‘We must do more’ — Defense Secretary orders review of sexual assault prevention efforts

"We simply must admit the hard truth: we must do more. All of us."

Newly-confirmed Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has given his senior military leaders until Feb. 5 to provide him with a summary of what is and isn’t working in their efforts to combat sexual assault and harassment in the ranks.

“I know this has been a focus for you and for the Department’s leadership,” Austin wrote in a memo released on Saturday, the day after he was confirmed by the Senate. “I know you have worked this problem for many years. I tried to tackle it myself when I, too, commanded.

“We simply must admit the hard truth: we must do more. All of us.”

Austin said in the memo that while President Joe Biden has ordered a 90-day commission to “pursue solutions to sexual assault in the military,” he wanted to move faster.

He ordered leaders to provide a summary of the accountability measures taken in the last year that “show promise,” along with “frank, data-driven assessment of those which do not.” He also asked they focus on what kind of oversight their programs and policies have to ensure they are being “executed on the ground and with fidelity.”

Austin was pressed repeatedly during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Friday about what he would do to get a handle on assault and harassment in the ranks — something Pentagon leaders have struggled to fight.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said during Austin’s hearing that she has heard one defense secretary nominee after another say that the military has a zero tolerance policy for sexual assault, but the reality of the situation tells a different story.

“Every time they say there’s zero tolerance, we look at the facts, we look at the evidence, we look at how many sexual assaults are committed, how many go to trial, how many end in conviction, and we don’t seem to improve at all,” Gillibrand said, pointing out that the Pentagon had a “record number” of sexual assault reports in 2019, yet the “lowest conviction rate on record” of assailants.

“In your opinion, does this reflect good order and discipline within the military?” Gillibrand asked Austin. “Does this reflect enhanced military readiness?”

“Senator, I take the issue of sexual assault seriously and personally,” Austin responded. “To your point senator, I think we have put a lot of effort into this … but we have not gotten better, and we have to get better. And we will get better.”

While the issue of harassment and assault in the military has plagued the Pentagon for years, it was further put on display at Fort Hood last year, which was revealed to have a command climate that was “permissive” of assault and harassment and a “structurally flawed” program to address those issues.

Former Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy acknowledged that the service’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) program was failing to protect soldiers.

The findings at Fort Hood stemmed from the death of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén, who was allegedly being sexually harassed by another soldier, according to her family. While Army investigators did not report finding evidence that she was being harassed, Guillén’s family has said that she felt she wouldn’t be supported by her chain of command if she came forward, so she stayed quiet.

The news of Guillén’s alleged harassment brought on a wave of stories from other women in the military, across the services, who posted their personal stories of assault and harassment online under the hashtag #IAmVanessaGuillén — an effort that many described as the military’s #MeToo movement.

In addition to the summary on assault and harassment prevention efforts, Austin said in the memo on Saturday that he is ordering the Pentagon’s personnel and readiness office to provide him data regarding the department’s effort to address sexual misconduct “within a broader violence prevention framework.”

“This is a leadership issue,” Austin concluded. “We will lead.”

Featured photo: Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin listens during his conformation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. (Greg Nash/Pool via AP)

Haley Britzky

Haley Britzkyis the Army reporter for Task & Purpose, covering the daily happenings in the Army and how they impact soldiers and their families, as well as broader national security issues. Originally from Texas, Haley previously worked at Axios before joining Task & Purpose in January 2019. Contact the author here.