NEWS | Aug. 17, 2018

Strengthening the force through inclusion and respect

By Staff Sgt. Joseph K. VonNida Colorado National Guard

Centennial, Colo. – About 20 Colorado National Guard's Equal Opportunity Advisors and Sexual Assault Response Coordinators from across the force gathered here at Joint Force Headquarters, July 21, 2018, to discuss numerous sexual assault and equal opportunity policy changes within the Department of Defense.

"Preventing sexual assault is our moral duty," Mr. Ian Connor, CONG Joint Force Headquarters SARC, said. "It is one of the most destructive factors in building a mission-focused military and that is direct from the Secretary of Defense."

Recently most of the country's National Guard full-time SARC representatives were converted from amilitary to a U.S. Code Title 5 civilian status.

"Rank can be intimidating," Connor said. "The ability for me to meet [and] speak with victims in civilian clothes and [in] a civilian status strips away barriers that can cause cases to go unreported."

Statistically the number of sexual assault and harassment cases can be difficult to measure because many cases go unreported out of fear of reprisal, embarrassment, or the victim not being taken seriously.

"There is, however, a measurable increase in volunteers who become victim advocates, which can be directly related to the support of our program that I have gotten from our senior leaders here in Colorado.

"Professionals in the military are and must be held to a higher standard than that of many other organizations."

"We are servicemembers 24/7. If we allow sexual assault and harassment in our ranks, it affects our ability to complete the mission," Connor said.

Some of this year's biggest changes were defined at the summit, such as the DOD policy targeting online misconduct by servicemembers.

"For example, sharing pictures of others without their consent is now defined as sexual harassment," Connor said. "Ultimately, you can be held responsible for what you do in cyberspace."

Retaliation was another key topic.

"The organization as a whole has been tasked to start tracking complaints of retaliation," U.S. Army Maj. Noelle Roe, state equal employment manager, said. "These reports are submitted quarterly and tracked by the DOD."

According to her, being knowledgeable is one important reason to have SARC and EO advisors.

"To increase understanding and maintain a successful program, we have to educate leaders on how they should be empathetic to what people are saying," Connor said.

DOD civilians are now allowed to file both restricted and unrestricted reports of sexual assault, through a recently established pilot program. Unrestricted reports are seen by command. There will be an investigation and local law enforcement will be involved. Restricted reports are kept confidential, there is no investigation. However, the victim can still get help through counseling programs.

The new policy now also defines fraternization in more depth, especially among commissioned officers and enlisted members. It adds scenarios and a table outlining prohibited relationships to help command teams understand the boundaries and intent of the policy.

"This policy goes into defining relationships, not only in the military work place, but professional behavior outside the workplace," Connor said. "Things like church groups and business deals, not just inappropriate relationships. It's all-inclusive and in-depth."

Previously, the policy did not directly address the National Guard and Reserve.

On the topic of equal opportunity, Roe said that to make things easier on commanders, a one-page template for an inquiry report now exists.

"Perception can be questioned but supporting documents are facts, which empowers commanders to address concerns appropriately," Roe said. "Commanders must follow up on all situations, and that is plainly stated in the regulations."

Examples of supporting documents include counseling statements and leadership evaluations.

The biggest regulatory change is how complaints are processed.

Previously, commanders had a more involved role in processing complaints of unlawful discrimination. Now the National Guard Bureau is more involved and has more oversight in the final disposition of complaints.

"With the new changes to complaint processing, a greater responsibility is placed on EO leaders and EO advisors to work with commanders to build strong EO programs within their units and ranks," Roe said.

CONG's senior leadership have focused efforts on creating diverse and inclusive environments. These environments begin at the lowest level and grow because of junior leaders.  Roe said that this situation strengthens the force above the current social tensions.

Roe and Connor said that these programs and the advisor and coordinator roles can become confusing to leaders, servicemembers, and civilians, but that SARC strives to build a better understanding so that people know where to go and whom to contact.

"A nice thing about these programs is that we all work closely together. If I get a complaint that is not for me, I can easily get that complaint to the right person," Connor said.

"This summit was an opportunity to discuss regulation updates with our advisors and coordinators and reinforce that the increased activity in our program equates to our servicemembers' and civilians' trust and comfort level with our leadership," Roe said.