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Army's SHARP program battles sexual assault in the military

The force behind the fight

Lt. Col. Celia FlorCruz is the SHARP program manager for the 7th Infantry Division at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and a survivor of sexual assault. Photo credit: Jennifer Caprioli

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Last week, Latosha Curry sent out an email through urging readers to sign a petition. Curry, who has been in the Army for 12 years and hoping to become a recruiter, was sexually assaulted while serving in Korea. Like many victims, she never reported it.

"I was too afraid of the consequences to my career," she writes in the petition. "I saw firsthand how victims of sexual assault were treated by their units: harassed, called liars and passed up for career opportunities."

Curry stuffed her pain and eventually developed post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I found myself facing two of the biggest stigmas in the military: sexual assault and mental health," she continues. "Managing my PTSD symptoms became too much to handle, and I attempted suicide."

Admitting this, she says, disqualified her from becoming a recruiter. Curry's petition is about fighting against job discrimination, not sexual assault. However, it was the assault, and the environment that bred it, that ultimately led to her PTSD.

The military has long been viewed as a "good old boys" club, and, if not exactly tolerant of sexual assault, it can be argued that for years, those in the military looked the other way.

But things are changing.

The Army's Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention Program (SHARP) office last week held its 8th annual summit in Tyson's Corner, Virginia. Hosted by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, it provided a forum for senior leaders, command leadership and subject matter experts to come together to educate, train and communicate new ways of preventing sexual offenses.

One of the biggest obstacles to change regarding sexual assault, which is defined as "intentional sexual contact characterized by use of force, threats, intimidation, or abuse of authority when the victim does not or cannot consent," is overcoming the military culture.

"Culture makes this tougher," notes Lt. Col. Celia FlorCruz, program manager for the 7th Infantry Division on Joint Base Lewis-McChord and a survivor of sexual assault. "It's not particular to the military. Our movies, TV shows, songs and games. Sexual assault and rape are part of that stuff, and we tolerate it as a nation."

However, the atmosphere in the military is changing, she added. "There's been an enormous change, really," she said. "We still have people we need to educate, but the commanders get it. The first sergeants get it. The senior NCOs are the ones really making the change. It's not officers and generals ordering people to do things. The sergeants want to fix it. It's a beautiful thing, actually, to watch these senior NCOs who are very compassionate about what's going on. They want to protect their servicemembers. The attitude has changed, and I can tell you that it makes a huge difference in the way people approach a crime."

Although the attitude is slowly shifting and senior NCOs are stepping up - and in - to help their servicemembers, soldiers are still being sexually assaulted.

The SHARP program, and other DoD programs, are there to help victims get the help they need, both medically and legally.

JBLM is the first installation in the military to have a SHARP Resource Center, explained FlorCruz. Modeled on a civilian facility in Los Angeles, the central facility "brings together a lot of different resources for the victims," she explained, including criminal investigation, the judge advocate corps, hospital personnel who specialize in forensic sexual assault examination and victim advocates.

"Bringing all those people together in one room and talking about casework makes a big difference in improving advocacy and improving medical care and enforcement response," FlorCruz said. "We didn't create anything new. We just copied our civilian counterparts.

"It has value because we all know each other," she added. "On other installations, you don't even know who the CID guy is, or the person in the hospital. But here, we all know each other and have them all on speed dial, so this has really improved the services we're able to provide to victims."

The SHARP Resource Center model is now being replicated in Army installations around the country.

Victims of sexual assault have a few options when it comes to reporting the crime.

Restricted reporting - which can be done to a chaplain, medical personnel or credentialed victim advocate (and there are nearly 500 on JBLM) - means "you don't want people to know about it, but you want services and medical attention," FlorCruz said.

With a restricted report, no official investigation is triggered, but the victim can receive medical treatment, advocacy services, legal assistance and counseling. However, the perpetrator will not be prosecuted, and it's possible that the victim may still have to work alongside his or her perpetrator.

On the other hand, if a servicemember reports a sexual assault to his or her chain of command or a member of law enforcement, an official investigation will be launched. This type of report is considered unrestricted.   

They can even do a "no report," FlorCruz said, which lets victims get help without any official report at all.

"We don't care if you don't want to tell anyone; just let us get you help," she  stresses. "You can get physical and medical attention as well as behavioral health.

"Of course we want to encourage unrestricted reporting, because (law enforcement) can go after the perpetrator, because they are probably going to do it again," FlorCruz said. "But we do not insist on that. The victim can choose."

However, she added, "we generally find that with a bit of support, victims often choose to go unrestricted, which then allows them to get special legal counsel that is only for victims."

Victims can also call the DoD SAFE helpline 24 hours a day at 877.995.5247 for advice and assistance.

Though the attitude toward sexual assault in the military is slowly shifting, there is still work to be done. FlorCruz stresses the importance of collaboration between the military and civilian communities.

"This installation has 140,000 people who live, work and play here," she said. "Seventy-two percent of us live in the local community. Rape happens everywhere, so the more that we can do collaboratively, the better we can do with eradicating or vastly reducing crimes in the entire area."

The SHARP Resource Center is located in Bldg. 2027C on Pendleton Ave., JBLM Main. JBLM victim advocates are available 24 hours a day at 253.389.8469.

For more information about SHARP, visit

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