During my time on the Office of Secretary of Defense Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military, the words that came up repeatedly in every line of effort were “Survivor Centered.” How could we ensure that we treated all service members in a trauma-informed manner that met the survivor’s needs and restored their agency?
A survivor-centered approach is one that restores trust in the process, eliminates retaliation, ensures frequent communication and manages the timeline from reporting through adjudication in a fair and efficient manner. At all times, it is focused on the needs of the survivor while ensuring due process and a fair trial for the perpetrator.
The recent case of a captain in the Louisiana National Guard is the opposite of what the IRC intended. Offered a plea bargain after admitting to assaulting his own soldier, he retired with no loss of rank or pension. According to Army Times, Capt. Billy Joe Crosby, Jr. commented to a non-commissioned officer about the soldier’s breasts, reportedly announced twice that he would “motorboat” the soldier during an upcoming promotion ceremony, and then actually did so in front of other soldiers. Crosby “placed his face between [the junior soldier]’s breasts…[and] vigorously moved his head from side to side between [her] breasts while still holding the rank with his teeth,” according to Army Times.
This case demonstrates that leaders must maintain a survivor-centered approach through the entire process while also reminding all service members that they have a duty to intervene.
Let’s look at intervention first. If service members knew enough about this captain’s intent to warn the survivor to not hold a ceremony, why did they not go to the battalion leadership to stop this? When they had a second chance to intervene at the ceremony itself, where was the NCO or officer who could have stepped in between the captain and the survivor? He put her new rank in his teeth. Was that not enough for someone to see the train wreck that was coming? Why did the soldier who heard the comment about taking the soldier TDY so her chest could be viewed not report that to an Equal Opportunity rep or anyone in the chain of command? So many service members failed their teammate by not intervening despite many opportunities to do so. If you see something or hear something, say something.
Now let’s talk about that plea deal. Once the crime has been proven, the survivor-centered approach by leadership must continue. The perpetrator has been convicted or admitted to the crime. What they need is no longer of consequence. Sentencing should consider what the survivor needs to heal and what message the leader is sending about the damage the crime has done to a soldier and the cohesiveness of the unit.
My first question is, “Was the survivor aware that a plea deal was being offered?” I have known several survivors who were never even notified that a plea deal was being offered. Survivors should be able to ask for no plea deal if that is what they need. Perpetrators should not get to negotiate their sentences. When that captain jammed his face into her chest at a public promotion ceremony, she did not get to negotiate whether that should happen. Given his boldness and undoubtedly sure feeling of impunity, one can’t help but wonder if other aggressions he committed against this survivor were perhaps not witnessed or overlooked.
Allowing that captain to retire and not register as a sex offender placed all the value on his outcome and told the survivor that his future mattered more than her trauma. The trauma and the agency of the survivor should drive every decision during reporting, investigation, and adjudication. Until every leader realizes that, we will continue to broadcast a message that reporting doesn’t matter and a slap on the wrist is an acceptable consequence for a crime against a teammate.
The trauma of this soldier’s assault is multiplied by the weak punishment of the offender. Leaders must oversee fair investigations and have an overwhelming duty to ensure their soldier, the survivor, doesn’t suffer additional trauma and a further breach of trust.
Kris Fuhr is a 1985 graduate of West Point. She served as a Climate and Culture Co-Lead on the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military. The opinions expressed here are her own and do not represent the Department of Defense or Headquarters of the Army Policy.