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Gen. Dempsey's Bloggers Roundtable Interview on Sexual Assault in the Military

By General Martin E. Dempsey
Washington —

PETTY OFFICER WILLIAM SELBY:  Good afternoon.  I’d like to welcome you all to the Department of Defense Bloggers Roundtable for Thursday, April 10th, 2014.  My name is William Selby with the Office of the Secretary of Defense Public Affairs and I’ll be moderating the call. 

Today, we are honored to have as our guest, the 18th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin E. Dempsey who will be discussing sexual assault prevention and response.  A note to the bloggers on the line today: Please remember to clearly state your name and blog or organization in advance of your question; please respect the chairman’s time, keeping questions succinct and to the point; and please keep all questions on topic.  If you are not asking a question, we also ask that you please place your phone on mute so we do not hear any outside noise. 

And sir, with that, the floor is yours, if you have an opening statement.

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY:  Thanks.  Let me make sure you can hear me and that I haven’t somehow inadvertently muted myself.  Can you hear me OK?

PETTY OFFICER SELBY:  Loud and clear, sir.

GEN. DEMPSEY:  And by the way, if this group stays on topic, it will be the first engagement I’ve had since I’ve been chairman where that ended up being the case.  But I do encourage you to do so because I really do want to talk about this very important issue. 

And just to share a couple of thoughts with you, you know, I’ve had a lot of time to think, recently, as we look at our – how we’re adapting our national security strategy.  And I’ve been thinking a great deal about what makes America exceptional, this idea of American exceptionalism and the part that the United States military plays in that.  And that’s not the topic of this conversation, but what that caused me to do is also then begin to think about what makes the United States military exceptional and what defines us as a profession.  And I would suggest to you that what makes the United States military exceptional is the bond of trust that must bind it together because of what we ask young men and women to do.  We ask them to put themselves in harm’s way, ultimately, and to do that they got to have an incredible degree of trust among them.  And that’s why this particular issue is so – is so corrosive and so damaging to the military because it erodes that bond of trust. 

And – I mean it’s – I came yesterday from the memorial service at Fort Hood, Texas for the very tragic shooting that occurred there, which was essentially an insider attack, that’s how we would describe it in tactical terms, where one of – one of our own turned against us.  And that’s the perfect description for what happens in sexual assault is where one of our own turns against us.  And so sexual assault is an insider attack and we have to treat it with the urgency and with the seriousness that it deserves, and we are. 

It boils down to good leadership.  I mean, we’ve got to work this from the top down and the bottom up.  That means we got to have the right policies in place and we got to have leaders at every level to include our youngest leaders who are alert to and vigilant for the kind of behaviors that lead up to a sexual assault.  And they’ve got to be committed to dealing with it when it occurs.  And, you know, that means no bystanders.  There’s no – there can’t be any bystanders in this issue.  And that, again, goes from the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top. 

So let me – let me stop there because I do want to spend most of the time here hearing what’s on our bloggers’ minds.  And I thank you for your interest and your participation today.

PETTY OFFICER SELBY:  Thank you, sir.

And our first blogger on the line was Tom Goering.  Tom, go ahead with your question.

Q:  Yes, sir.  My name’s Tom Goering.  I’m a retired Navy master chief and I’m with NavyCyberspace.com, per, hence, navycs.com, excuse me.

I was reading the USA TODAY and on the third of April of this year, Susan Page wrote an article where she was talking to Senator Gillibrand from New York.  And in that statement, they were talking about the legislation that was trying to go through last year that would have taken – well, matter of fact, I’ll quote the article -- the reason we’re urging that this decision not be made by commanders, in other words, bringing sexual assault to further investigation, but by well-trained military prosecutors is because we want justice that is blind.  You want to rely on an objective review, something that’s professionally done.  You’ll have more transparency, more objectivity and hopefully more reporting of crime, meaning there will be more investigated, more going trial and more convictions. 

My question, sir, is if that legislation does get the five additional votes that’s going to be needed to go through the Senate and it becomes law, wouldn’t it – does it stop there?  Do we take all disciplinary issues out of the commanders’ hands?  Is this a slippery slope, sir? 

Thank you.
GEN. DEMPSEY:  Well, thanks for your question.  First, I want to assure you and anyone listening that we haven’t – we haven’t been fighting against the very tough questions we’ve been asked by several members of Congress– many, maybe even most members of Congress on this issue, and what we’ve been trying to do is provide our best advice on how we can – how we can get after it.  And it’s always been my view, having – I’ve almost got 40 years of service now, and we’ve been through some very extraordinarily challenging times in those 40 years, beginning with – as some of you may remember, with racial incidents, with a very serious drug problem, with the integration of homosexuals into the ranks in an openly serving way, with same-sex benefits.  And in every case, the way we’ve led our way through those issues is through relying upon commanders to do what they are – what they are held accountable to do, which is lead and to lead equitably and to lead aggressively to make sure we have the kind of command climates we need.

Now, you know, are there places where we have come up short?  Absolutely.  I don’t think that’s the case across the board.  And so in my conversations about this issue with our members of Congress, I’ve made it clear that it’s my strong belief that these issues must be solved with commanders, not around them.

And to your question about a slippery slope, I suppose it could be.  You know, there could be – by the way, one other thing about the specific issue of sexual assault, if I thought that after a period of renewed emphasis on this, or if it occurs that after a period of very intense and renewed emphasis on this that we can’t solve it, I’m not going to fight it being taken away from us.  I want to solve the problem.  I just happen to think that we can solve it best with commanders at this point.  If that is demonstrated to be ineffective, then I will no longer provide advice that suggests it should stay in the chain of command.  I actually think we will find, though, that the chain of command is actually best-suited to deal with it.  And incidentally, prosecution rates and rates of taking issues to trial demonstrate that I think we can best solve this with commanders.

Is it a slippery slope?  I guess it could be.  You know, once you take a particular offense out of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, there could be some questions about why wouldn’t you take more or in fact most.  But I think we can deal with those questions as they occur.  For now, I just want to solve the problem.  And at this point in time, we’ve been given the opportunity to do so with the chain of command.

Q:  Thank you.

PETTY OFFICER SELBY:  Thank you very much, sir.

And Andrew, you are next.

Q:  Thanks.  General, good afternoon.  Andrew Lubin, Huffington Post.  Appreciate you taking the time, sir.

General, as a follow-up question, coincidentally, the military has turned it … you’ve done a great job having a very victim-centric climate, which is well-deserved and well-needed.  But at the same time, I think it was 2012, of 3,000 court marshals on sexual offenses, with convictions, thousand stayed in.  What kind of climate does it set where a third of convicted people are allowed to continue their – continue their military career?

GEN. DEMPSEY:  Well, in the first place, you know, I’d have to – we’d have to go back and do the forensics on what exactly the offense was and what was – of what those individuals were convicted.  I mean, sexual assault is a crime, and I suspect that we would find that some of those offenses, probably based on the prosecution, were probably adjudicated as something less than actually sexual assault, or rape, or penetration, but more in the line of inappropriate relationships, conduct unbecoming and other things.  So, again, I’d have to go back and see what the eventual conviction – what was the eventual offense for which they were convicted.

But again, you know, we’ve been given about a year to demonstrate both that we will treat this with the urgency is deserves and that we can turn the trend lines in a more positive direction.  We’re not going to turn it around in a year, but we can certainly demonstrate to the chain of command, including the Secretary of Defense and the President, that we can turn the trend lines.

What makes it challenging – and this is just to demonstrate we’re not – we mentioned we’ve done a lot of good work with caring for victims.  We’ve given them additional support to include legal counselors that are specifically trained and focused on them.  We’ve trained our prosecutors.  I’d venture to say we’ve trained them as well or better than what you would find in the civilian sector, and we’ll continue to do that.

We’ve also got to get left of the offense, and that means command climate, it means establishing a level of behavior that doesn’t condone or doesn’t set a condition where we’re not treating everyone in the ranks with dignity and respect.  So we’ve got to get left of it, we’ve got to take care of victims and we’ve got to get right of it in terms of prosecution, each of which require a different set of initiatives. And we’ve got initiatives in each of those categories.

