To change a culture: New Air Force training focuses on eliminating sexism in the military

By Monica Vaughan, Appeal-Democrat, Marysville, Calif. via Stars and Stripes, July 20, 2014



Air Force personnel admit it's difficult to call out their peers for sexist jokes or intervene in sexual harassment.

"I personally do not feel comfortable, but I still do it anyway because I don't want to see what would happen next," said Beale Air Force Base Technical Sgt. Julio Serrano.

"It starts off as a joke, but if a commander or squadron leader doesn't nip that in the bud, (predators) can hide in that environment."

Serrano, like every other airman at Beale, was recently trained to understand that sexual predators' behavior can be tracked on a "continuum of harm." It begins with sexist jokes, and if allowed, evolves into objectification, comments about a person's body, inappropriate touching and finally to criminal sexual acts.

"There is a very clear link between sexual harassment and sexual assault," Col. Phil Stewart, former commander of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, told his airmen before he left in June for a new assignment at the Pentagon.

Sexual assault in the military and the military's historical response to those assaults have increasingly come under fire over the last few years. The Air Force has responded with new training programs, additional resources for victims and increased transparency from the court.

Col. Douglas J. Lee, the new 9th Reconnaissance Wing commander, said Friday the Air Force takes sexual assault cases extremely seriously and such cases are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

"Individuals who commit these crimes are a tiny fraction of people in the Air Force, and they do not represent the majority of the professional men and women who serve this great nation honorably," Lee said.

One of the goals of the new training is to push airmen to be proactive and help identify sexual predators. They're learning to intervene when they witness ina propriate behavior and challenge internalized beliefs that may place the blame of sexual assault on victims.

Basically, Beale airmen have been enlisted in a new mission as foot soldiers in the campaign for cultural change to stop sexual assault.

"I want my airmen to root out bad airmen," Stewart said.

That philosophy puts pressure on every airman to be a part of the fight against sexual assault, Serrano said.

Cathy Knight, the civilian sexual assault response coordinator at Beale, said the most important initiative on base has been to replace "death by PowerPoint" presentations with briefings and training that are audience-specific, interactive, memorable and actionable.

"We feel we succeed when we get people talking — engaging in meaningful dialogue that helps change behaviors and the culture," Knight said.

A training in May, delivered to everyone on the base — military and defense civilians — focused on offender behavior. The next training will be on the neurobiology of sexual trauma and will focus on survivors of sexual assault and their recovery.

Victims may feel more comfortable reporting assaults

According to the Department of Defense, 1,047 sexual assaults were reported in the Air Force in fiscal year 2013. Only about 11 percent of sexual assault victims report the crime, according to a study conducted by the Pentagon and released in May 2014.

Reports of sexual assault across the Department of Defense increased 50 percent from 2012 to 2013, which officials attribute to victims feeling more comfortable reporting assaults.

At Beale Air Force Base, four airmen have been tried and convicted of sexual assault since 2010. Those assaults impacted nine victims, some civilian and some airmen. One airman was tried and acquitted in that same time.

Two additional courts-martial are scheduled at Beale in October, impacting at least two alleged victims.

Requests for the number of sexual assaults involving Beale airmen that have been reported were not fulfilled.

"The Air Force is refraining from releasing specific base statistics for several reasons," said Lt. Siobhan G. Bennett with Beale public affairs.

During training, talk shifts away from blaming the victim

A group of airmen gathered in a breakroom to talk about an upcoming party. During the conversation, they ranked their female colleagues' looks, talked about spiking the women's drinks and placed bets on who would be able to have sex that night.

It was actually a role-playing scenario in a four-hour mandatory training session at Beale Air Force Base in May.

After the scenario was played out in groups of up to 25, airmen discussed the issues.

"A lot of people felt the airmen should have been approached in that breakroom," Technical Sgt. Julio Serrano said. There were also comments that people could taste whether there was alcohol in a drink and that "they should know their body."

The discussion was turned back toward predator behavior and away from victim-blaming, Serrano said. "Although (a female airman) can put themselves in that state, they're not asking for (sexual assault). We're trying to get away from finding a way to blame the victim.

"Comments like 'She drank too much' — that kind of mindset can prevent victims from reporting."

As individuals see a situation and interpret it as problematic, they are trained to accept responsibility, decide how to handle it and act, said Cathy Knight, the civilian sexual assault response coordinator at Beale.

"As each individual does this, it sets the example for others and becomes a self-sustaining part of our culture," Knight said. "It also speaks to survivors of sexual assault that we do not ignore, tolerate or condone offenders."

Knigh said a lot of people would want to say something, "it just takes one person to have the courage."

Lt. Siobhan Bennett said she's seen big changes and progress in the military's sexual assault training just in her two years in active duty in the Air Force.

She didn't know if she would "have the guts" to confront someone behaving inappropriately.

"I left thinking, 'What would I do?'" she said.

She and Serrano expressed pride in the program.

"I think we have a good opportunity to make a big impact on this critical area, and like any critical issue, it requires a change in culture, and it will take time," Bennett said.

There was a time when females weren't allowed to join the military. Now, woman can do just about any job a man can. The same sort of cultural shift is going to happen with sexual assault, she said.

'Resocialization' is part of process of changing attitudes

Empowering airmen to change their culture requires a resocialization process. The Air Force, after all, is a subsection of a larger society.

"You can't just expect 18- and 19-year-olds to change their behavior. It's a cultural shift," said Col. Phil Stewart, former commander of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale, who addressed all of the airmen on base about sexual assault before he left for another assignment.

"It's not something you just do once and move on," he said. "We constantly address it."

At Beale, each airman is educated about assault and told the Air Force will not tolerate sexual assault.

It's becoming a part of the process of becoming an airman.

When people join the military, they are held to a particular standard and will be taught to respect themselves and respect others, Stewart said.

They're taught what consent means, he said.

"If you weren't taught to treat the opposite gender with respect, this is going to be a shock for you," Stewart said. "I can't tell you how to raise your kids or treat your wife. ... I bundle it up as respect for yourself and respect for others."

He said he takes sexual assault seriously and personally, in part because he has a 15-year-old daughter.

He frequently hears the question, "Is it safe for girls to join the Air Force?"

"Of course I think it's safe to be a female in the military," he said. "I'm very proud of our program, the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response; it's very victim-focused."

Beale has trained dozens of airmen as sexual assault advocates, and victims are provided with additional support through every step of the process in confronting the issue, from choosing whether to report to being provided with victim counseling through court-martial proceedings.

It's not uncommon, Stewart said, for a female airman to approach him with tears in her eyes to report a previous assault.

"About 12 percent of my cases were assaulted before they were in the military," he said. "They come forward now because they want to get help.

"You have to make the journey from being a victim to a survivor," he said.

"I'm proud of the progress we've made," Stewart said. "I challenge you to find a program that is more compassionate, more-victim focused and helps more victims become survivors more than the military and Beale Air Force Base. I just don't think you'll find it."

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Men Recovering From Military Sexual Trauma

 via the Good Men Project, July 14, 2014 

Brian Lewis explains how a uniform doesn’t prevent the erasure of male survivors.


The Response Systems to Adult Sexual Assault Crimes Panel released its report regarding the scourge of military sexual trauma. This was the supposedly independent panel (not really) established by Congress to examine how the military was combating the longstanding crimes of rape and sexual trauma in the military and to make recommendations as to how the military can do better. There has been a lot of talk about the recommendations to keep reporting and adjudication within the chain of command. However, there is one recommendation no one is talking about.


More specifically, providing more resources for healing and more funding for research on survivors of male-on-male rape and assault in the military. There is no dispute that men are the majority of victims within the military. What is new is that male victims are finally being recognized and noticed for the huge lack of resources facing them? No, wait, that’s not new either…

In 2004, the Defense Task Force on Care for Victims of Sexual Assault recommended that more information be gathered concerning male survivors. What happened to that recommendation? Nothing. In 2009, the Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault in the Military Services recommended that male survivors of sexual assault be given separate treatment areas and that protocols be established specifically for treating male survivors. What happened to those recommendations? Ignored. In 2013, the United States Commission on Civil Rights discussed at great length the need to have more representation of male survivors. Where did this recommendation go? Into the circular file. So please excuse male survivors if we are a little less than hopeful regarding actual implementation of the one single recommendation regarding male survivors in this latest report.

Even this latest report marginalizes a large minority of the male survivor community in the military. Namely, it continues to ignore the reality of female-on-male rapes and sexual assaults. The Department of Defense’s own survey has estimated that when men are the victims, women are the perpetrator about forty percent of the time. Former Marine Sergeant James Landrith knows this reality all too well. While the Department of Defense continues to ignore this issue, CNN and other media outlets are beginning to cover it. A recent CNN article on Landrith was actually named one of the top 10 news stories of the year for that news section. Media interest is clearly there and victims are speaking out more, so why does the DoD still ignore the issue?


Supposedly the Department of Defense and the Veterans Health Administration share knowledge, reports, and information. If that is the case, why does the Veterans Health Administration continue the same ineffectual health care policies that have clearly failed in the Department of Defense? There are no dedicated programs specifically for male survivors of military sexual trauma. Male survivors, in some cases, still have to go to the women’s clinic at their local VA to receive care. No research is taking place for male survivors at the Veterans Health Administration. Clearly, VHA is no friend of the male survivor.

We have heard some empty promises from the Secretary of Defense about how he has directed the Sexual Assault and Prevention Response Office to address these shortcomings. Unfortunately, Secretary Hagel’s words are not being turned into action. Who is advising Major General Snow and his staff on how best to reach male survivors? Aside from Men Recovering from Military Sexual Trauma, there are no U.S. advocacy organizations dedicated solely to male survivors of sexual abuse endured as an adult, whether inside or outside of the military.

So, what is the game plan for the federal government? Issue more empty words and hope the issue goes away? Male survivors have endured in silence for far too long. It is our turn to have a seat at the table to talk about the reality of being a victim of sexual crimes. Please join Men Recovering from Military Sexual Trauma as we start a march toward equality for male survivors of sexual violence in the military.


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“It was one of the hardest things I have ever gone through”: How reporting sexual assault can revictimize survivors

KATIE MCDONOUGH via Salon, July 14, 2014 

A New York Times report shares one victim's story of being mistreated by her school. She's hardly alone.


Last, week Claire McCaskill released a report on sexual violence at American colleges and universities revealing — among other troubling findings — that of more than 300 schools surveyed, 40 percent hadn’t conducted a single sexual assault investigation in the last five years. This was true even for schools that had reported sexual assaults to the Department of Education during that same time period, meaning that these cases were blatantly ignored by administrators. But another alarming truth exposed in McCaskill’s report was just how little training and resources are available at the schools that meet their federal obligations and actually investigate sexual assault on their campuses. It seems victims are largely on their own whether or not their assaults are investigated.


This lack of training is a dangerous thing. And while reports like McCaskill’s are crucial to raising awareness and demanding accountability from administrators and law enforcement, the numbers can sometimes obscure the real people who are harmed by the failures of the system. A story that ran over the weekend by Walt Bogdanich at the New York Times shared one of those stories, and put a human face to the statistics.

Anna was a freshman at Hobart and William Smith Colleges when she says she was sexually assaulted by members of the school’s football team. After texting her friends that she was at a party with a group of football players and “scared,” she was eventually found in a common room on campus, bent over a pool table as a football player appeared to be sexually assaulting her. Others were in the room watching and laughing, according to a witness account. Anna told the Times that she had no recollection of what happened to her on the pool table, but said she was raped earlier in the evening in a bedroom in a campus fraternity house.

A sexual assault nurse who examined Anna found “blunt force trauma” indicating “intercourse with either multiple partners, multiple times or that the intercourse was very forceful.” A sergeant who drove her back to her dorm that night assured her that her school “would respond in whatever manner that would support her.”

The sergeant was wrong. It took the panel at Hobart and William Smith Colleges 12 days to clear each of the football players involved of any wrongdoing.

Two of the three panel members did not examine a report from the sexual assault nurse showing blunt force trauma, instead focusing on how much alcohol Anna had consumed that night and asking questions about how she danced with her alleged rapists. “It was one of the hardest things I have ever gone through,” Anna said of the hearing. “I felt like I was talking to someone who knew nothing of any sort of social interaction; what happens at parties; what happens in sex.”

“The questioning is absolutely stunning in its absurdity,” Anna’s lawyer, Inga L. Parsons, told the Times.

