Sex assault latest target for military trailblazer

Staff writerDecember 23, 2013 

Lt. Col. Celia FlorCruz talks about sexual assault in her office at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. As sexual assault response coordinator for the 7th Infantry Division, she is charged with rooting out sexual assault in Army ranks.

PETER HALEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Lt. Col. Celia FlorCruz blazed a path for women in the military, first as a graduate of the second class at West Point to admit female cadets and later as a helicopter pilot running medical missions in the Gulf War.

Those were tough assignments in which she had to prove herself.

Now the 54-year-old FlorCruz has an assignment at Joint Base Lewis-McChord calling on her to make the Army a better place by rooting out sexual assaults in the ranks.

She’s the top sex assault prevention and response officer for the 7th Infantry Division, which includes the base’s main combat brigades.

It’s a high-profile position because reports of rising sex assaults have drawn the attention of lawmakers who’d like to change the military justice system so that commanders lose authority over prosecutions in such cases. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is integrating women into front-line combat jobs.

The task is also personal for FlorCruz. In an interview with The Olympian, she identified herself as a sex assault victim. She said most of her female classmates at West Point were sexually assaulted.

“It was not a friendly place to be,” she said, looking back on her days at West Point.

FlorCruz, wife of I Corps Deputy Commander Maj. Gen. Ken Dahl, says she doesn’t want to “reinvent the wheel.” She’s researching successful civilian programs and developing plans to help the Army target sex offenders.

She has opened a sex assault library in her office, and has started publicizing prosecutions with open letters showing how the Army resolves those cases. They detail convictions, demotions and career-ending letters of reprimand.

“It reassures vulnerable populations that you’ve got commanders who are taking action, but it also reassures potential predators that you’ve got commanders who are taking action,” she said.

Eventually, she’d like to offer therapy to family members of sex assault.

She’s a recent commander of the warrior transition battalion at Fort Drum, N.Y., an assignment that made her responsible for about 700 ill, injured and wounded soldiers.

“Trauma has a way of destroying relationships,” she said. “It’s terrible enough when we have so much divorce in the Army today, but when you add to that the fact that one of them is the victim of sexual assault, you’re really taking away everything from one person. So I want to start some family therapy.”

First, FlorCruz is deep in research mode.

“We know the basics. (Sex assault) happens in the barracks. It happens at night. It happens with alcohol. But I need to know some other aspects of it that we have not been targeting.”

She sat down with The Olympian to talk about her new post.

Q: How did your 31 years in uniform get you ready for this assignment?

A: I’ve been dealing with victims of sexual assault since 1977. I was a victim of sexual assault when I was a teenager.

At West Point, it was mind-boggling to me how many of the women I was with were being assaulted.

At the 10-year point after graduation, I started a newsletter to a bunch of really uninterested women. Now we’re very tight. Part of that was to ask how many of you guys were ever coerced, assaulted, raped or harassed.

Most of them were. Many of (the assaults) were rather violent.

Q: Did your classmates file complaints about the assaults? What happened to them?

A: I don’t know of anyone when I was there who reported her sexual assault. I don’t think anybody felt safe enough to do it, or for one, that justice would be served, and for another, she felt she’d be a failure. You would just prove yourself to be weak.

Q: Since the Defense Department started paying more attention to sex assault, have trends in reporting changed?

A: Since I’ve been here, I’ve watched the reporting increase and I consider that improved reporting.

Most of them have been old reports. The increase in reporting does not reflect an increase in attacks. People are more comfortable in bringing it to the fore, and I’m grateful for that because statistical analysis is really essential for us to get to the bottom of how and why this is happening.

One of the greatest improvements I’m seeing is an increase in male reports. It’s always been hard to do. It’s really tough for a guy to bring that up.

Now male victims can understand that is courageous, that is not weak, which is what we thought when we were women at West Point. You’ve got to really admire that.

Q: Sen. Patty Murray recently visited Lewis-McChord to tour a new sex assault response center. She’s been outspoken on this issue and has signed on to an amendment to change the military justice system. What did you want to tell her?

A: What I told her was that when I first came in the Army, and even for the first 20 years, I would have been one of those who say my chain of command won’t listen to me if I’ve been sexually assaulted.

But as a member of the 7th Infantry Division, I’m very confident that if I needed to report something like that, I would get plenty of credence. It’s not just because I’m the (sexual harassment assault prevention and response program) officer, but because I know that the folks I’m surrounded with would listen to it. It’s a very different Army.

Q: So you favor keeping the chain of command involved with the prosecution of sex assault?

A: Yes. Commanders have to be responsible for making this cultural change. If they’re not being held accountable, if they’re not in charge, then it’s not going to happen.

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