FORT STEWART, Ga. - Sexual assault in the military is no longer a secret. All branches have stepped up their efforts to prevent such assaults through mandatory, annual training designed to explain the punishments perpetrators will receive, highlight the avenues a Soldier has to report an assault and seek help afterwards, and educate everyone that sexual assault is simply intolerable.
Cue Master Sgt. Jeffrey Fenlason, the instructor and founder of “bystander intervention training” on Fort Stewart, Ga., a pilot program within 1st Armor Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, designed specifically to target that 90 percent.
“This training is all about getting people to pay attention and understand that looking the other way is no longer an option,” Fenlason explained. “I want them to walk away from this forum thinking about what they would do in different scenarios, and be willing to put those decisions into action if the time comes.”
The day-long class is designed to be more discussion based than a typical military course.
“The only PowerPoint slides we use are designed to guide open discussions,” said Fenlason. “There is no right or wrong answers, we introduce a scenario and discuss what they would do.”
The effectiveness of this course lies in the frankness of the conversation. By creating an environment where it is okay to openly discuss differences in mental opinions, assumptions, consent and cultural beliefs, the lessons are more likely to stick with the participants and cause a true undercurrent of change.
“If I, as the instructor, could not stand in front of these soldiers and keep it one-hundred percent real with them, then the entire purpose of this course would be lost,” said Fenlason.
The course educates Soldiers on their responsibilities as a bystander and why it is so crucial to intervene if they witness a situation that could escalate to sexual assault. It also spends a length of time discussing a needed change in command climate to continue the zero tolerance policy on sexual assault, but increase support of sexual assault prevention thru bystander intervention.
In anonymous surveys at the conclusion of the course, the need for a course like this was echoed throughout almost every response.
“This course was an eye-opener to me,” said one participant. “It made me step back and look at myself as a person and leader, and helped me decide where I stand.”
Almost a month after the first classes were taught, the messages from the course still lingers with the Soldiers.
“I have been thinking a lot about the course since it ended; about changing the trajectory of events and breaking the silence,” said Sgt. Elizabeth Sessions, a medic with C Co., 3rd Brigade Support Battalion, 1st ABCT. “I believe this class could affect real change throughout the brigade the more Soldiers take it. I don't believe sexual assault, or other problems, will ever be completely eliminated, but I do believe by changing the trajectory of events through intervention we can bring the percentage down and help prevent incidents that haven't happened yet.”
Some participants are carrying these messages back to younger Soldiers in their unit.
“Since returning from the class I have actually sat down and talked to my guys about it; what their plans would be if certain situations would happen, or even how they would react to problems if they were in my shoes,” said Sgt. Alondo Jackson, a cavalry scout with A Troop, 5th Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st ABCT. “Because of this class, I feel like I have far more tools in my bag to be able to address and help resolve problems.”
Although this is still a pilot program, it has left a mark on the brigade and the message will only grow stronger as more Soldiers hear and learn from its simple, yet powerful message. The military is doing all it can to prevent sexual assault from ever effecting another Soldier, and bystander intervention training is just one more tool in its arsenal.