By Andrea Stone, Outlook ContributorFebruary 24, 2017
VICENZA, Italy -- It could be a neighbor, a spouse, a friend or a fellow Soldier. Survivors of sexual assault aren't always obvious.
"Whether we realize it or not, we all know someone who is a survivor of sexual assault," said Sgt. 1st Class Juanita Lewis-Jones, sexual assault response coordinator (SARC) for 173rd Military Intelligence Brigade.
The goal of the upcoming Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention Summit March 2-3 is to educate the Vicenza Military Community on how to prevent those assaults and how to respond when they do happen.
The first day of the SHARP Summit at the post theater on Caserma Ederle will feature sexual assault survivors sharing their stories. The second day at the Golden Lion Conference Center will offer small group and panel discussions. Both days are split up by rank: senior NCOs, captains and above, chief warrant officers 3 and above and civilian GS-11 and above will meet from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and all others meet from 1 to 4:30 p.m.
"It comes away from that 'death by PowerPoint' that Soldiers dread so much. It's going to be a lot more interactive. I think if they're actually able to hear from survivors, hear their stories and how it impacts them, it will resonate more," said Lewis-Jones. "Knowledge is power and through knowledge is prevention. … If you don't need it, you may help somebody else who does."
The hope is to offer that help at the summit to those who may need it.
"We want to reduce the stigma about SHARP. We want people to feel safe in coming forward," said Kaffie Clark, U.S. Army Garrison Italy SARC. "They will know how to report. They will know to support and how to treat those individuals."
Hearing survivors share their experiences can be empowering for those in the audience who may have experienced harassment or assault themselves.
"The summit gives them examples of people who have been where they are and have overcome that trauma. They've survived. They are working through it," said Addison Elliott, SARC for the 207th Military Intelligence Brigade. "It's important to show those silent victims that this program is here. We will help you. We will fight for you, from the moment you walk into our office until you say you're good to go."
This will be the fourth SHARP summit in Vicenza, and the increased knowledge has led to a rise in reports.
"Since we've started doing these summits, the number of individuals who've felt comfortable coming forward has tripled," said Amy Braley, sexual assault program manager for U.S. Army Africa.
While the number of reports has increased, that doesn't necessarily indicate an increase in sexual assaults. Those numbers can include earlier incidences of assault prior to a service member coming to Italy or even before joining the military, she said.
"Because someone comes forward, it doesn't mean that we have predatory behavior among the troops here," Clark said. "It means that we've created an atmosphere of safety so that those individuals can come forward without fear of reprisal, that they understand that they will be supported throughout the process."
Another factor in the rates of sexual assault in the military is the difference in the definition of sexual assault in the military versus the civilian world. Incidences that would not be reported or prosecuted or might only be considered misdemeanors in a civilian setting are investigated as violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Braley said.
Community members older than 18 are invited to participate in the summit.