WASHINGTON – Building a culture of prevention, awareness, trust and support continues to be the focal point of the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program as it works toward eliminating “one of the most corrosive behaviors” of military life.
The April observance of Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month is an opportunity to stress the topline message that putting a stop to sexual harassment and assault “is going to take all of us working together throughout the year,” emphasized Jill Londagin, SHARP program director.
“Together, we can work toward eliminating inappropriate behavior and prevent sexual violence,” she said in a March 30 interview. “Every member of our community has an obligation to live the Army’s values and ensure everyone is treated with dignity and respect.”
Year-round, the SHARP program maintains its commitment to eliminating sexual harassment/assault and associated retaliation, in addition to supporting survivors and holding offenders accountable, Londagin said.
The success of the program requires leaders at all levels to take responsibility through the development and maintenance of professional organizational climates, she also noted. It is incumbent of all leaders to harbor an environment built on trust, all while reinforcing the Army’s values and culture throughout constant training across a Soldier’s career.
Unit cohesion also is a core focus of the Army’s “This is My Squad” initiative, which aims to create unified, physically fit, trained and ready teams.
“We believe a culture of trust can prevent or stop a sexual assault,” Londagin said. “Squad leaders are the most influential members of the unit. They set the climate, and they know and understand their Soldiers and their families. They actively influence squad members to perform at their maximum potential and adhere to the Army’s values.”
In addition to building trust at the unit level, the Army has established the People First Task Force to address the list of findings and recommendations from the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee report released in December.
One immediate action under the PFTF included an Army-wide solarium, held in mid-March at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, N.Y., Londagin said. One hundred junior officers and enlisted Soldiers – active-duty, Guard and Reserve – participated in the event. They were divided into smaller groups to discuss ways to rid the Army of sexual harassment/assault, discrimination/extremism and suicide – collectively labeled as the “three corrosives of military life.”
Task force recommendations will inform changes to policy, programs and directives to ensure the safety and well-being of personnel as the Army continues to address behaviors that impact cohesion and trust.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin also recently directed a 90-day Independent Review Commission on countering sexual assault within the military, Londagin said. One of the commission’s lines of effort will target victim support and care, as the DOD and Army build a better culture of trust and support.
Trust and support go hand in hand, Londagin pointed out. Sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates are standing by to support individuals with resources, advocacy services or guide them through the restricted or unrestricted reporting process. Peers and leaders also need to be mindful, supportive and non-judgmental, particularly if a survivor chooses to disclose information about an assault.
“We know it's not always easy to respond to someone when they tell you they have been sexually assaulted, especially if it's a friend or family member,” she said. “Often, listening is the best way to support the survivor. Using phrases such as ‘I believe you; I support you; and I want you to know that you are not alone,’ goes a long way to show support.”
While SHARP professionals continue to be ready when an incident occurs, Soldiers, civilians and family members also can learn about the range of resources available to a survivor. Victims can seek medical attention or behavioral health support, report a crime through the Army Criminal Investigation Command, or even call the DOD Safe Helpline at 877-995-5247. The helpline is a secure, confidential and anonymous crisis support service specially designed for DOD personnel affected by sexual assault.
“It is also important to highlight ‘bystander intervention’ or anything that someone can do to stop a potentially harmful situation,” Londagin said. “It is everyone's responsibility to maintain a safe and respectful Army. We need (everyone) to stand-up and step-up against this behavior.”
SHARP program improvements
A stand-alone SHARP regulation is in the final stages of approval as the Army looks to consolidate roughly 15 different regulations and directives, according to Londagin. Once released, the new guidance will provide SHARP professionals and leaders one unified regulation to enable and improve sexual harassment/assault prevention and response requirements throughout the force.
While the policy is still under review, it could be approved and released within the next two months, Londagin said. However, findings by the PFTF and DOD Independent Review Commission could delay the regulation’s release to ensure all recommendations are reviewed and incorporated as part of the program's transformation.
“We are trying to get it out to the field as quickly as possible. We know how imperative it is to have one stand-alone regulation to identify the responsibilities and activities of leaders and SHARP professionals to fully execute the program.”
Londagin said Army senior leaders also have submitted a permanent exception to DOD policy to ensure proper care of Army Civilians and adult dependents who have reported being sexually assaulted while stationed in the U.S. or abroad.
Under the current policy, the Army can only provide limited services to civilians and family members 18 years and older if they are overseas. The new policy will provide individuals unrestricted reporting options and SARC and victim advocate services. Civilians and adult dependents also will have access to advocacy services during the investigation, legal and recovery process.
“Historically, we have asked for an exemption to policy for two years,” Londagin said. With a permanent exemption in place, the Army can “provide the support our Army Civilians and families need (and) the advocacy services that we know they deserve.”
SHARP program leaders also are working toward a centralized selection and management process for all SARCs and victim advocates. It will help improve the program by setting standardized criteria for all SHARP personnel, Londagin said. Commanders will still be able to nominate a Soldier for a SARC and victim advocate role, while a centralized approach will ensure the best people are in place to support sexual harassment/assault prevention efforts.
Related links and news articles: