The Hidden Issue: A Historical Examination of Sexual Assault and Misconduct within the U.S. Armed Forces
This article is a permitted reprint previously published on the military sexual assault advocacy organization website, Combat Sexual Assault.
The issue of sexual assault within the U.S. military has become a hot topic. Following the murder of Specialist Vanessa Guillén in 2020, whole sectors of society have become far more aware of the issue of sexual abuse, harassment, and other misconduct within the U.S. Armed Forces.
Congress has taken action by passing multiple bills to deal with sexual assault. The U.S. military has changed the way in which sexual assault cases are processed. The White House has made sexual harassment a crimeunder the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).
To most everyone, Guillén’s murder was a shocking event, one that stunned civilians and military personnel alike. However, this was not an isolated event, nor was it the first of its kind to strike the military and shock the public. Sadly, the issue of sexual assault and harassment within the military is one that has been building over time and been a known and serious problem for at least the past thirty years.
For many, the Tailhook scandal was the first event which pointed to a growing sexual assault problem within the U.S. Armed Forces.
The scandal began with the Tailhook Association, an organization comprised of U.S. Navy and Marine Corps aviators, whom would gather at various hotels in the Las Vegas area since the mid-1950s. By the 1980s, despite being an unofficial organization, the association and conference hosted many high ranking Naval and Marine Corps officers, with there being strategic and tactical presentations on current military affairs. Effectively, in the eyes of many Navy and Marine Corps officers and senior enlisted personnel, the conference was a quasi-official gathering.
Starting in the 1980s, these conferences became more tolerant of raucous behavior of a sexual nature which eventually came to a head in the September 1991 Tailhook Association convention. This included instances of hiring strippers and prostitutes for private dances in many of the hospitality suites rented for whole aviation units in addition to public nudity (including but not limited to streaking) and airing pornographic films in the suites. At this same time, Naval and Marine aviators also engaged in more criminal sexual activities; this included the random groping female civilians and military personnel alike, but also the running of a “gauntlet” (also referred to as the “gantlet”).
This “gauntlet” was described in U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) Inspector General (IG) reports as being “a loosely formed group of men who lined the corridor outside the hospitality suites, generally in the later hours of each of the three nights of the convention, and “touched” women who passed down the corridor” with this touching being described as ranging “from consensual pats on the breasts and buttocks to violent grabbing, groping and other clearly assaultive behavior”. The Los Angeles Times reported that “Many women reportedly were lured unwittingly into the gantlet by officers who steered them toward it casually. The awaiting aviators appeared to arrange themselves so that women would not recognize what they were approaching” while a Navy enlisted person testified to Navy investigators that “[the] victims looked like they had been through a pinball machine”.
One of those assaulted in the “gauntlet”, Lieutenant Paula Coughlin, was an aide to the Commander of Naval Air Test Center, Rear Admiral John Snyder, and reported the incident to him the morning after. When no action had been taken by Snyder, Coughlin reported the incident to Vice Admiral Richard Dunleavy, Assistant Chief of Naval Operations (Air Warfare), who in turn demanded the Naval Investigative Service (NIS) open an investigation.
When the Navy’s report was completed in April of 1992, public outcry from Congress and the public resulted in the DoD’s Inspector General (IG) investigating, releasing a September 1992 and April 1993 report which heavily criticized the Navy’s conduct and handling of the entire scandal.
The report found the “Under Secretary of the Navy failed to ensure that all important aspects of Tailhook 91 were adequately addressed [and] turned down the Naval IG request to do an “all-up investigation” concerning the issue of misconduct…[the Commander of the NIS] expressed personal views and took positions on issues which, at least collectively, should have caused his suitability to conduct the investigation to be questioned…[Navy Judge Advocate General, JAG] demonstrated poor professional judgment in his failure to eliminate a significant conflict of interest” in addition to faulting the Navy’s Inspector general for not ensuring “that his reports would have an adequate factual basis and made questionable referrals of individuals to the chain of command for consideration of disciplinary action”.
