FORT DRUM, N.Y. - - Standing uninhibited on a stage before a group of strangers, a 10th Mountain Division noncommissioned officer chronicled the night she was raped in 2003 by a leader she once trusted and admired.
"Apparently this isn't real enough for you people yet," Sgt. 1st Class Kelly Simon told 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th MTN Soldiers during the brigade's Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month observance, April 3, 2019.
Reserving no details, Simon, now a public affairs NCO in the 27th Public Affairs Detachment, 10th MTN, recounted the struggle she endured less than 20 years ago as a young private first class serving her country during an era predating any version of the Army's Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention Program.
Fear of retaliation kept Simon from reporting her attacker, until a friend confided the same, well-liked NCO also tried to assault her.
"If I had never said anything ... he might be a sergeant major now," Simon explained.
Simon was unprotected by modern day policies which now offer counseling and even compassionate reassignment. Backlash from Soldiers in her unit later substantiated her initial fear to come forward.
"What I wouldn't give to have SHARP back in time," Simon said. "That would have been amazing, because it was hard. I felt very, very alone through a lot of this process."
Resources explicitly designed to prevent sexual violence and assist victims serving in the U.S. Armed Forces simply did not exist until 2005 - just months after the Army's 230th birthday - when a Department of Defense review launched the first Sexual Assault Prevention and Response policy. A 2011 review of SAPR gave rise to the modern SHARP program, offering resources unavailable to victims in years past.
"It's great to see how far we have come," Simon said. "Part of me thinks it's horrible that we even have to have this program, but I'm glad that it's there. I wish that sexual assault just wasn't a thing. I wish we were just good to each other, but unfortunately that just isn't the case all the time."
When Fort Drum first activated SHARP in 2012, Nicole Bellinger was on the front lines facilitating the transition. Bellinger, now a member of the Commando team as the 2BCT SHARP victim advocate, trained the first unit representatives, including Simon, who immediately volunteered to be a VA in the Army's new system to combat sexual violence.
Supporting other survivors became a part of Simon's healing path, but she realized the traditional education methods used during annual SHARP prevention training needed revising.
"I ... discovered when I first started as a SHARP rep that nobody cared about SHARP unless it has a face," Simon explained. "Sexual assault and sexual harassment, 'That is stuff that happens to other people. It doesn't happen to me or my friends,' was kind of the attitude."
Simon chose to give sexual assault a face that day as she shared her story with a training audience for the first time.
"I picked random people," Simon recalled. "I said 'give me a word that describes me.' (The Soldiers said), 'Oh, you're tough. You're a hard charger,' ... but nobody said anything that I was 'weak' or 'vulnerable' or that I looked like a victim. (I wanted) to let them know that ... it doesn't just happen to the weakest link, it can happen to anybody."
Almost 16 years after her assault Simon now frequently employs her personal trauma by sharing the experience with Soldiers to realistically illustrate sexual assault's tangible threat to the military.
"One of the biggest reasons we brought (Simon) on board ... is I wanted to put (the issue) in our Soldiers' backyards," Bellinger said. "She is a 10th MTN Soldier, she is one of our people and I wanted (them) to see that this does happen to 'us' this does happen 'here.'"
The presentation's substantial firsthand glimpse of sexual assault is not the only weapon in the Commando brigade's arsenal during SAAPM this year.
An original series of videos featuring Soldiers and senior leaders from across 2BCT will run on the brigade's various social media platforms throughout April. The campaign dubbed "It's Our Duty," aims to influence a change in culture and compel bystander intervention by proliferating awareness of the issues.
Lt. Col. James Beaulieu and Command Sgt. Maj. Mark Millare, the 41st Engineer Battalion and 2BCT Task Force Honor command team, appeared in the videos and urged every echelon of Soldiers to be part of the solution.
"During National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, we renew our commitment toward ending sexual assault and sexual harassment, giving survivors the support they need to heal and building a culture that does not, and will not tolerate sexual violence," Beaulieu and Millare declared in the first video.
Simon and Bellinger agreed that a culture change will not happen overnight.
"This issue is not just a military issue," Bellinger added. "This is a global issue ... This really is an epidemic. The more awareness we can spread about the issues of sexual harassment and sexual assault, the better educated people become ... They are more apt to intervene and help others to start preventing this stuff from happening, (instead of just reacting) to it and waiting for the assaults to happen."
If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual assault or harassment and looking for assistance, help is available:
- 24/7 Fort Drum SHARP Hotline: 315-767-6128
- DOD Safe Helpline: 877-995-5247
- DOD Safe Helpline App