Declares war on sexual assault, educates more than a 1,000
By Army Sgt. 1st Class Teresa L. Adams
FORT POLK, La. - Battle lines have been drawn. The U.S. armed forces has waged a war within the ranks of the most powerful military in the world. It's a war on sexual assault and sexual harassment. The rules of engagement for Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines in this area of operation? Intervene, take action and assist. Make no mistake; sexual assault and sexual harassment are the enemy. More than a 1,000 service members, their families and civilians within the Fort Polk community are aware, armed and ready for the fight.
The 1st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade's SHARP team, Sexual Harassment, Assault Response Prevention Program, gave survivors of sexual assault the opportunity to let another human being, regardless of gender, share their experience during the three-day "Walk in Their Shoes" Art Exhibit that started April 15 at the 1st MEB Gym.
The exhibit showcased art work paying tribute to survivors of sexual assault and staged two interactive sexual assault scenarios designed to educate the Fort Polk community regarding the many steps sexual assault victims must go through once they find the courage to report their assault.
Pvt. Stephen A. Montelongo, a truck driver assigned to Alpha Company, 88th Brigade Support Battalion, 1st MEB, says the training was emotionally engaging and hopes everyone at Fort Polk was able to share the experience.
The SHARP team worked for months preparing for the exhibit organized originally to train only the 1st MEB community. The 1st MEB's victim advocate, Lauren Northrup shared, "We soon realized this exhibit was so impactful it should be available to all military units and civilians in the Fort Polk community."
Northrup says she is a firm believer that service members represent the top tier of society and if Soldiers here can uphold the Army values then the rest of society may follow suit.
"We knew we had to do something inspiring," said Northrup. "This was designed not only to support SHARP, but to promote a cultural change at Fort Polk. Our hope is that it becomes a much needed vehicle of change within our society as a whole."
According to the 1st MEB's victim advocate Sgt. 1st Class Barbara Mejia, there were 34 sexual assaults reported and prosecuted within the Fort Polk community during fiscal year 2013. While to some, this number may seem low in relation to the more than 10,000 service members serving here, one sexual assault is one too many.
"When you look around and see 34 pairs of shoes and all the art work donated by men and woman," explains Mejia, "You just can't help but to be emotionally moved when you realize these items represent survivors of sexual assault within our own community."
Sexual assault survivors may choose to undergo the Sexual Assault Forensic Exam or SAFE, directly following their attack to obtain medical treatment and emotional support. These exams are done to care for the victim and gather the physical evidence necessary to identify and prosecute the assailant.
Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st MEB's victim advocate, Sgt. 1st Class Adrianna Barnes worked at the SAFE station during the exhibit and joined Maj. Novella L. Currington, the Sexual Assault Program director at Bayne Jones Army Center, BJAC, in providing information to the attendees about each portion of the examination.
"It's so good to be a part of something so much bigger than yourself," said Barnes. "Survivors of sexual assault go through so much because of what has happened to them. Finding the courage to report it must be difficult in itself, let alone everything they experience afterward. My heart goes out to these brave men and women."
The 1st MEB's Command Sgt. Maj. Melvin Rutledge attended the exhibit and says the scenario based training opened his eyes to what survivors go through after an assault.
"While the chance of our Soldiers being injured in combat has declined," said Rutledge. "Sexual assault and sexual harassment are formidable foes. When an assault comes to mind, most of us visualize a man attacking a women, but men assault men, woman attack women and women even sexually assault men. This training arms our Soldiers and community members with the ammunition to destroy the enemy regardless of its demographic."
The Fort Polk Army Substance Abuse Program's station at the exhibit provided additional methods to combat sexual assault. Thomas Gilliard, the ASAP coordinator, Fort Polk, says educating the community with ways to prevent sexual assault is a responsibility he takes seriously.
"I ordered the date rape detector coasters so Soldiers and community members can test their drinks for date-rape drugs in social settings," said Gilliard. "It gives them another way to take care of themselves."
Attendees of the exhibit received their sexual assault scenarios and visited eight installation services available to victims of sexual assault. These services provide emotional, medical and legal support including the sexual assault forensic exam, military police and criminal investigations, legal assistance, resiliency services, victim advocacy, and Leadership and Investigations.
The training gave more than a 1,000 attendees the chance to walk in their shoes. Many attendees said it was the most interactive and emotionally engaging training they'd ever experienced.
"I love the connection, the story," said Pvt. Montelongo. "It made me understand just how serious sexual assault is to the victims. Their stress and pain must be unimaginable."
"If you are a sexual assault response coordinator, the Army has made this your primary mission," says Mejia. "We have set a high standard for SHARP training here today and raised the bar for all SARCs. Our hope is that the example we've set here at Fort Polk, of interactive and emotionally charged SHARP training becomes the standard for the military as a whole."
The SHARP program is the number one asset in the Army's arsenal to combat sexual assaults within its ranks. Mejia says being a victim advocate means being on the front lines of that battle whether she is at home or deployed overseas.
For more information about sexual assaults, contact your unit's victim advocate.