Coast Guardsmen attend the service's inaugural Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Summit in September at Joint Base Andrews, Md. Officials said one of the lessons learned at the meeting was the need for improved communication. (Cmdr. Chris O'Neil / Coast Guard)
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As the Coast Guard works to eliminate sexual assault within the service, experts are looking at ways to beef up its prevention and response program while better communicating their message of respect and accountability when it comes to fellow shipmates.
The service received 180 reports of unwanted sexual contact during fiscal 2013. It’s a small number compared with Defense Department statistics — about 26,000 reports of unwanted contact militarywide in fiscal 2012 — but Coast Guard leadership says that even one is too many.
“Some people would say it’s less in the Coast Guard. Doesn’t matter to me,” Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp said on a recent episode of “This Week in Defense News with Vago Muradian.”
“If it’s in the Coast Guard — and it is, I know it is — it’s a crime, it’s incompatible with our service and our core beliefs, with our ethos.”
In that spirit, the Coast Guard Military Campaign for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response is fine-tuning its prevention guidance and response strategies to help Coasties understand their roles in sexual assault prevention and the proper channels to follow if an assault is committed.
Coast Guard leaders also are evaluating their victim advocates and sexual assault response coordinators, overhauling the certification system for both positions and opening more jobs.
“I think you have to take a very holistic look at it, because there’s no singular solution to any of the issues surrounding sexual assault prevention and response,” said Lt. Cmdr. Chris O’Neil, Sexual Assault and Prevention Military Campaign Office spokesman.
Communication is key
The service held its annual SAPR summit in September, where members from across the ranks came together for workshops and discussions with prevention experts from inside and outside the service. One big takeaway, O’Neil told Navy Times, is the need to streamline the ways the service communicates its message.
“We have a number of mechanisms to provide information to the workforce, but some of that feedback indicates, from the summit, that maybe the conversation isn’t getting carried forward,” he said.
O’Neil’s office used the Coast Guard All Hands blog, ALCOAST messages and an internal communications bulletin to send out guidance and news about the SAPR program, but following the summit, he’s formed a working group of about 30 members from across paygrades to figure out how to better reach Coast Guardsmen.
In the same vein, he said, he has received feedback about the overload of information in training, specifically presentations delivered passively via PowerPoint.
A SAPR workshop has reached 4,500 Coasties so far, he said. It’s only put on by certified sexual assault response coordinators or program managers, and it focuses on discussion of examples of inappropriate behavior and how to respond to them.
“We’re well aware that we need to take a look at our training and find more effective delivery methods, and this workshop is absolutely a promising practice,” O’Neil said.
Action and accountability
On top of messaging, O’Neil said that the service is working on putting more people and resources into its efforts. Earlier this year, the service pledged $5.2 million in additional annual funding for the SAPR program, money that will go toward an audit of current VAs and SARCs, as well as an overhaul of the qualification and certification process for those positions.
The program’s also adding 32 new civilian and uniformed SAPR positions, O’Neil said — everything from legal counsel and investigators to public affairs and assault response coordinators. It’s adding 12 new SARC positions to the 19 SARC-qualified personnel already on board, with an eye toward a longer-term assignment.
“The move is to make those more a permanent, full-time position, as opposed to a collateral position,” he said.
The service is also working toward more transparent response efforts. In August, Coast Guard public affairs began advising commanders on crafting news releases throughout the military justice process during sex assault cases.
The practice isn’t mandatory, O’Neil said, and the service doesn’t keep track of how many cases have been publicized or at what points in the process. He said the preferred path is to put out releases before and after an Article 32 hearing, before and after a court-martial, and after sentencing.
It can be difficult, O’Neil said, for the average Coastie living the core values of honor, respect and devotion to duty to imagine that sexual assault could be a problem in his unit.
“So we have got to break through that and say, there are some bad actors and they do commit these crimes and we need to get these people out of our service and you are a key to that,” O’Neil said.
It starts with knowing what’s inappropriate, he said — and how to react when you see it.
“So you’re walking through the passageway and you overheard someone make that sexist remark or that sexist joke — that’s not acceptable,” he said.
In that instance, a verbal warning of, “Hey, that’s not acceptable, it’s against policy and you need to stop,” should suffice. If the comment is directed at you, O’Neil said, it’s important to make it known that you’re offended. And if it doesn’t stop, it needs to go up the chain of command.
“Things that need to go up the chain of command right away are, when someone’s putting hands on somebody else,” O’Neil said. “That’s clearly crossing the line.”
What it comes down to, he said, is respect.
“Respect is the premise that, you know, you’re not supposed to touch your shipmate. You’re not supposed to take advantage of your shipmate,” he said.