HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - U.S. Army Pacific leadership says preventing sexual assault is their number one priority. They say commanders have been instructed to investigate every allegation, so that all soldiers know victims will be taken care of and their perpetrators will be held accountable.
"Our focus and our emphasis is setting those conditions to make sure it doesn't happen and making sure that our victims know if they do come forward or when they do come forward that it's going to be prosecuted and taken care of," said Lieutenant Colonel Brenden Burke, the Executive Officer for the G1 (Human Resources) for U.S. Army Pacific.
According to Army officials, there were 35 reported cases of sexual harassment or assault in Hawai'i last year. Since the start of this fiscal year in April, there have been 23.
"Yes, we have seen in Hawai'i – at least I can speak for 25th infantry division – an up tick, but we find that encouraging because we want people to feel comfortable to come forward. We want to help those victims. Yes, we want to help prevent it, but we first want to help those victims," explained Lieutenant Colonel Ed Austin, the 25th Infantry Division SHARP (Sexual Harassment Assault Response and Prevention) Program Manager at Schofield Barracks.
Local commanders say there are a number of initiatives in place to ensure all soldiers are treated with dignity and respect. Their latest is the "I AM Strong" campaign.
"There are no bystanders in the sexual assault arena. One of the messages going out is, if you condone it, you're as guilty as someone who's perpetrating the actions. So intervene, stop it, act on it, and motivate others to help out as well," said Lt. Col. Burke.
Quarterly and annual training on sex harassment and sex assault prevention is mandatory for every soldier. There are also trained advocates and coordinators assigned to each brigade, whose sole focus is the SHARP program (Sexual Harassment Assault Response and Prevention), along with assisting victims.
"We could be with them, each victim, from beginning to end or until after they feel comfortable and are strong enough to be on their own," described Master Sergeant Sylvia Thomas, 3rd Brigade Combat Team SHARP Manager & SARC (Sexual Assault Response Coordinator).
Lt. Col. Austin says commanders have noticed alcohol is a major factor in many reported cases, which is why they've added conversations about responsible use to their training discussions.
"When we try to educate them that, although alcohol is legal, how it's used and what levels are important and people need to make that decision because that seems to be one of the varying causes that are always involved is alcohol and the responsible use of it, so we try to talk about that in the training as well," explained Lt. Col. Austin.
Unlike other services, the U.S. Army includes sexual harassment in their sex assault prevention programs.
"The Army has made the determination that sexual harassment – the conditions in which sexual harassment occur have the tendency to progress into sexual assaults and so we want to stop the issues as they're starting," explained Lt. Col. Burke.
Local Army leadership says there's no quick fix, but appointing additional accredited personnel along with continued discussions and training at all levels within the ranks are making a difference.
"Whether we're down range or we're here in Garrison back at home, it's something that's not acceptable and we're trying to prevent and fight it in both venues," said Lt. Col. Austin.