New Virtual Technology Allows SHARP Academy Students Opportunity to Interview Sexual Assault Victim

By Stephen P. Kretsinger Sr., PQC contractor with the U.S. Army Combined Arms CenterOctober 17, 2017

Digital Survivor of Sexual Assault
Digital Survivor of Sexual Assault project lead Stacy Johnson facilitates a sessions of Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) Academy students interacting with a virtual avatar of Army Spc. Jarett Wright, who was hazed and sexuall... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

United States Army Spc. Jarett Wright was hazed and sexually assaulted while deployed to Iraq in 2010. Students from the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) Academy had the opportunity to interview Wright Thursday, Oct. 12, even though he wasn't speaking to them at the time.

The Digital Survivor of Sexual Assault (DS2A) project uses the latest technology to educate and bring awareness to U.S. Army personnel to the horrific realities of sexual assault. The project replicates the experience of an in-person interaction with a survivor of sexual assault. Using Google voice recognition software, DS2A allows Soldiers and Department of the Army Civilians to have an immersive and interactive conversation with a survivor of sexual abuse using a virtual avatar in place of the victim.

"This initiative represents a great collaborative effort between the SHARP Academy, the Army Research Laboratory, and the University of Southern California, Institute for Creative Technologies (USC-ICT), and leverages innovative technology to enhance SHARP education and training," said Col. Christopher Engen director of the U.S. Army SHARP Academy.

Though the program has been tested many times, this session was the first time an entire SHARP Academy class was allowed to interact with the DS2A.

"Today's session represented a key step in our efforts to design an optimal Training Support Package which will guide the future use of this powerful instructional tool," Engen said. "The student questions and interaction with the system along with their post-lesson feedback will help us to further refine our envisioned approach."

Sexual Assault Response Coordinators (SARCs) and Victim Advocates (VAs) studying at the SHARP Academy shared their thoughts on interacting with the virtual avatar of Wright after the session.

"I've been around the SHARP program for a while and there is a real need for in-depth training for -- not only Soldiers -- but leadership, SARCs and VAs on how to interact with survivors of sexual assault," said Addison Elliott, sexual assault response coordinator for the 207th Military Intelligence Brigade out of Vicenza, Italy. "There's not that many victims that are willing to come forward and relay the events of possibly the worst experience of their life. This is a great tool to allow people to ask some tough questions, and see a victim's real reactions and raw emotions."

"I think the project is innovative, which is what the SHARP program is all about," said Sgt. First Class James Naulls, SARC with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment out of Fort Irwin, Calf. "DS2A really relates to Soldiers of this generation because they are immersed in technology. The Army oftentimes trains from a top-down point of view, but this project is much more bottom-up. It shows the impact of sexual assault on an individual other than just on the unit."

Another aspect of the innovation in the project was the use of a male sexual assault survivor rather than a female.

"Wright is someone that doesn't fit the stereotype of what a sexual assault survivors is," said DS2A project lead Stacy Johnson, manager and instructor for the SARC and VA Career Course. "He was willing to be candid and open to talking about everything from his viewpoint of what happened to him. It was key to us that this program be impactful and reach those individuals who may not necessarily report crimes against them."

The idea for the DS2A stemmed from technology developed by USC-ICT to capture the narratives of Holocaust Survivors in support of their New Dimensions in Testimony (NDT) project.

"Senior leaders wanted to create a digital survivor that we could use on a large scale," Johnson said. "However, after testing and seeing the effects the experience was having on various individuals, we are relooking at how we are going to use DS2A."

Engen and the SHARP Academy team expect to receive the final version of DS2A later this month, and will continue to finalize the lesson plan for its initial use during the SARC/VA Career Course.

"We see the potential to acquire additional systems for use outside of the SHARP Academy to augment and enhance prevention efforts, or to provide SARCs and VAs with additional localized training," Engen said. "However, this requires further study. Our efforts and analysis to date show that effective DS2A use requires facilitation by a SHARP trained instructor in a well-guided, small group setting.

"We are excited to soon leverage this powerful educational tool for the benefit of our SARCs and VAs and those who they will support and serve, and are grateful to all who have contributed to its development," Engen said. "We are especially thankful to the Survivor who courageously volunteered to share his story and devote himself to the project."

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