NEWS | March 5, 2021

New NGB task forces help combat sexual assault, suicide

By Air Force Master Sgt. Erich B. Smith National Guard Bureau

ARLINGTON, Va. – The National Guard Bureau recently stood up two task forces in a continued effort to fight sexual assault and suicide within the ranks.

Beginning in January and expecting to last up to 180 days, the Suicide Prevention Task Force and the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Task Force regularly meet to develop prevention strategies with “actionable items” for National Guard senior leaders to use.

“The National Guard’s unique dual mission to support both federal and state requirements is made possible by our dedicated, well-trained citizen warriors,” said Rear Adm. Matthew Kleiman, the principal adviser to the chief of the NGB on psychological health and resiliency and a member of the suicide prevention working group. “We owe them and their families all the support they need.”

Both task forces strive to meet the same objective: dramatically reduce the number of incidents by creating a preventative mindset and culture.

Army Lt. Col. Dena Lentz, who sits on the sexual assault prevention and response working group, said task force members operate from “a place of caring.”

“They have helped so many people work through sexual assault,” she said, “and they want to do their best to prevent it so people won’t have to continue to suffer.”

Comprised of psychological health professionals, medical personnel, wellness coordinators, chaplains and key senior leaders, the task forces emerged after last year’s historic support of COVID-19 response efforts and state activations for civil disturbances.

Both of those missions continue into this year — causing possible stressors that concern Guard leaders, said Kleiman.

While the Guard has previously established programs to address sexual assault and suicide, he said current prevention efforts and access to those same programs and other resources vary across units and can be difficult to measure.

“With 50 states, three territories and the District of Columbia, there are 54 unique sets of needs, requiring customized execution of prevention efforts,” Kleiman said. Ultimately, he noted, the task force “allows for end users at the state level to provide input into how NGB can shape strategic efforts.”

That kind of collaboration is key for the sexual assault prevention and response working group, Lentz said.

“We definitely need more input to make sure what we are doing makes sense for the people out there in the field,” she said. “Shaping those final products and developing resources — as a team effort — would obviously be more robust and longer-lasting.”

Some of those products include establishing talking points for Guard leaders, along with creating a handbook.

“We’re putting together a leader’s handbook so that people have a more comprehensive, easy reference tool in the event they have to deal with a situation,” said Lentz. “We really emphasize leader responsibility when it comes to sexual assault and prevention.”

Kleiman said his task force shares similar thoughts on Guard leadership.

“One consistent find across the Guard is the tremendously positive impact that a unit and commander support can have on service member well-being,” he said.

Recently, the NGB partnered with the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences to conduct a survey on the impact COVID-19 response efforts had on New York National Guard Soldiers and Airmen.

“Preliminary findings indicate that members who felt most supported by their leadership and command have higher levels of resilience,” said Kleiman. “The pandemic will have an impact that we are only beginning to understand, and the task force is looking to identify resources and how they can be utilized to maximize impact.”

But the work of the Suicide Prevention Task Force is far from complete, he added.

“We are still in the process of developing the way forward as we continue to focus on identifying key risk factors and providing actionable steps on how to mitigate these risks with changes to resources, policies, tools and program updates,” said Kleiman.

Lentz said she hopes the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Task Force’s efforts will bring about a climate of more openness about sexual assault, as opposed to having a mindset where training requirements are “shoved down the pipeline because it’s a drill weekend.”

“We do not want it to be that anymore,” she said. “We want people to talk about this honestly and make them aware this is something leadership cares about, especially for people who might be victims — they need to understand they are cared about.”

Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson agreed. As the chief of the National Guard Bureau, he said all Guard members must work to maintain a culture of prevention — where sexual assault doesn’t occur, and those who may harm themselves can get the help they need.

“We must work to make our organization a place where every Soldier, Airman and civilian has the opportunity to meet his or her full potential,” he said. “We need to continue to create a culture where every member feels safe and included.”

Where to get Help:

  • If you need immediate help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

  • For incidents involving sexual assault, please make immediate contact with your unit’s sexual assault and response coordinator or victim advocate. For 24/7 crisis support, contact the Department of Defense Safe Help Line at 1-877-995-5247.