FORT HUACHUCA, Ariz. – Fort Huachuca is home to the Military Intelligence Corps and prides itself on building leaders and driving change for the U.S. Army. There is one unique aspect of the mission Maj. Gen. Anthony R. Hale, commander, U.S. Army Intelligence Center of Excellence and Fort Huachuca is exceptionally proud of, the RAPID Escape Room at the 111th Military Intelligence Brigade, the brainchild of Sgt. 1st Class Saquawia V. Pennington, sexual assault response coordinator, 111th Military Intelligence Brigade.
The facilitated training is unique to Fort Huachuca and an Army best practice according to Hale and Mrs. Lana N. Tompkins-Stutzman, program manager, Fort Huachuca Sexual Harassment Assault Response and Prevention Program.
The training takes about an hour to complete and provides a unique approach to teaching Soldiers how to prevent sexual harassment/assault and discrimination, and addresses resilience issues that often accompany these toxic behaviors.
RAPID stands for Resiliency, Awareness, Prevention, Inclusion, and Diversity. Pennington designed the interactive training in a series of rooms linked together by puzzles and mysteries that support each RAPID area of concern. Small teams of Soldiers go through the experience together while Pennington and her facilitators guide the teams and assist with the uncomfortable conversations that result from the scenarios.
Pennington's thoughtfulness is evident in every aspect of her approach. Not only did she design the escape rooms with extreme attention to detail, she also wrote a detailed lesson plan for other trainers with an emphasis on communication and acknowledged "the training may trigger those who have experienced traumatic events, this is by design and okay. Others can learn from those experiences if they are willing to share, and I can step out with the individual and connect them with a first responders such as chaplains, sexual assault response coordinators, victim advocates, or equal opportunity leaders if need be."
A seasoned veteran of the Army, Pennington is a poised, sharp, senior non-commissioned officer, who discusses sexual assault with a calm and quiet tone. She is prepared for the hard questions and will discuss with Soldiers the hard truths about sexual harassment and assault. According to Pennington, assaults are happening because Soldiers fail to recognize or intervene when they see the warning signs. Not only do these issues erode trust and unit cohesion, they cost Soldiers their lives by murder and suicide.
Pennington led General Hale and his command team through the new and expanded RAPID Escape Room in January of 2021. Walking into the space, the general found himself in a dimly lit bar, with somber sounds, and empty liquor bottles scattered about. The mood is dark, and there are clues immediately indicating something is wrong. Each step of the way, cryptic codes, concerning letters, and puzzles prompt discussion about what a Soldier has experienced in this space and how bystanders could have prevented the negative spiral that occurs when sexual misconduct is not prevented or stopped.
As each room is successfully solved, the small team, or Army squad, is moved to the next location in the interlocking experience. Along the way, they are pointed to the Army resources already available. Chaplains' offices and telephone numbers, pamphlets and cards for the Sexual Harassment/ Assault Response and Prevention Program, Equal Opportunity Office, and other resources available on and off post.
In the space, the commander followed a fictional Soldier, Private Grayson, as he is sexually harassed, assaulted, treated, helped (or not helped), reports the crime, and ultimately declines in mental health and has suicidal ideations.
"Wow," said Hale, during the emotional journey. "This was so real, and really, it reminds me of Soldiers we've lost due to these preventable situations."
The general stood silent and heavy with his team in the makeshift bedroom of Private Grayson, who by all indicators had lost his life in the scenario because of the trauma sexual assault had caused him.
“Sgt. 1st Class Pennington and her team do a great job with educating through this engaging resource,” said Tompkins-Stutzman. “The RAPID Escape Room provides a safe and supportive environment to have these important conversations, and Fort Huachuca SHARP Program is always looking for creative methodologies and resources to conduct training and get the message out to service members, civilians, and contractors. Individuals who participate in the RAPID Escape Room get a realistic experience of trauma survivor’s experiences. Students can talk about how various events in their life have impacted them and why they may or may not intervene in a situation that may call for some type of bystander intervention or support for the survivor. I must applaud Sergeant Pennington, but also Ms. Joanne Prince and Ms. Sharon Walker whose leadership roles in suicide prevention and equal opportunity are vital the room’s success.”
The training brings to the forefront that any Soldier of any rank can become the victim of sexual harassment or assault, or discrimination, which can lead to resiliency issues. Highlighted too is the fact that the Army is comprised of Soldiers, civilians, and contractors, who come from a variety of backgrounds and understandings in the world. The Army trains Soldiers from the moment they enter service on what sexual harassment/ assault and discrimination are, but obviously more needs to be done according to both Hale and Pennington.