Anna’s story is hardly unique. On college campuses and off, victims are the ones generally put on trial for the crimes committed against them. A student who was assaulted at Patrick Henry College — a private Christian evangelical school — was aggressively questioned by the dean of students and told that she wasn’t “wholly innocent in this situation.” She was asked questions like, “Did you make it up? Or did you deserve it in some way? Or was it consensual and now you’re just lying about it to make him look bad?,” according to a witness present at the time. The student’s alleged rapist was never disciplined.

Earlier this year, after a woman was allegedly assaulted by members of the Naval Academy football team, she was questioned for 20 hours by 12 attorneys and forced to answer questions about her sexual history. She was asked whether or not she wore a bra, how wide she opened her mouth during oral sex, and if she considered herself a “ho” after the alleged assault occurred.

These failures aren’t even limited to college or military investigations. Law enforcement officials have been found to be equally ill-prepared to handle these cases. “Law enforcement officials at 30 percent of institutions in the national sample receive no training on how to respond to reports of sexual violence,” according to the findings. A recentnational survey also found that law enforcement lack this crucial training, and often use a narrow conceptions about rape — namely, that only stranger rape involving a weapon or physical force counts as rape — to guide their investigations. As a result, victims suffer.

There is an endless stream of survivor testimonies that sound exactly like this one, thousands of survivors who are re-victimized by the systems that are supposed to be put in place to help them. And yet men like George Will call the failures of accountability and abuse endured by survivors “privileges.” And still we wonder why more victims don’t come forward. Why reporting remains so low. Why survivors self-critique their own rape experiences, question whether or not what happened to them counts as a crime. Why some victims cease to cooperate with hostile investigations.

Despite her experience at the school, Anna told the Times she intends to return to Hobart and William Smith in the fall, for one simple reason: “Someone needs to help survivors there.”

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at


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Harvey Bryant on commander authority in military sex assault cases: “I don’t think its best”

BY   via WTKR JULY 7, 2014 

A congressional panel looking into military sexual assaults has voted to keep prosecution authority with commanders.

But one of the two who voted against it was none other than former Virginia Beach Commonwealth Attorney Harvey Bryant.

He and 8 other people spent a year working on the 325 page report–but now that it’s all complete, what does he really think?

“I don’t think our recommendations as a panel are best for men and women in uniform, and I don’t think it’s best for public confidence in what’s going on,” said Harvey Bryant, talking about his experience on the “Response Systems to Adult Sexual Assault Crimes Panel” convened by Congress last year.

The former Virginia Beach Commonwealth Attorney was handpicked to look at the way the military handles the prosecution of sexual assaults–but out of 9 people, Bryant was only one of two who voted to take court martial authority for sexual assaults away from military commanders.

“The primary goal is to increase confidence and put it in the hands of people trained in law to make decisions. We don’t let commanders decide who is having an operation, doctors in the military decide that,” said Bryant.

Bryant says he didn’t always feel that way–but changed his views after several months of official hearings and testimony from more than 650 people, many of them military officers.

“I wasn’t satisfied with their answers. I suddenly realized, ‘this is not good, we are not going to have confidence in the system,’” said Bryant.

In the end, his change of heart didn’t matter much–the majority of his fellow panel members voted the other way.

Their recommendations to keep court martial decisions inside the chain of command was sent to the Pentagon as well as Congress.

“Within that majority was a retired Vice-Admiral from the JAG corps, two retired generals that were military attorneys, and a full colonel, retired, who had also been a military attorney,” said Bryant.

As expected, their recommendations to Congress largely kept the status quo.

“I just believe having spent their careers in that, it was difficult for them to see that the system they had come up in, and in many cases supervised, needed major change,” said Bryant. “It should work in the military just like it does in the real world.”

Bryant says there were some good things the panel recommended that he believes Congress and the Pentagon should enact.

1. Release all sentencing data for sexual assault court-martial outcomes on a public website for transparency.

2. Perform better surveys for sexual assault data with bigger samples.

3. Let victims have a greater role during plea agreements.

4. Allow victims to make restricted sexual assault reports to law enforcement, without triggering a full investigation.

5. Allow law enforcement to compile data on restricted reports, so they target repeat offenders.

6. Give military defense attorneys more money so they can hire investigators for proper defense of suspects.

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Adm. Howard: We 'need to be' in Iraq

By TREVOR EISCHEN via Politico, July 6, 2014

Adm. Michelle Howard, who became the Navy's first female four-star admiral last week, says "discouraging" is not the word she'd use to describe the current crisis in Iraq and that the Navy is prepared to act in the region if necessary.

