There are a handful of reasons that Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., joined the Air Force. A debt-free college education, to make her late father proud, to channel her “feistiness,” she said — but also, to put the sexual advances by a high school track coach behind her.
Now, since she publicly shared it in a March Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, we know that America’s first female fighter pilot to fly in combat and the first female squadron commander also faced sexual misconduct while serving.
“For me, little did I know as I went off to the military that I would have similar experiences there,” she said Thursday at the Naval Academy, in a speech at the inaugural National Discussion on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at America’s College, Universities and Services Academies.
“I didn’t plan to do this, but I certainly didn’t plan to be raped, either,” she added.
McSally addressed superintendents from the three service academies, as well as service chiefs and their top enlisted advisers, representatives from more than 100 colleges and universities and more from research, academia and the non-profit world.
“While I’m excited to be here … I’m not happy to be here,” Navy Secretary Richard Spencer told the audience. “I’m frustrated to be here. And I’m concerned about the ongoing scourge of sexual assault and sexual harassment.”
A recent study of service academies found that cadets and midshipmen are overall trusting in their leadership to address and hold accountable instances of sexual harassment, Army Secretary Mark Esper said in his remarks.
“While leadership is necessary, it is not sufficient,” he added. “That same study found that cadets lack confidence that their peers are doing enough to prevent this problem.”
“Lord of the Flies”
Sexual harassment and assault are not only pervasive in the military and on college campuses, experts said in panels throughout the day, but in American communities at large.
“But we expect the military to be better, right?” McSally said. “What can we do to not have an environment that becomes a petri dish for things like this to happen?”
An alumna of the Air Force Academy, McSally offered that the power dynamic of early military training can pose a problem, where young people are taught to unquestioningly follow the commands of the men and women in charge of them — a ripe opportunity for abuse.
Student leadership at service academies is a prime example, she said.
“But then we put 19-year-olds in charge of 18-year-olds, and then the adults leave for the weekend,” she said. “It’s like the ‘Lord of the Flies!’ ”
Her suggestion would be to leave the power with officers and noncommissioned officers, she said.
“I take her point,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told reporters. “We are developing young leaders. Those leaders need supervision themselves.”
Teenagers will continue to lead teenagers, Spencer said.
“That being said, there’s a lot that we can do to make sure that they have the tools that they need to do this properly,” he said.
And that approach, Esper added, can be applied in enhanced sexual assault prevention and response training for peer leaders, on top of the mandatory training everyone receives.
“If you can empower those peer leaders, that will give you a lot better return on investment, rather than trying to spread peanut butter across the entire student body,” he said.
“Taking it seriously”
Soon after taking the helm at the University of Alaska, James Johnsen was faced with a public relations dilemma: The Education Department’s civil rights office was auditing their 16 campuses, and the findings were not stellar.
He chose to get ahead of any announcement of their conclusions, he said, bringing in a crisis communications team to come up with a strategy to share the findings with the public.
To brush up on campus sexual assault, he watched “The Hunting Ground,” a 2015 documentary on just that.
“There were interviews of maybe a dozen or so university presidents, and they were all in their finery, in their offices, talking about how they take this issue ‘very seriously,’ ” Johnsen said. “Then after one, it would say — I’m going to make up a number — of 190 cases, no expulsions.”
And then the same one after the other, he added — dozens, hundreds of cases, but no expulsions.
“I learned not to say the following sentence: We take this issue very, very seriously,” he said.
It’s the same language that military leaders use when an issue arises, and those same statements have been given countless times in response to a sexual assault allegation or study findings.
Still, leaders are hoping that by teaming up with universities and other experts to share data and best practices, they can produce more concrete results.
“I would tell you, something new? It’s making sure we all understand this. Stewardship is an important part of this,” Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, superintendent of the United States Military Academy, told Military Times. “I’ll speak for West Point — the cadets have to own this.”
Cadets from the Air Force Academy and West Point, as well as Naval Academy midshipmen, were also in attendance, Naval Academy superintendent Vice Adm. Ted Carter confirmed.
“Being responsible and being good to each other, being good teammates, and treating each other like brothers and sisters is very important,” Williams said.
The service secretaries are also taking back lessons from the conference, they said.
“Something, I think, to take home was Jackson Katz,” Spencer said. “He hit something — I had a brilliant light over my head — I went, ‘Oh my god, it sounds so simple,’ but that is a root cause fix right there."
Katz, creator of a gender violence prevention and education program called Mentors in Violence Prevention, presented a challenge to men to become leading voices in sexual assault and harassment prevention.
He also called for a frank discussion about the fact that men are the leading perpetrators of sexual violence, both against women and other men.
“It’s time for male leadership, men, to stand up and address this, also,” Spencer said. “It was — I won’t say a brilliant flash of the obvious — but something that we can look at and take back.”
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT