West Point grad: Hold leaders accountable for sexual assault and harassment


Donna McAleer

If you’re looking for a smart take on military sexual harassment and assault, as well as the awful recent sex scandal at West Point, look no further than Donna McAleer, the author of Porcelain on Steel: Women of West Point’s Long Gray Line.

Today McAleer lectures on leadership, but she has worn many hats. She was a Cold War-era Army officer after graduating in 1987 as president of her West Point class, she ran for Congress in Utah in 2012 and she was a member of competed in trials for the United States Olympic Women’s Bobsled team.

Leadership, unsurprisingly, is where she believes the buck stops. Sexual assault and harassment are typically fueled by poor command climates and a lack of supervision, she says. How commanders handle such cases should be considered when they are considered for promotion.

“Leaders are responsible for setting that tone, setting that climate, and when they don’t there’s significant ramifications for that,” she said.

Although recent cases have focused a media barrage on the military’s problem, it has persisted for decades, she said.

A report earlier this month suggested that about 26,000 troops were the victims of sexual assault last year, according to anonymous surveys conducted by the Defense Department. Yet the number of sexual assaults officially reported is fewer than 3,400, according to the report.

The news is not all bad. The last few years have seen the issue amplified by lawsuits, documentary films–and coalition building between recent veterans, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle and organizations like the Service Women’s Action Network. What’s more today’s technology allows direct communications that subvert the ability of a hierarchical organizations like the military to control the message, she said.

McAleer spoke with Army Times in a week where the press’ focus on each new military sex scandal seemed to fuel Congress’ resolve to act. Several lawmakers were drafting legislation that would revoke military commanders’ broad authority to handle sexual assault allegations lodged against troops under their command.

We reached out to her as news broke that an NCO at West Point made sexually provocative films of West Point cadets without their consent.

“It’s not that sexual assault is a complex issue, sexual assault is a crime and it undermines unit cohesion, it undermines discipline, it degrades readiness, it affects recruiting–and it goes against the basic American values the military defends,” McAleer said. “How ironic is it that it is happening within our own ranks, among those who have sworn to uphold the Constitution and volunteered in the profession of arms.”

It’s important to acknowledge what has worked, she said. The Army has implemented of victim’s support programs, UCMJ reform, strengthening of assault investigation process, all under Congress’s enhanced reporting and oversight. Lawmakers have passed measures to guarantee confidentiality and access to legal assistance for victims.

Today survivors of sexual assault have more confidence in their ability to report,  McAleer said, and that’s good.

“The bad is there hasn’t been a focus on the perpetrator, the institutional accountability or the prosecution of these violent sex crimes,” she said. “DoD hasn’t created a deterrent through consistent prosecutions.”

Institutional accountability includes holding accountable the chain of command of sex offenders. At West Point, the accused is charged with 35 specifications that cover several years.  McAleer questioned the supervision he received.

As a tactical NCO, the accused was responsible for the health, welfare and safety of future Army leaders, and has a power over young cadets that requires competent oversight. He would have “seeped through all the screens, so what’s going on?”

“He has a chain of command that reports up through the brigade tactical officer, on up to the commandant of cadets and the superintendent,” she said. “We have to look at how the chain of command has handled these, what is the tone and climate they’re setting.”

The transfer of the accused to Fort Drum, N.Y., after the allegations surfaced, she said, sends a poor message–particularly for victims–and is a sign there’s more work for leadership to do to investigate such crimes and prosecute.

“They need to be taken out of their role and taken in place while this is being investigated,” she said of accused sex offenders. “Just spreading the problem doesn’t eradicate the cancer, and this is what’s happened many times.”

Though the accused NCO is clearly in the minority, McAleer said, there are problems at the school that stem from a dearth of female cadets. Only 15 percent of soldiers are women, and only 16 percent of the Corps of the Cadets are women.

“There is something wrong with the culture,” she said. “Everyone knows that if you compare two groups, one comprised of nine men and one woman, and a second comprised of six men and four women, the interactions and conversations will be different.”


