1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin F. Merker III offers an insight and suggestion to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, during a sensing session the general had with students of the first graduating class of the SHARP School House on Fort Belvoir, Va., March... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT BELVOIR, Va. (Army News Service, March 21, 2014) -- "The Army still struggles with sexual assault and harassment. We're trying to get the processes and training in place so people realize we won't tolerate this," said the Army's chief of staff.

"I want to thank you for your passion and capability in helping us with this problem," Gen. Ray Odierno told some 30 graduates of the first Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention School House pilot program, today.

Soldiers should feel comfortable at work and not have to worry about sexual harassment, he told the graduates, which included several Army civilian employees along with military unit representatives. The students are serving across the Army as sexual assault response coordinators, or SARCs, and victim advocates, known as VAs.

But "the Army is an imperfect world. Over the long term, the Army is going to have to sustain and use your expertise," Odierno said. He added that the Army intends to continue providing formalized training now that the pilot is finished.

The students' two months of study included training on resiliency, signs of prejudice and discrimination, how to establish a culture of prevention within a command, investigative and legal processes, ethics and victim healthcare management.

Graduates will return to their commands where they will instruct others and assist the commander in SHARP training.

Odierno spent about an hour with the Soldiers at their graduation ceremony, soliciting feedback and recommendations -- and they were not shy in providing it to him.

While some Soldiers said their commanders fully supported them, others said "they just didn't get it" and that it's an "attitude problem."

"We need to hold people accountable, not just those who committed the crime, but those who do not create (an) environment (of trust). That's one of the things we have to work on. That's one of the things I have to work on," he replied.

Odierno said the thing that really bothers him and makes him upset is if victims of sexual assault get victimized a second time by their command, instead of receiving comfort and protection.

"I can't imagine what it would be like to go through something like that," he said.

People need to see that the Army's holding people accountable, he said, and the perception right now is that isn't happening.

One Soldier commented that commands are not doing enough to prevent sexual harassment, a leading precursor to sexual assaults. He said the entire culture needs a shift.

The chief agreed, adding that it's not just inappropriate touching but "even words can hurt."

Odierno added, however, that some Soldiers he's spoken with say they're starting to see an overreaction. "The males don't even want to talk to the females because they're afraid" of being charged with sexual harassment.

Soldiers do need to interact with one another on a professional and personal level, he continued.

"It's about how you interact," Odierno said, with the emphasis on how. "It's about treating people with dignity and respect. Treat everybody the way you want to be treated."

The Army gets people from many different backgrounds, he continued, some with one parent, others with none, many with different moral and ethical values "and then we bring them into the Army and inculcate them with our values" expecting them to conform right away, he said.

Some Soldiers do and say things they don't think are wrong, he said.

"So we have to teach them it's wrong but go at it in such a way that they grow and learn," Odierno explained.

Others simply don't get it and continue down the wrong path and actions need to be taken. Finding the right balance between teaching and action can be difficult, he acknowledged.

Another Soldier said she was concerned about fraternization, not just within the chain of command, but also between Soldiers of different units. She noted that predators are adept at leading their victims on with their rank and fancy cars and lifestyles and sexual assault sometimes ensues.

Odierno replied that he sees cases like that cross his desk too often.

Those are "the ones that are the most disturbing to me," he said, the ones where a higher-ranking Soldier takes advantage of a lower-ranking one.

It's clear-cut that those in the same chain of command should not be fraternizing, he continued, as it goes against good order and discipline in the service. But the Defense Department's regulations are less clear about fraternization between Soldiers of different units, especially if both are enlisted.

Odierno said he's at the point of taking his concerns up to the DOD level.

Other Soldiers commented on the outstanding job their four instructors did, and all said they appreciated the chief attending their graduation, remarking that his presence sends a powerful message of support.

A few of the Soldiers observed that there are a lot of conflicts between what the Army directives, regulations and All Army Activities messages have to say about handling cases of sexual assault and harassment, and commanders sometimes use this variance in language to interpret things differently.

Odierno said he fully shared their concerns, adding that the regulations are also often too complex and hard to track and need to be consolidated.

"G-1 will take on doing exactly what you said," he said.

Seated behind the students was the Army G-1, Lt. Gen. Howard B. Bromberg, who was furiously scribbling notes on his pad of things to do.

A few Soldiers were concerned about not getting promoted because they were working outside of their military occupational specialty.

Odierno said that SHARP doesn't have a special military occupational specialty like the equal opportunity career field, and that the Army is now having discussions about this topic.

While the Army can provide special guidance to promotion boards, he acknowledged that "it's got to be more than that."

"If you want high quality people doing their job, you have to reward them for the quality of work they're doing," he added, meaning that their efforts should be recognized.

Odierno observed that the graduates all had a passion for their work.

"We need to keep this momentum going and train others," he concluded.

Bromberg spoke briefly to the graduates following Odierno's departure.

"The idea is to professionalize this career field for the betterment of all our Soldiers," he said, "and you enabled us to start this. We'll continue to build on your shoulders."

Adding to his comments was Karl Schneider, acting assistant secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs.

"You are leading us where we need to go to tackle this very difficult issue," he said. "That the secretary and the chief are making sure resources are available to do this at a time we're cutting back in other places is a testament to the fact they think it's important."

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