WASHINGTON – As the Army finishes up operations in Afghanistan, at home it continues a fight to stem the sexual assaults some in uniform perpetrate against their fellow Soldiers.
Now leading the charge against sexual assault in the Army is Christine T. Altendorf, Ph.D, the new director of the Army Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program office, or SHARP. She said the service is on track with meeting tough requirements laid out this year by the Secretary of Defense and Congress.
Altendorf also said while the American public has a high opinion of the Army from its decade and a half of combat, that trust is at risk of slipping away because of the internal struggle to prevent sexual assault and harassment within the ranks.
"We need to make sure we have a place where a parent would have no problem seeing their child join the Army, that there would not be a trust factor, that we have not lost the trust of the public," Altendorf said, adding that loss of public trust hinges on the Army's effort to "clean up our internal battles" with regard to sexual assault.
The SHARP program is the Army's primary campaign against sexual assault. Altendorf said while the program has been "beefed up" recently, it has been since its inception a "leader in prevention of sexual assault and sexual harassment."
The program's new director said recent efforts to strengthen the SHARP program have expanded its reach beyond a program that was once isolated to ensure it is now matrixed, integrated and connected with the other parts of the Army that are needed to ensure it is embedded in the structure and culture of the Army to ensure mission success.
One of the changes included putting a Senior Executive Service member at the helm so the program is on par with other general officer-level led sexual assault prevention organizations. The change provides equity that is integral to the coordination required for the effective execution of the SHARP program.
"The challenges of having it at a couple of levels below that echelon is that it made it difficult to do a lot of that collaboration," Altendorf said.
As part of her role as the new program director, Altendorf said she is keenly interested in building bridges with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, or OSD, and Congress.
"SHARP really became a much bigger thing than it was when it was originally stood up," she said. Once a "stove-piped" program, SHARP now works closely with the Army's Provost Marshal Office, the Office of the Judge Advocate General, the Surgeon General of the Army and other key elements on the Army staff.
SHARP is closely integrated with OSD and is focusing on new initiatives from the Secretary of Defense. She said there is a solid focus on prevention, investigation, accountability, advocacy and assessment.
"We're working on figuring out how to implement these requirements," she said. "What actions are going to make a difference in the field? All of our actions need to have an impact at the lowest levels of the Army."
Altendorf said as part of preventive measures against sexual assaults, the Army provides sexual assault awareness training at all levels of the Army.
Personnel receive training prior to commissioning and enlistment, during initial military training, during every professional development course, before and after deployment, and before taking a command position. This event-based training is augmented by mandatory annual training while assigned to a unit. There is also comprehensive training for victim advocates and for sexual assault response coordinators.
Additionally, Altendorf said training is reaching the highest levels. Recently, the chief of staff of the Army conducted training through a two-day sexual assault prevention summit for two- and three-star generals.
Prevention is an effort to keep sexual assaults from occurring in the first place. When that fails, the Army is enhancing its ability to investigate and prosecute sexual assaults in the ranks.
Altendorf said that every sexual assault report now goes to the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, or CID, who will in turn kick off an appropriate investigation.
She said the SHARP program is working with CID, the Office of the Judge Advocate General, and judge advocate generals in the field to improve pre-trial investigative capabilities, with the intent of increasing confidence in the military justice process and protect the privacy rights of victims.
In support of the Secretary of Defense's recently announced initiatives, the Army is also enhancing its special victims investigation training for agents within the Criminal Investigation Command, as well as for prosecutors.
The Army also is working to increase the number of Special Victims Unit capabilities at major installations, Altendorf said. To that end, the Army's OTJAG also now has 24 special victim prosecutors trained specifically to work sexual assault cases.
"They are some of the best trained and qualified prosecutors in the Army," she said.
To keep units accountable for maintaining an environment that encourages reporting, but that is also inhospitable to sexual assault perpetrators, the Army has strengthened its use of command climate surveys, Altendorf said.
