Several brave survivors of sexual assault and harassment shared their stories in front of an auditorium of roughly 1,800 U.S. Army Command and General Staff College students Tuesday, March 22, as part of a discussion panel. The Fort Leavenworth Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) Program office and the U.S. Army SHARP Academy presented the event.
“We didn’t want to present what people say is the typical SHARP training, where we show some slides, and go over definitions and rules of conduct,” said Col. Geoff Catlett, director of the U.S. Army SHARP Academy. “We wanted to bring the humanity of the SHARP program — and the faces of those who were victims — to these students. We wanted them to hear firsthand what sexual harassment and assault does to our formations.”
In addition to the survivors’ stories, Catlett said the panel addressed SHARP topics the Army is currently grappling with.
“One topic is retaliation,” Catlett said. “We have a (senior enlisted Soldier) who is going to discuss retaliation in a social media age, and how it crept offline into her everyday life. We want the students to look openly and frankly at the things our society tolerates online. We, as an Army, have to get ourselves straight on that, and establish and enforce a standard.
“Another important topic discussed today is male victimization,” Catlett added. “It’s a reality that there are literally thousands of young male Soldiers in our formations who have been sexually assaulted, and we need to learn how we can reach out to them and help them deal with these experiences.”
Panelist included three victims of sexual assault, a field officer who learned the value of SHARP in a command position and a senior enlisted Soldier who was driven off social media due to online and offline harassment and stalking. All the panelists were students from CGSC and found it important to speak directly to peers on these pressing issues.
Maj. Katie Crumby, military police officer, has only just begun to speak out in the past two years about her assault that occurred 20 years ago when she was a private. This event was the first public forum where she had shared her story.
“The Army training I’ve received and the training I’ve given at company level command positions has emboldened me to speak out,” Crumby said. “Even more so, my informal conversations with peers about sexual assault has prepared me to do something like this panel. With how much the U.S. Army is emphasizing the prevention of sexual assault, it’s made it a little easier for me personally because I know I have a story I can communicate to my peers having been a junior member of this service 20 years ago. I feel I have a unique perspective to share.”
Betrayal of trust was a continuing subject discussed by the panel. Maj. Shari (Sharee) Bowen suffered from sexual abuse during childhood but suppressed it and never dealt with it. When she was motivated by her first sergeant as a junior enlisted soldier to submit a packet to Officer Candidate School, she never imagine that senior non-commissioned officer would assault her.
“I kept telling myself, ‘How could this person I trusted do these things?'” Bowen said. “I didn’t understand how he could pin me against a wall by my throat with one hand … and whisper in my ear ‘No one is going to believe you.'”
Marine Corps Maj. Alexis Piet, intelligence officer, shared how she and her roommate were sexually assaulted as they slept in their barracks more than 13 years ago. She felt the Marine Corps handled the incident well.
“I was supported by my chain of command and my unit,” Piet said. “I was fortunate to have the kind of command climate everyone needs to have in their units. I hope the students at the event will see some real-life examples of sexual assault without having to go through what we went through and learn the valuable lessons I did.”
Female victims were not the only survivors highlighted at the event. Additionally during the panel, a video was shown of Spc. Jarett Wright, who was sexually assaulted by Soldiers in his unit while deployed to Iraq, as part of hazing rituals. When the incident was reported, the upper echelon commanders were supportive of Jarett and other Soldiers who were victimized by this criminal hazing, but a change of command changed the situation for the worse.
“Then came November and we had a change of command, and the new command team was just awful at taking care of us,” Wright said in the video. “They didn’t even speak to us for six months. We had so many issues going on when I got back from Iraq. They had me and one of the guys living next to each other. We had to try to get that fix immediately. They just moved us to another building that’s in the same complex. So, we had to share a laundry room, and every time I went to the laundry room their entire troop, including these guys, would harass me and just give me death stares. I always felt like I could get jumped at any time.”
The final panelist was Maj. David Dellerman, who initially did not acknowledge the scope of the problem and the significance of the issue at first, but is now a “SHARP convert.” He spoke of his own failings and successes as a commander dealing with SHARP issues.
“While serving as Warrior Transition Battalion commander, I realized the value of SHARP,” Dellerman said. “I realized as a commander, I had to take care of somebody’s son or somebody’s daughter as if they were my own to protect. I actively engaged in the program and empowered my SHARP reps. All Soldiers are leaders, and we are all in a role where we have to deal with this. We all set the climate and conditions of our working and living environment.”
A key takeaway from the event was that these issues should not remain in the shadows, Crumby said. The more discussion and awareness of the harshness of sexual assault and harassment, the more quickly climate change can occur.
“It’s never too late to speak up for yourself or someone else,” Crumby said. “Silence doesn’t always make things better and time doesn’t always make things go away. With the prevalence of the SHARP program, it’s made it easier for me to talk about my experience even though I was silent for 18 years. I would encourage anyone to imagine what it would be like if their son or daughter was put into a situation of assault or harassment when they are going through their initial training phase.”