By Franklin Fisher (Benning)September 4, 2019
FORT BENNING, Ga. -- A two-day gathering of experts on dealing with sexual assault and sexual harassment opened here Sept. 4 with the main focus on what can be done to prevent sexual assaults from happening in the first place.
The first day of Fort Benning's third annual Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) Advocate Forum began at 9 a.m. in the blue-carpeted Banquet Room of McGinnis-Wickam Hall, headquarters of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence.
The forum is focused specifically on what sexual assault response coordinators, known as SARCS, as well as SHARP advocates and others, can do to prevent SHARP incidents before they happen, according to Michelle Fonseca, who heads MCoE's SHARP program.
That focus comes in the wake of a Department of Defense Prevention Plan of Action issued in April and covering the years 2019 through 2023, she said. It directs all of the armed services to put emphasis on prevention, Fonseca said.
"Up to this point, most of our SARCS and advocates have been focused on response," she said, "but response is focused on after an assault has happened. Now, DOD is focusing on prevention.
"We know that we're trained and we do well in responding," said Fonseca. "Now, we're trying to look at how we achieve cultural change to prevent an assault from even happening."
Also among those attending are several of Fort Benning's key military leaders, as well as representatives of two organizations in Columbus, Georgia, the Columbus State University's Office on Violence Against Women Program, and the Sexual Assault Support Center, Inc.
"So basically this provides a way for us to exchange concepts, ideas and approaches to ultimately advance our program here. These are subject matter experts in our field. So this also gives an opportunity for our SHARP professionals to dialogue with leading experts in the field."
Scheduled for the first day were six sessions, each led by a different presenter.
The scheduled sessions included, among others, a presentation by a research psychologist laying out the key aspects of the DOD's newest sexual assault prevention guidelines; a session led by Fonseca spelling out what steps MCoE will take to align itself with the newest DOD guidance; and a presentation by a special agent of the Fort Benning Criminal Investigation Division (CID), outlining its prevention efforts.
Part of the second day's schedule includes a panel discussion titled "Achieving Culture Change/Preventing Sexual Assault." The panel includes a command sergeant major and first sergeant, as well as several commissioned officers, including Col. Matthew Scalia, Commander of U.S. Army Garrison Fort Benning, and Col. Melissa Hoffman, Commander of Fort Benning's Martin Army Community Hospital.
Also scheduled for the second day was a motivational speaker whose talk is geared to helping audience members ensure that as they deal with the trauma associated with sexual assault incidents, they maintain their own mental and emotional health.
The audience of about 70 heard opening remarks from MCoE's commanding general, Maj. Gen. Gary M. Brito, who emphasized the importance of the SHARP program, and said it is among his top priorities as commanding general.
"This SHARP and everything related to it has been a personal priority as long as I've known about the program," said Brito.
"Any sexual assault, any harassment type activity we have, simply erodes the very core of the unit. It is long-lasting. Long-lasting for the reputation, long-lasting for the command climate, long-lasting for the victim, and sometimes the suspect as well."
"So the work that you do is key to help prevent that," he said.
Brito asked the SHARP representatives to pay special attention to several things, including proper training, and that they have command of the technical details - "the mechanics" of SHARP-related procedures and legal requirements.
Brito also called on them to ensure required reports are filed properly and that phone calls made to the 24/7 SHARP hotline on the weekend are not missed.
Such attention to basics "needs to continue to happen, and it should," said Brito.
In addition, he encouraged the audience to be open to innovative ideas, to include those who may be relatively junior in rank, like a Specialist or Corporal.
"If there's something - a high-speed Specialist or Corporal has identified a program that works in his or her squad or platoon - do it. Okay? And quite frankly, if it doesn't support a bigger strategy, I'm okay with that. Bounce it off the team, but if it works and helps communicate a message, it helps prevent something in the squad, it helps give a new idea...do it. It's innovative, it's fresh and it works."
Brito ended his remarks with a reminder of their shared obligation to Soldiers, civilians, and family members, including parents who've allowed their son or daughter to join the Army.
"This is a priority for me, for the command, for the command climate, collectively as a group, and individually, for every single Soldier and civilian we have working with us," he said.
"We owe something to every mom and dad," said Brito, to prevent sexual misconduct. "We owe it to 'em, to prevent SHARP from being an issue."