NCOs integral to preventing sexual assaults

During a recent visit to U.S. Army Europe, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno highlighted the need for Soldiers to focus on the moral and ethical values that make the Army such a strong team. He further added that sexual harassment and sexual assault erodes those bonds and tarnishes the military profession.

Noncommissioned officers live by a creed that states, “My two basic responsibilities will always be uppermost in my mind – accomplishment of my mission and the welfare of my Soldiers.” It is an NCO’s duty to end the crimes of sexual assault and harassment that erode the bonds of trust with Soldiers. Without that Soldier’s trust, it puts all members of that team at risk.

Commanders and NCOs at all levels are crucial to eliminating this crime, but none are as important as those serving in company-level organizations. Those leaders have the most supervision and interaction with Soldiers and must strive to establish a climate of trust, which will encourage victims of sexual assault and harassment to report incidents without fear of reprisal. NCOs support a commander’s accomplishment of this mission through education and discussion. This helps establish local sexual assault prevention strategies and demonstrates the commitment of the command by setting a good example.

Commanders and command sergeants major are critical in creating the conditions to be successful by providing resources, training and staffing. Although money is the first resource that comes to mind and is important in sustaining a quality program, time is equally critical – not only for the units to conduct the training, discussions and events, but also for taking part in company-level activities so that Soldiers hear and see their commitment to eliminating sexual assault and harassment.

Sexual assault is a tough and complex crime that needs only the best Soldiers to serve as Sexual Harassment Assault Response Program coordinators. Thought must go into who will fill this critical role on a commander’s staff. Commanders must look beyond the certifying checklist and into the character, personal communication skills, compassion and reputation of the person. It is more than filling out a certification packet and meeting a report to higher headquarters. Questions such as, “Does the SHARP coordinator have the skills necessary to handle the highly sensitive and personal situation when a Soldier has been a victim of assault?” must be asked.

Both of these topics were highlighted during a recent USAREUR women’s forum hosted by the commander and myself that featured subject matter experts and more than 50 female Soldiers in various levels of responsibilities within our community. Many of the information sessions were followed by small group discussions exploring concerns about sexual assault and harassment, while helping develop recommendations to better USAREUR’s overall program. On comment sheets and after action reviews, participants said they wanted to see more leaders at the training so that Soldiers could hear their commitment to the program. They also wrote about the importance of having the right person as the SHARP coordinator, who will take action while treating the victim with dignity and respect.

Before you can enforce a standard at the company level, you must know what the standard is and how it is applied. The same is true of sexual assault. Soldiers need to know it’s a crime that will not be tolerated in the Army. The SHARP coordinator has an integral role in prevention of this crime. NCOs need to know who their SHARP coordinator is and how to contact him or her. Crisis hotline phone numbers and unit points of contact should also be addressed during in-processing, reception or integration counseling. Consider conducting a terrain walk of the garrison agencies and first responders who will be called upon in a time of crisis, either as part of scheduled training or sponsorship. Education should come in forms other than memos posted on a unit bulletin board, a poster taped to a wall or a monthly celebration with information displays. It takes leaders sitting down and talking to their Soldiers, correcting and holding them accountable for inappropriate behavior, and setting the example of conduct for all to see what right looks like.

Once we are informed, we must begin an open and honest discussion on the subject of sexual assault. Challenging norms, culture and stereotypes through discussion not only allows for the standard to be taught but allows for NCOs to be seen as the example, addressing the crime facing our Army. Discussing with our Soldiers what consent really means; leveraging NCOs when they return from SHARP training and sharing with Soldiers what they learned are vital.
Our Army is one of action. NCOs, as the backbone of the Army, must heed their role in developing and implementing local sexual assault prevention strategies and preventing this crime. NCOs are trained on battle drills, but do they know how to handle a sexual assault? The majority of victims are under 24 years old, in the grades of private to specialist. The majority of perpetrators are male, under the age of 25 in the grades of private to specialist. Most incidents occur on weekends, with a victim new to the unit.  Alcohol is almost always involved.

What are NCOs doing with these statistics? Does the unit charge of quarters have specific checks they are required to make to ensure enforcement of safety, security and policies? Does the staff duty NCO make random checks to ensure compliance? Are squad leaders truly engaged with their Soldiers to know what they are doing on weekends?

It’s time for the backbone of the Army to stand up and take action. Let us not forget our commitment to our fellow Soldiers, the Army and the NCO Creed in mission accomplishment and ensuring the welfare of all Soldiers in peace and in war.