As I watched Gen. Robert Neller, commandant of the United States Marine Corps, respond to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in a Congressional hearing March 14, I felt a weight settle on me. The Marines United Facebook group with its photos of women is only part of the weight. What’s most disheartening, or maybe I mean disturbing, is that this situation focuses again on the issue of accountability.
This is not new, and it’s not just in the Marine Corps. The branches of the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs share this characteristic of being weak in establishing and maintaining accountability. In the course of the 2013 hearings on Military Sexual Trauma (MST), victims testified that “…the health system labels sexual victims with personality disorders rather than dealing with the underlying assault.”
Not in my unit.
The key words for me are “dealing with the underlying assault.” It is the responsibility of any superior officer to deal with allegations of assault. What keeps that from happening? Fear of retribution. You hear that from the victims themselves, who are often reluctant to report assault or harassment. And you see that turn from reluctance to refusal as you go up the chain of command. Not in my unit. No one wants the black mark associated with this kind of conduct on his or her personnel record. Any incident could affect a promotion, future advancement.
We see the same thing in the Department of Veterans Affairs. New Secretaries of the VA come and go, but the basic structure of the department remains the same. Oh, there are some improvements, but they are small and short-lived relative to the size of the organization. How many administrators at VA hospitals lost their jobs because of the deaths of veterans waiting for treatment? Who was held accountable for the 70,000 backlogged applications for benefits that were hidden at the West Los Angeles VA? The system remains unchanged because we keep castigating the person at the top, instead of dealing with the problem at its origin, which is at the most basic level.
Reporting a problem must be separated from the problem itself.
We need to recognize that not having that information is far more dangerous in the long run than the temporary discomfort of addressing it. We need to create a climate that encourages people to come forth.
All branches of the service and the VA appear to be stuck in a paradigm that punishes any negative news rising from the bottom up. Until these systems change to allow wrongdoing to be reported, confronted and corrected where it originates, they’re doomed to a level of dishonesty that is systemic. It undermines them and the confidence we have in them.
What part do we play? Our responsibility, yours and mine, is to ensure that these issues remain a priority. Long after the headlines fade and the national focus moves on, we must continue pushing these concerns forward. Men and women who put their lives on the line for our nation deserve our respect inside and outside the military. How this nation carries out our commitment to our veterans shows our core values in action. Those core values must be in place and in action from the bottom up.
If you know a veteran who needs help, here’s our Lifeline for Vets hotline: 888.777.4443.