Army Secretary Christine Wormuth acknowledged the military branch is still working to combat sexual assault and harassment within its ranks, but said she hopes her legacy is reducing such behaviors.
"We've got a problem in our country. I know we've still got it in our Army," Wormuth told "CBS Evening News" anchor and managing editor Norah O'Donnell in a recent interview. "Every leader at every level is focused on this, cares about it and takes the problem seriously."
A new study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found "reports of sexual harassment and assault in the Army continue to rise." Soldiers reported about 1,000 sexual harassment incidents and 2,500 assaults in fiscal year 2020, according to the report, which noted that "many additional incidents" were not reported.
Wormuth told O'Donnell "we really want people to report when they've been sexually harassed. And we put a lot of emphasis on that." That's why she plans to sign a new "safe to report" policy next month, which would protect survivors from being disciplined for minor misconduct like underage drinking.
Part of the solution is teaching young soldiers acceptable behavior, Wormuth said.
"A lot of it, I think, is training our soldiers, many of whom are just 18 or 19 years old, about what's acceptable and what's not acceptable," she said. "But when they come into our Army, we need to be very clear about what's OK and what's not OK."
A year ago, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austinthat decisions to prosecute cases of sexual assault be taken out of the chain of command amid increasing pressure from Congress to overhaul how sexual misconduct crimes are handled in the military. In December, Congress passed significant military justice reform that did so, which could help ease victims' fears of retaliation and lead more to report it.
"I think there has been that fear," Wormuth said. "And I still hear about that when I go and visit Army posts. We are, I believe, making real strides to show our soldiers that they can trust the chain of command to look out for them."
O'Donnell noted thatover the years on sexual assault and harassment in the military has shown that it's a national security issue — "we need more women in the U.S. military," she told Wormuth.
"We will be stronger as an Army if we have more female leaders," Wormuth said. "I have watched our military leaders go in front of Congress ten years ago and say, 'We're gonna fix this problem. We're gonna fix this problem.' So I know there's a credibility gap there. But we are working on it every single day."
Wormuth, the first woman and mother to hold the role of secretary of the Army, is also focused on improving the quality of life for the Army's 400,000 service members who are parents. She said she wants "to make it easier to be a parent in the U.S. Army."
"We did just put out a new policy that makes some changes in this area," she said. "So, for example, in the very sad case of a lost pregnancy, we now provide leave for both men and women when there's been a miscarriage. We've done simple things, frankly, by just allowing women who've given birth to have up to 12 months before they take their physical fitness test. Simple things that make complete sense and are really important in terms of retaining the great soldiers that we have."
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