Howard, the vice chief of naval operations, said in an interview Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union" that many nations have "moved back and then moved forward again as they work their way toward democracy." She said "we need to be" in Iraq, providing help through intelligence gathering and assessment teams.

Howard also reacted to recent comments made by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) about sexual assault in the military.

"Just last night a woman came to me and said that her daughter wanted to join the military and could I give my unqualified support for her doing so," McCain said during a committee hearing. "I could not. I cannot overstate my disgust and disappointment at the continued reports of sexual misconduct in our military."

In response, Howard said that she's asked her sailors who are parents if they would allow their daughters to join — and almost always the answer is "absolutely."

"We have to get after this sexual assault issue," Howard said. "Sen. McCain is correct. But the Navy is the place to join."

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Military pensions could become targets in sex assault convictions

By Jacqueline Klimas via The Washington Times, July 2, 2014

Lawmakers say it’s worth considering giving the military power to strip service members of their pensions after Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair was acquitted of sex assault but convicted of lesser charges, leading to a sentence some in Congress said was too light for what he was accused of.

Brig. Gen. Sinclair, a former top commander in Afghanistan accused of forcible rape and sodomy, will retire Aug. 1 as a lieutenant colonel after being demoted two ranks and pleading guilty to charges of adultery and an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate. He served no jail time and was sent into retirement, where he will continue to collect the pension he earned over his 27-year career in the Army.

Army Secretary John M. McHugh said the punishment is fair, and said the law binds his hands and prevents him from stripping the general’s pension — though he said Congress could change the law if it wanted.

“During Capitol Hill hearings, I was asked whether Sinclair would receive a pension after proceedings were complete,” Mr. McHugh said in an Army release. “Under federal law, if a person has earned a pension because of their years of service, they are entitled to those benefits. Congress might consider a change in the law that would allow greater flexibility and accountability.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, said that was worth considering, according to her office. She would like to see a detailed report from the Pentagon on the proposal, a staffer said.

Brig. Gen. Sinclair will still receive more than $6,000 a month, though that’s more than $2,800 a month less than he would have received if he’d been allowed to retire as a brigadier general, according to an Army spokesman.

Greg Jacob, policy director at the Service Women’s Action Network, said giving a commander power to cancel a pension might be putting too much control in one person’s hands. He suggested allowing military members to sue for damages in civilian courts, which he said could end up exacting a hefty financial penalty from their attackers.

“Normally in the civilian sector, you’d take a guy like Sinclair, there’d be civil actions taken against him that would result in judgments that could actually consume the bulk of a person’s monetary pension for the number of years he has to pay out whatever was awarded,” Mr. Jacob said. “Because members of the military don’t have access to civilian courts, that’s not an option.”

Military juries may be less likely to take away a pension because they figure they’re punishing not only the service member, but also his family, by stripping the benefits, said Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association. The spouse and children also will have spent 20-plus years moving around the country, suffering through long deployments and living a life ruled by the military.

“Many times the military spouse has not been able to progress in her career and save for her own retirement, they’ve moved a lot, so the couple has never bought a house, they don’t have the saved equity in something that people who’ve been able to remain in one place have,” Ms. Raezer said. “For a lot of these couples, this military pension is their biggest asset.”

In fact, under the Former Spouse Protection Act, a member of the military’s pension can be treated as joint property by the court in a divorce and divided between the husband and wife, Ms. Raezer said

Still, she said going after a pension is rarely an option because only about a quarter of officers and even fewer enlisted troops serve until they are retirement eligible. For most service members convicted of sexual assault, losing a pension wouldn’t even be a possible punishment because they hadn’t served long enough to earn it, she said.

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Sexual assault panel: Keep prosecutions in chain of command

By Jennifer Hlad via Stars and Stripes, July 1, 2014


Congress should not remove court-martial convening authority from the chain of command, a nine-member panel appointed to study how the military investigates, prosecutes and punishes sexual assault crimes said in its report.

