Senate panel likely to OK 1st female Army secretary

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Nominee to be Secretary of the Army Christine Elizabeth Wormuth speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee nomination hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON – The woman poised to be the first female secretary of the Army told Congress Thursday that combating sexual assault and harassment is a top priority, and said greater prevention is needed, including more training to encourage soldiers to step in when they see bad behavior by others.

Christine Wormuth, who led President Joe Biden's transition team at the Pentagon, got an overwhelmingly warm reception from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. They suggested her nomination would be approved by the Senate.

If confirmed, she would be one of the more powerful officials in a defense establishment long dominated by men, and she would be the second woman named to a top Pentagon role by Biden. The deputy secretary of defense is Kathleen Hicks.

Wormuth addressed a wide array of issues at the hearing, but many of the questions focused on personnel and command climate problems that have plagued the service. The Army's handling of sexual assaults and other violence has come under significant scrutiny in the aftermath of a series of crimes, including murders and suicides last year at Fort Hood, Texas. A review panel found that military leaders at the post were not adequately dealing with high rates of sexual assault and harassment and were utterly neglecting the sexual assault prevention program.

Wormuth said she was “angry and frustrated” by the failures at Fort Hood. And she said the Army needs to “put quite a bit of focus” on improving the command climate all the way down to the lower levels so that younger soldiers feel safe and able to make complaints if needed. She added that she would want to see what other training could be done, and not just “more power point slides that people go to mental screen saver on.”

One of those could be better bystander training for soldiers so they know how and when to step in when they see something happening.

Wormouth also said that assessment teams set up by the Army leadership already may be a way to help get at the problem.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s first directive after he took office in January ordered senior leaders to look into their sexual assault prevention programs, and he created an independent panel to study the matter. That panel has recommended that decisions to prosecute service members for sexual assault be made by independent authorities, not commanders, a major change that has been resisted by the military.