The DoD found the entire investigation bungled by virtually every organization or high-ranking commander whose stated goal was to protect their subordinate officers and non-commissioned officers from harm, punish those who engage in criminal activity, and ensure the professionalism and ethos of their branch was upheld.
Following the scandal, according to PBS Frontline, “119 Navy and 21 Marine Corps officers were referred by Pentagon investigators for possible disciplinary actions” being cited “for incidents of indecent assault/exposure, conduct unbecoming an officer or failure to act in a proper leadership capacity” while over 50 others were “found to have made false statements during the investigation”. However, as so often happens in sexual assault or misconduct investigations, not one of these cases were ever tried. Roughly 70 of the total 140lacked the necessary evidence to head to trial while the rest “went to mast”, an internal “non-judicial disciplinary procedure that meted out fines and severe career penalties”.
Multiple Admirals had their careers sidelined, were forced to retire early, or demoted in rank. Those who were forced into early retirement were Rear Admiral Duvall Williams, the NIS Commander, Rear Admiral John Gordon, the Navy’s Judge Advocate General (JAG), while the Navy IG, Rear Admiral George W. Davis, was among those reassigned. In total, Navy Secretary John Dalton “ordered "non-punitive" administration actions against 30 other admirals” in addition to reductions in rank. LT Coughlin, the woman who stood up to this misconduct and whose actions initiated the investigations, testified before Congress on the scandal, yet resigned from the Navy not long after testifying when it became clear she would not be allowed to advance in addition to receiving hate mail.
The Aberdeen Proving Ground Scandal
Despite being a lesser known incident, this scandal shook the U.S. Army to its core. In early 1996, reports of sexual misconduct arose from the Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG) in Hartford County, Maryland. Aberdeen was the headquarters for the U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command (TECOM), which dealt with the planning and conduct “of technical tests of materiel items/systems as assigned” and managed multiple other facilities in Alaska, Arizona, Alabama, Utah, and Arizona in addition to providing “independent technical assessments of materiel”.
The U.S. Army’s Ordnance Center and School, the primary school for training enlisted personnel in over two dozen specialties, was also centered at APG and would be the center of the scandal.
In January of 1996, Major General Robert D. Shadley, the Chief of Ordnance and Commanding General of the Ordnance Center and School, observed young trainees “going into downtown Aberdeen, renting a room at a hotel, drinking and ultimately having sex with each other” upon which the Army implemented procedures in which “drill sergeants [were moved] into the barracks to supervise the trainees at night”. In September of that same year, Private Jessica Bleckley “complained that Staff Sergeant Nathanael Beach [alternatively spelled “Beech”]…had sexually assaulted her [around July 1996]” upon which other women enlisted personnel came forward alleging sexual assault and misconduct towards Staff Sergeant (SSG) Delmar Simpson and Captain (CPT) Derrick Robertson.
Eleven months later, in November of 1996, the U.S. Army announced charges of rape, sexual harassment, and assault against “three male officers responsible for training new recruits at Aberdeen, and investigating at least 17 others”.
Almost immediately, the media and the nation reacted to the charges with rapt attention, charging the APG Scandal as the “Army’s Tailhook”.
Retired Chief of Staff of the Army (CSA) General Dennis Reimer recounted in an interview he was first informed of the Aberdeen Case by the staff and his initial reaction was “disbelief” followed by “a need to get to the bottom of this”. He further expounded that while “a Basic Training Commander early in my career I knew what a great job our Drill Sergeants did and how important it was that we get this under control because it was fundamentally a strategic issue that went against the foundation of the All-Volunteer Army—how were we going to recruit quality soldiers if we did not treat them with dignity and respect?” making this a daily issue and staying high on the priority list for both the senior, commissioned military leaders and the civilian Army leaders.