While such surveys have long been in use, until recently climate surveys were only at the company level and the results stopped at the desk of the commander they assessed, no longer. Now climate surveys will be conducted at every level of command, and the results will go one level of command higher in the command chain, Altendorf said, adding that will allow a commander's supervisor to see how they are evaluated, and to watch for trends, either positive or negative.
"This is going to push accountability," Altendorf said. "If that commander's boss is looking at the survey data and he is seeing something regularly occurring, or something not right, he can step in."
Additionally, she said the Army requires company-level surveys more frequently than other services. A command climate survey is required within 30 days of assumption of command, an additional survey six months later, and then additional surveys each year afterward.
Commanders are now required to meet face-to-face with the next higher echelon of command to review the results of the surveys.
"You can actually look and see if the climate is getting better or worse under that commander," Altendorf said.
Taking care of victims of sexual assault is a key component of SHARP. As part of victim advocacy, the Army already has sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates. Now, those personnel and others will undergo enhanced screening to ensure that those most qualified for the position are filling the critical roles as the frontline support for a Soldier who has been violated.
"We're trying to create an environment where, if something does occur, that victim feels very comfortable in reporting it," Altendorf said. "We're making sure we have the right people as victim advocates, choosing the right people who have the most positive influence on Soldiers. So we are expanding the screening process for victim advocates, sexual assault response coordinators, recruiters and drill sergeants."
The intent is to ensure they don't "have anything in their background that actually might prohibit them from being an appropriate person to deal with a victim," Altendorf said.
Altendorf also said the SHARP program is looking at ways to raise the prestige of positions such as a victim advocate or sexual assault response coordinators, known as SARCs, to attract the right kinds of Soldiers to those positions.
Critical to success of the Army's SHARP program, Altendorf said, is determining whether the programs and policies are having the desired effect.
To make that happen, she said, the Army must find a way to make sure the assessment of its own efforts is aligned with those of the Department of Defense.
"We're working very closely with the Army Research Institute to make sure our survey questions mesh with the Office of the Secretary of Defense's survey questions, so that when we are comparing the results we are compatible," she said. "The data is important."
On May 6, May 17 and Aug. 14, the Secretary of Defense released memorandums directing the services to meet certain dated benchmarks and requirements in their efforts to stop sexual assaults in the ranks. Altendorf said the Army is on-task with meeting those demands.
Already, the Army has looked at credentials and qualifications of current-serving drill sergeants, recruiters, SARCs and victim advocates to ensure they meet applicable selection criteria and standards of conduct, she said.
The service has also completed refresher training for drill sergeants, recruiters, SARCs and victim advocates on professional ethics, their critical responsibilities and standards, and the impact on mission readiness for violations of standards.
Another directive mandated inspection of workplaces for professional appearance, and the removal of items deemed offensive. That requirement has also been met, she said.
The Army also met the requirement to ensure the Army's own sexual assault prevention campaign is in alignment with DoD's plan.
"We've actually done quite a bit," Altendorf said. "Now we have to set up the proper metrics to make sure it is actually having an impact. You must go back and measure and make sure you're improving."
A primary factor in eliminating sexual assaults in the military is ensuring a change in culture. Soldiers must understand that sexually assaulting other Soldiers is simply not the Army way.
Education goes a long way toward changing that culture, Altendorf said, but the Army must also contend with the culture Soldiers bring with them from the civilian world.
"As we bring in new recruits, we have a requirement to train them to behave in a manner that upholds Army values," she said. "From the moment they first step foot in the door, we have to talk about respect for others and the Army values."
The Army's SHARP program is part of its Ready and Resilient Campaign. R2C ensures the right conditions exist for Soldiers to be ready to do their job.
"To keep your force ready and resilient, you need an environment where people can flourish," she said. "When there is sexual harassment or assault, you don't have an environment that allows people to do what they need to do, so they can perform their job as a Soldier."
Altendorf said the Army is striving for a cultural change that results in a positive command climate so Soldiers can reach their full potential. The SHARP program is a critical piece in achieving that goal.