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One in five soldiers see sexual harassment, hardly any report it

A Pentagon report on how the Army deals with harassment found that surveys omitted hazing and bullying questions, commanders failed to compare results in order to spot trends and only a handful of soldiers who experienced or witnessed sexual harassment filed complaints.

The 46-page Department of Defense Inspector General’s report reviewed data from January 2021 to January 2023 for eight brigades at two locations.

Army officials agreed with inspector general recommendations, which include analyzing year-by-year defense organizational climate surveys and command climate assessments for trends, retaining records for at least five years and addressing the wide gap between soldiers who said they’d experienced or seen sexual harassment and the number of complaints reported.

Out of 27,223 responses, 4,674 respondents said they had witnessed or experienced sexual harassment.

For that two-year period, soldiers only filed 73 sexual harassment complaints.

In one brigade, 2,145 soldiers, nearly a quarter of respondents, had experienced sexually harassing behaviors in 2021. The brigade had two complaints filed during that period.

Brigade commanders interviewed used defense organizational climate surveys and command climate assessments to identify and respond to harassment concerns in their units.

However, commanders did not compare the results of those surveys and assessments with previous years’ responses to identify any trends or risk factors, despite being required to do so.

Many of the brigade commanders told the inspector general they did not have access to data that predated their time in command.

Army regulations require the brigade command staff to keep five years’ worth of survey and assessment results.

By not comparing and analyzing multiple-year reports, brigade commanders missed chances to identify “systemic issues with harassment within certain units” and may miss opportunities to address harassment concerns in their units, according to the report.

The report also revealed soldiers’ perceptions of whether their complaints would be taken seriously.

Nearly one in 10 survey respondents said they “would be discouraged from moving forward with a complaint or would be blamed for causing problems for filing a sexual harassment complaint.”

Research supports their suspicions.

The Pentagon’s Office of People Analytics found in a 2021 report that 45% of women and 44% of men in the military who filed a sexual harassment complaint were encouraged to drop the issue, according to the report.

Among the eight brigades reviewed, three brigade commanders were relieved during the two-year period analyzed by the inspector general.

One commander was court-martialed for an allegation of sexually abusive contact. Another was relieved because the commander engaged “in bullying and counterproductive leadership,” according to the report.

The following brigades were represented in the Pentagon report:

  • 1st Cavalry Division Sustainment Brigade, Fort Cavazos, Texas
  • 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team (1st Cavalry Division), Fort Cavazos, Texas
  • 3rd Security Force Assistance Brigade, Fort Cavazos, Texas
  • 166th Aviation Brigade, Fort Cavazos, Texas
  • 82nd Airborne Division Sustainment Brigade, Fort Liberty, North Carolina
  • 20th Engineer Brigade (Combat/Airborne), Fort Liberty, North Carolina
  • 95th Civil Affairs Brigade, Fort Liberty, North Carolina
  • 4th Psychological Operations Group, Fort Liberty, North Carolina

Source: Department of Defense Inspector General

By not analyzing the gap between soldiers who said they witnessed or experienced sexual harassment and those who filed complaints, the Army may not be able to identify barriers to reporting harassment, and it could lead to soldiers underreporting sexual harassment complaints “based on a fear of reporting or retaliation,” reads the report.

None of the eight brigades’ two years of assessments and surveys included questions involving bullying and hazing.

Instead, brigade command teams engaged with soldiers through “counseling, physical training, unannounced visits with soldiers and weekly training meetings.” Command teams said these initiatives helped address bullying and hazing.

However, the report authors note that by not including the questions on the surveys and assessments the commander had “no formalized method for measuring the presence” of bullying and hazing in their unit except from reported complaints.

Under current Defense Department requirements, commanders must create action plans to address problems found in the assessments and surveys. However, the inspector general’s report found that 14 of 16 reports provided by brigade commanders did not develop plans to address concerns identified in the surveys with specific periods to follow up.

Also, seven of the 16 reports did not include results from subordinate unit commanders.

Inspector General Recommendations:

  • Brigade commanders perform historical analysis of surveys and assessments to identify trends and include battalion and company survey results in their assessments and action plans.
  • Military Equal Opportunity officials maintain all surveys, assessments and action plans for five years.
  • The Army implements a plan that ensures assessment action plans include initiatives tied to specific objectives, goals and milestones for completion and lists individuals responsible for implementing those initiatives and outlines a follow-up plan to determine if initiatives are addressing soldier-reported issues.
  • The Army ensures that bullying and hazing questions are included on all defense organizational climate surveys.
  • The Army analyzes differences in sexual harassment complaints and survey results to determine whether reporting barriers exist or if there is confusion among soldiers reporting such complaints.
  • The Army compares the results of their analysis to the 2022 Government Accountability Office’s assessment to determine if systemic issues with the sexual harassment complaint process are present. If so, then the service should implement a plan to address those issues.

Source: Department of Defense Inspector General

The Pentagon announced that the inspector general would review harassment response and prevention in August, months after an Army Audit Agency report, “Research of Soldiers’ Harmful Behaviors,” concluded in January 2023, Army Times previously reported.

That audit followed a May 2022 Government Accountability Office report, noted in the inspector general’s recent review, which recommended the Army speed up reforms of its Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention Program, or SHARP.

Officials with the Army Deputy Chief of Staff-Installations, which handles quality of life issues, told inspector general personnel that the service is updating Army Regulation 600-20, which covers overall command policy, including sexual harassment and assault response and prevention.

The service is removing the SHARP element from the regulation and will instead create three separate regulations.

Separately, those regulations will cover Army SHARP policies, command policy regulations and military equal opportunity policy, which includes the command climate assessment process.

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