In April of 1997, trials began in the APG Scandal, with two women coming forward and testifying that SSG Simpson had assaulted them in March of 1995; simultaneously, CPT Robertson pled guilty “two counts of conduct unbecoming an officer and one count of failing to obey a lawful general order” being sentenced to four months in prison and receiving a discharge. SSG Simpson was convicted of “18 counts of rape and 34 other offenses, mostly sexual misconduct” in May of 1997 and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Bleckley would later leave the military in January of 1997 with an honorable discharge, citing hardship. Shadley, the general officer who had first alerted the Army to the questionable, criminal conduct and worked to hold soldiers accountable, was eventually forced by Army leadership to retire from the Army in 2000. He now works as an advocate for sexual assault, harassment, and misconduct awareness and reform in the U.S. Armed Forces and has even published a book on the Aberdeen scandal, the only defining work on the scandal.
From a leadership perspective, the U.S. Army handled this case with a strong fist; the civilian leaders from Army Secretary Togo West to commissioned officers like CSA Reimer, seemed to take the lessons and missteps from Tailhook and apply them to Aberdeen, working to ensure they performed their job as professionally as possible and kept the soldiers under their command safe from harm.
CSA Reimer identified the problem saying, “Aberdeen was the initial problem, but we found it was not the only training base where this kind of conduct was taking place. Some level of leadership knew about this and just didn’t take the correct action”. Accordingly, Reimer got “all the four-stars [Army’s Strategic Leadership], together so we could discuss what are the values most important to us and how can we make them come alive. Those values were Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity and Personal Courage. When we first adjourned we had courage [but] a smart Major who was putting this whole effort together for us told us if we changed courage to Personal Courage we had LDRSHIP. That was a no-brainer, probably the easiest decision I have ever made."
Reimer also described how the Army “did “Chain Teaching” of our Values and made them part of our on-boarding process for new recruits as well as part of our daily operations in all areas of the Army…Values are the heart and soul of good organizations and you can never take them for granted."
Where leadership had enabled this abuse to occur, leadership also was the solution. To this day, in the Armyand Congress, Aberdeen is very well remembered and, in looking at how the U.S. Armed Forces can deal with sexual assault, an effective case study showing where leadership can work to ensure a safer fighting force.
The 2003 U.S. Air Force Academy Scandal
The Air Force themselves were the subject of multiple scandals in the early 2000s. The first was the 2003 USAF Academy Scandal, which shook most of the Air Force community.
In February 2003, an anonymous email was sent to “the Secretary of the Air Force, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Senator Wayne Allard, Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, other U.S. Congressmen, and media representatives” which alleged “there was a significant sexual assault problem at the Academy that had been ignored by the Academy’s leadership” upon which the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI) and the Air Force Inspector General each began investigating.
According to some women who reported their experiences to AFOSI, interviewed by ABC’s 20/20, the agents responses varied, with some pledging to bring the case to court while others berated the women, with one called the victim “a promiscuous slut”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Academy also punished at least two of the victims who reported the rape, the justification ranging from sexual activity to fraternization. Others detailed their experiences with reporting the incidents in even more detail to Vanity Fair.
That March, the Secretary of the Air Force James G. Roche, said the investigation had uncovered “54 reports of sexual assault or rape over the past 10 years at the United States Air Force Academy” while also commenting “the number of women who have been sexually assaulted at the academy is probably much higher than 54, because many women undoubtedly were afraid or ashamed to report the abuses”. The Tailhook scandal, in the minds of both commissioned and civilian Air Force leadership, was very prescient.
Days later, “Air Force Academy superintendent, Gen. John R. Dallger, his second-in-command, Brig. Gen. S. Taco Gilbert III, vice commandant Col. Robert D. Eskridge, and the commandant of cadet training, Col. Laurie S. Slavec” were all transferred from their positions at the Academy and replaced.