The panel “heard testimony from a number of victims” indicating that it is “often subordinate leaders who perpetrated the sexual assault itself, ignored it when it was reported, or engaged in retaliation towards the victim afterwards,” according to the panel’s report to Congress; however, seven of the nine panel members agreed that removing prosecution authority from the chain of command would not reduce the number of sexual assaults, increase reporting of crimes or improve the quality of investigations and prosecutions, according to the report.

Published Friday by the Response Systems to Adult Sexual Assault Crimes Panel, the report is a blow to advocates of a plan proposed last year by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., which would have removed the authority to prosecute sexual assault and other major crimes from commanders and given it to military lawyers.

But Nancy Parrish, president of victim advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, said she was not surprised the panel supported the status quo.

“This panel sadly became a tool to further delay needed reform,” she said, noting that the members of the panel were chosen by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and members of Congress who opposed the Gillibrand bill.

“The fact that there was any dissent is remarkable.”

One of the voices of dissent was panel member Elizabeth Hillman, a professor of law at University of California Hastings College of Law. In a dissent posted on Gillibrand’s website, Hillman wrote that she believes “trained, experienced prosecutors” should make the decision on whether to prosecute rape and sexual assault.

While commanders “must lead the way in changing military culture,” they are ill-suited to make prosecution decisions, Hillman wrote.

Though the panel determined that prosecution authority should stay with commanders, it recommended dozens of other changes and initiatives, including:

* That Congress repeal sections of recently passed legislation that require higher-level review of commanders’ decisions not to refer some sexual assault cases to trial.

* That the Defense Department develop a new survey to measure the scope of unreported criminal sexual assaults

* That the services standardize the way they track the outcome of sexual assault cases, and

* That the services standardize the process for determining if a case is declared “unfounded” at the investigation stage.”

Currently, the military measures and records conviction data differently that civilian authorities, and different groups cite different conviction rates when discussing the challenge of prosecuting sexual assault crimes.

In the report on sexual assaults from fiscal 2013, the DOD said commanders took disciplinary action in 73 percent of cases in which there was sufficient evidence to consider doing so. However, only 373 people were convicted of any crime in cases related to sexual assault, out of more than 2,100 who could have been considered for legal action – making the conviction rate closer to 17 percent.

The panel also recommended the services correct the resource imbalance between the defense and prosecution in sexual assault cases, and that services develop specific programs to prevent male-on-male sexual assault, among other changes.

Maj. James Brindle, a DOD spokesman, said the department will consider “all aspects of the report, including the views of those who did not agree with the panel’s recommendations.”
Twitter: @jhlad

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Obama names ex-CEO Robert McDonald as VA nominee

By Meredith Clark via MSNBC, June 30, 2014 

President Obama officially announced Monday that he will nominate Robert McDonald, a former business executive and West Point graduate, to be the new secretary of Veterans Affairs.

McDonald, Obama said Monday, “understands that grand plans are not enough, and what matters is the plans you put in place, and how you get the job done.” 

In McDonald, Obama has a nominee unlikely to make waves during his confirmation process. McDonald retired in 2013 after spending more than 33 years at Proctor and Gamble, ending his tenure there as CEO amid investor concerns over profits, a problem that will not trouble him at Veterans Affairs. He also graduated near the top of his class at West Point in 1975, where he attended school with Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson, and spent five years in the Army with the 82nd Airborne Division.

Much has changed in the military and Veterans Affairs since 1980 – from the demographics of veterans seeking care to the types of services veterans of the nation’s most recent wars need. Whether his skills as head of a consumer products corporation will translate to problem solving at the VA, where there are nine million customers to keep satisfied, will soon become clear, but Obama and McDonald both vowed to do better.


“My life’s purpose has been to improve the lives of others,” McDonald said of his time in the Army and in corporate life. “We need to put caring for veterans at the center of everything we do … and we must focus all day, every day, on getting them the benefits they’ve earned.”

He has a lot of work ahead of him. On Friday, Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson and Deputy White House Chief of Staff Rob Nabors met with Obama to discuss what progress has been made at the VA. Nabors, who had been tasked with conducting a review of VA medical care, delivered a blistering report to Obama on “significant and chronic systemic failures that must be addressed by the leadership at VA.” 

