A new offensive in the battle against sexual misconduct is slowly emerging from the rank and file of an advanced individual training brigade here.
Students Against Sexual Harassment, or SASH, is a 23rd Quartermaster Brigade initiative established in October to identify and train junior Soldiers to act as liaisons for the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program.
The first two classes of SASH volunteers graduated Oct. 15. Another group graduated Nov. 20, pushing the program’s ranks above 70.
Camilla Lewis, Dragon Brigade victim advocate, said the SASH representatives are primarily information conduits who are provided with “tools to help them recognize what sexual harassment is and how to intervene before it escalates.”
In their roles, SASH representatives – identified by teal ribbons worn on their collars – convey to peers how to stand up against sexual harassment and assault and the actions they can take if an incident occurs.
“They bring awareness to the (SHARP) program while all along letting their battle buddies know they are (willing to help if) something happens,” Lewis said. “It’s not necessarily to take a (sexual misconduct) report, but for them to get their battle (buddy) to the appropriate SHARP representative.”
SASH is seen as a way to bolster SHARP presence at the grassroots level. There are presently two program leaders per company in each of the brigade’s three battalions. Those individuals – also called victim advocates – provide support and care to victims such as connecting them to resources and helping them to make informed decisions throughout the resolution process.
“Obviously, those two SHARP reps can’t be everywhere because they also serve in the capacity of drill sergeants and instructors,” Lewis pointed out. “With the SASH reps in place right along with their fellow Soldiers, they represent another set of eyes that can either intervene or bring issues forward to the identified victim advocate.”
To earn the teal SASH ribbons, Soldiers must uphold the Army Values and undergo several hours of training. They do not carry the same responsibilities as victim advocates and cannot discuss confidential information with those outside SHARP channels.
Pfc. Victoria Huda, a former Bravo Company, 266th Quartermaster Battalion SASH rep who has since graduated, said she leapt at the opportunity to participate.
“I was pretty familiar with the SHARP program and knew it was something I cared a lot about,” said the 20-year-old. “I went to my drill sergeant and said, ‘I know I’m a squad leader, but if I can only be that or a SASH rep, I’d love to be the latter one.’ He took that under consideration, and I was chosen.”
She was among the first students to take the SASH pledge. The explanation of why she was so passionate about the opportunity harkened back to a sexual assault incident she experienced at her National Guard unit in Oklahoma.
“It hurt emotionally because it was one of my very best friends,” she recalled. “I trusted him and had known him for years. It was something really unexpected, and something I was scared to talk about.
“I felt like – for a little while – I wasn’t able to reach out to anybody because if I did, I would be seen as weak. Then, I opened up to one of my friends and told her about it. She said, ‘No, you’re not alone. This isn’t a problem just you have had.’ …She started talking to me and really made me understand that this was something I should bring up. What had happened to me was real. It made me realize the importance of explaining to other people that whenever things happen to you, not only are you not alone, your voice deserves to be heard.”
As a SASH representative, Huda said she strives to be the comforting presence and confidante to others as her friend was to her.
“Once I became a SASH rep,” she said, “I had a lot of people come up to me and tell me, like, ‘I’m really glad this program exists because I wasn’t really comfortable asking all these questions to a drill sergeant. It was really intimidating.’”
Huda said she was already talking to Soldiers about the SHARP program prior to becoming a SASH rep. It indicated to her students are more comfortable talking to peers.
“It’s easier to talk about problems with someone on the same level as you rather than someone who is higher ranking,” she opined. “That’s the same person who was coughing up gas not even a month ago in basic training, and the same person who was running next to you in an APFT. It’s a lot easier to humanize and get along with someone closer in age with you or who has slept in the same barracks. You know them and see them every day.”
Lewis, who has seen many SHARP program developments in her three years with the brigade, said she has anecdotal evidence SASH reps are going about their duties with vigor and professionalism.
“One of the victim advocates said he witnessed a SASH rep with her classmates huddled up during a break and providing them information,” she said. “We’re seeing Soldiers do what they’re supposed to do, and it’s being recognized by the victim advocates in the various battalions. They’re actually putting their training to use by educating and informing their battle buddies.”
Moreover, Lewis continued, SASH seems to have a distinct trajectory in the SHARP sphere of awareness, considering the high level of training students receive in basic training and the information fatigue that often results.
“The SASH program gives students the opportunity to hear it from their peers,” Lewis said. “They can personalize it, and that might inspire others to take a fresh look at SHARP in its entirety and see that it is important to the Army.”
From a personal standpoint, Lewis said SASH seems to promote optimism because of the participating students’ enthusiasm and commitment to the mission.
“I like the program,” she said. “When you get a group of students on the first day, and you ask a question, most won’t answer. In these classes, hands were popping up like popcorn. When it happened in the first class, I thought, ‘That couldn’t possibly be.’ It happened again in the second class. I was just in awe. I’ve seen a lot of enthusiasm. These Soldiers want to be a part of the solution.”
Lewis also said SASH has legs and could prove to be around a long time because the CASCOM and Dragon Brigade leadership have shown a commitment to the program
“As long as leadership has buy-in, the program will always be strong,” she said. “Our mission is to stop sexual harassment and assault, and the only way we can prevent it is through awareness. That is achieved through getting people involved – those who have a heart to want to do the hard work.”