PEARL HARBOR – Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) is currently at the forefront of Navy training and education, but less discussed and publicized among SAPR topics is the issue of command or peer retaliation.
The Victims’ Legal Counsel (VLC) program, established in 2014, protects the legal rights and interests of a victim of a sexual assault. VLC are trained military attorneys who provide legal guidance to sexual assault victims and can help them address and resolve issues of command retaliation.
Cmdr. Kerry Abramson, officer-in-charge of the VLC, Pacific office, stressed the potential consequences of command retaliation and the possible effect it can have in discouraging victims from coming forward. “The victim always weighs their own interests in deciding whether to report that they have been assaulted, and if they think it will hinder either their personal or professional life, they’re going to be reluctant to come forward and make that report,” said Abramson. “Consequently, if the incident goes unreported, there can never be accountability for the perpetrator, nor justice for the victim and, equally important, it still leaves open the possibility that the offender will reoffend.”
With the permission of the victim, VLC has the ability to talk with the victim’s chain of command and open the lines of communication to ensure the victim is in a healthy environment.
“If a victim is being retaliated against by the command, the VLC has a number of tools at their disposal to advocate on behalf of the Sailor. Should a victim of sexual assault decide that the resulting command climate is detrimental to their life or their work, they have the ability to request an ‘Expedited Transfer’ to another command,” Abramson said.
U.S. Pacific Fleet Master Chief Marco Ramirez says to successfully combat retaliation, the definition of retaliation must be clear.
“First, we need to understand the definition of retaliation so we avoid instances in which the victim may feel there may be some sort of retaliation when the other party was oblivious and never thought there was an issue,” said Ramirez. “Secondly, we need to train each other on this issue and have healthy discussions; everyone needs to be on the same page. Thirdly, we need to identify it and call it out at the deckplate level so everyone understands it, if we’re attacking it at the deckplate level, we have an impact to change the culture and mindset.”
Abramson said the definitive line for what constitutes command retaliation can be hazy.
“It’s hard to prevent peers and colleagues from talking as the stakes are high for both parties involved. These crimes generally occur behind closed doors without witnesses and so they can easily become a he-said-she-said circumstance, which is a fertile situation from which rumors can grow and spread,” said Abramson. “We understand that this can create an uncomfortable work environment for the victim, but this type of peer-to-peer background chatter wouldn’t likely be construed as command retaliation. If the victim is suffering with emotional issues or having a difficult time coping, there are many counseling and therapy resources available to him or her.”
In cases where a Sailor receives poor evaluations or is given disparate treatment or extra duty as a result of their reported sexual assault, the VLC can help.
“These are areas where the Victim’s Legal Counsel can step in and make a difference,” said Abramson. “We’re also quick to address cyber bullying. There are military protective orders that we can put in place to ensure the alleged perpetrator and anybody on behalf of the alleged perpetrator shall have no physical, telephonic, or social media contact with the victim. Although the military protective order would direct them not to have any contact with the victim, it’s not going to function as a gag order -- the alleged perpetrator always has the right to tell their version of the story.”
Abramson stressed the first line of defense from the command perspective is to tell the crew not to gossip about the assault. Information should be discussed on a need-to-know basis and both Sailors should be given their privacy. The accused is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. It’s a matter of courtesy and professionalism to protect the privacy interests of both parties and that starts with the leadership.
“If there is a complaint against someone superior in the chain of command, we can help file an Article 1150 complaint, or if the commanding officer is failing to address the victim’s complaints, we can help the victim file an Article 138 complaint,” said Abramson. “I have yet to have to do that for any of our clients but these are some of the options we have available if a situation of command retaliation towards the victim presents itself.”
Ramirez says bystander intervention not only helps prevent a sexual assault but can also be used to combat retaliation or unprofessional behavior.
“Bystander intervention is what we need to be successful on the deckplates to change the culture of destructive behaviors. We can make the difference if we’re actively engaged and calling out that behavior within the work centers, this is the step forward to changing the mindset. I want our Sailors to attack it the same way they would attack the prevention of a potential safety mishap – automatic.”
“I want the victim to have the faith and trust in their command to report incidents and I want the command to provide an environment so the victim feels they are being taken care of so they can begin to regain their self-confidence, trust, and begin dealing with whatever guilt that may be associated,” said Ramirez. ”Bottom line is I want the victim to know they will be taken care of no matter what – this is what shipmates do.”