Obama also laid out what changes are already underway at the department, which were included in the report Nabors submitted Friday. In the report’s summary, Nabors pointed to “a corrosive culture” at the department that has hurt morale and caused health care to suffer. “The problems inherent within an agency with an extensive field structure are exacerbated by poor management and communication structures, distrust between some VA employees and management, a history of retaliation toward employees raising issues, and a lack of accountability across all grade levels,” it read.

Former Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned May 30, two days after a VA Inspector General report found widespread systemic failure to properly schedule and provide health care for veterans seeking care. That report found 1,700 veterans were waiting for care but were not on any official waiting list.

If confirmed, McDonald will take over the responsibility to fix a system that has been facing a crisis for over a decade. Joe Violante, National Legislative Director of Disabled Veterans of America, told msnbc that it has been clear since 2003 that there were not enough resources to meet the needs of the veterans who would be entering the VA system. A Bush administration task force, Violante said, “reported that if that mismatch wasn’t addressed there would be a crisis in access, and here we are 11 years later in the middle of that.”

For McDonald to be effective, he’ll have to follow up on what Gibson has done during his month-long tenure. “I think Acting Secretary Gibson has stepped out there and done some important things that needed to be done, such as visiting VA facilities, going out and talking to his employees and to veterans. I think we’re heading in the right direction, and hopefully the new secretary will be able to keep up momentum,” Violante told msnbc. “DAV is looking forward to working with the nominee once he’s confirmed.”

Anu Bhagwati, executive director of Service Women’s Action Network, said Monday that McDonald will have to consider the military’s increased diversity as he makes decisions on how to move forward. “Past leadership at VA has not engaged nearly enough women in policy discussions and hasn’t done nearly enough to remedy the problems facing women veterans,” Bhagwati said. “As active duty service women begin to transition out of the military, the burden to provide services to women veterans will only increase. When you add this to the overwhelming patient care challenges VA currently faces, Robert McDonald will have his hands full and will need to rely heavily on the counsel of women who have served.”

The Senate has yet to confirm three female nominees to top positions at Veterans Affairs, and Obama urged that those nominees be confirmed. All three, he said, “have been waiting, and waiting, and waiting for a vote,” one for over a year. “We need them on the job now. Congress has to act and help us do right by our veterans,” he said.

Negotiations between the House and Senate on how to pay for a bill that would add tens of billions of dollars to the VA budget began on June 24.

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Compass: Governor's inadequate response to Alaska National Guard sexual assault complaints

By BARBARA MCDANIEL via Anchorage Daily News June 25, 2014 

Questions remain as to why Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell waited almost four years to open an official investigation into 2010 Alaska National Guard chaplains' reports to him of sexual assaults of particular servicewomen in the guard.

This is an important issue for all Alaskans. The sexual assault epidemic within U.S. military ranks rages on. Congress adopted many improvements to the military justice system in the fiscal year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, but hesitated to pass bipartisan legislation that would address the core problem - that is, removing prosecution from the chain of command as provided for in the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA, S. 967/H.R. 2016). The act would authorize an independent, specially trained and experienced prosecutor to handle these cases. Alaska Senate Joint Resolution 20, supporting the MJIA, languished in the Senate Rules Committee this year. And the U.S. Dept. of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office's (SAPRO) FY2013 survey found formal sexual assault complaints within military ranks increased 50 percent over the previous year.

Ethical men and women have good cause to care and attend to the work and cost of eradicating sexual assault in U.S. military workplaces. Victims are friends and cherished relatives. And as most military personnel live and work among us, our communities absorb the consequences of military sexual assault as well as the consequences of military commanders' unwillingness to prosecute their perpetrators.

The recent Alaska National Guard sexual assault scandal returned Alaskans' attention to our ongoing struggle with sexual violence against women. To recap, in an April 26, 2014 Anchorage Daily News commentary, columnist Shannyn Moore held Gov. Parnell to account for receiving reports of the Guard sexual assaults on Nov. 18, 2010 and waiting four years before initiating a formal investigation. Professional protocol for any sexual assault report generally calls for immediacy, confidentiality and safety for victims, and investigation, regardless of the amount of detail. The well-known, nationwide military sexual assault issue should have added impetus to the governor's sense of duty to investigate.

