FORT LEE, Va. – A new sexual assault awareness and prevention training platform that’s based on popular entertainment venues in the commercial sector made its debut at the Sustainment Center of Excellence recently.
The SHARP Challenge and Education Center offers a program of instruction that’s comparable to puzzle-solving video games and escape room live-action attractions. A small group of initial entry training Soldiers had an opportunity to check it out during a “soft opening” on July 9.
SHARP – short for Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention – is the Army’s overarching education and awareness program designed and structured to combat and eradicate any forms of sexual misconduct within the military ranks. Dr. James Walker, CASCOM SHARP program manager, said the CEC concept is “unlike anything he has seen” in his many years of leading the effort for the command. He described it as “something (young) people can relate to,” and an idea with great potential to bolster awareness and prevention.
“I see this as a very viable tool for training,” he said, “and more specifically for the prevention of sexual harassment and assault because it is engaging, interactive and uses experiential learning and teamwork to accomplish learning objectives.”
The CEC (building 6056) is housed in one of the World War II-era structures lining Mekong Road adjacent to the 11th Street roundabout. The facility features administrative offices, a briefing area and several rooms used as situational sets.
The CEC concept – developed at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., two years ago and available to trainers service-wide – is called a “challenge.” It uses vignettes and three different scenarios to guide 6-8 participants through lessons lasting roughly an hour – mostly using clues to solve the puzzle or achieve the learning objectives.
Walker elaborated on what makes the CEC concept different than longstanding SHARP training methods. First, it is voluntary because the coordinators are very cognizant of the challenge format potentially re-traumatizing sexual assault victims.
Second, the training is not instructor-led but rather instructor-guided. Most of the learning is achieved through participant collaboration and discovery. Instructors – certified as SHARP victim advocates or sexual assault response coordinators – will act as training facilitators.
Lastly, the training ditches conventional classrooms, PowerPoint slides, charts and leader speeches for a non-traditional but comfortable learning environment. Some spaces are set up like barracks rooms, for example. The innovative scenario and decision-based POI in that environment will result in increased levels of involvement requiring critical thinking and decision-making skills, according to Walker.
“What’s important is the engagement,” he said. “The format encourages Soldiers to interact. They discuss issues, contribute ideas and work together to find solutions; asking questions like ‘What would you do?’ or ‘What’s your response?’”
From his initial observations of the training, Walker said he is encouraged, noting how Soldiers enthusiastically participated in the scenarios and worked together to complete the tasks.
“I noticed how Soldiers volunteered to lead certain aspects of the training, which in my opinion, displayed a unified team effort and a common goal or mission,” he said.
Walker went on to describe the CEC concept as “more promising than anything he has recently seen.”
“This training allows participants to talk about the issues of sexual misconduct, not just sit in a classroom and receive information,” he said. “In my opinion, that’s what makes it more effective.”
Staff Sgt. Rafaella Singh, CASCOM victim advocate, also noted how the CEC clearly accomplishes the longtime goal of increased awareness because it “exercises a more creative means to help participants better retain information.” From that standpoint, it should prove more successful in the long run.
The review from students of Alpha Company, 16th Ordnance Battalion, who participated in the July 9 soft opening was equally favorable. They expressed “a sense of fulfillment” not achieved by past learning experiences.
“I know I absorbed the instruction better than I did in the PowerPoint classes,” observed Pvt. Clarice Rivera, an 18-year-old Los Angeles native who will soon depart for her first duty assignment with the 82nd Airborne Division. “I was more alert, more active and we collaborated as a team.”
It was interesting to witness Rivera and her battle buddies smiling and sometimes laughing during the instruction. The Soldier said they were not making light of, or trivializing the seriousness of sexual misconduct. It was the environment that “felt like a safe place – more comforting, more conducive to discussion,” in her words.
Pvt. Jose Rodriguez, another Alpha Co., 16th Ord. team member, said the training better suited him because he is an active learner.
“This is the first SHARP training that had my full attention,” said the Puerto Rico resident who has sat through a few PowerPoint presentations since entering the Army several months ago. “It was different because it was like a game. It caught my attention. I was more alert and really wanted to learn about it. This was the first time I learned more details about what SHARP is, how it can support victims and who to contact for help.”
One of the takeaways for Pvt. David Perez, another Alpha Co. participant, was the importance of paying attention to detail. One of the scenarios laid out the behavior of a Soldier who experienced a sexual assault. They were clues the participants needed to identify, then take action on based on the conduct. Anything they missed was pointed out at the roundtable conclusion.
“I liked the ending because it showed we missed some details,” said the 21-year-old South Carolinian. “If this was to really happen, it could’ve impacted our battle buddy. We missed on how he was acting; the way he was looking at us. Maybe he was trying to silently ask for help, and since we were too busy worrying about ourselves, we kind of missed that something happened. I learned I have to pay more attention to my battle buddies; obviously worry about myself, too, but also be more observant.”
The Alpha Co. group finished their scenario in about 51 minutes. Pvt. Fernando Rodrigues, a self-described competitor, said the group should have completed the training sooner.
“Thirty-five minutes would’ve been a good time,” said the smiling 28-year-old from Brazil.
Fernandez agreed with her teammates on the engaging, interactive and retentive aspects of the training, and said it is competitive as well. Then she responded to the obvious question, will it prepare them to be better battle buddies to fellow Soldiers when they need them the most?
“For sure,” she said. “The scenarios made the training more realistic. Many people won’t say anything because they just want to mind their business. The training reminds us that we have to act when something is not right.”
Reacting to the responses of the first-time participants here, Walker said he is even more motivated to build on the success of the concept that started at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. The program was “extremely successful there” because it received critical command support, he learned from his conversation with the victim advocate who initiated the training.
Sgt. 1st Class Saquawia Pennington developed the CEC idea as a staff sergeant in 2019, four years after becoming a sexual assault victim. She contemplated leaving the service after the attack but changed her mind once she realized what was at stake and how she could channel her traumatic experience into better training for fellow Soldiers, according to an August 2020 Herald/Review story found online.
“It made me feel like I had a bigger purpose; what I went through wasn’t just about me,” she reflected. “What I went through was so I could help someone else.”
Walker, who has seen the gamut of SHARP initiatives over the years, said the new training concept seems promising from participant reviews, but its effectiveness can’t be gauged by positive sentiment alone.
“We need to keep looking at the numbers down the road,” he said. “Will sexual misconduct incidents decrease because of this training? That’s what we need to look at, and what really counts at the end of the day.”
What’s made evident by the number of installations, including Fort Lee, who have introduced the CEC concept since 2019 is that the Army is adamant about implanting the message in Soldiers’ minds that sexual misconduct is not acceptable and must be eradicated from the military ranks. The SHARP Challenge and Education Center concept, accessible through the Army Training Network, is one means to that end. Walker encourages unit leaders to take advantage of this new education and awareness platform.
The CEC is available for training Monday thru Friday, 8 a.m. - 4:30 p.m., Walker noted. For more information, contact SFC Ilia Berrios-Cruz at 804-734-6594.