Q:  Great.  Thank you.


And Gail, you are next.

Q:  General, thank you for taking the time to talk with us. Gail Harris with the Foreign Policy Association.  I’m also a retired Navy Captain.  And the question, to kind of follow up on what the others have said, it’s been my observation – I’ve been around from tremendous changes when I was in the military – all for the good – but there are situations where the administration will say that certain types of behavior are not acceptable and here’s a new policy, and you have a minority of situations where the command gives lip service but does not follow through.  So is there a procedure in place for some young woman or man if they feel they’ve been assaulted and that their chain of command is either ignoring them – I’ve seen situations where maybe, you know, the chain didn’t like the individual and person and didn’t believe them.  So is there something in the system you’ve set up that they have an alternative place to go to argue for their case?

GEN. DEMPSEY:  Yeah, absolutely – and thanks for the opportunity to clear up.  One of the bits of misperceptions is that if something happens inside a unit, that the unit commander can control the reporting chain, and that’s actually not true.  I mean, he is one – the chain of command is one recourse that a victim has, but there are – the last time I actually spent time looking into the number of different ways where young men or women can report sexual harassment or sexual assault.  I think the number was nine.  And I could list them for you or we could provide you information on the nine different ways that someone can report.  But I want to assure you it’s not limited to talking to your immediate military supervisor or talking to your commander.  It’s a number of safety nets that are available, and actually victims can choose whether to make reports in a restricted or unrestricted way.  In other words, the victim actually can control the way in which the report is rendered and has a multiple – has multiple  lanes in which to make the report.
Q:  Yeah, I would appreciate that and any way that I can help to get the more word out than has been published before on that aspect.  Thank you.

GEN. DEMPSEY:  Thank you. 


Q:  Hi, this is Phyliss Zimbler-Miler, mrslieutenant.blogspot.com.  My question has to do with women who are deploying in harm’s way.  Can they use their weapons against an assault without, you know, ruining their career and being charged with – being charged with discharging their weapon?  It would seem to me that when they’re deployed in harm’s way, they do have a weapon that they can protect themselves with.

GEN. DEMPSEY:  Yeah, that’s a great question, actually, and one that has come up before – I mean, you know, and even comes up in other contexts such as the tragedy at Fort Hood yesterday.  I will tell you that the circumstances in a combat zone clearly are different than they are in a post, camp or station in the continental United States in a noncombat environment.  We’ve actually never had a case where the scenario you described has come up, and so I can’t speak to any case law.  I mean, if someone is – if someone’s life is threatened – you know, I have to be careful here, going down the path – I’m not trained as a lawyer, and I don’t have one in the room with me – but as I said, there is no case law that I’m aware of to allow me to answer that question.  So what I would like to do, if I could – and I do have a young lady in the room taking notes for me who can research that and potentially find a way to post an answer about whether the right of self-defense in a combat zone is defined somehow differently than it would be in the continental United States.  And so let me take that one and answer it with greater clarity after I have time to, you know, seek legal advice on it. 

Q:  I would appreciate that.  So could I ask one more quick question? 

I want to know what the military is doing about drinking in the academies.  It seems to me that the excessive drinking is leading to a lot of sexual assaults, and then that atmosphere gets taken into the active duty ranks. 

GEN. DEMPSEY:  Yeah, I – let me not limit it to the academies.  You know, the – we follow the legal drinking age of 21 in the federal service.  So even if you’re living someplace where the drinking age is lower, we certainly don’t condone that. 

The problem is, of course, you know, when these young men and women leave the confines of the installation – you know, the degree to which local authorities adhere to and comply with the law is different.  But if you’re – if you’re suggesting that there are, in most cases, if there’s a linkage between alcohol use and sexual misconduct of any – of many forms, the answer is yes. 

