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Pentagon dilemma: More privacy in barracks linked to more sexual assault

Anna MulrineThe Christian Science Monitor

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’s 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 – 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. “Despite our efforts,” it read, “we have been ineffective at addressing and eliminating sexual assault.”

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. – the home of ceremonial forces and the Marines' top officer.

The plan includes “more effective screening of individuals wanting to join the Corps” and “identifying and mitigating high-risk situations.”

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 – generally enlisted troops from the ages of 18 to 24 or so.

Amid a heavy pace of war – with 11 years of persistent conflict and the burden that places on soldiers and leaders – there has been an effort over the past decade to “make their home life feel more like home,” says Brig. Gen. Barrye Price, director of the Army’s human resources policy office. “There has been an attempt to be less intrusive.”

As a result, some of the “baseline” checks “that leaders would normally do may be lost,” General Price adds.

In a discussion earlier this year of risk behaviors among forces, retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s former No. 2 officer, noted that he frequently visited bases “where soldiers ask for better control of their barracks.”

Says Price, “I think it’s just going to require greater vigilance,” particularly as the Army has moved from open-bay barracks with bunk beds to private rooms with common areas shared by two soldiers. “The barracks is one of those places where we know there is a problem.”

This will require more of “those little leader things,” Price says, such as leaders patrolling barracks and “looking for beer in the fridge” for troops under age 21. “I don’t think we need to go back to an open barracks setup – part of the growing experience is building autonomy” in new troops. “Parents want us to change ‘Johnny our son’ into Johnny the man,” he says. That said, he adds, “It’s one of those innate leaders responsibilities to be vigilant around the places soldiers frequent.”

The key is not simply enforcing rules in the barracks, says Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine officer and executive director of Service Women’s Action Network, an advocacy organization.

“Truly asserting leadership doesn’t just mean physically patrolling barracks,” says Ms. Bhagwati, who adds that the Marine Corps' plans for “mitigating high-risk situations” could simply lead to more focus on the behaviors of victims, rather than the perpetrators.

Leadership, she says, “means that when someone reports something, you support that young private and make sure they’re not bullied – that there is no acceptance of hostility or lack of compassion,” she says. “It’s so much deeper than walking the halls like a corrections officer."

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