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18th Airborne Corps. Revises Participants On Separation Board

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A U.S. Army Command whose troops famously take on some of the hardest tasks has taken on one more. The XVIII Airborne Corps includes some of the most storied units of the Army - the 82nd Airborne Division, the 101st Airborne. They're the people who parachuted behind enemy lines on D-Day in World War II. And they are part of that corps today. Now the XVIII Airborne Corps is taking up a proposal by one of its own soldiers to change how it responds to sexual misconduct. Carson Frame of Texas Public Radio reports

CARSON FRAME, BYLINE: Sergeant Taylor Knueven says the Army is all about upholding standards, except when it comes to sex crimes.

TAYLOR KNUEVEN: There are some standards that are measured objectively, like, you know, you have to get this score on this PT test or you're out. You pop hot on a drug test, you're out. And so it's alarming that this person who did this to me, he's still in.

FRAME: While at a concert last year, Knueven, a combat medic, was groped by a fellow soldier. She reported it to her command, which took a zero-tolerance approach and immediately started investigating. Ultimately, they found Knueven's complaint credible and pushed for her attacker to be kicked out of the Army. But before that could happen, he had a final hearing before a panel of officers called a separation board. All three of the panelists were men, and they decided to retain him.

KNUEVEN: There's the stigma that there are a lot of false accusations when it comes to sexual harassment and assault. And when you have three male board members who, you know, undoubtedly have heard this stigma and quite possibly might believe it making the decision, I think that that played a role in it.

FRAME: After the disappearance and death of Fort Hood soldier Vanessa Guillen last year, the Army admitted that its sexual assault and harassment response is broken. Ever since, units throughout the Army have been brainstorming about how to fix it. That includes the XVIII Airborne Corps, the Army's largest war-fighting organization, made up of some 90,000 soldiers, including Knueven. In February, it held a "Shark Tank"-style competition where it asked soldiers for input. So Knueven pitched an idea - put more women on the separation board.

JOE BUCCINO: What we don't want is a board that doesn't represent the survivor at all.

FRAME: Colonel Joe Buccino is a spokesman for the XVIII Airborne Corps. Corps leadership liked Knueven's suggestion. Under their newly implemented policy, any soldier in the Corps who's found guilty of sexual assault or harassment faces a separation board, and those boards have to have at least one person of the same gender as the victim.

BUCCINO: You receive information from people who witnessed the event. You receive information from character witnesses and then render a decision.

FRAME: Buccino says Army higher-ups are looking at the Corps' policy as a kind of guinea pig and, depending on the results, could put the changes into place across the service. Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston advises the service on issues in the ranks. He says he's open to changing the boards, but that in order to represent the victims, the Army needs to think about other factors besides gender.

MICHAEL GRINSTON: The more broader question is, do I value diversity on boards? Absolutely. But we can't have - you know, the Army is so broad. Now, there's men and women, so I acknowledge that. But sometimes it's really hard to have every race, ethnicity on every board. That's the hard part.

FRAME: Grinston adds that the Army operates all over the world, and there are logistical challenges in staffing the boards. In other words, the idea isn't as simple as it sounds.

KNUEVEN: I definitely think it's kind of - like, no offense to Sergeant Major of the Army Grinston or anything, but that's kind of a cop-out answer.

FRAME: Sergeant Taylor Knueven says the Army meets challenges head-on.

KNUEVEN: So if this is another obstacle and it doesn't seem feasible to find the right people at the time, well, we're going to adapt and overcome until we find the right people, especially in cases that are as serious as this.

FRAME: After all, she says, overcoming obstacles is something the Army does on a daily basis.

For NPR News, I'm Carson Frame.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAKI KING'S "OOBLECK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.