Sexual assault and the chain of command

The sexual assault epidemic in today’s military is appalling and threatens the safety of all of our brave men and women who put their lives on the line to defend our nation. In a nation that has been at war for over 12 years, it significantly undercuts military readiness.

The Pentagon understands the fragile nature and urgency of this issue and has moved combating sexual assault to the forefront of priorities. Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno has said that fighting sexual assault is the Army’s number one priority. Change will not happen overnight, but they have begun the process, and that is the first step towards handling this crisis.  Prevention of sexual assault is the goal.  Rash and emotional legislation taking away command authority will not move us towards that goal.

One must understand how the chain of command functions in the military’s sexual assault procedures. It is speculative and unfounded to imply that removing command authority will fix sexual assault in the military and ensure every victim will come forward. In reality, this crisis will not be fixed by creating a new law that does not address the problem. The chain of command is not the problem. A fundamental change to military culture is the only answer to reducing sexual assault within the military.

We should not fail to acknowledge the military procedures and methods that are currently in place for sexual assault victims:

  • Each unit has a nationally certified Victims Advocate (VA) or Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC), whose sole mission is to handle sexual assault cases and provide support care for the victims.
  • Service men and women are taught in mandatory courses the methods that are available to them for utilizing the VA or SARC. This allows an unbiased assessment of the situation, outside of the chain of command, and ensures all victims are treated with dignity and respect.
  • Victims may decide to report the assault confidentially (a “restricted report”), so no one within their chain of command/co-workers/friends is aware of the assault. This also prevents any possibility of retaliation or coercion when reporting a sexual assault. There is also the option of an “unrestricted report,” which involves the chain of command, but it is solely at the discretion of the victim.
  • Mandatory Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention or Sexual Assault Prevention and Response training is required for every military individual.
  • 24-hour hot lines and “Safe Help Room” online support groups are available.

The military culture has already begun to shift away from command involvement in sexual assault and is focusing on utilizing the victims’ advocates and sexual assault response coordinators. While this does not remove command authority, the military has recognized the fragile and specific needs of the victim. Reporting has increased, meaning service men and women now feel like their report will be taken more seriously.

Stripping military commanders of the authority to manage sexual assaults will have significant repercussions. The military is a government bureaucracy like any other government agency, but the reason it is able to operate as an effective and efficient organization is because of the chain of command. It creates an environment of respect, authority, and command.  It operates well, because of the backbone of the command and rank structure. Without it, the military would not be as capable and accomplished.

Commanders are involved in all aspects of their soldiers’ lives, especially legal issues. And they have to be. They are tasked with maintaining situational awareness of everything that weakens combat readiness. And sexual assault not only weakens combat readiness, it poisons the entire unit’s morale and esprit de corps.  You train as a team, and you fight as a team. Removing military commanders’ authority to contribute to the process of sexual assault cases discredits their influence to lead their soldiers, weakens them as leaders on the battlefield, and, therefore, weakens the entire military force.

We must move beyond political factions, personal preferences, and posturing and address the culture at hand. The problems do not begin and end in the military, but there is an opportunity for the military to lead from the front and set the tone for society. If our nation’s military leaders lead in restoring dignity and respect, then the nation will have a unified force serving as an example for the rest of us.

Originally Published at The Hill

This article was co-authored with Penny Nance, the president and CEO of Concerned Women for America, the nation’s largest public policy women’s organization. For more information visit  Amber Barno is a military adviser to Concerned Veterans for America. She is a former U.S. Army helicopter pilot who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. For more information visit

Follow Amber on Twitter @AmberBarno

The Best Way to say thank you to a vet on Veterans Day — Fix the VA

This weekend and on Monday we salute our veterans: Past, present, old, young, those who served in combat and those who have not.

Each and every one of them answered the call to defend freedom at all costs to benefit something larger than themselves; the greater good of the United States of America.

There are currently over 20 million veterans in America. Each one has a story, has family, and friends. Each with hopes and aspirations for the future. Each put them on hold to defend the Red, White, and Blue.

President John F. Kennedy once said on Veterans Day, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that our highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

How do we thank our veterans? 

Not with a handshake or a hug, but with a population that understands their sacrifices do not come without a price and by ensuring that all of our nation’s heroes receive the proper care and benefits they deserve when they come home from war and transition back into civilian life.

That means not having to suffer through the bureaucratic disarray of the Department of Veterans Affairs or trying to find work in an unstable economy where post 9/11 veterans faced 10.1% unemployment in September.

It means that our nation and government have our veterans best interest as their priority. Our veterans deserve better than what they are currently facing.

Instead, veterans were recently locked out of their war memorials that they fought for, that their friends died for.

They were told that their benefits checks would not go out during the partial government shutdown.

Death gratuity benefits were initially denied to grieving families of those who had paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Many veterans are struggling to find work as unemployment for post 9/11 veterans has consistently been in the double digits in recent months.

Some employers are apprehensive about hiring veterans because of the outrageous PTSD stereotype that follows our modern vets due to the false stigma about PTSD in the media and Hollywood.

On average, 22 veterans commit suicide every single day.

The Department of Veterans Affairs data shows that more than one third of new mental health care patients have to wait more than the standard of 14 days to receive an appointment. And in some instances, veterans have to wait more than a month to receive care.

