This Army lieutenant colonel has built a playbook to kill the ‘cancer’ of sexual assault in the ranks
"These are my teammates. These are my sisters.”
Army Lt. Col. Scott Stephens wasn’t always like this.
Stephens — the commander of the 1st Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment, 1st Armored Brigade — has become a leading voice on the issue of sexual harassment and assault at a time when the Army, along with the rest of the Defense Department, is coming to terms with the truth: The military has a problem. But he’ll also be the first to tell you that he was likely part of that problem as a young male soldier.
“I’ve been guilty my whole life,” he told Task & Purpose on Feb. 19. “And I’d say within the last couple of years I’ve sort of come to terms with that. And I have personally chosen … to take this on in my latter years and try to be vocal … and try to drag some of my peers along.”
He isn’t exactly being subtle about it. Stephens regularly engages on Twitter over the issues of harassment, assault, and gender discrimination, and even co-authored a detailed guide to help leaders spot and address problems in their own units. And it’s not just about knowing what to do after a soldier has been assaulted or harassed, as Stephens explained, but recognizing all the ways leaders can get ahead of a potentially bad situation by fundamentally changing the Army’s culture.
And that change can’t come to the Army soon enough, according to Stephens, who said the events of 2020 — when the service was put under the microscope with the disappearance and death of Spc. Vanessa Guillén — “ripped the scab off and ripped us wide open.”
Guillén reportedly told her family she was being sexually harassed by another soldier, and while Army investigators have said they didn’t find evidence to prove this was the case, her disappearance, death, and the Army’s handling of the incident sparked a firestorm of criticism as servicewomen called for the military to recognize the destructive side of its culture that can be permissive of harassment and assault.
Guillén’s death led to an independent civilian review of Fort Hood, which ended in a brutal indictment of not only the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) program but exposed a culture where leaders turned a blind eye to glaring problems within their units.
The cultural changes in the Army coincided with Stephens decision to get more candid on social media and expand his presence on Twitter. As he was preparing to take command of his battalion and going through a pre-command course last year, he said he was “a little taken aback” by how little the topic of assault and harassment was discussed.
“I wasn’t satisfied with what I was getting, and so I said you know what, I’m going to reach out to a few of these prominent voices, women that I know, and I’m just going to see if they’re willing to talk,” he said.
They were, and Stephens listened. For three months last summer he said he listened to survivors of sexual assault — both men and women — from not just the Army but other services as well.
“I really kind of, I got down on myself because I was like wow, I’ve been missing this the entire time,” he explained. “I think we’ve sort of been in this mindset like, ‘Oh that’s happening somewhere else, that stuff only happens in bad units with bad leadership,’ when more than likely it’s been happening under my nose my entire career.”
To be sure, a pervasive culture of sexual harassment and assault exists in the military and has for decades. Since 2004, the number of reports of sexual assault from service members has been on a steady rise, with one 2019 report revealing the number of reports had “quadrupled” in the last decade. Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis referred to sexual assault as a cancer, calling it “one of the most destructive factors in building a mission-focused military.”
Stephens said that reality was made more apparent to him through his wife of 17 years, a former soldier who had a much different experience than he did. While Stephens thinks back on his time as a junior enlisted soldier as mostly “barracks shenanigans and fun times,” his wife, however, remembers the “constant threat of being harassed or being assaulted.”
“I don’t think that I know a single woman in the Army who has not been harassed,” Stephens said. “And I would be pretty hard-pressed to find a woman that I personally know that hasn’t been assaulted. And it’s devastating. These are my teammates. These are my sisters.”
So Stephens got to work and refused to accept the argument that because assault and harassment are a problem in American society they will also be an Army problem as well. The Army has “so many more tools and resources,” he said, and so rates of assault and harassment “should be much lower.” But he was frustrated by how “uninterested some commanders are” in taking the issue seriously. Many see prevention efforts as something to check off their to-do list.
Trying to learn more about women’s experiences, Stephens organized a number of male and female soldiers for a Zoom call to talk about the issues more deeply. And talk they did, for nearly four hours.
The women opened up about their life in the Army, while the men took notes on everything from pregnancy and breastfeeding to microaggressions; comments like “She probably didn’t meet the same standards I did,” for example, or “She only got this job because she’s a woman.”
It was an eye-opening situation: One woman, for example, revealed that when she was a cadet, she was forced to keep her used tampons in a Ziploc bag in her cargo pocket because the male leaders didn’t know what to do with them, Stephens said.
“You’re like, ‘What? You have to be lying to me right now, right?’” said Stephens, who was astonished along with the other men on the call. “And so it’s like okay, we’re going to talk about field sanitation, how do we accommodate all of our teammates?”
It was clear they were onto something, so Stephens suggested they write it all down and share it with the world.
Enter Athena Thriving, a guide put together by Stephens and other soldiers meant to serve as an educational resource for leaders to better understand gender discrimination and issues women face in the Army.
The guide, published in November, discusses everything from sexist microaggressions (“You’re too pretty to be in the Army,” one example says) to family care plans, SHARP training, contraceptives, and miscarriages. It concludes by saying supporting women by implementing the recommendations outlined in the article “is a necessary investment that will reap infinite returns.”
“To our sisters in arms: we hear you, we see you, and we support you,” the guide says. “There are many more of us who wish to see you thrive than there are those who could ever have a hand in your downfall. Your allies will not stop fighting for you.”
The feedback has been humbling, Stephens said. The recommendations have been applauded by senior Army leaders, and men and women across the force said they plan to use them. And even international partners say they want to bring it to their militaries, according to Stephens. It’s gotten such good feedback, in fact, that they’re now working on a second installment of the guide that focuses on pregnant and postpartum soldiers.
While that’s surely taking time to organize, it’s not all Stephens has on his plate. Most recently he was one of the finalists of an innovation challenge within the 18th Airborne Corps, where he pitched an idea for a new program to help train and empower junior soldiers to lead the fight against harassment and assault at the ground-level of their units.
So how should soldiers be thinking about these issues? According to Stephens, it’s “fundamental” for harassment and assault to be seen on a spectrum where on one end lies empathy, trust, equality, and on the other is racism, extremism, assault, harassment, and ultimately “complete dehumanization.”
“[I]f sexual violence sits along this spectrum to dehumanization, the keys to preventing sexual violence are to apply the antidotes to things like gender discrimination, gender stereotyping, institutional sexism, & misogyny,” Stephens tweeted, adding that there is “no reason we should be failing.”
He, like many others, is optimistic that what the Army is seeing now is going to translate into real, lasting change. He wants leaders to understand that they shouldn’t be waiting for the Army to tell them what to do; they should already be doing it, because “you know we’re broken and you know we’ve been broken for years on some of these things,” he said.
And lasting change is the hope, isn’t it? But it’s also more than that. Stephens said he believes it’s a national security issue since failing to confront harassment and assault head-on could result in a total loss of trust between those sending their young men and women to the Army, and those leading them.
And if the Army loses that, Stephens said, “we’ve lost everything.”
Featured photo: Lt. Col. Scott Stephens. (U.S. Army)