Q. As a military leader, I’m concerned about the rise of sexual assault in the ranks and a culture that seems to contribute to the problem. What can I do to prevent sexual assault and make those under my command feel safe?
A. Sexual assault is an insidious, repressive and violent act. It’s not only a physical violation, it’s one of the most vicious psychological betrayals one can face. Many victims are emotionally scarred for life. Beyond the individual victim, sexual assault destroys families, brings chaos into the military unit, and reduces mission readiness and effectiveness.
As with domestic violence, substance abuse and many psychiatric disorders, prevention is an important aspect of addressing the problem of sexual assault. Military leaders are the first line of prevention. And both overt and covert leadership behaviors perpetuate the culture of “looking the other way,” or reversing a disturbing trend within our ranks. Here are some behaviors military leaders at all levels can engage in to prevent and reduce the impact of sexual assault.
■ Look at your own blind spots. It’s difficult to see what you can’t see. But with a great deal of introspection and honesty with yourself, you can begin to identify blind spots you may have about sexual assault. For example, do you dismiss it as a problem in the military? If so, know that sexual assault has risen 34 percent since 2010. Do you tend to question the truthfulness of the victim when a case is reported? The research does not support this perception. The vast majority of reported cases are sincere and legitimate.
■ Ensure education and training occur. Each service requires sexual assault training and education for all service members. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to make sure that happens. It’s also your responsibility to make sure that the training is sincere and not a “check-the-box” activity.
■ Address inappropriate behavior immediately. Hesitation is often an indication of disinterest. Even if it’s not, it will most likely be interpreted by others as such. Once you are made aware of inappropriate behavior, take immediate action. There is no better way to demonstrate a zero-tolerance attitude than by acting swiftly and decisively.
■ Visibly support your unit’s sexual assault prevention personnel. Anybody can talk a good game. True leaders back up their words with actions. Ensure that your sexual assault prevention representatives have adequate resources. Meet with them regularly. And, most important, become an active part of the solution. Don’t send a surrogate to represent you in training or meetings on the topic.
Bret A. Moore is a clinical psychologist who served in Iraq and is the author of “Wheels Down: Adjusting to Life after Deployment.” Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Names and identifying details will be kept confidential. This column is for informational purposes only. Readers should see a mental health professional or physician for mental health problems.