The VA has the funding, the assets, and the personnel to prevent this from happening, but instead our veterans are not receiving the adequate care they deserve.

The VA claims backlog is still out of control.

Hundreds of thousands of veterans have to wait well over a year to receive an answer on the decision of their enrollment eligibility for a first time claim. And follow-on claims or disputed claims can take years to receive an answer.

The VA is not performing as the service oriented department it was intended for. Instead veterans are suffering the stresses and hassles of a dysfunctional bureaucracy.

This is not the environment or the treatment that veterans deserve to come home to after putting their life on the line day in and day out.

If we allow this to continue, what does this say about us as a nation?  Are we are so willing to look past the current status quo of our veterans?

Right now there are still 54,500 US troops fighting the war in Afghanistan. That’s 54,500 people who are missing their families, missing their way of life and missing the freedoms that we as Americans get to enjoy each and everyday.

And you can bet that every time they wake up and strap on their boots before heading out on a patrol, a raid, a convoy or a flight that they remember why they chose to fight for freedoms and liberties that make this nation extraordinary.

Because it’s those who have answered the call to serve, those who are willing to sacrifice, and those that believe our nation should be handed down to future generations as we found it, they are the ones who truly understand the price of freedom.

This freedom that we have grown so accustomed to, that many take for granted in their everyday lives, is a privilege, not a right, which must be preserved.

It is bigger than you and me.

It is a vision of hope, opportunity, and prosperity.

It is fragile, yet resilient and will be defended at all costs.

Our veterans are our nation’s heroes. They stepped up to fight our nation’s wars without question or doubt.

They don’t ask to be paid as much as politicians or NFL players or to be Hollywood celebrities. Instead, they believe in their hearts that our unique nation, the United States of America, is not only worth fighting for, but worth dying for.

They believe the freedoms and liberties that make it exceptional are worth preserving at all costs. They ask for very little, if anything in return for putting their lives on the line.

They understand that they are contributing to the greater good for the sake of our future. The least we can do to show our appreciation is demand that our veterans are being taken care of when they come home.

So this Veterans Day think of what you can do to make our nation a better place here on the home front.

There is still plenty of work to be done. Because if you really want to thank our veterans for their sacrifices, their service to our nation, and for their dedication, we can do so by ensuring they are coming home to the America they fought for and that many died for.

It is because of them that we are able to enjoy the freedoms and liberties that we have grown so fond of.

It is because of them every American has the opportunity to pursue the American Dream. And it is because of them that we are still the most exceptional nation on earth.

Originally published at


Follow Amber on Twitter @AmberBarno


Our Veterans Deserve Better

Yesterday Concerned Veterans for America and The Weekly Standard joined forces to kick off the first Defend & Reform event of a five part breakfast series of live policy forum, to a sold out crowd in Washington DC. This week’s focus was Reforming Veterans Affairs: Preserving Promises to Those Who Serve. Top veterans organization including Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for America (IAVA), American Legion, and AMVETS participated in discussions, as well as former U.S. Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs Honorable Anthony Principi and members of the House and Senate Committee of Veterans Affairs.

This solution-oriented event’s sole purpose was to create an open discussion aimed to fix the bureaucracy and leadership issues that are preventing the Department of Veterans Affairs from operating efficiently. There are immediate concerns, such as the 841,000 claims backlog of veterans waiting on results in order to receive benefits, but there are also larger, more systemic leadership issues that must be addressed.

Too many empty promises have been made. Veterans are suffering due to invalid actions from the very department that was created to support them. The purpose of the VA has gotten lost in the vast sea of bureaucracy. Secretary Shinseki continues to insist that the VA backlog will be cleared by 2015. While meeting this goal would be a success, in reality there is not a clearly defined strategy that will deliver the promised end state.

The VA recently announced that it has eliminated 97% of backlogged claims that were at least two years old. While that is refreshing news and a step in the right direction, that it is all it is: a step in the right direction. There is plenty of work to be done, including holding those responsible for the systemic leadership failure on multiple levels.

Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairmen of the House Committee of Veterans Affairs and speaker at the Reform & Defend event, is critical of Shinseki’s goal of the backlog will be eliminated by 2015, based on current patterns at the VA. Miller believes that Shinseki’s goal is unattainable without presidential leadership and called on President Obama to get involved, stating the problem will only be resolved if leadership “at the very very top” steps in. He goes on to say that even if they are successful at their goal, “if the leadership processes aren’t changed, we’re going to have a backlog again.”

And he’s right. Obama needs to acknowledge that the Department of Veterans Affairs is failing its mission in more ways than one. Obama has continually pledged to help and support veterans long after they return from war. It is time to come through on that promise and demand accountability out of Mr. Shinseki and the entire department.

Concerned Veterans for America has called for Secretary Shinseki’s resignation for his lack of accountability and inability to fix the claims backlog. He has had the time, the funding, and the opportunity to make necessary changes, but has failed to do so.

Enough is enough. It’s time to clean house at the VA. New leadership is the first step of many needed to bring a fresh perspective and problem-solving solutions required to overcome this challenge. Our veterans deserve better than to continually suffer the consequences of a failed bureaucracy.

Click the link below to RSVP for the next Concerned Veterans for America event on July 11, 2013: Defend & Reform: The Need For Spending Reform:

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Follow Amber on Twitter:@AmberBarno