And one of the – one of the ways we’re trying to get at, as I mentioned in an earlier question, trying to get left of these incidents is also to increase our awareness of the factor that alcohol plays in any number of forms of misconduct, to include driving under the influence, you know, sexual misconduct, violence.  It is a – it’s a – it’s a factor.  It’s also legal as long as you’re of age to partake in it.  And where we find someone has not – has acted inappropriately and allowed themselves to commit crimes or unprofessional behavior because of alcohol, we deal with it. 

But I wouldn’t limit to the academies.  You know, they are held to the same standard with regard to alcohol as the rest of the force. 

Q:  Thank you. 


Q:  Hi. Thank you so much for talking with us, General.  My name is Rheanna– Home Front United Network, and I just had a quick question.  How do you – or what would you say to some of these men and women who are experiencing this, because it’s not just women, when they see your higher ranks getting what amounts to slaps on the wrist for this kind of behavior?  I think that has a great effect on the morale of your troops and they think what’s the point to me saying anything, especially if it’s someone that’s supervisory to them, you know, when see cases of them getting slaps on the wrist for this kind of behavior. 

GEN. DEMPSEY:  Well, first of all, I think what I would want everyone to understand is that, regardless of rank, if there is evidence and if that evidence is sufficient to take –

You know, look.  We still live in a system where a man or a woman, for any particular crime, is innocent until proven guilty.  I mean, that’s pretty clear, and I think we have to start with that as a foundation.  And then it’s a matter of evidence, and I think we have to acknowledge that among the most difficult crimes to prove – and this is whether you’re in uniform or out of uniform – one of the most difficult crimes to prove happens to be the crime of sexual assault because of the nature of evidence, the fact that most of them, at some level, become conflicting narratives on the part of the – of the man or woman accused and the victim.  And so, it comes down to – as I mentioned in response to an earlier question – it comes down to continuing to train our prosecutors to the – to the – to be the best possible prosecutors they can be on that particular crime. 

But at the end of the day, in our system of government – one which I assume we all value deeply the rule of law – it comes down to evidence and the ability of the prosecuting  attorney and the ability of a jury or a judge to render a determination about strength of the evidence.

And I actually – again, I mentioned this in response to an earlier question, I think that the statistics will demonstrate that military – the military justice system actually compares quite favorably in almost every area and better in many its – both its prosecution rate and the – and the punishment that is assigned. 

I don’t know whether I’ve answered your question, but, you know, again, we are –

Q:  No.  No.  You did – you did very much answer my question.  I guess you mentioned earlier that there’s a lot of adjudication that goes on and like any normal case, as I worked in the criminal justice field in the public sector, I get that. 

But like you said, the whole point is the bond of trust.  And I guess that’s why it’s more of a – more of a focus in the military world as opposed to the civilian world.

GEN. DEMPSEY:  Yeah, I agree with that – I think that, you know, the – especially the senior military leaders that are guilty of this offense.  The cases do take on greater notoriety.  Frankly, I don’t rebel against that.  You know, we should be held to a higher standard and because, again, in our profession, the – anything that erodes the trust that holds us together is actually quite damaging, not just to the – not just to the individuals involved, but to the entire profession. 

PETTY OFFICER SELBY:  Thank you, sir.

And –

Q:  Thank you, sir.

PETTY OFFICE SELBY:  Sorry about that, Rheanna. 

And Chris, you were next.

Q:  Thanks, General, for doing this.  This is Chris Carroll from Stars and Stripes.

I wanted to ask you, are all the additional checks and balances that have recently been put in place to improve the system having any bad effect?  I mean, are they, perhaps, causing the system to move more slowly and make it harder to prosecute the crimes?  We’ve heard anecdotally that it’s now taking a long time to get things done because everything has to go through a colonel or a general and then possibly be reviewed at the Pentagon.  So are the reforms causing any problems?

GEN. DEMPSEY:  Well there’s – I wouldn’t call them problems.  Andas I mentioned there’s approximately 16 initiatives that the Joint Chiefs took.  Those were accepted by the secretary of defense and he added a few.  I think the number’s 21 in total.  And they’re all in various stages of implementation. 

