With reported sex assaults in the Marine Corps up 40 percent since 2007, top service officials have ordered a crackdown to stop all forms of crude and inappropriate behavior, and Marines of every rank will be enlisted to help.
The push will include new training for all Marines beginning early in 2010, but it will go far beyond that, said Sgt. Maj. Carlton Kent, the service’s top enlisted adviser. Marines of all ranks will be told to think twice before sharing off-color jokes and engaging in crude behavior that experts say can help foster an environment ripe for sexual harassment and assaults to occur. No new disciplinary system will be put in place, but criminal charges and nonjudicial punishments will be pursued aggressively.
“Zero tolerance on sexual assault is the message,” Kent said. “You could look at a room of 100 female Marines, and you would see that most of them have been sexually assaulted in one way, shape or form, and we can’t tolerate that.”
The crackdown has support at the highest levels of the service, with Commandant Gen. James Conway, Assistant Commandant Gen. James Amos and Kent all speaking on the issue at a conference for senior enlisted Marines held Dec. 15-16 in Washington.
In September, Conway said he wanted drill instructors to take a lead in training Marines to prevent sex assaults after hearing that Marines interviewed by investigators said attitudes contributing to the problem sometimes take hold during a service member’s earliest days as a recruit.
“What [Marines] said to us was, and it’s a little discouraging because I thought we were better than this: It starts for us at boot camp. At boot camp, both our male and female DIs are disparaging of the opposite sex,” Conway said.
For some Marines, the push might seem overly dramatic. But experts invited by leadership to speak to senior enlisted Marines on Dec. 15 said that a “warping” of Marine culture is partly to blame. Proud, macho behavior is to be expected in military life, they said, but some Marines have misinterpreted that to mean it’s OK to demean, abuse or objectify women.
“If every one of your Marines were true to your ideals, then we wouldn’t be here,” said Alan Berkowitz, a psychologist and nationally known sexual-assault-prevention consultant.
The increase in sexual assaults isn’t traced to the stereotypical shadowy figure in a ski mask attacking female Marines, experts said. Instead, much like in a college environment, the assaults occur mostly in situations where the victims know their attacker, especially on dates and at parties.
Reported sexual assaults in the Corps have increased markedly over the last three years, from 213 in fiscal 2007 to 244 in 2008 and about 299 in fiscal 2009, a 40 percent increase overall. The 2009 numbers are not considered final because some of the reports are still under investigation, but they concerned senior leadership enough to act on the new plan, Marine officials said. Senior service officials said research also shows that just one in five sexually assaulted service members files a report, making it unclear how extensive the problem is.
In addition to holding accountable those who assault or harass female Marines, a focus of the new push will be encouraging good Marines to speak up when they see potential problems unfolding.
“Let me give you an example,” Kent said. “You have all these Marines at the bar. You’ve got a female Marine who’s getting very intoxicated, and you know your buddy’s plans are to sexually assault [her]. As a fellow Marine, are you going to let him take that fellow Marine away and sexually assault her? No! That is not the answer, and that’s the message that we want to get out there.”
Everyone in the bar who watches that unfold is a bystander who can influence the situation, experts told senior enlisted Marines at the seminar. Research shows that even though most men want women to stay safe, they’re unlikely to intervene unless they think others watching the same situation occur also see something wrong.
“If the guy who tells the [dirty] joke or sends the e-mail or takes the woman in the back room thinks that everyone else thinks it’s OK, he has been given permission,” Berkowitz said.
Changing a mindset
Opinions varied among senior enlisted Marines in the room during the seminar. At least one bristled when Berkowitz said there needs to be a “culture shift” in the Corps to address the problem, saying there wasn’t anything wrong with current Marine culture. Kent later said in an interview that while the Corps’ culture will remain the same, a change in mindset is necessary.
“I don’t think some people understand that this is real,” he said. “We have to get rid of this myth in the Marine Corps that when someone brings up an allegation of sexual assault, it’s not true.”
Marine leadership is still assessing what kind of new sexual assault prevention training to adopt, but Kent said it could include videos or lectures.
“We don’t want this to be one of those things where Marines say, ‘Here we go again. Another three-hour class,’ ” Kent said. “No, we want to have an impact. … We want people to relate to this like this is real.”
Master Gunnery Sgt. Janel Spencer, a division chief for Marine Corps Combat Development Command at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., said she was encouraged to hear about the increased emphasis on sexual assault. Crude behavior was more common when she enlisted in 1986, she said, but more work is needed.
“If the leadership says this is how it’s going to be, then this is how it’s going to be,” she said. “I think it’s about time. We can change this.”
Sgt. Maj. Michael Timmerman, the senior enlisted adviser with the Personal and Family Readiness Division at Marine Corps headquarters, said a sustained effort to stop assaults is needed.
“It can’t be a hot topic today and fall by the wayside tomorrow,” he said. “It’s going to take steady progress to get the job done.”
Under a microscope
The seminar, known as the U.S. Marine Corps Senior Enlisted Sexual Assault Prevention and Family Support Conference, was a first-time event organized after top Marine officials became aware in the spring of the increase in reported sexual assaults, Kent said. It isn’t the only effort underway to address the problem, however.
In March, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus ordered the inspectors general of the Corps and Navy to launch investigations of their services’ respective sexual assault prevention and response programs, which provide support to victims and play a role in investigating reported cases. The investigation studied program deficiencies, command climate, training and how well it provided services to those in need, Marine officials said.
Since then, more than 500 people were interviewed by the Corps’ IG investigators, and focus groups were held on bases and air stations across the service. Marine officials declined to release its findings as of Dec. 18, but said the report would be made available by January. In August, Mabus released a message saying that an internal investigation had found that 58 percent of sailors and Marines considered sexual assault to be a problem in their services.
A Defense Department task force also investigated sexual assaults in the military this year, releasing a Dec. 1 report that said, in part, that fewer than half of all service member focus groups interviewed said they had received bystander intervention training. The report also noted that junior service members interviewed said their commanders rarely attended sexual assault prevention training with them.
More than 200 sexual assaults have been reported to the Marine Corps in each of the last three years. Five high-profile examples involving civilian charges in 2009:
A staff sergeant recruiter in Utah allegedly pic
ked up a 15-year-old girl he met while on duty in a high school, took her to a hotel and had sex with her. He was charged in September after police concluded an investigation that included reviewing digital photographs the staff sergeant allegedly took of the meeting. The criminal case is pending.
A staff sergeant recruiter was charged with six felonies, including attempted pimping and kidnapping to commit robbery or rape, after police in Orange, Calif., found him with two would-be recruits and a 14-year-old in a vehicle. Police said the girl told them she met the Marine on the Internet when she was 13 and that she eventually had sex with all three men. The criminal case is pending.
At least three junior Marines stationed at Fort Sill, Okla., for artillery training were charged with rape after allegedly having sex with a 12-year-old girl. Police said up to 20 Marines saw the girl engage in sexual encounters during alcohol-filled parties that spanned several months. The criminal case is pending.
A colonel who commanded a Kansas City, Mo.-based unit responsible for mobilizing Individual Ready Reserve Marines allegedly raped a 21-year-old woman while visiting his daughter, a student at Indiana University in Bloomington, authorities said. He pleaded not guilty, but killed himself Nov. 6 in a hotel room in Georgia.
A staff sergeant based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., allegedly orchestrated a drunken teenage sex party, filming part of it and participating, police said. He allegedly met the teens through family acquaintances and invited them to his home in the nearby town of Hubert. The criminal case is pending.