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The Pentagon on Wednesday announced a commission that will investigate sexual assault and harassment in the military. Nick Schifrin reports on how sexual assault and harassment infects the military’s most prominent units and how members of one corps are trying to find innovative solutions born of personal experience.
Today, the Pentagon announced the members of a commission that will investigate sexual assault and harassment in the military.
In a moment, I will speak with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who has been at the forefront of this issue.
But, first, Nick Schifrin reports how sexual assault and harassment infect the military's most prominent divisions and what the leadership of that corps is trying to do about it.
The 18th Airborne Corps is one of the Army's premier forces and, from Afghanistan to Iraq, portrays itself as flying through the air, attacking through the night, always ready to fight.
But according to a document obtained by the "PBS NewsHour," the corps and its bases have also been fighting some of the Army's highest levels of sexual assault and harassment.
Staff. Sgt. Shameka Dudley:
If we can't keep our soldiers safe, how can you expect our soldiers to keep our country safe?
Staff Sergeant Shameka Dudley is a Russian linguist with a Fort Bragg-based military intelligence brigade.
We can get the soldiers more engaged.
She recently presented her suggestions to combat sexual assault to her commanders at an event they called Dragon's Lair, an unusual effort to hear soldiers' solutions. Dudley says the problems begin with inadequate training.
It's always the same PowerPoint slides.
It's — I have been in for 10 years. I can say I have probably been to 15 to 20 trainings. I will say, I have probably seen a total of four different slide decks. Like, it's — it's ridiculous.
Thirty-seven percent of our cases were NCOs and officers.
And the training sessions, like this one, are held in a room with hundreds of soldiers.
How are you going to get 500 people to pay attention? You can't. Half of them are on their phone. The other half is, like, talking with the person beside them. And it's just, like, not getting through. And they're like, oh, we just got to do this training.
Dudley's solution? Training soldiers like they're sometimes trained for combat, with virtual reality, where soldiers are immersed, focused, and able to go through scenarios. Assault and harassment scenario training could train soldiers how to act and respond.
Most kids already have, like, a virtual reality headset or some kind of V.R. game. So, it's just like, why not just tap onto something that people are already using to put soldiers in the shoes of another individual?
I want to do whatever I can to make a change for the Army, because I'm going to be here for at least another 10 years. So, why not make a change while I'm here?
Sgt. Taylor Knueven:
I never had dealt with sexual assault in the Army before this.
Sergeant Taylor Knueven also presented her solutions, born of personal experience.
I had not been sexually assaulted in the military up until last year. And then, when that happened, it totally changed my perspective on just how toxic the environment can be.
Knueven is assigned to the 101st First Airborne Division. She says she was assaulted while at the U.S. border as part of President Trump's military deployment by a soldier two ranks above her.
He then assaulted a female officer. But despite a recommendation to kick him out, a panel known as a separation board decided to retain him.
I was sitting outside a separation board before I testified, looking at a poster that says in big, bold letters, "Not in Our Army."
So, for them to retain him says yes in our Army. And I think, for any of his soldiers or peers that were loyal to him during the process, I think that they hear the same message, that, look, he got away with it, so it does happen in our Army, and it's probably going to continue to happen in our Army.
Advocates have called for the military to reform the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and change the separation boards.
The separation board was comprised of three people, and they were all three males, all senior military leaders.
So, one, I thought, OK, maybe we shouldn't have senior military leaders that, whether they intend to be biased or not, undoubtedly have some bias to protect their own.
In a statement, a spokesman for the 18th Airborne Corps, which includes the storied 101st, 82nd Airborne, and 10th Mountain Division, says it's already made changes and suggested them to the wider Army.
Separation boards will have members of the alleged victim's gender. Sexual harassment/assault response and prevention officials will not report to soldiers' direct commanders. And some training will now be virtual reality.
This is about accountability for perpetrators. It is about justice and healing for survivors.
Today, the head of a new, independent Pentagon commission examining solutions unveiled its members.
And on Capitol Hill, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand led a hearing with survivors and their advocates, and said military justice, currently reserved for commanders, was in the wrong hands.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand:
Every general, or commander, that has come in front of this body for the past 10 years has told us: We have got this, ma'am. We have got this.
Well, the truth is, they don't have it.
Knueven hopes the publicity, and the 18th Airborne Corps soliciting ideas leads to real change, and isn't just a P.R. effort.
I want to know that it was more than just turning in their homework assignment to their boss, that it was, no, we really do care.
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Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
As the deputy senior producer for foreign affairs and defense at the PBS NewsHour, Dan plays a key role in helping oversee and produce the program’s foreign affairs and defense stories. His pieces have broken new ground on an array of military issues, exposing debates simmering outside the public eye.
Layla Quran is a general assignment producer for PBS NewsHour. She was previously a foreign affairs reporter and producer.
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