Initially, facing intense criticism about their handling of the case, the Air Force announced that 20 cadets had been disciplined from 1990 to 2003; of those 20, “one was court-martialed and convicted of rape… four were convicted at court-martial for offenses ranging from indecent acts to sodomy and received prison terms of several months to two years… Eight other cadets have been expelled for sexual misconduct without undergoing a court-martial since 1996, and at least seven more cadets received reprimands for offenses including indecent acts, indecent language, indecent assault and, in one case, forcible sodomy”. However, rather than having a calming effect, many rape counselors in the Colorado Springs, Colorado area (where the Air Force Academy is located) “said the Air Force figures -- particularly the single conviction for rape -- proved the Air Force has turned a blind eye to victims of sexual assault”.
While the military did create commissions with the intent of investigating sexual assault at the Academy and the Committee on Armed Services of the U.S. Senate held hearings (in the form of the Fowler Commission), others noted some problems with the extent of which the Air Force was considering the case. Christine Hansen, the then-Executive Director of The Miles Foundation, was interviewed by Government Executive and quoted as saying, “The context that they have been trying to put this in is that it is a college campus”.
The Air Force General Counsel also released a report (dubbed the Walker Report after General Counsel Mary L. Walker) which “found a fairly extensive comprehensive program to deter sexual assaults that had been put in place in 1993” along with no “systematic ignorance of the issue, any systematic avoidance by leadership, and we did not find any wholesale maltreatment of cadets who brought forward allegations”. Many, both in the public, media, and political circles, criticized the report.
The Fowler Commission report, released three months after the Walker Report in September of 2003, was substantially tougher, finding “numerous failings over the past 10 years…It is simply not plausible that the working group was unaware of the many instances of involvement by Air Force leadership” effectively rebuking the Walker report. The Fowler Commission also criticized Colonel Slavec, finding she not only intimidated and punished “women cadets who did report rape allegations” but also saw the ultimate problem being “rampant alcohol use and a permissive environment, which led women who had consented to sex to later cry rape” while also stating she was “unaware of the Air Force’s definition of rape”.
The report additionally questioned why Brigadier General David A. Wagie, the dean of faculty, was allowed to remain in his post given he “was the officer most responsible for the sexual assault response program and for downplaying “social climate surveys” that showed an assault problem on campus”. The Fowler Commission was significantly stronger than the Walker Report and demonstrated a higher level of holding persons accountable that the Air Force General Counsel’s report.
In the aftermath of the various investigations, prosecutions were incredibly few. Douglas L. Meester, a sophomore, was brought up on charges “including rape, sodomy, providing alcohol to minors and indecent assault” in May of 2003. Interestingly, former Vice Commandant and retired Colonel Robert Eskridge testified in Meester’s defense at a hearing saying the incident was “consensual sex in the dorm by people who were underage drinking”. In June of 2004, Meester accepted a plea to “conduct unbecoming an officer, indecent acts and dereliction of duty” with the charges of rape, sodomy, provisionment of alcohol, and assault being dropped and, according to the online magazine Female First, was “fined $2000 [USD] and received a written reprimand”. He was the only person charged with any of the allegations made by persons who came forward.
Colonel Don Christensen, the President of the non-profit, military sexual assault advocacy group Protect Our Defenders (POD), was the Chief Circuit Trial Counsel for the USAF Judiciary Circuit at the time of the 2003 scandal. He recalled in an interview there was a sizeable amount of cases known, but also a sizeable amount of “disbelief” between him and other prosecutors with the main question among them being “How is it that none are being prosecuted?”. He also recalled that while pressure was put upon the Academy’s leadership to try and solve these issues, this “pressure eventually went away…[it wasn’t] long-lasting [there was] an idea of making sure everything was done right, but that didn't necessarily mean going to trial”.
In addition to this, Congress developed a federal advisory committee called the Defense Task Force on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies, with various sexual assault advocates, retired and active duty military officers, and psychologists. One of the members of this task force was then-Colonel Sharon K. Dunbar of the U.S. Air Force. At the time of the scandal, she was “serving as the Commander of Air Force Basic Training” and her initial reaction to the scandal “was one of great disappointment”, coming from a military training environment.
