During a recent training session at Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 23rd Quartermaster Brigade, a female noncommissioned officer poses a question to the group of roughly 70 mostly young female initial entry Soldiers:
"How many of you have ever been told you're beautiful?"
A few raise their hands, some hesitantly. The NCO segues into the subject of self-esteem, breaks it down, connects it with the need for acceptance and then offers solutions. She poses other questions in a similar vein on a range of topics in a forthright, earnest and informal manner. The dialogue is strengthened. In a short time, the women are settled in a comfort zone, many of them sharing personal experiences and talking about issues they may be reluctant to discuss in the presence of males or members of the chain of command.
That is precisely the point of the brigade's Soldier Mentorship Program. Established two years ago, it serves to provide Soldiers -- males and females in separate sessions and together -- the means to openly express feelings and address circumstances surrounding self-esteem, sexual harassment and assault, pregnancy, respect, and other issues such as personal finance.
The program is the brainchild of Sgt. 1st Class Randeen N. Espinoza, the brigade's sexual assault response coordinator. It was started when she noticed self-esteem was a common issue for those she serviced as the SARC. Soldiers lacking a healthy self-worth, she said, are more susceptible to abusive behavior that could lead to sexual harassment and assault. Proactive engagement that allows Soldiers to acquire the necessary tools to help themselves is one way to tackle the problem, said Espinoza.
"The main goal of the program is to empower female Soldiers in the U.S. Army," said the 18-year veteran, whose SARC responsibilities include education and report facilitation. "If you empower them, they will empower the next person. Even if you affect one, you affect one change."
Although the program targeted females initially, said Espinoza, it was expanded to include males. Currently, the mentorship sessions are mandatory for the roughly 400 incoming advanced individual training troops arriving monthly at the Quartermaster School's reception company. Once the Soldiers are handed off to their units of assignment, they will continue to receive some mentorship. The program complements the brigade's Sexual Harassment and Assault Response Program, said Espinoza.
Since the mentorship program was implemented, the brigade SHARP has been more robust. There has been a decrease in sexual assault reports (many of those reported occurred prior to military service), and Soldiers are confident their interests will be taken seriously, said Espinoza.
While she cannot definitively claim the mentorship program is solely responsible for the program's effectiveness, Espinoza knows it has had an impact, citing the after-session SARC reports Soldiers make to her or their inquiries about inappropriate behavior within the units.
"They'll report that something happened to them before they joined the Army," said Espinoza, "or if they see there is something that isn't quite right in their company, they'll say, 'Sgt. Espinoza, this is what is going on.' Then, I will inform their chain of command."
Following a recent session, roughly 10 Soldiers lined up to talk with Espinoza. They inquired about everything from direct deposit banking to child support and other issues. She was professional, receptive and helpful. They seemed assured. That is essential, said Espinoza.
"If the Soldiers -- male or female -- don't trust me, they won't come to me," said the daughter of a retired Soldier. "It is also what I represent -- how I present and carry myself. In this job, I'm an NCO always so I have to carry myself appropriately, but I also carry myself as a woman and somebody's mother."
Her commander, Capt. Genarda Bates, said Espinoza's work can be seen in how the Soldiers, especially the females, relate to one another following the mentorship sessions.
"Some of them leave the session a little teary-eyed, but they feel the impact," she said. "I can also tell by how they interact with each other. In this environment, you're always in the company of others and you can sometimes be bothered by that. When they leave her sessions, they encourage each other. They understand that's their role, as a team member and as a fellow female Soldier. She helps them to understand that."
HHC's 1st Sgt. Christopher Hampton said Espinoza consistently reaches beyond the program of instruction, adding the attributes of caring and concern that is evident in all aspects of her duties.
"That tells me her heart is in a good place; that she is a very modest and humble NCO, and she has the professionalism to want to give back. She always wants to pay it forward."
Espinoza said her work can be chalked up to expectations and a genuine concern for the well-being of Soldiers. It is also somewhat of a calling; something she was meant to do.
"At the end of the day, we are all here for a reason and purpose," she said. "Sometimes, my thoughts get lost and I ask myself 'Why am I here at Fort Lee?' Then, when someone comes into my office and we sit and talk, and they open up to me, the reason becomes clear; this is my purpose -- to help victims of sexual assault. Not all assault occurs in the Army; the majority happens prior to joining the military. If they are willing enough to tell me what happened to them, it's only fair for me to listen and try and help them."