The chair of the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee, Chris Swecker. Photo by Lisa Ferdinando.

A SHARP Rebuke

“The Army fires or suspends 14 leaders at Fort Hood,” read headlines across the country this week after the Army released the independent investigation into the command climate at the base.

The Fort Hood Independent Review Committee report that led the Army to take the personnel actions is jarring.

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy appointed the FHIRC to investigate the command climate and culture at Fort Hood. The committee conducted individual interviews with 647 soldiers, group interviews with 1,817 soldiers, and a survey that received 31,612 responses.

The report laid out nine findings and 70 recommendations. Of the findings, three stick out. The committee found strong evidence that incidents of sexual assault and sexual harassment are significantly underreported, the Army Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program is structurally flawed, and the command climate at Fort Hood has been permissive of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

The committee found 93 credible accounts of sexual assault during 507 interviews with female soldiers, but only 59 were reported. “Some of the accounts of unreported sexual assault were extremely serious and had significant impact on the victim’s health and well-being,” the report said.

As for the SHARP program, the committee found several deficiencies. The SHARP program relies on borrowed military manpower, is underemphasized, and requires considerable time to develop SHARP military professionals. Too often, the SHARP program focuses on administrative functions and response rather than prevention.

While the findings regarding unreported assault and harassment and the SHARP program highlight significant failures within our system, the finding about the command climate is the most troubling.

“The command climate relative to the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) Program at Fort Hood was ineffective, to the extent that there was a permissive environment for sexual assault and sexual harassment,” read the report.

A permissive environment for sexual assault and sexual harassment. Permissive — as in, allowed to occur.

An indication of the command’s approach to sexual assault and sexual harassment is how leaders treat soldiers who report. Are they taken seriously? Are they retaliated against?

During a press conference announcing the report’s findings, Task and Purpose’s Haley Britzky asked members of the FHIRC if there were any recurring concerns or complaints about the SHARP program.

“One of the things that the soldiers of Fort Hood [needed] was to be believed…[to be believed] was a really important takeaway,” responded Carrie Ricci, one of five members of the FHIRC.

The group interviews conducted by the FHIRC revealed the insidious ways women are undermined in discussions about sexual assault and sexual harassment.

“When female Soldiers spoke up about their concerns, they were frequently shut down and essentially drowned out by the male Soldiers. There were many incidents when a courageous female Soldier would speak up regarding her experiences with the SHARP Program or the flaws in the program, only to be contradicted and even ridiculed by other male members in the group in front of both the interviewer and the JAG Officer annotating responses. This dynamic exposed the hardened attitudes of a number of male Soldiers towards female Soldiers and the SHARP Program in general,” the report stated.

A command climate survey conducted in 2019 found another failure within the command climate on how victims are treated. “Only 60% of III Corps women believed there would be no form of retaliation if they were to report a sexual assault,” the survey found.

Read another way, 40% of women did not believe they would be protected from backlash if they reported.

Reading through the report, you could substitute “Fort Hood’s command climate” with the name of any other Army base. The Army’s cultural approach to allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment is toxic.

Regarding sexual assault and sexual harassment against women — a focus of the report — our inclination is to blame the victim.

The onus is incorrectly placed on women to avoid scenarios that cause them to be assaulted or harassed. And often, the perpetrators are protected.

“Stop wearing provocative clothing.”

“I know him — he wouldn’t do that.”

“Stop wearing lipstick.”

“This could ruin a good soldier’s career.”

“Stop flirting at work.”

“It’s just a misunderstanding.”

“Stop giving mixed signals.”

Don’t take my word for it. Read through these threaded tweets to see first-hand accounts of the abuse victims are subjected to — abuse by perpetrators and abuse by the chains of command that enable them.

Women shouldn’t have to avoid being sexually assaulted. It is men’s responsibility not to assault others. Full stop.

I encourage everyone to read through the report, accept that we have a severe cultural defect, and reflect on how to be a part of the solution. Looking back on my time as a commander, I wish I had placed more emphasis on the SHARP program. I wish I had been more vocal about the importance of treating everyone with dignity and respect.

If you lead soldiers, talk to them about the report. Tell them that you will take any allegation of sexual harassment or assault seriously. Tell them that you will start from a position of believing them instead of a position of doubt.

As a result of the Fort Hood independent review, the Army already changed its process on reporting missing soldiers. I’m looking forward to seeing what changes the Army will implement to change our permissive culture of sexual assault and sexual harassment. One thing is clear — the chain of command must be the starting point.

Indeed, changing the behaviors and attitudes of leaders and soldiers at the lowest level is necessary to overcome the scourge of sexual assault and sexual harassment. But too often, this focus is used as a solution that doesn’t require sweeping changes for leaders at higher echelons.

The chains of command at every level and every installation must lead the change by emphasizing justice and soldier welfare above all else.

The independent review laid this out succinctly.

“The Command must cultivate a zero-tolerance orientation toward sexual assault, sexual harassment, retaliation, and breaches of confidentiality. And, there must be a swift and just response that is visible to the victim and would-be wrongdoers. This Review determined that these critical elements were lacking.”

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The views expressed are those of Brennan Randel and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or any government agency.

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