Written by Cmdr. Chris O’Neil, Public Affairs Officer, Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Military Campaign Office .
More than 150 Coast Guard men and women are gathered at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., for a two-day summit on sexual assault prevention and response. The purpose of the summit, and the call to action for attendees, is reflected in the summit’s theme, “One Team, One Fight – Empowering People, Building Trust, Changing Culture.”
Attendees represent a cross-section of the Coast Guard, across all paygrades and all stations within the Service. Summit participants also include every “Gold Badge” Master Chief in the service. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp spoke to the summit participants via a videotaped message as he was unable to physically attend due to international travel requirements.
Master Chief Petty Officer of the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Master Chief Petty Officer Michael P. Leavitt also welcomed summit participants saying, “Let me assure you, Adm. Papp, Vice Adm. [John] Currier and all of the Coast Guard’s senior leadership are passionate about eradicating sexual assault from our Service. Holding this summit today shows how seriously the Coast Guard takes sexual assault and how important it is that we face this crime head on. This is a crime that hurts our people, it’s a hurt that never goes away, it’s a hurt that degrades our readiness.”
Leavitt continued saying, “Eliminating sexual assault from our Service requires the courage to step forward. We need engaged and involved leadership and, when need be, we need to be intrusive if we are to stop sexual assault.”
The agenda for the summit is ambitious, with break out sessions, training and several guest speakers including Claudia Bayliff, National Judicial Education Program’s project attorney, Jeff O’Brien, director of Mentors in Violence Prevention National Program and Dr. David Campt.
“In keeping with the commandant’s goal of eliminating sexual assault from our Service, we have organized this summit in order to provide sexual assault prevention and response training, frame the problem of sexual assault in the Coast Guard, receive interactive feedback from audience participants and to demonstrate leadership’s commitment to addressing the issue of sexual assault in the coast Guard,” said Capt. Robert L. Smith, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Military Campaign Office, and emcee for the summit.
Using an interactive survey that displayed almost instantaneous results, Campt quizzed summit participants on their general knowledge of sexual assault prevention and response facts. Campt didn’t provide the correct answers as the responses were reviewed, rather, the correct answers would be revealed after the second quiz and review, with an eye toward showing whether or not participants were understanding and retaining the information shared with them in the day’s presentations.
Bayliff was the first speaker and her presentation was broad and far-reaching, touching on topics including commanders’ role, the role of military justice and reporting trends among other facets of the issue of sexual assault in the military. Of particular note were statistics she shared that showed 69.4 percent of reported sexual assaults were military-on-military; that 52 percent of survivors who say they reported their assaults said they experienced some form of retaliation; and that 83 percent of survivors indicated they felt they were re-victimized by the legal system. Bayliff noted there is a significant correlation between survivors’ experiences with the military justice system and the development of post traumatic stress disorder.
Bayliff also touched upon the issue of alcohol and sexual assault, reminding summit attendees that alcohol does not cause sexual assault and predators use alcohol as a weapon. She reinforced that society views alcohol use differently for survivors and predators, where alcohol use by survivors is perceived as making them responsible and where alcohol use by perpetrators is seen as an excuse for their criminal behavior.
Bayliff also reinforced the need for leadership to be directly engaged, noting that unfavorable command climates, where sexual harassment and other misconduct are tolerated, leads to a higher risk for sexual assault. She continued by saying a poor command climate tells perpetrators this command is a safe place for thier behavior.
Bayliff challenged the audience to be directly engaged, noting leaders in the Coast Guard “have a lot of power to change this.” Bayliff encouraged summit attendees to view reporting of sexual assault as an “act of courage” and as an opportunity to find serial predators within the service.
Her insights prompted Coast Guard Sexual Assault Prevention Council chairperson and Deputy Commandant for Mission Support Vice Adm. Manson R. Brown, to remark, based upon Bayliff’s information, the service will re-examine its approach to its prevention activities and the service’s overall campaign.
The afternoon session was a moderated panel discussion featuring sexual assault response coordinator Kristin Cox from the 13th Coast Guard District, Lt. Cmdr. Peterson, staff judge advocate, Neal Marzloff of Coast Guard Investigative Services, Senior Chief Petty Officer David Pierias, officer in charge at Station Depoe Bay, and two survivors of sexual assault who selflessly volunteered to share their experiences with summit attendees.
The sexual assault survivors, whose names are withheld here to protect their privacy, not only shared their experiences, they shared their views on where they believe the service is as a whole in dealing with sexual assault. Their candid comments reinforced some of the discussion from the morning session while others challenged conventional wisdom and highlighted the unintended consequences of reporting sexual assault.
Both survivors said more emphasis needs to be placed on the needs, concerns and desires of the survivor, both in terms of information sharing and inclusion in decision-making, because doing so helps them regain a sense of control.
“The system doesn’t put victim concerns in the checklist of actions to consider,” said one survivor, while the other survivor said the service needs to be, “more forthcoming with what is going on with my case – I was kind of left in the dark. No one reached out to me to make me feel comfortable.”
After the panel discussion concluded, Campt administered the post-discussion quiz, which showed increased knowledge and awareness among the participants as a whole; however, the personal takeaways were the bigger measure of the benefits of the first day of the summit.
“It was important to me to see the different ranks of everyone here, to know it’s not just an officer or just an enlisted problem,” said Cadet 1st Class Lindsay Grim. “There were lots of facts presented we might not have otherwise known about at the academy. We know the academy statistics, but we don’t always get the full picture. I’m going out into the fleet in a year so this is important.”
Grim said her biggest take away from the day-one sessions was learning more about the legal process, because “you don’t learn about it until you’re going through it. It’s an important matter to address before you are in the process of a [Coast Guard Investigative Service] interview or court-martial.”
Grim added she believes continued awareness is the service’s best tool to combat sexual assault.
Cadet 2nd Class Julia Mundy, President of Cadets Against Sexual Assault at the Coast Guard Academy, echoed Grim’s comments, noting that today’s session provided her with more tools she can share with fellow cadets, which will in-turn, help empower cadets now, and in the future when they join the fleet. Mundy said the information she received today will assist her in helping cadets to get involved and not be bystanders.
Not everyone at the summit is immersed in the issues associated with sexual assault in the military, and today’s session provided the exact impact desired for those personnel.
“I haven’t directly dealt with sexual assault prevention and response matters before,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Scott Boucher, of Coast Guard Recruiting Command, “but seeing the statistics and hearing shipmates share their experiences, tells me that this is a very real issue for the Coast Guard.”
Boucher also said he believes the call to action for summit participants is to be more invasive in addressing inappropriate behavior when it’s witnessed.
The day wrapped up with comments from Vice Adm. Paul Zukunft, Pacific Area commander, and from Rear Adm. Charles Michel, Atlantic Area deputy commander, who both reinforced the need for action in their respective commands and the importance of the work of those assembled for the summit.
Day two of the summit will feature bystander training, remarks and a question and answer session with Coast Guard Vice Commandant Vice Adm. John Currier and breakout sessions designed to facilitate open and candid discussions about sexual assault in the service.