WASHINGTON --- Shortly after Dr. Mark Esper was sworn in as the 23rd Secretary of the Army in November, he said he had one pressing priority in mind during his first days in office: Sexual Harassment Assault Response and Prevention, or SHARP.

That week, Esper's staff took him for a short drive to the SHARP headquarters in Crystal City. There he met with SHARP representatives for an hour to discuss the state of the Army's prevention efforts.

"I was quite encouraged by what I heard on one hand, but discouraged in the fact that we still have (sexual assault) occurring in our ranks," Esper said during the annual Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month kick-off ceremony at the Pentagon, Wednesday April 4. "This is an issue of great importance to me, not just because I have a mother and sisters, but because I have a wife and daughter. I know, particularly, what young women go through when it comes to the challenge of sexual harassment, assault and retaliation."

As Army leaders lauded the efforts of SHARP professionals Wednesday, they continued to stress the importance of sexual assault prevention. Since 2014, SHARP reported a 36 percent decrease in the prevalence of sexual assaults for males and a 6 percent decrease for women. A greater emphasis on implementing awareness in training has helped, but sexual assault prevention is a continuing battle in the service.

"Those crimes have no place in our Army," Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel Dailey said. "We are highly regarded in the eyes of the American public. We haven't always been regarded as such, and it takes constant work to maintain that reputation with the American people."

Esper said he was encouraged by the impact of the "Not In My Squad" program launched in 2015 to charge Army leaders at the foundational level to instill discipline. Army leaders said the program has helped instill sexual assault awareness and prevention.

"We cannot afford to lose Soldiers by something as mindless and as evil and as preventable as this should be," Esper said. "(Sexual assault) in my mind is a readiness issue as much as it is a rightness issue."

Ms. Danielle Hill, Capt. Tabitha Brown, and Sgt. 1st Class Adrian Azbill were honored for their innovations in the program. Sgt. 1st Class Kacey Kitner from the Fires Center of Excellence at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, was named the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator of the Year.

DANIELLE HILL

For six years, Hill patrolled Colorado's state parks dealing with murders and sexual assault cases, among other crimes. She later worked for the U.S. Attorney's Office, Major Crimes Division in Puerto Rico. Those experiences, combined with four years active duty as an Army linguist, gave Hill a wide palette of experience to build on when she became a victim advocate at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

"When the opportunity to work as a victim advocate presented itself, I found that I had a unique perspective knowing what all of the different agencies were supposed to be doing," Hill said. "And I saw immediately that we could work together collaboratively in a multi-disciplinarian approach that could really impact Soldiers on the ground."

Hill, along with Sgt. 1st Class Adrian Azbill, earned recognition for creating innovative programs at Bragg, including a special sexual assault and sexual harassment training program. Hill said the collaborative community efforts will be key to sexual assault prevention. Hill has built relationships with lawyers, sexual assault nurses and the Judge Advocate General's Corps. A multi-agency effort helps build public trust, she said.

"When Soldiers have faith in us, they are coming to us not just for themselves," Hill said, "but family members (too). They trust us and you can see that. And even Soldiers who didn't have faith in the system, not necessarily in the SHARP program or in the Army for whatever reasons in the past, have seen that there is this gradual change away from whatever it was that happened that made them distressful and now they're coming back."

CAPT. TABITHA BAKER

When Baker was asked to become the sexual assault response coordinator during a deployment to Egypt, she initially had reservations. Baker, a public affairs officer at the time, soon realized she had found a new calling working in prevention for South Camp Sinai.

"(Working in sexual assault response) really impacted me and (inspired) me to continue on and change that culture," Baker said, "for not just the Army, but for all of our communities of which we live in."

Baker later took on greater responsibility after joining the New Mexico National Guard's sexual harassment/assault response coordination team. Today she leads the National Guard and Air National Guard programs in New Mexico. She said she tries to promote a prevention message that can easily be understood, while emphasizing bystander intervention. She hosts class sessions at agencies that may not have access to SHARP training, such as the Attorney General's Office and the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. She based the training on the Army's version.

Baker said that the transition victims make to overcome their struggles is the toughest but most rewarding challenge.

"They're distraught," Baker said. "Or they're not sure what to do. And going through a traumatic event and being able to see them come out of it successfully and healthier and able to move on from it is really impactful."

SFC. ADRIAN AZBILL

While helping sexual assault victims has admittedly taken a toll on Azbill, the opportunity to impact lives positively has made his job as a member of Fort Bragg's SHARP team in North Carolina no less rewarding. Azbill said he has seen a wide range of emotions from victims dealing with sexual assault.

"This job's definitely been an eye-opening and life-changing experience," Azbill said. "You definitely see life situations that outside of this program you wouldn't necessarily see, especially not in such a recurring basis."

Azbill's prior experience -- three years as a drill sergeant at Fort Benning and working as a psychological operations detachment sergeant -- helped prepare him to work with victims.

Azbill spearheaded a SHARP training exercise during Bragg's Soldier of the Year contest, where junior Soldiers and junior to mid-grade NCOs and officers can be challenged with realistic scenarios. The program began in 2017 and they are scheduled to implement their next version of the exercise next week during the 2018 contest. The hour-long course includes scenarios based on sexual assault, sexual harassment, bystander intervention. Fifteen scenarios were split among the three categories for contestants.

SGT. 1ST CLASS KACEY KITNER

Kitner's introduction to the SHARP program came while attending a SHARP course as a student. She said Leslie Watts, a program manager, helped inspire her to join SHARP in 2014 after working in air defense on the Patriot system. Kitner was honored Tuesday as the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator of the Year.

Since joining the SHARP program, Kitner, a mother of two, has worked diligently to dispel misconceptions about the program. She has also partnered with local agencies in the Fort Sill and Lawton, Oklahoma area, to provide assistance to victims in the military and civilian communities. The Texas native said that working with victims has given her a different life perspective.

"I think every survivor you come across impacts you," Kitner said. "When I took this work on, my children were 8 and 9 and I didn't ever think about talking to them at that young of an age about social ills and I did and I'm so glad that I did. This work has made me not only a better leader and NCO but a better parent as well."