Marine Corps wide, we have embarked on a series of training solutions to reverse the negative trend of sexual assault without first identifying the “need behind the need,” as Marine recruiters know full well is the first and most important step to making a sale. We are about to step off with explanations of all the proverbial “benefit tags,” proposals on how to fix our problems, and solutions we should embrace to change our culture. What we do not have is buy-in from the Marines who need to believe most strongly in our way forward in order for this effort to succeed. The Marines from whom we most need consensus are those most resistant because we have not yet addressed the need behind the need for them, or, in other words, why their efforts for prevention will be worth it to them, to their Marines, and to the institution writ large.
The people telling us as that we have a problem are, I believe, in the minds of Marines, outsiders. Our fierce pride for our heritage, our accomplishments, and our efforts, especially during a prolonged period of war, are keeping us from listening to those who are now saying there is something flawed about the culture we fight so rigorously to protect. When politicians and news media outlets disparage our organization with allegations that rapists run rampant among our ranks, it is difficult, if not impossible, to focus Marines’ attention on solutions for the way ahead. Organizationally, we are predisposed to band together against outsiders who come in and allege that we are all engaged in a cover up, particularly when their approach is perceived to be arrogant and provocative. This banding together might seem extreme, but it is the reaction that officers and SNCOs have when they are called criminals, though indeed they are not; when they are called liars, and indeed they are not; and when they are told by someone who has never walked in their shoes that they are failing to lead their Marines properly. With such an approach, I would challenge just about anyone to sell that to the Marines.
It should come as no surprise then when the majority of Marines, who have never had to deal directly with a sexual assault incident in their command, believe fundamentally that this is not their problem to solve. To change that belief is the challenge we face. How easy is it for Marines to understand weapons accountability and the ramifications of losing a weapon during training, or worse, in combat? It might occur due to the actions of only one, yet it affects the entire unit. Marines understand how quickly a lost weapon will grind all productivity to a halt until it is found. We recognize how disruptive a lost weapon can be to the plan of the day or to the mission at hand. A sexual assault in a command is no different in this respect. Bourgeoning consequences stemming from an incident in a command can halt all productivity due to the number of people affected by it and the amount of time it can consume. It has the capability to completely marginalize the mission, whatever it might be.
How often do we hear phrases such as “my Marine Corps,” “my Marines,” “my staff sergeant, gunny, first sergeant, sergeant major,” or “my lieutenant, captain, major, or commanding officer”? In our Marine Corps culture, these types of phrases are key indicators that the speaker has taken ownership of the space and the Marines around him. I propose that it is this same sense of ownership over the problem of sexual assault that we should seek in order to curb sexual assault incidents. Take a Stand training is intended as the solution to encourage NCOs to take ownership of the problem of sexual assault, and to give them the tools to prevent a situation from happening. But if leadership has not taken ownership of the problem, how can we expect our NCOs and young Marines to do it? What’s worse is that, when the training is taught by the wrong person, Marines interpret it as a hunt for rapists and not as it is intended to be—instruction for bystander intervention. As long as officers and SNCOs have no real interest, or fail to initiate subsequent discussion, Take a Stand training will eventually be relegated to the dustbin of history like so many other training requirements—important in their own right, yet not championed by the primary audience.
In my role as a sexual assault response coordinator, I see in Marine officers and SNCOs a recurring thread; that is, a defensive posture in response to allegations that we have a sexual assault problem in the Marine Corps. Those who have had to personally respond to an incident of sexual assault know how poisonous it can be for a command, no matter the outcome. But many others consider it to be someone else’s problem. We will spend all our time coming up with reasons why Marines don’t need a sexual assault prevention and response program rather than accepting the possibility that we could prevent incidents from occurring. For example, it is common for Marines to blame the victim for incidents of sexual assault. I readily admit my own propensity to say, “She shouldn’t have put herself in that situation.” The irony in this is that we fail to see the absurdity of directing our energies toward finding fault. If a person dies in a car accident on the way to their job one morning, do we say that he shouldn’t have left for work? If a person is robbed coming out of a convenience store, do we say that he should never have gone in? My point is that, in blaming the victim for the incident, we are misdirecting our focus. In what other context might we as leaders encounter an issue when we are not expected to simply take whatever situation we are given and make it better? Why is the problem of sexual assault any different from any other leadership challenge we face?
Instead, we need to devote our concerted energies to preventing incidents of sexual assault through education, training, discussion, intervention, and interruption, if necessary. It is the only time leading up to, during, or following an incident of sexual assault that a command can impact the incident. The events following an incident are often completely out of the control of the command. In fact, the only thing the command can hope to control after a sexual assault incident has occurred is the damage.
Also ironic is that we are trying to prevent the very incidents that, until one occurs in a command, Marines do not believe is their problem. The required limited distribution of the notification of an incident generates secrecy and ignorance about the problem for those Marines who have never been directly involved, yet they are our prime audience for change and prevention. Marines with the most credibility to change the minds of those who are most defensive are the commanders who have witnessed firsthand the ramifications of an allegation of sexual assault on their command. The officers and SNCOs who have been through it already understand the corrosive effects likely to result from these types of incidents.
Sexual assault is an inherently emotional issue; however, no step in the Marine Corps Planning Process affords Marines the latitude to base planning decisions on emotion. The agenda by a perceived outsider that focuses on the obvious—that sexual assault is bad—is not the way to get Marines’ attention. Despite the emotional cacophony surrounding this issue, I believe the Marine Corps will only succeed in defeating it with a logical, rational response. After all, do we not pride ourselves on keeping our heads when all those about us are losing theirs? Our Marines are emotional about this. Just ask them. They are infuriated that something like this goes on in their Marine Corps. They see when action is not taken to hold offenders accountable. The officers and SNCOs who work with young Marines on a regular basis particularly owe it to them to take responsibility.
Marines don’t need a sexual assault prevention and response program to tell them that sexual assault is bad; they already know that, and they don’t disagree. To truly change behaviors and attitudes about sexual assault in our Marine Corps, there must first be acknowledgement to a greater degree that there is a problem, that Marines should take personal ownership of the problem, and that we know and believe every one of us has the power, the voice, and the obligation to change something that is wrong. Only when we as leaders accept this will our young Marines follow.