The Task Force’s recommendations were released in 2005, providing a substantial set of causes to the Pentagon and DoD on sexual assault within the service academies in addition to various recommendations. In an interview via email with now retired Major General Dunbar, speaking both as a retired U.S. Air Force general officer and former graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, “there was a strong commitment among all Task Force members and staff that our report needed to be a catalyst for more aggressively preventing and addressing the continuum of sexual misconduct at the military service academies and in the armed forces… I never felt the Task Force was constrained in the type or scope of recommendations it could make”. According to Dunbar, while the DoD may not have broadly agreed with each recommendation made by the Committee “the Services and Department of Defense were quick to initiate actions to address recommendations and report back to Congress on their progress”.
The Air Force Academy case is clearly a marked difference from the Aberdeen Proving Ground scandal. While the Army, for the most part, tried to do right by their soldiers, the Air Force failed in their attempts to keep cadets safe and hold their people accountable. Simply, the Air Force failed to learn from Tailhook and instead repeated the same mistakes, arguably causing immense damage to their own officer corps.
While 2003 was nearly two decades ago, the Academy still seems to have some issues in the field of sexual assault prevention. A 2017 article from the Colorado Springs Gazette detailed how the Academy’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) “derelict in the performance" of duties and bungled care for victims” with “The amount of evidence demonstrating a lack of competency and ability in delivering professional victim care is overwhelming. It wouldn't be feasible to try to rehash - or even summarize - all the issues and concerns borne out by witness testimony” while a 2020-21 SAPRO report on service academy assaults also found the U.S. Air Force Academy to have the highest amount of reported sexual assaults in comparison to all other service academies.
U.S. Air Force Basic Military Training (BMT) Scandal
Just eight years later, another scandal would also shake the U.S. Air Force, being reminiscent of the Army’s Aberdeen scandal.
The U.S. Air Force Basic Training scandal occurred at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas and broke publicly in 2012. The scandal involved drill sergeants and other basic military training (BMT) instructors, but, like so many other cases, involved officers of a higher command authority.
During a June 2012 evidentiary hearing, two victims discussed the conditions they were exposed to in October of 2011. On the last night before they were to leave BMT, two cadets were “called over an intercom…asked them to leave the dorm and meet them…in a dimly lit supply room” where both testified they were forced to have sex with Staff Sergeants Kwinton Estacio and Craig LeBlanc. These two reports resulted in an investigation being made which resulted in Estacio being charged with “an improper relationship with one woman, violating a no-contact order and obstruction of justice” and LeBlanc being charged with “sexual misconduct with two female students, violating a no-contact order, adultery and obstruction”.
These reports promptly resulted in additional investigations against instructors at BMT. Days after this evidentiary hearing, the Air Force announced they “identified at least 31 women as victims”. Estacio and LeBlanc were not the only ones charged; according to NPR, “A total of 12 Air Force instructors are under investigation for allegedly abusing recruits at Lackland Air Force Base” with Staff Sergeant Luis Walker facing charges of rape and sexual assault. Assisting in the prosecution and overall investigation was Staff Sergeant Peter Vega-Maldonado, an instructor who pleaded guilty and “provided testimony against two other trainers who have been charged”. Eventually, “62 cadets alleged sexual misconduct at the hands of more than 30 training instructors from 2009 to 2012”.
These investigations sparked immense public and political outcry. Sharon Dunbar, now a Brigadier General, recalled feeling “dismayed” upon hearing of the developments with the case, her especially being aware of “all the measures we had implemented during the 2003-2004 timeframe when I commanded Air Force Basic Training, and knowing how focused the Air Force had been on preventing sexual assault”. In addition to this outcry and internal discussion, the House Armed Services Committee eventually holding a public hearing on the scandal in January of 2013.
By this time, however, many of the cases had gone to trial and punishments had been meted out to those instructors accused and found guilty. According to Air Force Magazine, Walker was convicted of rape, aggravated sexual assault, and adultery among other charges, being sentenced “20 years in prison, a dishonorable discharge, a reduction in rank to airman basic, and a forfeiture of all pay and allowances”; he would later be found dead in his cell of an apparent suicide in September of 2014.
