The Army’s sexual assault prevention program is broken. These soldiers have ideas on how to fix it

"I feel like I'm, more or less, just beating a dead horse."

The Army is finally doing what it perhaps should have done all along to prevent sexual assault and harassment: Asking soldiers for their ideas about what will actually work.

As a part of the next installment of the 18th Airborne Corps’ Dragon’s Lair, a ‘Shark Tank’-esque competition that solicits ideas from the force on how to improve the Army, soldiers presented their ideas to revamp the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) program. Among the pitches heard on Monday: using virtual reality, recruiting top film schools to help improve training, and — get this — actually holding leaders accountable.

And fixes for the program can’t come soon enough. As former Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy detailed in a blunt assessment of the program in November, SHARP “hasn’t achieved its mandate” to eliminate sex crimes and the Army had “significant work to do to regain our soldiers’ trust” in the program. There were more than 3,200 reports of sexual assault for the Army in 2019, a 2 percent increase from 2018.

A groundbreaking report on SHARP practices at Fort Hood, a sprawling Army installation which is home to tens of thousands of soldiers, found that leaders blatantly disregarded major issues and soldiers said they had little confidence in a program meant to help them when they are at their most vulnerable.

Army leaders on Monday heard seven different ideas on how to change that — and officials say elements from all seven will be implemented across the corps. 

One soldier suggested the Army offer a cash prize to the top five film schools in the U.S. for the best 30-minute film that gets at the core of the sexual assault and harassment problem in the Army.

“Right now, how SHARP training stands is, every year you sit through a boring PowerPoint slide deck,” said 2nd Lt. Hannah Alderete, a human resources officer with the 525th Military Intelligence Brigade. “And unfortunately it doesn’t really connect with the audience, and it doesn’t really spark meaningful discussions that need to be had.” 

According to Alderate, a short film would help illustrate what harassment looks like in the workplace and show the long-term impact sexual assault can have on their teammate. It would also present different viewpoints and experiences in a way that soldiers may not feel comfortable sharing with their peers. Then after the film, as Alderete explained, there would be a 30-minute leader discussion broken into small groups of no more than 10 people to “have meaningful discussions and thought-provoking questions” about what they watched. 

A similar pitch goes a step further. Instead of watching a film, soldiers would be involved in the scenarios playing out in front of them through virtual reality. The idea from Staff Sgt. Shameka Dudley would put soldiers in virtual situations they otherwise may not notice. Since, in her research, she found companies had success with similar training that showed people who might be “oblivious to the things that may happen in the workplace” what’s actually going on around them. 

Not only would it be more interactive, but Dudley said she expects it could connect with younger generations in a way a typical PowerPoint presentation does not. The experience could be instrumental in building empathy, which she said is crucial for the SHARP program to function properly. 

“What’s wrong with SHARP training is that throughout the force, there’s a lack of empathy,” said Dudley, a cryptologic linguist also with the 525th Intelligence Brigade. There are “people who never see and they don’t realize what’s happening, and then even if they’re told it’s almost like, ‘I don’t know, I feel like you’re just being overdramatic.’ I think with this training, you could put someone that has never seen it, never witnessed it and they could be like, ‘I can see how that could affect someone’… And it creates that empathy.” 

Meanwhile, Lt. Col. Scott Stephens pitched something he has called the “Dragon Guardian” program. Stephens, who has emerged as an important voice on the issue of sexual assault and harassment in the Army, said the service has to “get away from this passive notion of how do we prevent our soldiers from being sexually assaulted” to how does the Army stop soldiers from assaulting their teammates?

“For me, it’s fundamentally about four things: education, training, leadership, and accountability,” said Stephens, a battalion commander in the 3rd Infantry Division.

Stephens’ program would give soldiers the opportunity to volunteer for more intensive training on how to mitigate assault and harassment and empower more junior soldiers to recognize potentially dangerous or risky situations in their units. The Army too often focuses on what to do after a sexual assault rather than prevent them in the first place, he said.

The classes soldiers would take could be similar to college courses — 101, 201, 301 — starting with the basics and going more in-depth as they go. With the higher-level classes, he said, “we get into more advanced things, you start to get into like, psychosocial theories, and we start talking more about cultivating healthy intimate relationships, healthy concepts of sexuality, and things like that to really hopefully help us get more after the prevention side of things.”

Another pitch came from Sgt. Taylor Knueven, a combat medic with the 101st Airborne Division, who said she was sexually assaulted last March by a sergeant first class. Although the sergeant received a noncommissioned officer evaluation report recommending he be relieved, the Army ultimately decided to retain him. “He is still in my unit,” she said. 

In Knueven’s ideal world, the Army would provide greater transparency around SHARP statistics, include more women on separation boards, and perhaps, even include oversight from outside the Army. 

“You need to hear this from my mouth, I am living proof, right here, telling you the system is messed up. There are flaws,” said Knueven, who spoke before a board comprised of three men that ultimately decided to retain her assailant. 

“And these are the flaws … that this individual has done these things that we say we have zero tolerance for, and very clearly have some tolerance for, for these individuals.”

While nothing she suggested was necessarily new information, Knueven hopes her suggestions can mold “the SHARP program into something meaningful.” But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Many elements of the pitches presented on Monday are things survivors and advocates have been saying for years. It’s somewhat depressing some of these things even have to be said — hold leaders accountable, get commanders involved, make the program meaningful — as they should undoubtedly already be the standard. 

“I feel like I’m just repeating what I’ve heard other people say too, you know, this isn’t like an ah-ha moment, like someone came and figured it out,” Knueven said. “I’m just saying what I feel and what I know so many other people feel. Like, the SHARP training is not effective. The response program is not effective. The justice piece of it is not effective. … I feel like I’m, more or less, just beating a dead horse.”

Featured photo: Senior leaders from across 1st Armored Division and Fort Bliss participate and respond to questions during the 6th Annual Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) Summit, Aug. 26, 2020, at Fort Bliss, Texas. (U.S. Army/Pfc. Matthew Marcellus)

Haley Britzky

Haley Britzkyis the Army reporter for Task & Purpose, covering the daily happenings in the Army and how they impact soldiers and their families, as well as broader national security issues. Originally from Texas, Haley previously worked at Axios before joining Task & Purpose in January 2019. Contact the author here.

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