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Lloyd Austin arrives at the Pentagon on his first day in his new role. Photo: Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images
Lloyd Austin arrives at the Pentagon on his first day in his new role. Photo: Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

#MeToo in the military: New Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to take on sexual assault scourge in the armed forces

The effort comes after a year where U.S. armed forces came under heavy scrutiny following a number of high-profile cases.

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The #MeToo movement, which was founded in 2006 by Tarana Burke and exploded on a global scale in 2017, has more or less died down as more dire issues have taken center stage. 

However, the epidemic of sexual assault is alive and well in virtually all of this country’s institutions, especially within the military. Biden’s recent pick for Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, wants to do something about it. 

In his first act as secretary, he’s ordering senior Pentagon leadership to send him reports about their sexual assault and harassment prevention programs, as well as details on their accountability measures and whether they have been successful. 

"President Biden has ordered a 90-day commission to pursue solutions to sexual assault in the military. We will aggressively support that effort. But I do not want to wait 90 days to take action," Austin wrote in a memo issued Saturday. 

In December 2020, Austin met remotely with a group of survivors and was “disturbed and moved by their stories.” He also read a recent report from The New York Times, about the toxic culture of Fort Hood, the large Texas Army base where Vanessa Guillen was murdered

The Defense Department’s annual report for the 2018 fiscal year showed 20,500 instances of “unwanted sexual contact” based on a survey of members from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. 

This marked a 38% increase from 2016’s survey.

First Black Defense Secretary Making More History

If Austin does move to enact change in this arena, he would be the first defense secretary to do so. 

“Every defense secretary since Dick Cheney has come up here and said nice things and then the fight behind the scenes was to protect the status quo,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, who has spent years pushing legislation on the issue.

Senator Gillibrand had attempted in 2013 to get legislation passed to give military prosecutors, rather than commanders, the power to decide which sexual assault cases to try. 

Proponents of this shift argued that it would increase the number of people who report crimes without fear of retaliation, providing more accurate statistics and contributing to the healing process of survivors. 

The proposed bill was quickly shot down by the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. It was even opposed, vehemently, by the late Senator John McCain, who also once said he was so disgusted by the problem that he wouldn’t recommend a friend’s daughter to join the armed forces. 

“Biden has spoken out more forcefully on this issue than any other president,” stated Col. Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group that serves the needs of survivors. “Obama would not take the generals and admirals on. I am certain Austin having been a commander himself is in a divided-loyalty situation.” 

During his confirmation hearing, Senator Gillibrand confronted Austin directly with questions about his willingness to take initiative concerning these issues. 

“You do agree that we can’t keep doing the same thing that we’ve been doing for the past decade? Do I have your commitment to be relentless on this issue until we can end the scourge of sexual violence in the military?” she asked. 

In response, Austin told senators that finding solutions to this problem is at the top of his list. 

“This starts with me and you can count on me getting after this on day one,” he said. 

As with much of the changes that the Biden-Harris administration have recently set in motion, first steps have to be followed up by more and accountability needs to be a priority if this nation is to see the light of true equity. 

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