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Report details inquiry of Fort Carson leader, military's struggles with issue of sexual assault

April 22, 2014 Updated: April 22, 2014 at 9:25 am
photo - New leader Col. Brian Pearl after the the Change of Command ceremony for the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team Feb. 14, 2013.  (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
New leader Col. Brian Pearl after the the Change of Command ceremony for the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team Feb. 14, 2013. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

Army leaders suspended an Afghanistan-bound Fort Carson commander over allegations of insensitivity toward sexual assault victims and gender discrimination before an investigation cleared him last month.

The investigation into the conduct of Col. Brian Pearl is detailed in a 361-page report released to The Gazette on Monday under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

The report shows that three female officers in Pearl's 4th Brigade Combat Team came forward with the accusations after a Feb. 18 focus group on sexual assault policies with a women-only audience.

The report offers a view of military struggles with the burgeoning issue of sexual assault, along with the complexity commanders face in addressing what is one of the most sensitive issues in the nation.

Top military leaders, including Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, have mandated increased training for troops on sexual assault prevention in the face of a hurricane of criticism after a report last year that estimated 23,000 incidents of unwanted sexual contact throughout the military.

The report released Monday is the first time the Army has revealed details of why the senior leader was suspended on the eve of a combat deployment and missed leaving with his soldiers March 6.

"I feel that I am being discriminated against on gender discrimination ... by Col. Brian Pearl," one of the accusers, a captain, wrote in an official complaint.

The captain, whose name was redacted from the report along with other witnesses, called for Pearl, a 25-year veteran, to be relieved and the allegations were taken seriously: The colonel was suspended and didn't initially deploy with his unit.

That was an unprecedented step for the Army, which is reluctant to pull commanders as the soldiers they train head to war.


Investigation into allegations

In the investigation, a Fort Hood colonel brought from Texas for the probe interviewed 39 witnesses - including 32 women who attended the Feb. 18 session - before clearing the colonel.

"Based on my interviews and the witness statements, I find no evidence to support an allegation of gender discrimination by Col. Brian Pearl," wrote the colonel who investigated the incident.

The investigation was swift. The formal complaint was made Feb. 26, and the findings of the investigation were approved by Fort Carson's Col. Mike Tarsa on March 13, allowing Pearl to head to war. The Feb. 18 session on sexual assault came after Pearl's 4th brigade received 27 reports of sexual assault or harassment over a one-year period, the report shows. All but three of the sexual assault reports were filed by women.

Pearl told investigators the statistics drove him to bring the brigade's women together for a discussion of sexual assault.

"I wanted our female soldiers to be comfortable discussing these topics in an all-female environment," Pearl wrote in a statement to investigators.

But what was supposed to be a meeting to drive sexual assault prevention and encourage reporting of attacks left some women in attendance with a different message.

"The brigade commander made some comments that left her feeling like the message toward females was 'Don't get raped and if you do don't report it'," a sergeant wrote in a memorandum to investigators.

The training, which focuses on bystanders intervening to stop attacks and includes steps soldiers can take to avoid victimization, is not without controversy.

Investigators asked witnesses whether Pearl made comments disparaging victims of sexual assault, negative statements regarding victims and whether anything he said blamed victims for being attacked.

"An overwhelming majority of witnesses (29 of 32) said Col. Pearl did not make disparaging or negative remarks about victims of sexual assault with the remaining three witnesses being the original complainant and two supplementary witnesses with the complainant," the investigator found.

Meetings like the one held by Pearl have been happening across the Army over the past year. The military has faced numerous allegations that sexual assault complaints have been mishandled or ignored, and sexual assault is a growing problem for commanders.


Sexual assault a problem

In 2012, there were 1,423 official sexual assault reports throughout the Defense Department with 61 percent of cases involving service members attacking comrades. Females represented 86 percent of the victims, according to a report from the Army's Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention Program.

Training in sexual assault prevention was a key goal for Pearl's brigade as soldiers prepared to head to Afghanistan, where they will spend nine months living in close confines as one of the last U.S. combat units in the war before American troops complete their scheduled withdrawal on Dec. 31.

Pearl is a decorated leader who previously commanded the 3,500-soldier brigade's 2nd Battalion of the 12th Infantry Regiment on a yearlong deployment in eastern Afghanistan. Pearl, who is now leading his brigade in Kandahar, couldn't be immediately reached for comment.

He took command of the brigade in 2013 and earned a reputation as a stickler for training in tactics, weapons systems and policies. But training on sexual assault is a delicate matter, and discussion during the Feb. 18 session was all over the map.

Multiple witnesses say one soldier in attendance asked commanders about women faking their sexual assault complaints due to "morning after regret."

"Col. Pearl spoke dismissively about the possibility of sexual assault allegations with malicious intent - 'We deal with that every month,'" one first lieutenant wrote in a witness statement.

Of 27 sexual assault and harassment reports handled by the brigade in the year before the Feb. 18 meeting, 10 were deemed unsubstantiated or unfounded. Of the 17 other cases, nine were deemed substantiated and eight remained under investigation.

Accusers say Pearl spoke against "restricted" sexual assault reports, which allow victims to seek counseling anonymously without forcing them to move ahead with criminal charges.

"The pressure to file unrestricted reports places pressure for a victim to waive their rights," the woman who filed the initial complaint, a captain, wrote. "Col. Pearl failed to understand that it is a personal and private decision in which to file. Females should not place undue pressure to file a report through this manner."

Pearl admitted discussing reports, but said he was neutral on which reporting type victims should use.

"If my comments were construed as preference for unrestricted reporting, they were not," he wrote. "I did, however, explain that one of the differences between unrestricted and restricted is command involvement."

Pearl encouraged women to look out for one another, using the Army's "battle buddy" system to make sure soldiers aren't left alone in danger. The three officers who came forward with complaints said those remarks placed responsibility on victims for the acts of rapists.

"While it is a valid point to make that a battle buddy is required and is an important system, this proliferates a 'victim-blaming' philosophy," a first lieutenant wrote.

Investigators also probed whether Pearl crossed the line with a story relating the need for soldiers to watch out for comrades.

Pearl told troops about a sexual assault case in another unit at Fort Carson in which a female sergeant attended a unit party in Denver, and turned down a ride with a 'Battle Buddy' to leave later with other soldiers. The woman later said she was raped on the way home. In that case, two soldiers were charged and a third fatally shot himself, the report said.

That conversation in the training session was cut short after a brigade lawyer told Pearl that the case remained under investigation. The report found that Pearl didn't discuss confidential elements of the case.

Other concerns raised by accusers came from comments by Pearl to sergeants and officers after junior soldiers were dismissed from the meeting.

Some witnesses say Pearl had a stern message for female leaders about unreported sexual assaults against women in the unit - "If she doesn't report, I'm coming for you."

Pearl categorically denied the comment.

While three soldiers said Pearl's discussion on sexual assault was offensive, the bulk of troops praised their leader.

"I believe that more females will report sexual assault under such senior leadership," one sergeant wrote in a witness statement.

"I felt like Col. Pearl wanted females to know their options and that he would do what he could to make sure it stopped," a specialist wrote.

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