FORT KNOX, Kentucky (April 11, 2015) -- Because she transferred with U.S. Army Human Resources Command from St. Louis to Fort Knox under the BRAC reorganization of 2011, Master Sgt. Johnnie Garcia has been a leader of the command's Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention, or SHARP, program since its inception.
"So I was here and opened the doors to the SHARP program when I was an EOA (equal opportunity adviser), so I opened the doors to the EO program as well as to the SHARP program. We built it," said Garcia.
But it was no walk in the park.
"When we started the program it was a very rough start," she recalled. Part of the difficulty was that Garcia had no budget to work with.
"Here's the issue with us [HRC]. Because we are a field operating agency, the National Defense Authorization Act, back when the SHARP program started, did not authorize field operating agencies authorizations to have SHARP personnel. So, we are required to have a program, but yet we are not authorized.
"Usually these positions are funded by the Department of the Army, but these positions are not authorized. So everything we have is stuff that we have built and we have purchased somehow or another," she said.
That required finesse on Garcia's part and a tremendous commitment from the command to enable her to build a functioning program. She said the levels of awareness and support were good to start with and have only grown significantly stronger during her tenure at HRC.
"Absolutely. We have an awesome command leadership support. A very open door policy," she said.
In addition, Garcia played a role in building installation-wide SHARP activities and awareness across Fort Knox, including quarterly refresher training for practitioners and a monthly review board for leaders.
The quarterly refresher training, which draws two to three dozen people from commands across Fort Knox, came into being to meet an otherwise unfulfilled need. At the time the Army offered a one-time, 80-hour mobile training team course, but there was no follow-up, she said.
"So we had to come up with something that enabled us. If you are not using your skills, we also don't want you to lose those skills," Garcia said. "Of course we don't want any cases, but … we have to remain ready to be able to respond and be able to provide advocacy at any minute.
"There may be times when you get a case or you may go a whole lifetime of being a victim advocate or SARC (sexual assault response coordinator) and not have any cases, depending on the demographics of your organization or the area you are in. And with all the changes in the SHARP program, including policies and regulatory guidance, we needed to come up with something that allowed us to all sit together and go over those as a group," she said.
At the time the installation was having difficulty hiring a program manager to conduct training, so Garcia extended an invitation to the SHARP community across Fort Knox. And they came. The availability of classroom facilities at the Maude Complex to host the training was also enormously helpful.
"So now we are known, HRC, as the people who do sustainment training and a refresher course. And it is not always a classroom environment. We went to Louisville Police Department Special Victims Unit and they talked about what sexual assault looks like outside the gates; what state laws are in place and what the procedures would be and who would we need to be in contact with should this happen within a certain range of miles outside Fort Knox," Garcia said.
The resulting relationships and information networks that have grown from the get-togethers are also critical for practitioners to stay up to date with changes in personnel, policies and procedures.
"Even if they have to see us every three months, they still know who we are. When we need to reach out to them our advocates are so ready to take a case because they know the resources that are available," she said.
Building a community of practice and exercising a proactive commitment to prevention are also hallmarks of the monthly Fort Knox Sexual Assault Review Board, or SARB, said Garcia.
"The SARB is chaired by General Combs (Maj. Gen. Peggy Combs, U.S. Army Cadet Command) and it takes place once a month. It is a forum that is made so we can discuss any open or closed, restricted or unrestricted, cases that are happening to individuals assigned to the Fort Knox area," she said.
"All the units across post bring in their SHARP representatives and they talk all of their cases, restricted and non-restricted," said Col. Ardis Porter, HRC Deputy Chief of Staff. "Without going into any (personally identifiable) details. They come in and they give an update on the cases they are working and they talk about any issues they are having."
This adds another dimension of awareness for both SHARP practitioners and Fort Knox leaders, said Garcia. Since Cadet Command is involved with dozens of universities across the nation, SARB members also get a look at how sexual assault is addressed in academia.
"Don't forget: those are the ROTC cadets that are one day going to be our leaders here in the regular Army. Who knows, maybe here at HRC," said Garcia. "So it gives us a good look at what sexual assault looks like and what their prevention measures and safety recourses look like."
HRC's SHARP program has grown in other dimensions as well in the past four years. Presently, Garcia oversees 20 trained victim advocates within the command, ranging in rank from staff sergeant to sergeant major, whose charge is to respond within one hour to calls from victims.
"We are constantly training our own to help with alleviating these type of issues out of our organization," said Porter. "The victim advocates, the civilian coordinators we bring on board to help with it. It's a priority and we have tried to make sure that we man the proper people to help us with that priority."
"When our victim advocates are on call, they understand: they have a responsibility to the program and they take it very seriously," said Garcia. "When you get that call, you only have one hour to call back or to respond to that individual. More than one hour is not acceptable.
"We have to be good at what we do. We have to walk a fine line, off and on duty. So we have to be on the top of our game and only the best of the best can be victim advocates or SARCs. Our victim advocates are awesome individuals," she said.
"The unique thing about HRC is, it is very diverse," said Porter. "You have a good population of civilians and you have active and Reserve component. So not all segments look at SHARP in the same way, but I think from the CG's and from the leadership perspective, if you send the right message, everyone will understand that here, there is zero tolerance for it. And I think we have done a good job."