WASHINGTON (AP) - Military members who harass or bully people on the job or online can now be certain of a permanent mark on their service record, according to a new Pentagon policy on harassment.
The policy announced Thursday pulls together a complicated mix of rules governing sexual harassment, bullying, hazing and other forms of hostile online behavior and workplace discrimination. The goal is to clarify the process for victims filing complaints and make sure that those responsible are held to account for their actions.
The overhaul comes almost a year after an online nude photo sharing scandal rocked the Marine Corps. The ensuing criminal investigation forced leaders across all the military services to create more vigorous social media standards. The scandal showed how difficult it is to track or govern inappropriate behavior by military members in the largely anonymous online universe.
Pentagon officials said consolidating various harassment policies will make it easier for victims to report problems, seek help and see the consequences for offenders. Until now, some members of the military who engaged in such actions could face punishment but then see any mention of the infractions expunged from their records.
The military services will have 60 days to develop plans to put in place the policy.
"We have a sexual harassment policy, we have a memo that clarifies response and reporting of sexual harassment, we have regulations on hazing and bullying, we have a policy that covers discriminatory harassment," said Elise Van Winkle, the Pentagon's principal director for force resiliency. "What this does is pull these together to cover all forms of harassment."
An important change involves clearer guidelines on how a military member can report harassment, particularly for troops who may belong to one service but work in a job reporting to another service. Army soldiers, for example, can work at an air base overseas and report to an Air Force commander. A Navy officer working at U.S. Pacific Command may have airmen or Marines on staff.
The new policy will allow troops to file harassment complaints wherever they feel most comfortable, though their own service would provide them assistance. An alleged offender probably would go through the justice system. If found guilty, he or she would face punishment from his or her own service.
Standardizing the rules "helps increase the effectiveness of these polices when we deploy them to the field," Van Winkle said.
She said the services will have to set up 24-hour hotlines for harassment questions and complaints. Most services have hotlines for sexual harassment, but this expands the requirement to all forms of bad conduct.
"We owe our service members every protection we can give them," said Robert Wilkie, defense undersecretary for personnel. "While this policy is not perfect, it is a critical milestone in the department's efforts to eliminate harassment and fully prepare the entire force to protect the nation."
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