need to be taken out of their role and taken in place while this is being investigated,” she said of accused sex offenders. “Just spreading the problem doesn’t eradicate the cancer, and this is what’s happened many times.”
Though the accused NCO is clearly in the minority, McAleer said, there are problems at the school that stem from a dearth of female cadets. Only 15 percent of soldiers are women, and only 16 percent of the Corps of the Cadets are women.
“There is something wrong with the culture,” she said. “Everyone knows that if you compare two groups, one comprised of nine men and one woman, and a second comprised of six men and four women, the interactions and conversations will be different.”