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In memo, top Marine blasts sex-assault crisis

May. 8, 2012 - 03:44PM   |   Last Updated: May. 8, 2012 - 03:44PM  |  
Commandant Gen. Jim Amos addresses Marines in Lash Kahr Gah, Afghanistan, earlier this year.
Commandant Gen. Jim Amos addresses Marines in Lash Kahr Gah, Afghanistan, earlier this year. (Sgt. Charles Mabry / Marine Corps)

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The Marine Corps is poised to unveil an aggressive campaign targeting sexual assault within its ranks, the service's top general announced last week in an internal memo.

Calling such crimes "an ugly mark on our proud reputation," Gen. Jim Amos has put his personnel on notice, firing "a shot across the bow" in what's known as a White Letter sent May 3 from the commandant to every Marine in the fleet. Marine Corps Times obtained a copy of the three-page memo, which suggests this new program will be introduced by early June.

Although the memo does not specify how the campaign will take shape, several efforts have been developed to address accountability, prevention and support for victims of sex assault.

For instance, in January a new training curriculum, called "Take a Stand," was implemented for all Marine noncommissioned officers. The focus is "bystander intervention," according to an information paper prepared by the service's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program in Quantico, Va. As of mid-April, more than 9,000 of the Marine Corps' 123,000 NCOs had completed the training.

Additionally, the Marine Corps could introduce new training for Navy chaplains, and continue a program started last year to teach Marine attorneys — who are called judge advocates — the "best practices" in investigating and prosecuting alleged sexual assaults, according to the information paper. There are plans, too, to improve data collection and record keeping by merging these functions with a system overseen by the Defense Department.

It remains to be seen whether these efforts will come to fruition. The information paper was provided to Marine Corps Times in April, days before Amos hand selected an operational planning team to make recommendations for confronting the problem. Led by a general officer, this team includes senior officers and enlisted personnel whom Amos chose for their "strong fleet reputations and operational credibility," Amos said in the memo. Amos spokesman Lt. Col. Joseph Plenzler said the team has met at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.

Amos indicates that in early July all of his general officers will be brought to Washington for a two-day conference meant "to ensure that our senior leaders are well-grounded in truth." Similarly, senior enlisted Marines will receive new training this summer as part of an annual symposium for sergeants major and master gunnery sergeants.

The stakes are high for the commandant, with sexual assault becoming a top priority among senior Defense Department leadership — and receiving close scrutiny on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have demanded the military take steps to curb incidents. A Defense Department study released in April shows that more than 3,000 service members reported a sexual assault in fiscal 2011, though the Pentagon estimates as many as 19,000 assaults went unreported.

Last year, 333 sexual assaults were reported in the Marine Corps, Amos says in his letter, echoing the Pentagon's claim that the number is low.

"While it is predominately a male-on-female crime," Amos writes, "our records indicate a number of male-on-male attacks as well. … These numbers represent only an initial glimpse of reality, as this crime is universally believed to be significantly underreported."

Amos calls on all Marines to confront the problem through engaged leadership, singling out the "many who refuse to acknowledge" its magnitude. Absent from his letter, however, is any mention of an issue identified by the Corps' own behavioral health professionals as Public Enemy No. 1 in the fight to reduce sexual assaults: alcohol.

That could be the next big push, however.

Alcohol is involved in nearly half of the Marine Corps' sexual assaults and nearly one-third of all spousal abuse cases, Marine officials said. It's a factor in almost 20 percent of all suicides.

At Amos' direction, a Quantico-based team of behavioral health experts, led by Dr. Keita Franklin, has spent the last several months developing a new training package meant to integrate and standardize the wealth of programs Marines are required to participate in now. Alcohol awareness is a chief focus, she said during an interview in April.

Drinking is considered a "common denominator" in several issues challenging the service, Franklin said, including combat stress, suicide and sexual assault. It's been tough to devise a viable program that targets alcohol use among Marines because it is so ingrained in the service's culture, she said, noting that senior enlisted Marines and officers, in particular, have been the most reluctant to "own the problem."

The White Letter marks the commandant's latest salvo in a broad effort to address a string of incidents involving Marines in Afghanistan and other disturbing trends that he says have shamed the institution and its personnel. As part of this, in March he issued another memo to all of the Marine Corps' generals, commanding officers and sergeants major, pressuring them to get tough on enforcing the service's code of conduct.

Additionally, Amos is touring bases and air stations throughout the world to air his frustrations and signal his expectations moving forward. The Corps also intends to hold a day-long "ethics standdown" later this month. That is expected to focus heavily on topics such as hazing and sexual assault, officials said.

"The awakening within the Marine Corps on this issue starts immediately … with this White Letter," Amos says in the memo. " … The Marine Corps has not spent the last ten years defending our nation's high principles abroad, only to permit this type of behavior within our ranks!"

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