Military works to combat sexual assaults

5:14 AM, Jun 11, 2013   |    comments
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(The Tennessean) - Women in the military continue to fight a culture that is often hostile to them.

That's true at Fort Campbell, Ky., one of three posts across the country where someone with a crucial role in sexual abuse prevention got into trouble for related behavior.

The scope of the problem became apparent May 15, when police arrested Fort Campbell's sexual harassment prevention manager on stalking charges involving his ex-wife. Leadership removed Lt. Col. Darin Haas from his position, but not before the incident once again called attention to the challenge the military faces in eradicating sexual harassment and assault.

Haas worked as the Sexual Harassment and Assault Response Prevention manager - the very program the Army had revamped in recent years to prevent assaults.

The Department of Defense's latest report estimated that 26,000 military servicemen and women were sexually assaulted last year - thousands more than were reported two years before - and that of 3,374 reported incidents, only 238 led to convictions.

Now the military, spurred on by Congress, has begun a new push to root out sexual assault. Legislation being considered in both the House and Senate would take responsibility for prosecution out of the hands of military commanders, giving an independent entity the authority to pursue prosecutions.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, meanwhile, ordered the military to recertify all 25,000 people involved in assault prevention programs.

"It needs to be fixed from the inside out," said Sgt. Emily McAleesejergins, of Nashville, a 10-year member of the Kentucky National Guard. "But I think because of the military's efforts recently to make awareness a huge push, I think it's safer than it ever has been, in regards to sexual harassment and assault."

A bad first impression

A decade ago, as a college freshman being recruited, McAleesejergins' experiences with a ranking officer did not bode well.

Just before her swearing-in, the recruiter asked to see her in her dorm one night. The request made her uncomfortable, and she asked friends to stay nearby. He left when she asked him to, but not without leaving a bad impression.

Years later, the recruiter was jailed for sexual assaults of dozens of enlisted women.

"After that, I was very well aware that even leaders of the Army can do wrong things," she said.

The recent string of allegations involving sexual misconduct points to a deep-seated cultural problem.

"Often units are not dealing with raunchy comments," said Nancy Campbell, co-president of the Women's Law Center. "It can create an atmosphere that suggests that individuals can further this behavior with no regard to punishment. A lot of the military's attention is into training and to assistance to the victims, particularly assault. Harassment is not as much of a focus as it should be."

In the recent Pentagon report, 97 percent of active duty men and women said they went through sexual harassment training in the past year. Of those, nine out of 10 said they would encourage someone to report sexual assault.

"When it comes to this kind of behavior, there is a lot of under-reporting because this is like a closed environment," Campbell said. "And there is the belief that you won't be taken seriously if you do."

Mary Ross, retired Army sergeant and commander of the Women Veterans of America, witnessed the cultural crisis firsthand.

"I don't think most people understand that aside from the crime against a person ... you are also experiencing the devastation of a violation of trust from a person who is supposed to protect you and lead you in your development," Ross said. "It's a major violation of trust and confidence."

The Clarksville native has worked with women who have been harassed, and she has had it happen to her. During her time in the service, assault and harassment prevention training became mandatory - but she said more must be done.

"If they say it won't be tolerated and there are people being punished and investigations happen, then you will see the environment change," she said.

'Endangering the Army from the inside out'

McAleesejergins said things have improved during her time in the service.

"I think it's people, especially leaders in the units, understanding the importance: that it starts with them. That if they see something going down, not to sweep it under the rug," she said. "I do think the training, they've done a really great job with the training in recent years."

The Army has focused much of its effort on overhauling its SHARP prevention program and training more than 8,000 instructors through 80-hour certification courses.

"Bottom line: Sexual assault is a crime that is endangering the Army from the inside out," a class manual advises instructors to say in class.

For years, classes had focused on how potential victims could avoid being targeted - and placing responsibility for action on the victims themselves.

McAleesejergins, who has taken the class three times, said she has noticed more focus on interventions.

"Soldiers, male and female, should know it's not right to just stand by and let it happen," she said.

She recalled an incident while on tour singing with the Army National Guard performance band. She said a female soldier said something sexually suggestive to a male soldier.

"Somebody standing next to them said, 'Hey, that's way too graphic, we have people here representing the Army,'" she recalled. "I've definitely seen interventions."

The Pentagon's recent sexual-assault estimates found that men were the victims in nearly 14,000 of the estimated 26,000 assaults, although women, who make up a small fraction of active-duty personnel, had a higher rate of being assaulted.

Fort Campbell responds

As far back as November 2011, the wife of Lt. Col. Darin Haas feared for her safety and her children, according to a protective order she requested from a Montgomery County judge in October 2012.

The 44-year-old woman, a teacher, handwrote five incidents in her request for protection, saying that her ex-husband - who four months later would become a Fort Campbell sexual prevention officer - had threatened her life via text message and sent sexually charged messages referring to her in various explicit ways as a "whore."

She also recounted an incident in which she said the man used a plastic pellet gun to shoot one of their children "at point-blank range."

Fort Campbell officials said Haas underwent the required background checks, commander interview and 80-hour class to become a prevention officer in January, a position he held when his ex-wife called police to report ongoing threatening text messages on May 15.

Police arrested Haas on charges of aggravated stalking and violation of the protective order.

Reached by phone, Haas declined to comment but said he planned to disclose information later. His attorney, Stacy Olson, said he is "100 percent innocent."

"I think he's been the victim, quite frankly," she said.

Olson provided records from the divorce file that show both parents lobbing contentious allegations against each other. The records do not directly rebut the criminal charges against Haas.

Post officials were quick to cast the incident as a domestic situation but removed Haas from his position, saying his retirement was pending.

"We have a new guy and we're moving forward," Brig. Gen. Mark Stammer, the base's senior commander, said last week.

Stammer, in a talk with reporters last week, tried to distance the arrest from base prevention efforts. He said the incident was a civil matter, off-post, between former spouses.

"Our Fort Campbell SHARP program is strong. It is resilient," Stammer said. "It was unfortunate that our program was, at least from the perception, not doing quite as well for our community as it is."

(Contributing: The Associated Press)

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