Let us be clear: The sexual assault and harassment problem is real, it is sickening, and it must end. It must end now if we are to maintain the necessary level of readiness within our armed forces and the confidence of the American people.
It is painful to listen to tales of abuse from those who have been mistreated, and it is sobering to watch congressional hearings that highlight our failures. But if this is required to make sexual harassment and assault within the military things of the past, we are all for it.
However, we take strong exception to the idea expressed by some that the military culture itself must change. This would suggest there is, at our core, a presence of denial and disrespect of women. This is shallow, incorrect and unhelpful thinking. Anyone who’s spent one day with the men and women who selflessly carry out their arduous tasks knows that the overwhelming majority of them are dedicated, professional and driven individuals.
Those who serve together in the same platoon, division or flight become more than co-workers: They become family. This is the culture of the U.S. military.
We are proud of this culture. But we know that we unwittingly allow predators among us. We do not have a “jerk” test to detect them at recruiting stations, and we do not know what drives some people to mistreat and hurt women. We have not done enough to find and remove these people, nor to prevent their bad behavior. And, perhaps, we have not done enough to identify anything about us that might promote or condone such behavior.
It is upon us to lay in motion a persistent, realistic set of actions that allows us to exploit the best of our culture. We must find a way to allow our units to address this from the bottom up, frankly and appropriately.
We can fix this because we have leaders who firmly believe that no one should miss the opportunity to develop their full potential. We can fix this because we break up our thousands of servicemen and women into very small groups led by people they respect and who respect them. It is in these settings where we must concentrate our discussions of sexual misbehavior.
We must work as a team to ensure those who are assaulted and harassed are encouraged and helped to come forward. When necessary, we must all come forward for them.
The military and its leaders are the best at these kinds of issues. The military broke color barriers within its ranks long before the nation did in its schools. The armed forces made the removal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” a nonstory.
The scourge of sexual harassment and assault is not a culture issue, but a training and awareness one that — along with the military judicial structure — can be fixed by those with the most invested in ensuring the military is operating as the American people demand it to be.
Copeland and Tallent are retired rear admirals whose careers included carrier battle group commands. Tallent is the president of Sentek Global, an information systems company; Copeland is the president of Top Gun Consulting, a leadership training company.