Last year, an independent review commission ordered by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III put forth an array of recommendations designed to stop sexual assault and harassment in the military. Today, the Defense Department is well underway in implementing those recommendations, said the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.
On Capitol Hill Wednesday, Gilbert R. Cisneros Jr. told lawmakers at the House Armed Services Committee that the Defense Department now has a framework in place to track the implementation and effectiveness of its efforts and to provide regular progress reviews through senior leadership forums that includes membership from across the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the services.
“The level of oversight is a significant departure from previous reforms efforts in this area, and not only are we making progress, we’re building the infrastructure needed to make real, lasting change and rebuild trust with our service members,” Cisneros said.
One part of that infrastructure, Cisneros said, is the development of a professional sexual assault and sexual harassment workforce.
“At full operating capacity [it] will include over 2,000 personnel stationed around the world,” he said. “The department has worked to create a targeted recruitment plan to support the services in their hiring efforts, and I established a dedicated direct hiring authority, which I signed out last week, to more quickly identify and onboard these prevention workforce professionals.”
Co-chairing an ensuing panel, “the Under Secretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz Jones testified on the Department of the Air Force’s efforts to ensure Airmen and Guardians live and work in an environment safe from sexual harassment and sexual assault.”
“To successfully fulfill our mission to protect and defend our nation, addressing sexual harassment and sexual assault must be a top priority,” Jones said. “This is a warfighting issue, a readiness issue and a leadership issue.”
The DoD is also working with the military services to professionalize the victim response workforce, Cisneros said. Professionalization of that task means the Defense Department and services would no longer need to rely on military members who may be doing that same work now as a collateral duty in addition to their regular military job. Additionally, as part of an effort to regain the trust of victims of sexual assault and harassment, that workforce will be outside the chain of command.
Cisneros also told lawmakers the department would soon reach initial operating capability with its Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Training and Education Center of Excellence.
“Another significant undertaking at the [Defense] Department is military justice reform, through the implementation of the Offices of Special Trial Counsel,” Cisneros said. “This effort will ensure independent expertise and prosecutorial decisions and is essential to the restoring of trust and to hold perpetrators of sexual assault accountable.”
According to Cisneros, the Offices of Special Trial Counsel will ensure independent, specialized expertise in prosecutorial decisions for the covered offenses of sexual assault, domestic violence and related crimes.
“The department has clearly heard from our service members that action and change are desperately needed, and the department is answering that call,” Cisneros said. “Getting this right requires we move as expeditiously as possible to implement change, while also ensuring we do not rush to failure.”