In his April 30 ADN defense, Gov. Parnell describes having an undated, general conversation with the Adjutant General about sexual assault allegations and the guard process. He contends this was an adequate response. Notably, since the complaint against him was his timing, his delay in response in 2010, it is odd the governor omitted the date of that contact in his defense. The only specific date mentioned in the response is Feb. 26, when Sen. Dyson managed to spur the governor to formally ask the National Guard Bureau chief to review all related investigations.

In her May 3 ADN follow-up, Ms. Moore stated, "I asked former Gov. Tony Knowles what he would have done in Parnell's place. He said: 'I wouldn't have let those chaplains off the phone until my attorney general had heard their story.'" Experts agree that would be natural and appropriate. However, in related published documents regarding the matter, Gov. Parnell has not mentioned his attorney general at the time, current Senate candidate Dan Sullivan. (Mr. Sullivan was reassigned, from attorney general to Dept. of Natural Resources commissioner, a few weeks after the chaplains' report. His last day as attorney general was December 5, 2010.) The Alaska Dept. of Natural Resources commissioner's website states, "(Dan Sullivan's) primary focus as Attorney General was to end Alaska's epidemic levels of sexual assault and domestic violence."

Questions remain unanswered. Therefore, on behalf of the victims in this matter, on June 4, Alaska NOW faxed and sent a certified-mail letter to the governor's office, requesting further information. Alaska NOW requested, "per the Alaska Public Records Act, copies of (documents) between you and then Attorney General Daniel Sullivan from November 18, 2010, or the first actual date of any report to you regarding sexual assault accusations within the Alaska National Guard, through Daniel Sullivan's last day as Attorney General, December 5, 2010." As of today, June 23, 2014, we have received no response from the governor's office.

Barbara McDaniel is president of the Alaska chapter of the National Organization for Women.


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Coburn report slams VA as ‘broken system’

BY JOSH HICKS via the Washington Post, June 25, 2014 

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) on Tuesday issued a scathing 119-page reportdescribing a culture of crime, cover-ups, incompetence and coercion at the already-embattled Department of Veterans Affairs.

Coburn said the VA’s recent hospital scandal, which involved falsification of scheduling records to hide treatment delays, is “just the tip of the iceberg.”

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) testifies on Capitol Hill on June 10, 2014. (AP/Charles Dharapak).

Among the discoveries from his year-long review, Coburn found:

A former VA police chief convicted of plotting to kidnap, rape and murder women and children.

A VA neurologist in Kansas who was paid for nearly two years after five women accused him of performing inappropriate pelvic and breast examinations. The VA fired the doctor in May 2013, and he pleaded no contest to two dozen counts of sexual misconduct, in addition to registering as a sex offender.

* A VA employee in Nashville who charged at least $109,000 in unauthorized travel expenses to the department. An inspector general’s investigation determined that the worker had lax supervision and “traveled whenever and wherever he wanted, billing VA for his expenses.”

* Four major construction projects with cost overruns of $1.5 billion and delays between 14 months and six years.

* A VA whistleblower who was suspended without pay after she reported scheduling abuses at a department medical center in Fort Collins, Colo. She said her supervisors claimed her “performance had delayed patient care,” and the VA relocated her to another clinic with a lower salary, according to the report.

* More than 1,000 veterans may have died as a result of VA misconduct, and  the agency paid out $845 million for medical malpractice since 2001.

Coburn also criticized the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee for what he described as a lack of oversight, saying the panel has missed warnings about delays and dysfunction for years while holding only two oversight hearings since 2010.

“This report shows the problems at the VA are worse than anyone imagined,” the senator said. “The scope of the VA’s incompetence — and Congress’s indifferent oversight — is breathtaking and disturbing.”

Coburn said money is not the issue, noting that Congress has increased VA funding “rapidly in recent years” and that the agency had more than $34 billion in unspent funds in fiscal 2013.

The VA said in a statement on Tuesday that “the vast majority of VA employees are dedicated public servants who demonstrate genuine passion to care for veterans and their families every day.”

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson, who took over as head of the department after Eric Shinseki resigned last month, acknowledged in his first public remarks about the scheduling scandal that the VA had “fallen far short of what veterans have earned and deserve.”

But he promised to change the culture of the VA and earn back the trust in the department “one veteran at a time, one American at a time.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.

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