This post was written by Teresa, a past POD intern.
I joined the ROTC unit at my university one semester after entering college. The ROTC battalion I joined is known as one of the premier battalions in the nation, but the semester prior to my arrival, a sexual assault and harassment investigation was launched against two cadet Noncommissioned Officers in Charge (NCOICs) of the cadet athletic teams. These students had been selected to lead the two specialty athletic teams due to their superior tactical ability, leadership qualities, and physical ability. They were also eventually found guilty of creating a culture of widespread hazing and sexual derision.
In the semester before I joined, battalion-wide parties were held regularly at one of the four universities that made up the battalion. The two NCOICs were both from this university, where ROTC was referred to as “the ROTC fraternity.” Prior to these parties, the NCOICs of the specialty teams sent out mock Operation Orders (OPORDs) that detailed the events of the party, including hazing the freshmen by forcing them to drink, people passing out from being too drunk, and stories about cadets having sex. One such OPORD instigated an investigation into the NCOICs, who were ultimately removed from the program. Two other cadets received negative counseling for being aware of the harassment but letting it continue.
The response to this misconduct was limited and reactive, with intensive measures in Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) taken only in the immediate aftermath of the investigation. When a field training was cancelled due to inclement weather, we instead had a “values lab” on the subjects of sexual harassment and hazing. This was my first battalion-wide event as a cadet, so I assumed it was a regular event that the battalion held. However, I noticed something was strange when the cadets who led the lectures seemed very uninterested and irritated by the content, and would sometimes tell us during group exercises that “None of this really matters” . I later learned that, disturbingly, these were the very same cadets who had received negative counseling for failing to put a stop to the sexual harassment in our battalion. While I understand that the battalion was trying to ensure that these cadets understood the severity of the sexual assault, prioritizing their education over our battalion’s climate hurt the wider prevention effort. The following year, we did not have a new values lab. As a result, any positive educational effects were never fully passed on to the next class of cadets.
In the wake of these limited efforts, in my experience, cadets in the battalion seemed to become more self-regulating on sexual harassment issues. The battalion-wide parties were discontinued after the investigation. About a semester after the investigation, platoon parties began again, but they were always optional and I did not see excessive drunkenness, hazing, or forced consumption of alcohol. Providing underage cadets with alcohol also became a much more sensitive topic. When the women in my platoon were planning on holding a brunch, they were personally advised by leadership that the event must be alcohol-free. The phrase “SHARP” also became ubiquitous in the cadet vocabulary, often to regulate other cadet’s unacceptable comments. For example, a few months after the incident, I asked my class’s groupchat what women were supposed to wear to the military ball. One cadet responded “naked.” he was instantly called out by the other male cadets for his sexual comment. “SHARP” became a short catch phrase to remind people how quickly comments could turn into a larger problem.
However, a culture of sexism and indifference persisted at all levels of my battalion. For example, when the Battalion Commander gave anecdotes about the disturbing sexual assault and harassment he had seen during his 25 years in the Army and invited the noncommissioned officers to provide their own anecdotes, they all refused. This perpetuated a culture where silence is the default method to deal with any ethical wrongdoing within the ranks, especially when it came to sexual harassment and sexual assault.
I had heard stories about sexual assault at the academies and in basic training, but knowing that there were people who both perpetuated and were subjected to this assault in my battalion made these issues more personal. I have seen how damaging a hostile climate full of slights towards women can be, even without the added pressure of a sexual assault case. Even though the issues on a systemic, easily visible scale have been largely resolved, there still remains a climate where implicitly sexist comments were largely ignored or went unnoticed. To achieve a climate that fully understands sexual assault as not only intolerable, but a relevant issue, education and training should have been a continuous effort. Extensive retroactive training does not prevent the initial incidents from happening, and especially in a transient population like ROTC, will not result in permanent change.