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  1. STOP IT! First–women have no business serving in the main stream military. It does NOT make the military better and is absolutely makes it worse in preforming its MISSION. It has LOWERED the standards at West Point.
    Second; WOMEN need to take responsibility for their actions! Third; you cannot change millions of years of sexual evolution by just saying, no! Fourth; these young men are America’s brightest and best coming from America’s best families. They do NOT force themsleves on women! Fifth; If women are EQUAL to men in the military then they are interchangeable with men–if they are interchangable then an all female unit should be able to function as well as an all male unit. FACT: It cannot and functions much worse. Sixth;and MOST important; the mission of the military is to FIGHT and WIN wars–women CANNOT do that. Final point: The huge numbers of females at all levels in the military is a FAILED experimental program that places this nation at extreme risk and dependent on a first strike nuclear attack if threatened by a modern nation.

  2. Donald Zlotnik’s frequent Forum comments can usually be dismissed as out of touch and laughable, but this one is so misogynistic that it’s harmful. As a prior service Army officer and the father of an adult daughter, let me separate out three key points from his rantings about women having no place in the military. Women (not just in the military) need to be careful and make good choices, but sexual assault victims cannot be blamed for having brought assaults on themselves. Women have every right to say no, and sexual evolution has nothing to with that right. Even men from America’s best and brightest families (think Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel) commit acts of assault. There are bad actors in any sizable population pool, and yes, they do sometimes force themselves on women. Incredible statements from Zlotnik. Can he possibly have any women in his life?

  3. This is nothing new. It can be stopped. It can come to an end. When the Army starts firing the Generals who created these cultures, or allowed an inherited toxic one to continue unabated with no intervention. When the Generals figure out there is more to their job than keeping their chair warm for two – three years, getting their ticket punched and moving up and out, that their cushy retirements and next stop the DOD contractor Boards of Directors are imperiled, this will stop.

  4. Jim–if you think the Kennedy family is America’s best and brightest, that alone tells your mindset. We are not talking about a FEW cases of sexual assault but THOUSANDS and when we hit that numebr we cannot blame the men ALONE.

    You say my comments are laughable–when we have 70% of our “war fighters” claiming PTSD–and I say SCAM–that’s laughable? When MORE soldiers are dying from sucide than soldiers killed in combat DURING a war, I find alarming–that’s laughable?

    I have numerous WOMEN in my life but they act like herosexual women and preform superby in careers where women can contribuite to SUCCESS–not failure.

    Attack what I write–not me personally–you sound like a damn liberal.

  5. Mike Hagerty on

    Initially I thought that the increase in sexual assaults in the military was a symptom of a much larger societal problem. But the sexual assault trend in the United States has dropped more than 60 percent since 1993 and is expected to continue to decline. The rate in the US Army has increased by 68 percent since 2006. This is a military specific problem.

    Simply blaming poor command climate is not enough to explain the recent trend. Something else is at work and the military must spend more time trying to determine the cause. The trend cannot be reversed until the military identifies and addresses the cause of the problem. The Army’s typical knee jerk reaction of adding mandatory training and modifying regulations is welcomed, but falls short of being a comprehensive strategy for turning this thing around.

    Finally, the criticism of the military for the lack of successful sexual assault prosecutions is only part of the story. The regular civilian legal system is no better at putting sex offenders behind bars. In the United States, there were an estimated 207,000 rapes in 2012 with only 47 percent being reported to doctors or police. And only five percent of the reported sexual assaults result in a felony conviction. The low rate of successful for both the military and the civilian legal systems is more the result of the presumption of innocence and beyond a reasonable doubt than with ineffective prosecutors or a messed up legal system.

  6. Alexandra Grey on

    I don’t think the total number of attacks in the military has increased; I think that the number of victims feeling comfortable enough to come forward has increased. As for D. Zlotnik, it would appear that evolution stopped for him, but not for the rest of us. He’s definitely out of touch with reality.

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