FORT LEE, Va. – A staff sergeant describes the emotional and physical struggles of recovery after being sexually assaulted during the early days of her Army career.
An officer shares the pain she felt while sitting through two court marshals to bring her rapist to justice;
And a former sailor intrepidly recounts the nightmarish circumstances surrounding gang rapes he experienced decades ago.
The sexual assault survivors’ panel was, by far, the most poignant moment of the CASCOM Resiliency and Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention Summit July 9 in the Army Logistics University’s multipurpose classrooms. Roughly 150 installation leaders and staff attended the fourth annual event.
The daylong summit also included discussions and presentations on subjects related to sexual misconduct as well as briefings on the new Army Combat Fitness Test, included under a collaborative effort with CASCOM’s Ready and Resilient Initiative.
Dr. James Walker, program manager for CASCOM’s SHARP program, said the event’s programming was holistic and designed to provide leaders with various perspectives and information to help them make sound decisions regarding preventative strategies and dealing with sexual misconduct cases and issues.
“The Resiliency/SHARP Summit is indeed pivotal to making sure we keep the community aware of sexual harassment and assault,” Walker said. “We also want to ensure people are resilient; that they don’t become victims of sexual misconduct.”
The summit’s morning session was dedicated to the ACFT, a new physical fitness standard targeted toward combat readiness – the demonstration of abilities troops need to have on the battlefield like rapid movement, the strength to climb over obstacles and rescue battle buddies, and to carry heavy equipment. Presenters addressed equipment allocation, sourcing, injuries and other related matters.
Sgt. 1st Class Paul Powell, CASCOM Ready and Resilience noncommissioned officer, said the summit was a good opportunity to provide information about the new test, which will be rolled out Army-wide in October.
“All the information and the takeaways can serve as tools the attendees can take back to their units to start acting on and enforcing at the lowest level,” he said.
The SHARP presentations occupied most of the afternoon. In addition to the survivor presentations, Dr. Linda Hancock provided an engaging lesson on alcohol and sexual abuse; and Agent Deric Palmer discussed social media and sexploitation tactics being used to lure victims.
The sexual assault survivors – Heath Phillips, SSG Bianca Love and Maj. Hali Picciano – shared their experiences, described their bouts with authorities in seeking justice and provided insights into their emotions and behavior.
Phillips, an Army family member, was gang-assaulted shortly after he joined the Navy at age 17. He reported his assailants but not much happened. He eventually went AWOL several times and wound up with an other-than-honorable discharge as a result. Traumatized from the ordeal, he has spent the past 30 years reclaiming his life.
“It took a lot for me to be here,” he said. “When I was younger, it bothered me a lot to admit it and then … I don’t know, I quit drinking and started thinking I wasn’t alone and that this wasn’t a ‘just me’ thing.
“That’s when things started changing. My first heart-to-heart with my father actually opened up my eyes a lot more because he shared stories from Vietnam.”
Phillips, who recently received his honorable discharge, spends his time educating others about sexual assault at conferences and other events all over the country. To get his message across, Phillips said he goes into painful detail about the crimes committed against him, then challenges audience members to imagine someone close – a mother, father, sister or friend -- recounting something similar.
“How would that change the look on how this happens?” he posed. “What if I was your kid? I’ve actually made men cry by sharing that.”
Phillips said sexual assault is a crime whether committed against women or men, and one that warrants appropriate responses from family, friends and authorities.
“(Sexual assault) is a human issue and not a gender issue,” he said. “It shouldn’t be about numbers, and my biggest thing is being that bystander who is willing to step up and help somebody no matter where they’re at. I didn’t have that. I preach that now.”
Love, a Soldier of 12 years, is a Quartermaster School rigger instructor who first told her story earlier this year during a Jumping for SHARP event at Fort Pickett. She was assaulted by unit Soldiers on two different occasions at her first duty station. As a result, she went into deep depression, but eventually pulled herself out of the darkness with the help of a battle buddy and counseling.
Today, Love is proud to call herself a survivor but noted survivorship is fraught with difficulty and in no way should be confused with being whole.
“Any path worth walking is hard; nothing in life is easy; and I will always have to keep working to pull myself together,” said Love to the audience, reading from a prepared script.
Finally, Love said no one deserves to be sexually assaulted and offered this advice:
“Hopefully, what happened to me never happens to you, your friends, family or loved ones. All I can say is be there for each other; look out for one another; be your brothers’ and sisters’ keepers; and protect them at all costs.”
Picciano, assigned to Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, spoke candidly and vividly about assaults she experienced more than a decade ago and the years she has spent in recovery and fighting for justice, even injecting humor at times. Afterward, however, she said sexual crimes are no joking matter.
“I’ve had years of behavioral health, social work services, psychiatry – I’ve worked on myself for as long as this has been a part of my life,” she said, noting she is also “very faithful.”
Like Phillips, Picciano speaks to audiences on a regular basis. The message she projects is simple – survival is possible.
“You can survive anything,” said the mother of two. “It is not easy, and it’s not going to be instant; but you can survive. You just got to work at it every hour of every day.”
Picciano said she has PTSD as a result of the assaults.
“I work every day on being better than I was yesterday and hoping for a better tomorrow,” she said.
The summit also included introductory remarks by Maj. Gen. Rodney D. Fogg, CASCOM and Fort Lee commanding general. He applauded the participation and encouraged vigilance in promoting SHARP initiatives and putting an end to any incidents of sexual misconduct at Fort Lee.
For more information about the Fort Lee SHARP program, visit home.army.mil/lee/index.php/my-fort-lee/all-services/sharp.