Trust and Teamwork: My Take on Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Efforts

U.S. Marines assigned to Marine Barracks, Washington, stand at modified parade rest at Marine Barracks 8th and I, Washington D.C., March 23, 2015. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Gregory D. Boyd)

By Gen. Robert B. Neller, Commandant of the Marine Corps

April was Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month across the Department of Defense, and I want to remind everyone that prevention requires a ‘day-on, stay-on’ focus. I recently received a brief on 2016 DoD Annual Report on Sexual Assault. I applaud the work of the entire team on their efforts. And while there remains much to be done, I see indications of progress.

But do not let my optimism mislead: we can, and must, do better.

I believe that our sexual assault prevention experts, as well as other prominent prevention advocates in our government, can agree that substantive progress is an imperative. We must continue to aggressively prevent sexual assault while effectively investigating and appropriately responding to each reported instance of this destructive behavior. Sexual assault, in addition to being a crime, is a readiness issue. Assaults committed upon or committed by members of our team violate our core values, undermine unit cohesion, and keep us from being an elite warrior team our nation expects.

I want to offer some of my key take-aways on the DoD report released today:

We have to work harder. We are the youngest Service. Nearly two-thirds of the Marine Corps is younger than 26 — precisely the population most at-risk for experiencing sexual assault. Knowing the reality of this demographic, we must do more than the other Services.

Prevalence is trending down. The prevalence of sexual assault has decreased since FY 2014 in the Marine Corps. Marines, both male and female, are less likely to experience sexual assault than two years ago. This is encouraging, but not enough.

We have to maintain and accelerate the downward trend.

Trust is up. The increased reporting also reflects greater trust in the chain of command. According to the Workplace and Gender Relations Survey, between 2014 and 2016, there was an increase in the percentage of Marines (both men and women) who felt they could trust the military system to protect their privacy, ensure their safety, and treat them with dignity and respect if they were to experience a sexual assault.

Under-reporting remains a concern. Sexual assault continues to be an under-reported crime in the Marine Corps; however, a greater proportion of victims were estimated to report in 2016, than in 2014. This is important because reporting is the starting point for victim care and offender accountability.

Prior-service sexual assaults. More than 20 percent of reported sexual assaults occurred prior to military service. Supporting survivors of sexual assault is important, no matter when the assault occurred. Many times we learn of these previous sexual assaults during the formative days at recruit training, and from there we can help new members of our force with resources and understanding.

Accountability is strong. Our disposition data shows that Marine commanders are firm but fair in their efforts to hold offenders accountable. Marine commanders adjudicated substantiated allegations of sexual assault through the court-martial process at a higher rate than the other Services. However, commanders also consistently demonstrated the ability to take no action in cases where there was insufficient evidence of any offense. I believe that balanced, fact-specific disposition decisions by commanders indicate that we are committed to accountability for offenders while protecting the integrity of the military justice process and the rights of all involved.

No bystanders. Contact crimes have declined, according to reporting and surveys. I believe this is attributed to bystander intervention, as contact crimes tend to occur in more public settings. Marines are getting involved to prevent crimes.

This is what we should expect of each other…to stand up and support fellow Marines.

Alcohol continues to be a problem. Alcohol remains a critical contributing factor in the majority of sexual assaults. I am convinced that we all must be more responsible and disciplined with our use of alcohol, to limit the damage we do to ourselves and to our readiness, and to Protect What You’ve Earned.

Although we are making progress, I am far from content with where we are on sexual assault. Even a single sexual assault in our Corps is one too many.

I believe that the overwhelming majority of Marines are good teammates who consistently look out for one another.

I also believe the data shows Marines are doing a better job of taking care of each other, and I expect this to continue. But as a Corps we must be more conscious of the judgment-impairing effects of alcohol and that anyone who assaults another Marine has betrayed the trust and confidence of the team, their family, and the American people.

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