Marines Fight Harassment, Abuse of Women
By David Abel | The Boston Globe | 7/24/1999
WASHINGTON -- When Gunnery Sergeant George Vukovich learned he had to attend a two-day seminar on sexual harassment, the Marine of 17 years shrugged and thought it was just more civilian interference in the military's warrior ways.
But it didn't take long to change his mind.
After course instructors asked Vukovich and other Marines to consider their response if they witnessed a woman being hit by a fellow member of the military or heard a friend insulted about the size of her breasts, the gunnery sergeant thought about his 14-year-old daughter.
"At first, I thought this was all crap," he said. "I'm an infantry man. We don't deal with those issues. But I changed my mind afterward. I thought: 'This could be my daughter. And as a father, I'm going to use all means available to stop it.'"
Vukovich, 38, is one of thousands of Marines on at least 19 US military bases worldwide since 1996 to go through the Mentors in Violence Prevention program, which teaches men how to help prevent rape, battery, and sexual harassment.
Founded in 1993 at Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society in Boston, the MVP program was first aimed at student athletes and student leaders, treating them in courses as bystanders rather than as perpetrators of aggression against women.
"The bystander program doesn't finger-point or put men in a corner," said Jackson Katz, who founded the violence prevention program at Northeastern, later introduced it to the New England Patriots and now runs the program for the Marines. "The goal is to try to create a peer culture of zero tolerance. If it's socially unacceptable, there will be a reduced number of physical violence and sexual harassment incidents."
The program is especially appealing to the military, which has a history tarnished with aggression and harassment directed at women and girls. Three years ago, for example, two Marines and a Navy sailor raped a 12-year-old schoolgirl near a base in Okinawa, Japan. The Navy had the Tailhook scandal and the Army came under fire for the abuse of female recruits by drill sergeants at its training ground in Aberdeen, Md.
The potential problem has taken on new levels in recent years, as more women enter the services. Today, out of an active-duty force of about 1.4 million, approximately 14 percent of those serving in the military are women.
"Similar to police wives, military spouses often suffer a higher level of abuse," said retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Karen Johnson, now a vice president of the National Organization for Women in Washington. She also said that recent studies show that 4 in every 10 women in the United States have experienced sexual abuse. "The men come from an autocratic society. Like any stress, you come home and kick the dog. That's why programs like this should be more widespread."
The Marine Corps is spending $124,000 this year on the training and has budgeted $150,000 for next year, according to Mary Page, the Domestic Violence Prevention program manager at the Marine Corps Headquarters in Quantico, Va.
In November, the Marine Corps Academy at Quantico launched a plan to introduce the MVP training to its 1,300 cadets. By summer's end, Page said, the training would be part of the curriculum at the Marine Corps's five other academies throughout the country.
One scenario played out for Marines during the training is that they're at a party and a fellow Marine is seen slapping his girlfriend. They must explain how they would respond.
Do they punch the Marine? Take him aside and talk to him? Call in the military police?
"The wrong response is doing nothing at all," said Master Sergeant J.J. Moore, the academics chief at the Quantico academy who is now a violence prevention trainer. "It's not, 'It's none of my business' or 'Why should I get involved?' or 'It's not my problem.' "
"The answer is: 'It is your problem. And you need to get involved somehow. It's the right thing to do. You can't stand around and watch a woman be beat,' " Moore said.
Initial studies of the Marine Corps violence prevention program suggest that Marines welcome the information and are spreading the message. But it's far too early to measure whether there has been any decline in abuse of the nearly 1,000 women in the Marine Corps or other women in contact with Marines, researchers say.
Marney Thomas, director of the Cornell University-Marine Corps Child and Spouse Abuse Prevention Project, led a team of researchers who interviewed 242 of 900 Marines participating in the MVP pilot program at seven Marine Corps bases in 1997.
Nearly 75 percent of them, she said, told researchers they had talked about the training with fellow Marines and family members.
"I think the training is effective in the military because it talks to the good guy's honor," said Thomas.
She added the Navy also is considering the program. "I think it's a positive, proactive approach."
The principle text of the course, called the "playbook," opens by providing the military's legal definitions of crimes such as assault, battery and rape.
The 23-page book then lists a variety of scenarios, trains of thought, and solutions that might occur to a Marine while encountering anything from a man forcing a woman to have sex with him to a buddy making sexist jokes.
When Sergeant Jason Bortz began the violence prevention course in March, he said: "At first, I thought, duh, who wouldn't have thought of that."
Like Vukovich, the 25-year-old quickly changed his mind. "I didn't consider that the girl might turn against you, or what the guy might later do to the girl. . . .That's what's important about this training."