"The hours and hours of PowerPoint slides are obviously not effective," said Pennington. "I thought 'there has to be a better way.' Finally, I got the idea when I was going through an escape room with my husband, and I thought 'I like this, this is engaging. How can I use this to better train Soldiers?' The room didn’t come together just because of me though, Stacy Picciano, program manager, Network Enterprise Technology Command SHARP; Nathaniel Gaines, Installation Victim Advocate; Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Feige, 111th MI Brigade Victim Advocate; Capt. Alexander Clark, special projects officer, 111th MI Brigade; and Lt. Col. Dartanion Hayward, commander, 309th Military Intelligence Battalion; all rolled up their sleeves and did the hard work of physically building this space.”
Pennington, a survivor of sexual assault herself, will tell you there's no easy answer, but she believes having the crucial conversations that the RAPID Escape Room is designed to drive is a good first step.
"Soldiers need to understand who their teammates are. This is critical," said Pennington. "They also have to genuinely care for one another, but that can't happen if we aren't willing to share, be present, or listen to our teammates' backgrounds, stories, or perspectives. Every member needs to be allowed to contribute, and their contributions must be valued, or we are stuck in a cycle that allows inappropriate behaviors to not only exist but thrive like a virus."
Pennington says sexual attraction between teammates is natural and normal, but where the training kicks in is helping members identify what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior.
"If a Soldier is getting unwanted attention they owe it to themselves and the aggressor to stop the behavior and identify that it is unwelcome or making them uncomfortable. Not everyone is comfortable doing this, but part of prevention is helping others identify what they might be doing or thinking that makes those around them uncomfortable, and how to take the verbal or non-verbal clues that their attention is unwanted and to stop before it crosses a line," said Pennington.
Soldiers live in group settings, go through training together, and ultimately find themselves in social situations, which can be healthy interactions or lead to trouble. Critical to the training Pennington facilitates is a discussion on consent.
"Consent can only happen between individuals who are of legal age and capable of giving consent. Someone who is impaired or incapacitated cannot give consent, and while it may be tempting to take someone at their drunk word or flirtation, this is not consent and Soldiers are advised not to engage in sexual activity with anyone who is impaired and definitely not someone who is incapacitated."
Pennington also advises those going through her training that consent can be removed at any time and what was once a "yes" and consensual, can become non-consensual the moment one of the parties says "stop" or "no."
The training encompasses other aspects that break down unit trust, lead to inappropriate behavior, allow predators space to operate, and discourage members from seeking help, including forms of discrimination.
"Members who make inappropriate comments create environments that make it difficult to seek help," said Pennington. "Comments about another member's appearance, discrimination, bullying, and hazing, are all behaviors that ostracize members of our force and make them victims."
In related conversations, the same exclusionary behaviors were also mentioned in the Army's recent extremism training.
"Some people are not included in our teams for one reason or another and this drives them to isolation," said Sgt. 1st Class Efrain Lara, who taught the lesson on extremism to staff at the U.S. Army Intelligence Center of Excellence on March 15, 2021. "This isolation can drive people to other groups who are willing to accept them, and unfortunately some of these newfound families are enemies of U.S. national interests."
"Predators in our ranks are just as disruptive as terrorists to our success," said Maj. Gen. Hale. "We absolutely need every member serving honorably to complete our missions, and corrosive behaviors like discrimination and sexual harassment/ sexual assault, are doing the work of our enemies inside our formations. There is zero tolerance for these behaviors in our force and they are incompatible with service. Fort Huachuca currently has an excellent record at preventing sexual assault, but we can’t take that for granted. I want to see both where we are strong, and where we can improve. I want every Soldier and civilian doing their best to stamp out these corrosives from our ranks.”
The commanding general can often be heard telling teammates Army values are the guiding principles that can prevent 99% of the challenges Soldiers face.
"If every member of the Army team lived their life by the Army values on and off duty we could eliminate the toxicity invading our formations,” said Hale.
The commander also touts his pride in the work Pennington and her trainers are doing. Every distinguished visitor who has the time is brought to the innovative interactive training experience provided by Pennington's team.
"THIS is what we do here!" says Hale. "We build leaders and we drive change! We won't stop until we solve these problems and I am so proud of our RAPID Escape Room and our SHARP Program. We have the best training in the world thanks to Sgt. 1st Class Pennington and her team. This best practice should be implemented Army-wide."
April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. Those interested in taking the RAPID Escape Room training or becoming facilitators should contact Sgt. 1st Class Saquawia V. Pennington via email at Saquawia.V.Pennington.firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Fort Huachuca Sexual Harassment/ Assault Response and Prevention Hotline is 520-732-3736.