Staff Sgt. Shameka Dudley wants to show soldiers what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s boots.
“That is the goal right there: empathy, because that’s an issue,” she said. “You know, if someone comes up – male or female -and says, ‘Hey, I feel like I’ve been sexually harassed,’ usually what happens is like, ‘Maybe you’re taking it wrong.'”
Early in her Army career, Dudley, a Fort Bragg linguist, helped support a friend who was sexually assaulted. She said other soldiers were nearby and could have intervened to stop the crime.
So in February, she pitched an idea to the 18th Airborne Corps: use virtual reality to get soldiers to be proactive.
Dudley was one of seven finalists at the 18th Airborne Corps’ “Dragon’s Lair” event. It’s a “Shark Tank” style competition where the Army typically invites rank-and-file soldiers to submit suggestions to solve technical or logistical challenges.
But this time, instead of focusing on tanks or computers, the Corps asked for ideas to improve its sexual harassment and assault response program – which the Army calls SHARP.
“With the SHARP program, you have to have buy-in,” said Col. Joe Buccino, the innovation officer for the 18th Airborne Corps and a Dragon’s Lair organizer. “You have to have trust at the lowest level. If people don’t have trust, then you don’t really have a SHARP program, because people aren’t really going to report.”
Buccino said Army leaders have felt pressure to rebuild trust since the death of Spc. Vanessa Guillen at Fort Hood, Texas last year. The 20 year old went missing in April 2020 after she told her mother she was being sexually harassed by a fellow soldier but was afraid to report it. Officials later discovered Guillen had been killed in a Fort Hood armory. Guillen’s violent passing, coupled with her family’s activism, prompted a wave of criticism about how the military deals with sexual assault and harassment in the ranks.
An independent review panel later found Fort Hood’s command climate to be “permissive of sexual assault and harassment.” It also found that leaders regularly disregarded major issues, and soldiers had little confidence in the SHARP program.
Adding to the urgency is a directive from new Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who on his first day in office directed commanders to send him their plans and best practices to address sexual assault and harassment.
The 18th Airborne Corps is headquartered at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, halfway across the country from Fort Hood. But Buccino acknowledged that the problem is Army-wide. There were more than 3,200 reports of sexual assault for the service in 2019, a 2 percent increase from the year before.
“Fort Hood is not some other planet,” Buccino said. “Fort Hood is a part of the United States Army. This is a problem that manifests on big Army installations.”
Among the ideas: Better training, tougher punishment
The suggestions have been wide-ranging.
Dudley described a possible virtual reality scenario where soldiers are drinking and socializing at an Army ball. In the opening scene, a male soldier is acting sexually aggressive toward a female soldier who is visibly uncomfortable. “If you were a bystander in this situation … you can be like, ‘Hey, what you’re doing is wrong,'” Dudley explained.
Another Dragon’s Lair pitch came from Sgt. Taylor Knueven, a combat medic with the 101st Airborne Division, who was sexually assaulted last March by a sergeant in her unit. Her assailant received a noncommissioned officer evaluation report recommending that he be separated from duty, but the Army ultimately decided to let him stay on.
“He’s still in the Army, and he’s still in 18th Airborne Corps and my division and my brigade and my battalion,” Knueven said. “So he, inevitably, has already seen or heard about my involvement in this.”
Knueven recommends putting more women on the boards that decide whether assailants get kicked out of the Army. She also wants to see the Army implement career incentives for soldiers who act like allies in the battle against sexual assault and harassment.
But ultimately, Knueven said, the Army has to treat sex crimes seriously and punish offenders.
“We have so many other standards that we have to meet as soldiers,” she said. “Like you have to get this score on this PT test every so often or you’re out. You pop hot on a drug test? You’re out.”
“And so it’s alarming that this person who did this to me and his female company commander are still in,” Knueven said. “Even though the Army clearly says ‘Not in our Army. This won’t be tolerated,’ he’s still in.”
Another presenter pitched the idea of having soldiers volunteer to receive additional education and training to prevent sexual harassment and assault at the small unit level. The volunteers would promote a climate of safety and inclusivity and provide feedback to unit leaders on the effectiveness of the SHARP program.
The 18th Airborne Corps could implement some of the proposed ideas itself. But others, like changing punishment or giving SHARP more manpower, are up the Army.
Still, Capt. Megan Mejia, an Army lawyer who reviewed the contestants’ presentations, said she feels more empowered to take action.
“The takeaway for us, and I think for a lot of people in the 18th Airborne Corps right now, is that we can do more without having that systematic change,” Mejia said.
The 18th Airborne Corps has committed to implementing the concepts of all seven Dragon’s Lair finalists. It’s also sharing insights with Army leaders, who are in the process of revamping SHARP. The presenters’ ideas will be introduced at a SHARP redesign symposium in March.
But the buck may not stop there. In late February, the Pentagon announced a civilian-led commission to address military sexual assault. Once formed, the commission will have 90 days to compile its recommendations and will report directly to President Biden.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.