Pentagon dilemma: More privacy in barracks linked to more sexual assault
Pentagon upgrades in troops' living quarters sought to ease rigors of persistent conflict, but lax regulations are also producing more high-risk situations for young servicemen and women.
US military barracks have come a long way from the Beetle Bailey cartoon days, when troops slept in rows of metal bunks and awoke with "Reveille." Today‚Äôs new soldiers are inheritors of living quarters that more closely resemble condominiums.
But there are more lax regulations in the barracks that have come with compassion for troops who have been fighting wars for a decade ‚Äď and with it, growing concern that the privacy afforded in these living quarters may need to be reevaluated in the wake of growing instances of sexual assault, senior military officials say.
The Marine Corps, for its part, this week issued a sobering acknowledgement of the pervasiveness of sexual assault within its ranks, and what it bills as a new plan for addressing it. ‚ÄúDespite our efforts,‚ÄĚ it read, ‚Äúwe have been ineffective at addressing and eliminating sexual assault.‚ÄĚ¬†
The plan, signed by the Marine Corps' top officer, comes on the heels of the release of a documentary, "The Invisible War," that details the experience of women who say they were raped at the storied Marine Corps Barracks in Washington, D.C. ‚Äď the home of ceremonial forces and the Marines' top officer.
The plan includes ‚Äúmore effective screening of individuals wanting to join the Corps‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúidentifying and mitigating high-risk situations.‚ÄĚ
Some of these high-risk situations may occur in the barracks, where the youngest, lowest-ranking troops who are most likely to commit sexual assaults live, according to Pentagon statistics. The crime is most prevalent among what the military calls the E1 to E4 ranks ‚Äď generally enlisted troops from the ages of 18 to 24 or so.
Amid a heavy pace of war ‚Äď with 11 years of persistent conflict and the burden that places on soldiers and leaders ‚Äď there has been an effort over the past decade to ‚Äúmake their home life feel more like home,‚ÄĚ says Brig. Gen. Barrye Price, director of the Army‚Äôs human resources policy office. ‚ÄúThere has been an attempt to be less intrusive.‚ÄĚ¬†
As a result, some of the ‚Äúbaseline‚ÄĚ checks ‚Äúthat leaders would normally do may be lost,‚ÄĚ General Price adds.¬†
In a discussion earlier this year of risk behaviors among forces, retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army‚Äôs former No. 2 officer, noted that he frequently visited bases ‚Äúwhere soldiers ask for better control of their barracks.‚ÄĚ¬†
Says Price, ‚ÄúI think it‚Äôs just going to require greater vigilance,‚ÄĚ particularly as the Army has moved from open-bay barracks with bunk beds to private rooms with common areas shared by two soldiers. ‚ÄúThe barracks is one of those places where we know there is a problem.‚ÄĚ
This will require more of ‚Äúthose little leader things,‚ÄĚ Price says, such as leaders patrolling barracks and ‚Äúlooking for beer in the fridge‚ÄĚ for troops under age 21. ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt think we need to go back to an open barracks setup ‚Äď part of the growing experience is building autonomy‚ÄĚ in new troops. ‚ÄúParents want us to change ‚ÄėJohnny our son‚Äô into Johnny the man,‚ÄĚ he says. That said, he adds, ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs one of those innate leaders responsibilities to be vigilant around the places soldiers frequent.‚ÄĚ
The key is not simply enforcing rules in the barracks, says Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine officer and executive director of Service Women‚Äôs Action Network, an advocacy organization.¬†
‚ÄúTruly asserting leadership doesn‚Äôt just mean physically patrolling barracks,‚ÄĚ says Ms. Bhagwati, who adds that the Marine Corps' plans for ‚Äúmitigating high-risk situations‚ÄĚ could simply lead to more focus on the behaviors of victims, rather than the perpetrators.¬†
Leadership, she says, ‚Äúmeans that when someone reports something, you support that young private and make sure they‚Äôre not bullied ‚Äď that there is no acceptance of hostility or lack of compassion,‚ÄĚ she says. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs so much deeper than walking the halls like a corrections officer."