Of course they’ll slow things down on occasion, particularly, if you – if you bring the reviewing authority to the next level, as you know, it was at the O5 level and now it’s at the O6 level.  And a couple of the services, in fact, I think most of them, require review by the first general officer or flag officer in a chain of command.

So there – yeah, there will be an adjustment period where, you know, the Special Victims’ Counsel Program is, again, in various stages of implementation.  And the individual who provides a very valuable benefit to the victim, but, also, is another stakeholder or another voice in the process.  So when you add another stakeholder or another voice, you’re going to naturally have a bit of a delay. 

But look, this isn’t about – in my view, anyways, it’s not about speed.  Although, you know, justice delayed is justice denied, as the famous phrase goes, but it’s really about getting it right.  And so we’re going to see what these initiatives produce.  And if we have to make adjustments as we go, we will.

Q:  Thanks.  Can I ask a follow-up?

PETTY OFFICER SELBY:  We have a – we have to get through just a few more, Chris.

Q:  OK.  Sure. 

PETTY OFFICER SELBY:  So, Jim Garamone, did you have a question?

Jim probably –

Q:  Actually, yes, I do.  And I just figure out how to use this phone.


Q:  Can you hear me?

PETTY OFFICER SELBY:  Yes, loud and clear, Jim. 

Q:  Sir, what is the measurement for success?  You said you have about a year to make this right, to show progress.  How would you show the progress?  What’s your measurement for it?

GEN. DEMPSEY:  Well, first, Jim, I’m not sure I should answer your question if you’ve just learned how to use a phone, but I will – I’ll –

Q:  Thanks.


GEN. DEMPSEY:  No, that’s a great question.  We – in fact, I mentioned the 21 initiatives.  The chiefs and I have spent a great deal of time on the issue of metrics because, you know, we want to be able to literally measure ourselves against whether we’ve made a difference in the degree of reporting, the number of cases that are taken to trial, against the – things like the command climate, which is either seen as being responsive to and alert to this issue in the work place or whether it’s business as usual.  There’s about 12 metrics that we’ve used that we’ve begun to review in a monthly session with the Joint Chiefs.  And the needle hasn’t moved on most of them yet, but this – we’re very much in the first three months or so of this. 

The one place the needle has moved is in reporting.  To include, I think, importantly, reports rendered about incidents that occurred more than a year ago and in fact we’re getting a lot of reports now about incidents that occurred prior to a young man or woman entering the service.  So the reporting metric is beginning to move and we see that as positive.  Although, we’ve got to see the other metrics move as well.  So that’s where we are right now, Jim.

Q:  And sir, it just seems to me that this bears – you know, your whole emphasis on professionalism of the force fits in with this program too.

GEN. DEMPSEY:  Yeah, actually I’d say it – well, I say it actually reverts to that, Jim.  I think that this issue fits very firmly and very neatly into the larger issue of our efforts of trying to take a look at ourselves as a profession, make sure we got the values identified right, that we’re training and educating, also, adapting our personnel policies so that we’re reinforcing professional behaviors in things like, you know, promotions and selection for command and measuring performance in command.  So that it’s not just about did I get the top scores on the gunnery range or in maneuvers, but also did I create a climate within the unit that makes everyone feel as though they’re being treated with dignity and respect and that we care about the development of our subordinates. 

Now, look, that briefs a lot easier than it’s implemented, but we’re at it – I mean, we’re committed.  And I think – I really think we can make a difference by focusing on who we are as a profession and aligning ourselves with our professional behaviors.

Q :  Thank you, sir.

PETTY OFFICER SELBY:  And sir, this is William Selby.  I received a question via Facebook earlier today and it kind of goes along with what you were saying about how reporting has gone up.  What are some ways that DOD is attempting to change fear of reporting among the branches?

GEN. DEMPSEY:  You know, some of it is actually educating not only the internal population but the external population, those who might be considering the military as a career.  You know, we’ve got to be alert to the fact that the young men and women who might choose to come into the military are going to be having some anxious moments about this unless we can be clear about what we’re doing. 

