by: Kevin McCarty Updated:
When a soldier walks through the door at Joint Base Lewis McChord's Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention center or SHARP, they may meet someone like Staff Sgt. Jerry Shore.
"We have advocacy here, I'm a victim advocate," Shore explained. But Shore isn't wearing an Army uniform. He's dressed in a shirt and tie, civilian working clothes. Shore says that is to reduce the possible fear and stigma.
"You may not feel comfortable talking to somebody, a staff sergeant, a sergeant first class wearing the stripes because you're scared of them," said Shore.
The SHARP center is the first of its kind in the Army. In one small unassuming office victims of sexual assault and harassment can talk to victim advocates, counselors, Military Police investigators and prosecutors with the office of the Judge Advocate General. This is a big change from the days when victims had to report through the chain of command. Lt. Col. Robert Stelle, the commanding officer at the center, said the SHARP is designed to break down barriers and take the fear and bureaucracy out of reporting sexual assault.
"The primary focus is on victim care," said Stelle. "So what this center is is a one-stop facility for victims to come to."
The idea for the SHARP center didn't come from the Pentagon or some high-ranking member of the Army. The idea was born at JBLM among people working with sexual assault victims, including Stelle, a JAG prosecutor.
"This was really a grass roots initiative that was started by the providers, myself and my colleagues as military prosecutors in the trenches, if you will," said Stelle.
Cutting down on sexual assault and harassment has become a focus for the military following years of headlines about assault and horror stories from soldiers, women in particular, who had been victimized by other soldiers and even commanding officers.
According to the Pentagon 26,000 service members experienced unwanted sexual conduct in 2012 ranging from harassment to rape. A report by the Defense Department released in November of this year revealed more than 3,500 cases of sexual assault in the armed forces from October 2012 to June 2013, an increase of nearly 50 percent. According to the Department of Labor between 28 percent to 40 percent of female veterans were sexually assaulted while serving in the military. Often those crimes went unreported.
That's something Washington state Sen. Patty Murray brought up when she toured the SHARP center shortly after its official opening in November.
"The statistic that is really scary to me is the thousands of woman and men who do not report sexual assault when they're in the military because they don't know where to go," said Murray.
The SHARP center is currently handling between 80 to 100 cases of sexual harassment and assault that could result in the filing of criminal charges. None of the cases have resulted in a court martial yet.
Stelle says while the center was not designed to be a model for the military it could help set the standard for how the Army deals with sexual assault in years to come.
"If this turns into something bigger, or ends up being something that's being used in other places, then that's great," said Stelle.