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Service Members Receive Sexual Assault Prevention Training


All this month, members of the military have been in sessions focusing on how to prevent sexual assault. It's part of a stand-down declared by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. That means service members drop what they're doing and go through intensive training to deal with what has been a growing problem. NPR's Larry Abramson sat in on some of the sessions.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: At Fort Myer in northern Virginia, a unit of young soldiers is getting sexual assault training the Army way, care of First Sergeant James Kelly. Kelly has been in the service for nearly two decades, and he says attitudes have changed.

FIRST SERGEANT JAMES KELLY: All right. I've spent most of my military career in infantry units, all right. We were very, very offensive for a very long time. That doesn't mean that I can still do it and go, oh, well, that's how it was back in the day, so that makes it all right now.

ABRAMSON: With his sergeant's stare, Kelly is right out of Central Casting. He locks eyes with each of the 50 soldiers, checking continually to make sure they're paying attention.

KELLY: Everybody tracking with me. (unintelligible), please.

ABRAMSON: In the Army, in all the armed forces, you don't learn, you train. Training is what you fall back on when you have to make an important decision, in battle or when you're out drinking with fellow soldiers. The wisdom Sergeant Kelly is imparting should kick in automatically.

KELLY: You have to put aside the thought process of men, women, gay, straight, whatever the case may be. You have to be a soldier.

ABRAMSON: The consequences of not being a soldier are driven home by a video that is tough to watch. It's an interview with a man who admits to having been basically a serial rapist in his college days. His face obscured, the man recounts, pretty casually, how he would get women drunk and then force himself on them.


ABRAMSON: The group discusses the takeaway that no means no, and that a person cannot give consent when they're drunk. That is key, since alcohol figures in so many sexual assaults in the military. So that's the Army. Over at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, the Air Force is driving home many of these same points, with a message from the top.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the commander, 11th wing, Joint Base Andrews, Colonel Bill Knight.

ABRAMSON: Colonel Knight marches into an auditorium packed to the rafters with about a thousand airmen. Commit a sexual crime in the Air Force, he tells them, and you will go to prison.

COLONEL BILL KNIGHT: Just last week, an airman at Joint Base San Antonio was convicted and sentenced to 27 years of confinement and a dishonorable discharge for sexual assault. We are serious about prosecuting this crime.

ABRAMSON: Some members of Congress question just how serious that threat really is. In fact, some want to take the final decision about prosecutions away from commanders like Colonel Knight. Everyone gathers in the chapel for a couple of hours of focused discussion. Major Charles Warren, an Air Force lawyer, reminds these men and women, in no uncertain terms, that having sex with someone who is too drunk to consent could lead to a broken career and to jail.

MAJOR CHARLES WARREN: Part of the intent was to be very adamant so that people understood that this was not a milquetoast approach, that it is intended to be an attention-grabber, because sexual assaults can't be tolerated and hurts our mission.

ABRAMSON: It may be an attention-grabber, but the truth is the military has been doing this kind of training for a long time. These airmen now get some sort of sexual assault seminar four times a year. What's different now? Senior Master Sergeant Rhonda Blackstone has been in the Air Force for 22 years.

SENIOR MASTER SERGEANT RHONDA BLACKSTONE: As a young female airman, you were harassed. You were. But that is no longer accepted. I saw that evolve in the '90s and I definitely do not see that happen anymore.

ABRAMSON: Many veterans of the service agree, attitudes are changing, but they have yet to prove it by bringing down the number of assaults. Larry Abramson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.