So, you know, you heard the earlier question about, you know, how do we make sure that someone who’s been a victim or been mistreated has a variety of methods with which to make the report.  And I – you know, I’ve been – we’ve been trying to educate internally and externally about these nine different ways in which someone can render a report either anonymously or knowingly, meaning by identifying themselves.  And I think that’s one of the reasons these reports are beginning to increase.  I think we’re beginning, just beginning, to have an effect on that part of the education process.  And I hope this blog has – helps me do that.

PETTY OFFICER SELBY:  You too sir.  Yes, sir. 

Did you have time for one more question, sir?

GEN. DEMPSEY:  I do.  I mean, are you the moderator?  I can’t tell on –

PETTY OFFICER SELBY:  Yes, sir.  This – yes, I am.

GEN. DEMPSEY:  How can I say no to the moderator?  Go ahead.

PETTY OFFICER SELBY:  (Laughs.) One of the – one other question was, some public opinion exists supporting the idea that opening MOSs previously closed to women will affect the number of military sexual assaults that occur, namely that women in these MOSs will be at greater risk of becoming victims. Can you share some of your thoughts on that perspective?

GEN. DEMPSEY:  Yeah, I actually don’t think so.  I – what I – here’s what I think: I think, first of all, that – I mentioned earlier, very early in the interview here that I’ve been thinking about American exceptionalism and how it links to the exceptionalism of the military profession or how it should and must link to the exceptionalism of the military profession, and I think one of our great strengths, as a nation, is diversity.  I mean, look, I probably travel around the world more than anybody on this net.  I can’t absolutely make that declaration, but I’m guessing I’m in the top two or three.  And I as do, and I as return from these visits all over the world, I remind myself that among our greatest strengths is the fact that, you know, we really are diverse.  We embrace it.  You know, we seek power in it.

And I think that the degree to which we can open up the military profession and its occupational specialties to a more diverse group of people who meet the standards – we’re not going to lower the standards in order achieve diversity, I promise you that – but if we can – if we can see ourselves more equal, you know, we’re all co-equals in this because we served together in more and more and more places.  Again, assuming we can each meet the standards. I actually believe that that perception and reality of being equals in the profession will actually have the impact of reducing – or could have the impact given the other initiatives we’re also trying to reinforce – of reducing the incidents of sexual assault because now you’re – you see yourself more as a teammate than as two different people doing two different things inside of one profession. 

But we’ll see.  I mean, we’ll only – you know, this answer – we’ll only know whether that’s true long after I’m the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, frankly.  But I think we’re heading in that direction and I think it’s the right direction in which to head.

PETTY OFFICER SELBY:  Thank you very much, sir.  And I see that we’re just about out of time.  I wanted thank you, everybody on the line, for your questions and comments today. 

Sir, did you have any closing statement you’d like to make.

GEN. DEMPSEY:  Yeah, just to reiterate, you know, I went to two of the service academies last week and my challenge to them was, you know, immediately upon graduation they’ll become our most junior officers in the ranks, and I wanted them to agree with me that I’ll work it from the top while they work it from the bottom.

So it’s really a call to arms of everyone who considers themselves to be a leader in the military profession to own this – first of all, to own the profession, you know, and secondly, to own this issue.  And if we can do that, if everybody will own it – and I used the example of, you know, the first time as a – even as a junior leader, the first time you walk past an infraction, you’ve set a new standard.  And I said, just don’t walk by, you know, take – if we’re going to call you a leader by title, you’ve got to earn it.

So this is a – this is a call to arms to leaders, officers, non-commission officers, civilians, to take this profession and make it better, help it overcome this challenge, and particularly to work this issue, which is so corrosive to the bond, the trust that holds us together.

PETTY OFFICER SELBY:  Sir, we can’t thank you enough for the time you’ve provided with us today and also the – all the great answers to these questions.  Thank you again to everybody on the line. 

We will have a transcript from this call and also I will have the audio portion of this call up within the next hour today. 

Thank you to everybody on the line.  You can find all the links on dodlive.mil.

Again, thank you, sir for your time.  This concludes today’s event.