Technical Sergeant Christopher Smith “was sentenced to 30 days of confinement and reduction in rank to airman first class” after being found guilty of having an “intimate relationship with one recruit…and carrying on a personal relationship” with another. Staff Sergeant Emily Allen pled guilty to having “sex with a technical school student…and three other specifications that included an attempted sexual relationship with another technical school trainee, as well as improper social relationships with two women” eventually sentenced to “three months in jail…30 days' hard labor and” a reduction in rank to Airman First Class. Staff Sergeant Kwinton Estacio pled “guilty to having sex with a recruit under his command” and was given a sentence of “12 months in prison, reduction in rank to airman and a bad-conduct discharge”; this had come after a jury had found him not guilty of sexual assault, which carried an even stronger punishment.
Vega-Maldonado, due to the fact he had given testimony which assisted the prosecution was sentenced to “90 days of confinement, 30 days of hard labor, forfeiture of $500 of his monthly pay for four months, and reduction in rank to airman”, sentence which even the Air Force Magazine called an “immunity bath”.
Additionally, Colonel Glenn E. Palmer, commanding officer of the 737th Training Group, and Lieutenant Colonel Michael Paquette, commanding officer of the 331stTraining Squadron, the specific units where abuses took place, were both fired from their posts. A special outside investigation headed by a USAF Major General was created and General Edward Rice, Jr., commanding officer of the Air Education and Training Command (AETC), publicly stated “We are leaving no stone unturned. I’m not minimizing this investigation. In fact, I’m being as aggressive as I can, and we won’t stop the investigation until I’m completely satisfied that we’ve done as thorough a job as we possibly can”.
In many ways, this scandal was just as dangerous to the Air Force as a whole. And in many ways, the Air Force reacted well to these incidents, conducting an investigation, bringing those who could be prosecuted to trial, and working to try and develop a better Air Force. However, some observers, both from the military and outside, found flaws.
General Rice, while stating he would not minimize the investigation, effectively did the opposite. He was quoted as saying “It is not an issue of an endemic problem throughout basic military training…It is more localized, and we are doing a very intensive investigation on that squadron to find out what exactly happened and why”. While it is clear Rice wanted to discover why this occurred and root it out from the squadron, this limits the investigation and negates any further, outside discussion about sexual assault within military training or, as a whole, within the U.S. Air Force.
Colonel Christensen, then Chief Prosecutor of the Government Trials division of the U.S. Air Force, recalled the BMT scandal well in an interview. “There was a lot of political pressure to handle it,” he said, “I had my two best prosecutors at Lackland [for months] to oversee the cases and investigation.” He stressed however that there was “no thought about the broader indictment” of the Air Force or Armed Forces as a whole, looking at this event through the lens of “Lackland…training, regulations and relationships of trainers and trainees”.
One of the lawyers for the victims, Susan Burke, agreed, saying, “What we have is a series of scandals....that every once in a while rise to public attention. But there's a structural problem…And the way the structure is set up, a single person in the chain of command, a single individual, has the unfettered power to simply wipe away a conviction of a jury. This happens time and time again”.
Nonetheless, some agreed with Rice. Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine Corps communications officer who taught trainees martial arts and was at the time President of the military sexual advocacy group Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), stated in a CNN interview, “Nine of those 12 were in one unit. We have a total of nine squadrons, and nine of them came from one squadron. So in my assessment to this point, it is not an issue of an endemic problem throughout basic military training. It is more localized”.
While certainly many of the sexual assaults occurred within this single squadron, it is rather telling and perhaps unsurprising that this did not result in some self-reflection by Air Force leadership about the prevalence of sexual assault in the military. At the least, the Air Force could have and should have used this opportunity to reflect upon the pervasiveness of sexual assault and misconduct within military training.
