Submarine base changing its mindset on sexual assault

A group of sailors listen to Naval Submarine Base Commander Capt. Carl Lahti at the start of a Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Stand-Down at the base last month.
A group of sailors listen to Naval Submarine Base Commander Capt. Carl Lahti at the start of a Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Stand-Down at the base last month.

Groton - Marilyn Monroe is no longer welcome at the Naval Submarine Base.

Nothing is welcome that could create "a degrading, hostile or offensive work environment."

Part of the Navy's response to a Pentagon survey estimating that 26,000 members of the armed forces were sexually assaulted last year is to address a culture that tolerated attitudes that could lead to sexual crimes.

"We realized we were wrong. We changed our mindset," said Cmdr. Michael A. Pennington, the executive officer of the submarine base.

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus ordered inspections of every Navy workplace last month. Several pictures of Monroe were found at the base and removed.

The Navy hired prominent civilian attorneys even before the survey was released in May to train Navy lawyers and strategize on complicated cases. The civilian attorneys are now helping with the increasing volume of cases.

Some in Congress think the military cannot curb the growing problem on its own. They want to strip the chain of command of its authority to decide which sexual assault crimes to prosecute.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., recently proposed legislation to reform the military justice system by giving that authority to experienced military prosecutors. Military commanders would also be unable to overturn verdicts for serious crimes.

Gillibrand has said she hopes these reforms would encourage more victims to report crimes. The 26,000 incidents represent a 37 percent increase from fiscal 2011. Only 3,374 of them were reported to authorities.

"There is clearly a need for reform to address the scourge and spreading epidemic of sexual assault in the military," U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said.

Military vs. civilian justice

The Groton base currently has 12 pending cases of sexual assault or sexual contact offenses, which is more than in previous years, said Lt. Cmdr. William H. Weiland.

Weiland is the senior trial counsel for the Region Legal Service Office Mid-Atlantic. He and his team prosecute cases from Maine to North Carolina.

Weiland said he believes the military is well-positioned to try sexual assault cases that occur within its purview, because it understands the context in which the incidents occurred. But he said there is a need for an ongoing dialogue between those who practice military justice and those who are "on the outside looking in."

"We need to continue to advance our practice to ensure victims get justice," he said.

Weiland said he talks nearly every day with Teresa Scalzo, a former director of the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women. Scalzo, as the deputy director at the Navy JAG Trial Counsel Assistance Program in Washington, D.C., is the Navy's expert on sexual assault prosecution. Weiland called her an "incredible resource."

Scalzo, and Neal A. Puckett on the defense side, were hired by the Navy for a pilot program that brings in civilian experts. Puckett is working on complex and sexual assault litigation for the Navy Defense Counsel Assistance Program.

Scalzo said sexual assault cases, in particular, can be challenging to prosecute in the military because they often involve alcohol, a lack of consent and someone abusing rank or power. The accused do not have long criminal records, she added. Many are war heroes.

She said she works with prosecutors and victims to build the strongest cases possible. The conviction rate for sexual assault cases throughout the Navy in recent years was about 75 percent. The conviction rate for all criminal cases was about 90 percent.

Puckett, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps, is a successful military criminal defense attorney who has worked on many high-profile cases. He was the lead counsel for Marine Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, who was tried on manslaughter and related charges for the deaths of Iraqi civilians in Haditha, Iraq, in 2005. Wuterich pleaded guilty to negligent dereliction of duty and was later given a general discharge under honorable conditions.

Puckett is currently advising the defense team for one of the football players from the Naval Academy accused of sexually assaulting a female midshipman. He said he is trying to teach the Navy defense counselors he works with to be more self-confident.

"The outcome of the court-martial can determine what kind of future that client has," he said. "That is where the pressure comes from, and it can sometimes be overwhelming."

Puckett, who plans to return to private practice after his current three-year post is over, said he believes the military justice system does not need a drastic overhaul.

"I can only really speak for the defense side of things but my opinion about that is that the defense side of the equation in the military justice system is very well-prepared to meet the challenge, and the system itself, I think, is sound," he said. "It's essentially a very fair system."

Victims' rights at issue

Blumenthal said victims and victims' advocates have told him one of the major deterrents to reporting is the fear that the chain of command will not be receptive, or aggressive, in prosecuting these cases.

He mostly supports Gillibrand's proposals but he said the military command must be involved in the decision-making. Blumenthal has introduced legislation to give military crime victims the same rights as civilian crime victims, including protection from the accused.

Congress revised the rape and sexual assault charge under the Uniform Code of Military Justice last year to criminalize a broader range of sexual offenses, which is partly why there is a larger caseload now.

Blumenthal said he was encouraged by the fact that there seems to be a "new group and even a new generation of military leaders who really get it."

"I think in the past the commitment was to a policy of zero tolerance without necessarily the real action necessary to make those words real," he said. "And part of it may be the culture, which is changing as well, because there are increasing numbers of women in the military and they are rising to higher ranks than ever before."

According to her office, Gillibrand plans to offer her bill as an amendment to the defense authorization bill, which could come up in the Senate as early as this month. A plan by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., keeps prosecution of these cases within the chain of command but provides for additional oversight.

But Scalzo said the focus of the current debate may be misguided. She said she is less concerned with who is evaluating these cases, and more interested in whether they are trained to make decisions based on the evidence and not be influenced by myths, stereotypes and biases.

In fiscal 2012, 176 cases were presented to commanders throughout the Navy and court-martial charges were brought against 99 people. In fiscal 2011, charges were brought in 67 of 121 Navy cases.

"I'd rather have a military commander who is well-educated than a civilian prosecutor who is not," she said.

Changing the workplace

Command Master Chief Jeremy D. Gladu led the team that searched the common areas in every building at the Groton base for inappropriate materials.

Gladu said when he first saw a picture of a fully clothed Marilyn Monroe in a barracks lounge, he thought it was fine. But Pennington, the executive officer, said no, so they went to the base commander, Capt. Carl A. Lahti.

A life-size cutout of Sofia Vergara was also removed.

"There are photos of World War II barracks with pinup girls," Lahti said. "That's not acceptable in our workplace anymore. We've just come beyond that as a society and we need to understand that."

"I have to reset myself and say, 'What's OK for me might not be OK for the next person,'" Gladu said.

The buildings at the base have never before been checked for pinups. Lahti, Pennington and Gladu also led revamped training sessions on sexual assault and harassment.

During the training in late June, Lahti explained the concept of a "continuum of harm" to small groups of military and civilian personnel. The theory is that sexism often starts as subtle behaviors. Left unchecked, these behaviors can lead to comments, jokes and emails, then to inappropriate advances and touching, and then to sexual offenses.

He asked the audiences for their ideas on ways to foster a climate based on respect and professionalism.

"These conversations are important," Lahti said. "We want people to know if they're a victim of sexual assault, they're going to be taken care of and services are available for them. We want people to also know if there is an alleged offender, that person is going to be investigated and the appropriate legal action will be taken."

Lahti said he believes the steps taken will help prevent sexual assault. And while the number of cases may never reach zero, Lahti added, "We're going to get very close."


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