Pentagon's Sexual Assault Commission Wants to Hear Junior Troops' Stories

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Lynn Rosenthal and Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby deliver a briefing
Lynn Rosenthal, lead in the Department of Defense’s 90-day Independent Review Commission on sexual assault and harassment, and Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby deliver a briefing to the press at the Pentagon, March 24, 2021. (Carlos M. Vazquez II/Defense Department)

The head of the Pentagon's anti-sexual assault and sexual harassment commission said Wednesday she wants to produce "major shifts" in how the military cares for victims and holds offenders accountable.

At a briefing with reporters, commission chairwoman Lynn Rosenthal said the Independent Review Commission will look at what hasn't been tried to stop sexual violence in the military, and will send Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and President Joe Biden recommendations for sweeping changes in how the military tackles this problem.

"I don't expect an in-the-weeds view of 150 policies that should be tweaked around the edges," Rosenthal said. "That is not what we're about. We are about looking at major shifts and big-picture items that could really change the culture, improve care for victims, bring about evidence-based prevention and hold offenders accountable."

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However, time is short for the commission, which has 90 days to finish its work from March 24. When she was first announced as the commission's head Feb. 26, Rosenthal said she hoped to produce initial recommendations, primarily on how to hold offenders accountable, within 60 days.

The commission has set up a webpage for service members and other stakeholders to contact them and share their ideas and stories, Rosenthal said. The commission, she said, is particularly interested in hearing from junior enlisted service members who face the highest risk of sexual violence.

Rosenthal said the commission won't be able to respond to everyone who shares a story, it will be analyzing submissions for trends that can help it find answers.

"The lived experiences of survivors are the very foundation of the work of the IRC," Rosenthal said. "The most powerful voices, sadly, come from trauma and from pain. These are the voices that we must hear in developing our recommendations, and we are committed to doing so."

Rosenthal is a leading activist who works to prevent domestic violence, sexual assault and other forms of gender-based violence. She was former President Barack Obama’s adviser on violence against women, and worked with then-Vice President Biden on programs to reduce sexual assault and domestic violence murders.

At Wednesday's briefing, Rosenthal announced the commission's 12-person executive team, which includes two civilian prosecutors, prevention specialists, civilian advocates, military veterans and experts in gender integration. The commission also includes Rosenthal, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Virginia Penrod, acting Pentagon General Counsel Beth George and senior adviser to the Defense secretary for human capital Bishop Garrison. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, the acting secretaries and chiefs of staff of the Army, Navy and Air Force, and Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond comprise an advisory support team for the commission.

The executive team is divided into four main subjects: Accountability; prevention; climate and culture; and victim care and support. Rosenthal said the executive team members are experts, and some are also civilians who bring "fresh eyes" to the topic.

Executive team member Indira Henard, who also serves as the executive director of the DC Rape Crisis Center, "is an expert at innovative trauma-informed care that hasn't really been tried within the services," Rosenthal said. And Rosenthal predicted Kris Rose, a former Justice Department official and victim advocate in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington, will ask "questions that haven't been asked" before.

Most members of the executive team have former military experience, including two retired general officers and West Point graduates, and a former Marine Corps attack helicopter pilot. One Army lieutenant colonel on the team is currently on inactive status, but none of the members is on active duty.

The commission will look at strategies that have worked in the civilian world, and see if those ideas can be adopted by the military, she said. And it will look for ideas that haven't been tried in the civilian world yet, but might work in the military because of its unique structure and other attributes.

Rosenthal said the commission will be looking closely at the role command plays in deciding which cases go to prosecution. She said she has spoken to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and is interested in studying and considering Gillibrand's long-standing proposal to give military attorneys, instead of commanders, the power to decide which sexual assault and other serious crimes should be prosecuted.

Rosenthal said the commission will build on previous Defense Department studies, such as the Fort Hood report following the murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillen last year, which examined the failings of specific installations that made them higher-risk locations for sexual assault and harassment. Guillen’s high-profile disappearance and murder, which followed repeated instances of sexual harassment, shocked the military community and refocused national attention on the problem of sexual harassment and assault in the military.

She highlighted a lack of resources at Fort Hood's Criminal Investigation Command as an example of problems that need to be fixed.

"It's about lack of leadership. It's about lack of resources. It's about lack of priority," Rosenthal said. "As we saw in the Fort Hood report, the lack of resourcing of these problems was a critical issue that was life-threatening for soldiers."

The climate and culture line of effort will try, in part, to address prevalent misunderstandings and myths about rape, such as beliefs that many sexual assault accusations are false, Rosenthal said. And the accountability line of effort could recommend changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, she said, to address problems of offenders being kept in the service or differing punishments meted out to officers versus enlisted service members.

Rosenthal said the commission also will be looking at sexual assault of male service members, a significant problem that has received increased attention in recent years. Male sexual assault may be tied to things like bullying and hazing, she said.

"It's ultimately about power and control," Rosenthal said. "It's that same dynamic of power and control we see in bullying and hazing situations. ... The sexual assault of men is a significant problem about which we don't raise enough awareness, or speak enough about, or highlight their voices. But it's a very significant problem."

-- Stephen Losey can be reached at stephen.losey@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

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