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Army adopts new approach to military sexual assault

Joint Base Lewis-McChord uses "The Invisible War" as educational tool

Col. Ruben Rodriguez, left, JBLM's I Corps Sexual Harassment Assault Response and Prevention program manager and Msg. Sgt. Carol Chapman, 7th ID's SHARP program NCO, outside the SHARP office.

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When The Invisible War came out last summer, it called rape "a silent epidemic ... and the most shameful and best kept secret in the U.S. military." The documentary showcased multiple Servicemembers suffering from military sexual trauma, and claimed that 20 percent of females are sexually assaulted while serving and more than 20,000 cases of male rape are reported annually. 

Today, on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the Army is not only using the documentary as an educational tool in its Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault (SHSA) training, but it also has adopted a new approach to combat and eliminate this deviant behavior throughout the military.

Although JBLM isn't condoning the documentary, "(It) shows why (SHSA) reporting is important and what the Army is doing about it," said Col. Ruben Rodriguez, I Corps Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) program manager. "We recognize there's a problem. The first stage of recovery is to admit you have a problem, and the military has a problem with (SHSA). Now leadership has the responsibility to deal with it (head on)."

The Army's new approach is straightforward: change the culture through training, education, knowledge and awareness.

"The one thing that has not changed with the Army's program is that no still means no," said Lt. Col. Gary Dangerfield, I Corps Public Affairs Officer. "We are a learning organization and ever evolving, and have retooled what we're doing to help Soldiers come forward."

Implemented last year, SHARP targets Soldiers and leadership from the top down and bottom up in an attempt to eradicate the stigma of reporting; promote increased reporting; improve prevention methods and investigations; eliminate re-victimization; and protect victims from threats and retaliation, among others.

"This is the first time that (staff) is dedicated full time to an issue," Rodriguez said. "This is our job and all we do.  Every battalion will have two Sexual Assault Response Coordinators (SARCs) and Victim Advocates (VAs). Within I Corps we already have 500 trained SHARP personnel and the selection criteria and training for these positions is very strict. The goal is to be in compliance by the end of the fiscal year."

Unique to the Army, SHARP falls under the umbrella of the Department of Defense's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program. It also hosts a 24-hour helpline manned by trained VAs who can be of the same sex if requested - the point being for victims to have an initial way to call in and receive help. Callers will be helped regardless of military status; however, SHARP is dedicated to members of the military and their dependents who are at least 18 years old; minors will receive care under the military's family advocacy program.  Deployed DoD Civilians will also have access to SHARP.  

"We are giving victims as many options as possible when reporting and seeking help," said Master Sgt. Carol Chapman, 7th Infantry Division's SHARP program Non-Commissioned Officer In Charge (NCOIC). "If they're not ready to report or face the offender, there's restricted reporting, which means their identities will remain confidential. Commanders will never know - only SHARP personnel and healthcare. The whole program is now entirely victim-focused. We have to teach Soldiers right from wrong, and the key message is to change the culture so (SHSA) is not an issue. Many don't know that groping and a slap on the butt or sexting is considered sexual assault in the Army."

Soldiers who report sexual assault will also have the option of an expedited transfer for up to three locations based on their Military Occupational Specialty (MOS). Furthermore, if the assault is non-restricted (meaning the alleged offender's name is released to SHARP), only the case number is reported at the brigade commander's level.

"Leadership is being trained to handle these cases (with sensitivity)," Rodriguez said, "and the lowest level (any chain-of-command reporting) will happen at is the brigade commander's level; it has been removed from the battalions."

The month of April is the Army's Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and JBLM is utilizing that to get the word out about SHARP.

"As a result of this program, more Soldiers have reported SHSA compared to (2012)," Rodriguez said. "We aren't concerned with false reporting, either. That was the old way. The new way is to believe victims and move forward. We want Soldiers to stay in the military, and (SHARP) gives them the tools to overcome and progress."

According to Master Sgt. Gabriel Orquiz, the I Corps SHARP program NCIOC, the goal is upholding Army values.

"Any Soldier can be a leader when dealing with (SHSA)," he said. "Anyone can lead by example, and it starts with intervening and not covering up for friends (who are offenders). (SHSA) is inconsistent with our values and we can't have that. Each Soldier needs to be responsible - not just the victim; it all begins with respect and integrity."

If you have been a victim of sexual harassment or sexual assault, contact JBLM's 24-hour hotline at (253) 389-8469.

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