Secretary of Defense
Remarks at Sexual Assault Response Coordinators of the Year Awards
All right. Well, listen, good afternoon.
Let me just start off by expressing my thanks to each and every one of you in this room, for I know each and every one of you is making a contribution to this critical mission. And I thank you because wherever sexual assault occurs – whether it's on the front lines or here at home – it not only undermines our values, it undercuts our ability to execute our mission to protect our people and make a better world for our children. Honor and trust are the lifeblood of the profession of military arms. Every sexual assault is an attack on those values. So, too, are acts of retaliation against those who report these crimes.
The theme of this year's Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month is "Know your part, do your part," and that's more than just a slogan. It's one of our missions. And let me make one thing clear, I view retaliation associated with reporting sexual assault or harassment as unacceptable conduct. It's a direct threat to the health of our force.
We must ensure that as a Department, we're doing everything we can to provide the proper protections and support for those who come forward to report sexual assault. To that end, after last year's annual report on sexual assault in the military, I mandated a Department-wide retaliation strategy to improve the way we support service members who experience retaliation from reporting this crime, while aligning prevention and response efforts across the Services.
And this was something new, and it to me reflects something that I'm proud of, which is in retaliation, we came to recognize yet another dimension of this scourge. And we're taking it on, and that's what this step represents. There will be more in the future as we learn more and we get better. We've got to get better. But I'm not proud that retaliation occurs, but I'm proud that we recognized it. While there's much work that remains to be done to eliminate this overall scourge, sexual assault, from our military, today we're taking an important step with the release of this strategy. And there are copies of the strategy here. It will be posted today on the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office's website at SAPR.mil.
And I want to thank General Nichols, wherever she is -- General Nichols and I, I should say, go back a long ways, in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and couldn't be -- have more confidence in your leadership on this important mission.
The report, as you'll see, provides a framework for strengthening support for those who experience retaliation in connection with reporting sexual assault or harassment, and for clarifying the retaliation response process. In taking these actions, we will uphold our commitment to survivors and reporters. And I hope we will also influence those considering whether to make a report, whether to do it or not.
We're also here today to recognize servicemembers and civilians who not only know their part and do their part, but who serve as models in their response to sexual assault across the services, at all levels of responsibility. They've promoted an environment where sexual assault is neither tolerated nor ignored. In different ways, they have reinforced a culture of prevention, accountability, dignity and respect. And I'm proud of each and every one of them.
Sergeant First Class Raquel Mendoza knew her part and went far beyond the call of duty to strengthen our force. She created a triage decision tree that ensured anyone standing guard was trained to properly handle sexual assault when it occurred, notify the responsible parties, assist in the preservation of evidence, and protect the rights of the survivor.
Her decision tree is so effective that it's now being replicated across the entire U.S. Army. She also established an on-based mentorship program that affirms the dignity and experiences of survivors, raising awareness and galvanizing the Fort Carson community to do its part against sexual violence.
Ms. Deborah Drucker helped to shift the expectations and perceived norms within the submarine community to integrate and welcome female crew members. She also confronted the long-held stereotype that all survivors of sexual assault are female and all perpetrators are male. She encouraged members of her community to consider male as well as female survivors, which is vital to changing environments and behaviors.
Ms. Jacqueline Maxwell demonstrated extraordinary compassion for the survivors of sexual assault at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, and determination to improve how we teach our personnel about sexual assault. Her efforts led to the first-ever sexual assault prevention and response proclamation of support by unit and base commanders. From the ground up, she inspired military leaders to commit to a total team effort to prevent sexual assault.
Captain Elizabeth Bellow made sure that our men and women across AFRICOM had an advocate and the resources they needed across 15 geographically separated operating locations supporting over 7,000 service members. Through education, orientation or frequent outreach, she helped establish evacuation procedures to transport survivors from across the command to locations with certified providers of forensic exams.
Sergeant First Class Melinda Heikkinen -- did I pronounce that right? Melinda, where are you? How did I do? We'll have another chance in a minute when you get your reward.
Anyway, you traveled more than 3,000 miles as a sexual assault response coordinator for the Washington Army National Guard to advocate for survivors.
Where did she go? She's back there -- there you are; there you are…But in all seriousness, in the process of doing that, she created a policy for victim care and response that enabled all restricted reporting cases to move to unrestricted reporting -- all. This policy encouraged a cultural shift allowing survivors to be comfortable to report assault and receive compassionate care.
Ms. Simone Hall is the final member of our force I'd like to recognize today. She used cutting-edge technology to ensure that 6,500 military and civilian employees of the U.S. Coast Guard had instant access to sexual assault prevention and response services. She is dedicated to establishing an environment within her service that promotes dignity and respect for every individual, with the ultimate goal of eliminating sexual assault.
There they are, these six individuals, trailblazers. They know their part. They do their part. And they're doing whatever it takes to fight against sexual assault in our military ranks. They're a model for all of us in the Department. While we celebrate these six remarkable individuals, we know our work is not finished.
And in that vein, I'm pleased to make one more announcement today. The Defense Digital Service is combining forces with our Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office to launch a project that will improve the systems that underlie our reporting databases. This is important, because this will allow for more streamlined, timely and accurate reporting. It will also reduce the burden on our dedicated sexual assault response coordinators and investigators, a big burden I know from talking to them, allowing them to spend more time with survivors.
This project will help the Department understand sexual assault data in a more meaningful way, also ultimately leading to more transparency between DOD advocates and others invested in this critical mission.
So, to the six women with us today, I'm so proud of you and the work you've already done. By choosing to defend your country and make a better world, you've dedicated your lives to one of the noblest things a person can do. And by stepping forward to look out for and protect your fellow service members, you help ensure that the force of tomorrow can be as great as the force of today.
Thank you for that.
And now we'll recognize each one of you individually.