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A fatal failure to follow through

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When a failure to follow through becomes fatal

The Army is facing multiple crises, each as pressing as the next. The rate of suicide among active-duty soldiers reached its peak in 2021. The rate of sexual assault reports is also on the rise — a study published in 2018 found that nearly one in four servicewomen reported being sexually assaulted while in the military. However, the rate of prosecution is steeply declining. Substance use disorders continue to be a common diagnosis for servicemembers. And though the full scope is unknown because of improper documentation, there’s the pervasive issue of domestic abuse against military spouses and families by servicemembers.

The recent rates of increase in sexual assault and suicide were higher in the Army than in the other military services. These are well-researched findings that the Army is very much in the loop about. But theArmy is failing to take meaningful action to address these crises — and failing our troops in the process.

In this edition:

  • Critical crises
  • When a lack of oversight proves harmful
  • The need for urgency

Last month, POGO obtained an audit that revealed the Army is conducting dozens of studies into the issues plaguing its personnel, but is failing to take even a single action based on the studies’ findings. My colleague, Senior Investigator Nick Schwellenbach, delved into this in his new investigation, which you can read on our website.

Audit Criticizes Army’s Suicide, Sexual Assault Research Oversight

The extent of the problem

Crises of sexual harassment and assault, domestic violence, suicide, and substance abuse within the Army are public knowledge. Cases like the murder of Specialist Vanessa Guillén of Fort Cavazos spotlight the intersecting nature of these issues and the growth of what the Department of Defense itself called an unhealthy military climate. Before her death, Guillén had reported experiencing sexual harassment on the base and, according to an internal investigation, base leaders failed to take proper action. The soldier who was accused of her murder was formerly found to have sexually harassed another soldier. He later took his own life.

Between 2019 and 2022, the Army funded 47 studies related to sexual misconduct, domestic violence, suicide, and substance abuse within its ranks. But the vast majority of those studies included no “actionable recommendations” on how to address these problems. Of the few studies that did include action items, the Army has acted on none of their recommendations.

The Army knows these problems exist and has extensive research to formulate a plan for change — but they haven’t made any changes. This inaction is baffling at best. What is keeping the Army from acting on what they know?

An issue of oversight

The audit into the Army’s research found that the root cause of inaction was a lack of oversight. No one was in charge of overseeing the 47 research studies that were conducted, and the absence of organization rendered the studies far, far less useful than they could have been.

The lack of oversight was so impairing that most research didn’t even make its way to the Army’s key decision makers. A general lack of direction going into the studies meant that there was no explicit goal of finding actionable, relevant recommendations to address these issues, so most studies produced none. The few studies that did include recommendations didn’t explicitly name the parties responsible for taking the next steps, so no one was accountable for following through. A lack of documentation throughout the process made it so there was no Army-wide awareness of the studies happening or any organized effort to distribute the findings. The tracking problem is so pervasive that auditors were unable to calculate how many taxpayer dollars were spent on these studies or who had worked on them.

With crises as troubling and critical as increased rates of sexual violence and suicide, writing off the lack of organized action as a project management error is unacceptable — especially because the Army’s oversight gaps are a known and persistent issue. It was recommended to the Army back in 2010 that they strengthen research, but they’ve failed to address those problems in the 13 years since. As Nick writes in his new investigation, this is yet another red flag on the Army’s follow-through.

A matter of urgency

Those who enlist to serve are doing so at extreme personal sacrifice. It is the Army’s duty to support and protect them.

Gaps in oversight are always a problem, but this particular instance shows just how dire things can get. The lack of oversight at the Army is having a trickle-down effect that is proving harmful — even deadly — to our troops. The Army itself stated in a report that “translating research findings into everyday command, medical, and community practice is immensely helpful.” It’s critical that they heed what they clearly already know.