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Defense Department outlines strategy to thwart sexual assault in military

  • Published
  • By Terri Moon Cronk
  • DOD News

The Department of Defense announced its strategy as approved by the secretary of defense to act on the recommendations of the 90-day Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment in the Military, said Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen H. Hicks said.

In DOD's implementation roadmap, the deputy secretary said DOD will make foundational investments to support sexual assault accountability, prevention programs, healthy command climates and quality victim care. 

"To date, sexual harassment and sexual assault have been serious problems in our force with lethal consequences for service members and harmful effects on our combat readiness," Hicks said. 

"This administration has placed an unprecedentedly high priority on this challenge and, in fact, in his first day in office, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III issued a memorandum to department leadership tasking them with reporting data pertaining to sexual assault and sexual harassment. On Feb. 26, at the direction of President Biden, Secretary Austin established the 90-day independent review commission," she told reporters at the Pentagon.

When the IRC provided its findings and recommendations to Austin on June 21, 82 recommendations spanned four lines of effort in accountability, prevention, climate and culture and victim care, Hicks said. 

On July 2, fewer than six months after stating his intent to lead DOD in countering sexual assault and sexual harassment, Austin directed an implementation way ahead. 

"We have now created that way ahead called the implementation roadmap, and Secretary Austin has approved it in its entirety," she said.

DOD constructed the roadmap by creating specialized teams comprising experts across the department. After reviewing the IRC's recommendations, experts identified sequencing issues, estimated resource requirements and characterized the risks and benefits associated with different implementation paths, Hicks noted. 

Built in consultation with DOD's civilian and uniformed leadership, the roadmap represents a best-in-practice sexual assault and harassment prevention and response program that ensures rapid action and early and enduring results, she added.

Based on Austin's guidance, DOD's approach is holistic, addressing all of the IRC's recommendations across his four lines of effort it's implementing in four tiers of action, the deputy secretary said. 

"Our goal is to implement [the strategy] as rapidly as possible while ensuring we can deliver durable and meaningful outcomes," she said, noting the first tier, or foundation, is already being put in place. 

"[Tier 1] consists of the most important elements in preventing sexual assault and sexual harassment and holding offenders accountable," Hicks said. "The preponderance of initiatives and resources are focused in our first tier. For instance, it contains three of our highest-priority recommendations, including the establishment of the offices of special-victim prosecutors, the creation of a full-time and specialized prevention workforce, and the implementation of full-time sexual assault response coordinators and sexual assault prevention and response victim advocate positions."

Follow-on tiers, Hicks noted, build on and expand the foundation. Yet the tiered approach is not rigidly constructed, she said, adding that it has been devised in a way to be dynamic and it's expected to evolve over time as more expedient pathways or best practices are identified. 

"Make no mistake, the department is committed to completing implementation on as fast a timeline as possible, while ensuring our efforts take deep root throughout all levels of leadership down to the unit and individual level," the deputy secretary said.

"To that end, we are taking necessary steps in the department to ensure expedient implementation of recommendations that the administration has already proposed in legislation," Hicks said.

In the memorandum Austin released today, he includes four specific actions to ensure DOD begins to swiftly and deliberately move from the recommendations contained in the roadmap to implementation, she said. 

First, he has directed the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness to issue enterprise-wide guidance for implementing all recommendations this fall, beginning with guidance on Tier 1 recommendations by Oct. 13, 2021.
Second, each service and relevant component is directed to develop implementation plans and resource mapping by Nov. 12, 2021, for Tier 1 recommendations, and by the end of January 2022 for all actions. 
Third, the undersecretary for personnel and readiness will develop an outcome metrics evaluation report by May 1, 2022, which will track the effectiveness and progress on implementation. 
Fourth, in consultation with the services and relevant components, the undersecretary for personnel and readiness will formally assess the roadmap no fewer than two times a year, and make recommendations to Hicks through the Deputies Workforce Council.

The DWC in turn will meet quarterly to monitor implementation progress and accelerate timelines wherever possible, she added.

"Countering sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military remains a priority for Secretary Austin, for President Biden and for me. We continue to move quickly and deliberately and [we] are committed to the path that I have outlined," Hicks said.

"Our changes are comprehensive and they provide us an opportunity to deal a fundamental blow to this problem," the deputy secretary said. "[Our] service members deserve no less. And our combat effectiveness depends on our success."

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen H. Hicks speaks to reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon, Sept. 22, 2021.