16 Jun 2017

Eradicating the Cancer of Sexual Assault in the Military

Authored by: Robert D. Shadley, Major General, U.S. Army (Ret), a consultant, speaker, and author.


Two decades ago, I served as the Commanding General of the U. S. Army Ordnance Center and Schools at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.

During my command, my staff uncovered what amounted to a sexual crime ring. Non-commissioned officer drill sergeants (supervisors of students) and at least one commissioned officer were competing to see who could have sex with the most students in our advanced individual training classes – the equivalent of a technical school.

The perpetrators were all married males in their mid-thirties, and all the survivors were young women in their late teens or early twenties. Through reports I read, it became readily apparent to me that this abuse of power by superiors over their subordinates was occurring not only at Aberdeen but also at other Army installations and within other Services.

This systemic sexual assault activity was called “playing the game” or “GAM,” which was an acronym for “game a la military.”

But despite the obvious breadth and depth of the problem, Army leadership chose not to address it.

In September of 1997, the Army senior leadership stated that sexual assaults were only occurring at Aberdeen Proving Ground and that Aberdeen was “an aberration”.

The Army leadership reported in a nationally televised press conference and in subsequent testimony before Congress that the issue that needed to be addressed Army-wide was sexual harassment rather than sexual assault.

It appeared to me the primary objective was to “protect the brand” by making the real problem, sexual assault, go away.

But sexual assault, like cancer, never goes away without intervention.

Where the cancer starts

If sexual assault is a cancer, then sexual harassment is the precursor. Attacking sexual harassment is vital to ensuring all military members and their families as well as civilians are not subjected to objectionable language and conduct and are able to feel comfortable in the workplace and living areas.

The cancer of sexual assault continues today in our military, due in no small part to a lack of aggressive action to eradicate it in the mid-1990s. In recent conversations with survivors, I have learned that the cancer was in fact alive and growing as far back as the 1970’s.

A stubborn, systemic ailment

Over the past four years, I’ve had the privilege and honor to address thousands of sexual assault response coordinators, victim advocates, special victims counsels, physical/mental health care providers, and leaders who are working hard to eradicate the cancer of sexual assault.

I have also talked with numerous survivors, military commanders, family members, law enforcement officials, and medical personnel. I have learned from them that the cancer lives on throughout the Department of Defense.

As I discuss sexual assault in the private sector at colleges and with religious groups and civic and service organizations, I emphasize that it is only one to two percent of the military that are perpetrators of sexual assaults. But this small fraction causes irreparable damage to survivors while concurrently damaging the reputation of the greatest military ever.

I have also learned that the sexual assault cancer lives in other organizations, not just the military. It is a societal epidemic. Statistics in the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s “Info & Stats for Journalists” dated 2015 say that:

  • One in five women and one in 71 men will be raped sometime in their lives
  • One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old
  • One in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college

I am constantly reminded how brave the survivors are for coming forward to identify offenders and to help others, even though they have suffered and continue to suffer the effects of their assaults.

I vividly recall a senior non-commissioned officer who asked to speak to me after one of my presentations. She had been raped in Afghanistan by an Afghan soldier. Her chain of command was of no help to her and she had been placed on suicide watch.

After we talked for over an hour, she gave me a big hug and said, “Sir, I believe God sent you to me today because now I know someone cares about me.”

I was really touched at that moment. But later I became very angry when I realized that it took an old retired soldier to make her feel cared for. Where were the leaders in her chain of command charged with her care when she needed them the most?

Leaders, both military and civilian, must understand and aggressively execute their responsibilities for protecting their soldiers and employees, ensuring justice when sexual crimes are committed and caring for survivors.

The cure starts at the top

Sexual assault prevention in the military is not a personnel or human relations issue; it’s a force-protection issue.

The same military staffs that are working to prevent injury and death by improvised explosive device attacks, terrorist attacks on facilities and people and so on also need to address sexual assault.

In the civilian world, the same business leaders and managers responsible for workplace safety and productivity must be equally responsible for eradicating sexual assault.

Leaders at all levels in all organizations cannot let this cancer be seen as an issue affecting just women. It affects military and civilian personnel of all genders and sexual orientation.

Employees, both women and men, need to be able to come to work every day and feel safe from sexual predators and harassers in order to be productive members of the team.

The Rx

It is essential that all support mechanisms are in place for all soldiers and employees and that the flow of information to decision makers is not impeded.

I am encouraged to see that senior military leadership continues to support prevention and reporting of sexual harassment and sexual assault programs and that colleges and universities are instituting similar programs on their campuses.

Sexual harassment prevention training needs to be continual and frequent. Nipping sexual misconduct in the bud is better than having to deal with severe and life altering damage to survivors after the fact.

While ensuring everyone’s rights are protected, zero tolerance needs to be just that and not a bumper sticker, and alleged perpetrators must be must be brought to justice and treated equally regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation.  We need to ensure that it is not perceived that senior leaders get off with a fine or reduction in retired pay while lower ranking service members are sent to jail.  Aggressive action is required with this cancer, just as the cancer of drugs in the military was initially treated in the 1980s.

In my view, the key to the prevention of sexual harassment and other felonies in the military is for every service member and civilian, regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, or rank, to be a keeper of the standards.

As Saint Francis of Assisi is quoted as saying, “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.” If a soldier or civilian sees someone doing something that even appears to be wrong, he or she needs to call the offender (male or female) out on it. Be the light of right. Give that person a chance to stop, unless the behavior is so bad that higher leadership needs to know right away. If that person doesn’t stop, report them to their leadership.

Leaders must do the “hard right” and not the “easy wrong.” They must act on concerns brought to their attention, and their subordinates need to know that it’s okay to take their complaints through other channels to get resolution.

The enforcement of the highest tactical, technical, ethical, and moral standards is up to every soldier and civilian in the military or civilian organization. If we are going to stamp out misconduct of all types, every person must enforce the standards.

If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

Robert D. Shadley is a retired U.S. Army major general who served in key leadership and staff positions during his 33-year active-duty career.

He is the author of The GAMe: Unraveling a Military Sex Scandal, which documents sexual misconduct and abuse of power at an Army school.

His book is available from booksellers and via his website www.shadleyeditions.com where, by entering SHARP as code, you will receive an autographed copy and a 30% discount.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This