By Patrick Buffett, Fort Lee Public Affairs
FORT LEE, Va. – From start to finish, the inaugural Combined Arms Support Command-Fort Lee SHARP (Sexual Harassment/Assault Awareness and Reporting Program) Summit at the Army Logistics University here Aug. 21 was an unfiltered and frequently harsh look at sexual misconduct in the military.
Its presenters included a criminal investigator, a forensic examiner, the lead staff judge advocate for CASCOM, a behavioral science professor and a three-member panel of sexual assault survivors who shared details of their attacks and how they have rebuilt their lives in the wake of the ordeal.
The summit opened with remarks by Maj. Gen. Darrell K. Williams, CASCOM and Fort Lee commanding general. “I take the issue of sexual misconduct very personally,” he told the audience of senior leaders and special guests. They included Air Force Lt. Gen. Wendy Masiello, director of the Defense Contract Management Agency headquartered here; Maj. Gen. Anthony Funkhouser, commanding general, Center for Initial Military Training, Training and Doctrine Command-Fort Eustis; and various school commandants and regimental command sergeants major from each of the organizations under the Sustainment Center of Excellence, among others.
“It is very difficult for me to imagine an organization like ours, where we have that upper level of engaged leadership, allowing any sort of SHARP incident to happen,” Williams also noted during his talk. “My staff – those people who work most closely around me – will understand how I feel about this issue. It is unconceivable … that someone in my immediate environment, particularly those I have supervision over, would make the mistake of being involved in any incident of sexual harassment or assault. In my mind, if leaders are engaged at every level, they would feel the same way about it and be just as vocal as I am. We are not going to ignore this or allow it to happen in our formations. It has no place in our ranks.”
The first featured speaker at the summit was Monique Ferrell, director of the Army SHARP Program Office at the Pentagon. She too emphasized the need for “total leader involvement” to eradicate sex crimes among the military workforce.
“How can we consider ourselves the greatest fighting force on earth when there are incidents of sexual offenses going on in our ranks?” she posed early on in her briefing. “We must view sexual predators and perpetrators as insider threats that bring great damage to the Army team. They destroy our professional image and take away the trust of America’s families who send us their sons, daughters and loved ones.”
Cultural change is the greatest battle of the SHARP program, Ferrell also noted. New Soldiers come into the Army with varied sets of values, including a skewed view of acceptable social behavior. Long-time troops have prolonged past practices of “hazing, horseplay and locker room antics” that disregard human dignity and proper conduct. In both of these situations, leader intervention and sustained emphasis of what’s right among Army professionals is paramount.
Recalling a chief of staff of the Army-sponsored SHARP summit several months ago, and the admission of “professional embarrassment” by Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel Dailey after he heard the testimony of a survivor’s panel, Ferrell said, “That’s when the weight of this program really hit me because we have such an important job of removing this source of humiliation, pain and unprofessionalism from our force. It’s not something we should only strive to do; it is something we must do because of the damage it continues to have on all of us in this profession.”
Ferrell also spoke briefly about the “Not in My Squad” initiative Dailey is now promoting. It’s all about taking responsibility in one’s “realm of authority,” she explained. It pushes the prevention of sexual harassment and assault down to the junior levels where even lower-enlisted personnel can feel empowered to correct the behavior of those around them.
“Some are calling it just another slogan, and that’s a perception we’re working to change,” Ferrell said. “It’s really a call to action, and it’s working. The tide of awareness and intervention is spreading, and we hope it will even transition to the civilian ranks who will say ‘not on my team’ and ‘not in my office.’ It all goes back to the total cultural change needed to fix this problem.”
The intense emotional impact of sexual assault was revealed in the next presentation of the day. The survivor’s panel consisted of three Soldiers – Col. Jack Usrey, commandant of the Adjutant General School at Fort Jackson, S.C., who was molested by a babysitter and family members when he was a child; Command Sgt. Maj. Julie Guerra, I Corps G2 SGM at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., who was sexually assaulted during her first duty assignment 20 years ago; and Staff Sgt. Mary Valdez, who lost faith in the military when her rapist was acquitted, but has since regained a sense of belonging and purpose as a victim advocate. She now serves as a Noncommissioned Officer Academy small group leader at Fort Drum, N.Y.
“In hindsight, I really wasn’t aware of what was going on during my childhood,” said Usrey, who was the first to talk about his ordeal. “Perhaps my mind was protecting me from things I wasn’t ready to handle.”
As is usually the case with trauma survivors, however, the memories slowly returned.
“I turned 50 this week, and right now I can clearly see the front door of the house,” he said. “I’m walking into the living room and through the kitchen. I turn right into a little room that had a gun rack hanging on the wall, then left into the back bedroom where I see the corner of the bed where it happened. I can see it. It never goes away.”
The “it” took place when he was 5 years old. A babysitter and her three adolescent children – one of them not much older that Usrey was at the time – sexually assaulted him. At least two other similar incidents involving family members occurred by the time he had reached age 12. He said his parents are not aware of what happened.
“I bottled it up until just a few years ago when I finally talked to my wife and son about it,” Usrey said. “It was the turning point I needed. I was no longer going it alone.”
