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A Commission Finds 'Quite A Lot Of Tolerance' For Sexual Harassment In The Military

Candles and flowers decorate a makeshift memorial for Vanessa Guillen, a Fort Hood soldier whose murder last year put a spotlight on sexual harassment in the military.
Mark Felix
AFP via Getty Images
Candles and flowers decorate a makeshift memorial for Vanessa Guillen, a Fort Hood soldier whose murder last year put a spotlight on sexual harassment in the military.

Updated July 2, 2021 at 12:00 PM ET

An independent review of how the military deals with sexual assault has found that commanders need training in how to prevent what an official calls "daily acts of demeaning language and sexual harassment" that junior enlisted members experience on the job.

That's one of the findings in a new report from an independent review commission that President Biden appointed. The report includes 28 core recommendations and 54 sub-recommendations aimed at addressing sexual assault and harassment in the military.

"For as long as we have abhorred this scourge, the statistics and the stories have grown worse. We need concrete actions that fundamentally change the way we handle military sexual assault and that make it clear that these crimes will not be minimized or dismissed," Biden said in a statement, saying his administration would work with Congress to implement the recommendations.

Last year's killing of Fort Hood, Texas, soldier Vanessa Guillén by a fellow soldier put a spotlight on the issue and galvanized momentum in Congress for change. Guillén's family said she had complained about being sexually harassed, and an investigation after her death condemned the base for its climate and culture.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced last week that he supported the most sweeping of the recommendations: moving sexual assault cases out of the chain of command.

Doing so will require Congress to amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The commission recommended that legislation to enact the change pass this year, with provisions taking effect by 2023, noting it will take time to implement the major shift that the Pentagon has long resisted.

"We reject the notion that shifting legal decisions about prosecution from command to prosecutors diminishes the role of those commanders," said an official who spoke to reporters ahead of the public release of the report. The official explained commanders are key to making it safe for victims to come forward and protecting victims from bullying after they make a complaint.

"We believe instead that it enhances their role and places them in the lead of taking care of their people — the No. 1 job of commanders."

In this July 30, 2020, file photo, the family of Vanessa Guillen speak about the murdered soldier on Capitol Hill.
Carolyn Kaster / AP
Guillén's mother, Gloria Guillén (right), and a sister, Lupe Guillén (center), speak about the slain soldier at a July 2020 news conference on Capitol Hill.

There is momentum in Congress for such a change: Key lawmakers have signed onto a Senate plan to overhaul the military's justice system, including how sex-related crimes are prosecuted. But the effort's major backer, Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, has said the military's plan must go beyond sex-related crimes and include all major crimes, such as murder and manslaughter.

More training is needed to prevent harassment

While senior military leaders have said for years there is no tolerance for sexual harassment, the commission found that there is "quite a lot of tolerance," the official said. "Women in particular are told this is just what they should expect."

The commission found there is a "near total lack of a prevention workforce" within the military to carry out programs to prevent harassment and assault, and to equip leaders and commanders to understand the climate for the people who serve under them. The report makes recommendations to focus on selecting, developing and evaluating commanders so that they "interrupt these behaviors" and speak out against harassment.

"That's how you create a positive climate. When you take as good care of your people as you do your vehicles, that's when we'll start to see real change," the official said.

Some of the recommended changes can happen quickly, officials said. Within six months, the commission recommends improvements to the workforce charged with providing victim care and support. Austin said his team would develop a plan in the next 60 days for implementing the other recommendations.

The commission also recommended shifting sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates out of the command structure, so they can present independent recommendations to commanders about what kind of services and supports a victim needs. "What we envision is that the victim advocates are able to work closely with commanders and serve as key advisers," the official said.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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