According to documents obtained by the San Antonio Express-News, “Between September 2002 and December 2011, 24 instructors, most of them male, faced administrative or criminal charges stemming from illicit conduct with trainees” with 13 of these cases finding that instructors “had sexual relationships with one or more trainees”. The paper also reported that “Air Force officials characterized all of the sexual relationships as consensual” and that cases were nearly all “handled in closed-door administrative hearings that shielded the names of the instructors, the details of the accusations and the number of trainees involved in each case”.
Like with many of the instances seen with Tailhook, Aberdeen, and the USAF Academy, these instances did not come from out of the blue, but were a progressive build to the eventual public acknowledgment of these incidences and the military branch promising to do better. In this instance (and in many others), the reforms have seemingly dropped off as sexual assaults in basic training still occur substantially. While the Air Force did perform better in their response to the sexual assaults than they had with the Academy scandal, they ultimately still did not go far enough.
Sexual assault, harassment, and misconduct in the U.S. military is a constant. Surely, there is no way to completely eradicate sexual assault or misconduct from the U.S. Armed Forces as a whole; however, the amount at which sexual assaults and other sexually based misconduct occurs is reprehensible. The fact that this kind of behavior goes continually unpunished and often enables persons to remain in their positions of command or receive honorable discharges with benefits further harms any good measures made against sexual assault and can cause official reports to not be filed.
In the Tailhook report, the DoD provided their final conclusion on the incident, writing;
“There was a serious breakdown of leadership at Tailhook 91. Misconduct went far beyond the “treatment of women” issues for which the Navy had enacted new policies in the year preceding… Officers who assaulted women, as well as those who engaged in improper sexual behavior, knew that their actions would not be condoned under any objective standard [and therefore] must bear a major portion of the blame… The damage suffered by the Navy as a result of Tailhook cannot be fully repaired until the integrity of the Navy is restored… The senior officers must lead the way in that endeavor [and each who attended Tailhook 91 or previous Tailhook symposia] should consider the extent to which he bears some personal responsibility for what occurred there and how he can best serve the Navy and the Marine Corps in the future”.
This mirrors both Chief of Staff of the Army Dennis Reimer and Major General Sharon Dunbar’s own feelings on sexual assault within the military.
According to Reimer, “The solution [to Aberdeen] was leadership. Aberdeen was a problem, but indicative of a larger issue…This obviously hit everyone; We wouldn’t want our daughters or sisters treated that way so why would we tolerate that...All soldiers should be treated with dignity and respect”.
Dunbar, similarly, said, “When incidents like this [the USAF BMT scandal] occur, it is almost always a case of unit leadership not paying sufficient attention to dynamics ongoing in their command. Unfortunately, with sexual assault in general and training environments in particular, commanders and their senior leadership teams must be ever-vigilant. The senior leadership of the Department of Defense and the military services count on commanders and their senior enlisted leaders to be ever-vigilant, which is why there is a deliberate and selective process at all echelons for unit leadership positions”.
Both Dunbar and Reimer’s comments come back to one underlying theme; leadership.
Tailhook, the USAF Academy sex scandal, the Aberdeen scandal, and the many other scandals and singular incidents involving assault, harassment, and misconduct of a sexual nature can be found to be a failure in leadership in addition to the individual responsibility of the person whom committed such actions.
In going forward, it is imperative that those in command from the squad to command levels take steps to ensure that all soldiers under their command are able to come forward with reports of inappropriate or illegal behavior and know they will be listened to. It is also crucial that those investigators and prosecutors dealing with such a case adequately and professionally perform their duties to the best of their abilities and in accordance with the policies laid out by the DoD and their specific branch in addition to respecting the wishes of the victim.
It is also the responsibility of every commander to hold their soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines to those core values of service; personal courage, respect, commitment, duty, honor, and integrity. Instilling this within their subordinates will have a profound and immense effect upon the military, yet this starts with leadership.
A top-down solution is the only solution to this issue.