Two months ago, he told his story for the first time to a 400-member audience at Fort Jackson. The same day, 25 individuals reported sexual assaults from their past – 20 of them were men.
“That’s an indicator. We need to talk about this,” Usrey stressed. “We have to stop feeling squeamish and engage in those uncomfortable conversations because the problem is out there and we have to get after it. Parents need to have the conversation with their children, male and female. It won’t be easy but it’s profoundly necessary.”
Usrey said he still “struggles with the demons.” Most mornings, he wakes up feeling ashamed, enraged or both. “But I refuse to be a victim of those memories,” he added. “I am a survivor. I will not accept defeat. This is a rock I will gladly carry in my rucksack if its message means someone else is spared the pain and suffering I have gone through.”
Guerra was next to share her account, which she admitted is “tragically similar” to the SHARP training videos used by the Army today. Six months into her first duty assignment. Unit party and intoxication. “Chivalrous” male Soldier walks her home. Returns to her barracks room knowing she’s drunk and commits a sexual assault.
“What makes this story different is the support I received from my chain of command back in 1995 when there was no SHARP, no victim advocates and no requirement for training,” Guerra recounted.
“I remember escaping and running from my room screaming. My floor sergeant … found me sitting on the floor crying. He intuitively knew what happened and what he, as a leader, needed to do. He chased the perpetrator out of the barracks, called the military police and told me ‘don’t shower, don’t go to the bathroom, don’t do anything.’ With no formal training, he made sure I was OK and got me the help I needed.”
After the attack, Guerra buried her anger with destructive behavior. Drinking, getting into fights and shunning relationships were all signs of a Soldier in crisis, and her command once again took action by arranging for the counseling and support she needed.
“Why is this important?” Guerra asked. “Well, consider this. I just accepted a command position in the same brigade I was assigned to when I was assaulted as a young Soldier. Imagine how I would have felt if I had never said anything about what happened or had caring leaders who took this seriously and made sure I was taken care of back then. Could I live with a title that included that organization’s name? … What you do – your actions, your emphasis, your response – will be remembered for the rest of a Soldier’s career. I can now say I’m proud to move forward with this next assignment.”
Valdez wrote a poem that sums up her slow recovery from the memories of the rape she suffered several years ago while stationed at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.
“My mind has kept my emotions away from this pen until now,” it began. “As I sway my hand from left to right, slanted ink stains these sheets, which might as well be my blood. Who can contain such denial, shame, fury, betrayal and worst of all, psychological pain? I can’t. Not anymore. Sway hand, keep swaying. Scripture it all out so no more tainted blood flows through these veins and releases me from this cage I have imprisoned myself in.”
The poem concluded with her statement of victory. How becoming a staunch victim advocate has helped her move forward with her Army career.
“I feel an obligation to help the Army with this complex problem as should every single person in this uniform,” Valdez later said. “Not in my Army will I stand for such a thing and neither should you. I am not speaking out to change the Army culture as a whole, just the flawed portion within it that feeds the stigmas of sexual assault.”
Other highlights of the summit included the legal presentation by CASCOM Staff Judge Advocate Col. John S. Frost. He provided a thorough overview of the SJA services available to those involved in a sexual assault case, and leadership responsibilities when investigating a report of sexual misconduct
At one point during the briefing, the CASCOM commander commented, “I think we need to do a better job of communicating the consequences of these incidents.” Ferrell and other members of the audience agreed, saying it would send the message of serious repercussions for sexual crimes, counteracting the belief that perpetrators are “getting away with it.”
Frost also made note of several important changes to sexual misconduct legal proceedings. The “good Soldier defense,” for example, is no longer admissible in court and commanders can’t use the stellar past performance of the accused as a reason to not move forward with an investigation or submit validated findings to the next level of the chain of command.
After the lunch break, Special Agent Jason Huggins from the Army Criminal Investigation Division Command offered insights about the sexual assault victim and perpetrator interview process. He emphasized how time is a considerable factor when beginning the investigation of an unrestricted report because individuals have a tendency to insert false data into memory gaps, or they will omit important details that have become too difficult to remember.
Russel Strand, chief of the U.S. Army Military Police School’s Behavioral Sciences Education and Training Division, discussed male sexual assault during a subsequent presentation. Removing his suit jacket at one point in the talk, he revealed a shirt covered with words like fear, shame, anger and pain.
“This is the shirt men in our formation are secretly wearing today,” he said and later noted, “We have a lot of learning to do because we still can’t accept the concept of male sexual assault.”
The final speakers of the event were Michelle Ortiz, a sexual assault forensic nurse at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital, and retired Maj. Gen. Robert D. Shadley who was the commanding general of the Ordnance Center and School at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., when it was embroiled in a nationally publicized sexual misconduct scandal involving drill sergeants and trainees in 1997.
“The main thing I want to reemphasize is that SHARP is not a personnel issue; it is a readiness issue, a go-to-war issue,” Shadley stressed to the attendees. “We need every man and woman in our formations to be able to come to work every day and do the best job they can. We can’t afford the tragic distractions of sexual misconduct, particularly as the military downsizes. Let’s take this to heart and do what we’re supposed to do as leaders in the United States Army.”