The Issue with the Army’s SHARP Program: How Army Culture Dismisses its Female Service Members

   The Army, specifically Fort Hood, has been in the spotlight due to the recent events surrounding the disappearance of PFC Vanessa Guillen—and it’s not going to change anytime soon. What we are seeing is the surfacing of the issues regarding consent, power dynamics, and the inability of junior and senior leaders to foster an environment of true equity.

    Consent in the general population is the understanding of an enthusiastic, “yes” response—which is not equivalent to simply not saying, “no.” In the Army, the idea of consent must be understood that it is a multifaceted issue. Consent and power dynamics go hand-in-hand; there is no true consent with someone of a significantly different rank. If an NCO and a junior enlisted soldier have a “consenting” relationship—the NCO is guilty of abusing a power dynamic for sexual gratification. Consent is not valid if the individual receiving consent is in a position that holds power over the one giving consent. While the fraternization regulation is relatively clear in what is and is not acceptable, there are countless examples of senior NCOs making moves on junior officer/enlisted alike; senior officers face scandal after scandal of fraternization, and still nothing changes. 

    Mandatory SHARP briefs have become nothing more than a yearly check in the box where leadership attempts to convey the open-door policy with a “don’t touch other people” and call it a day. But what most leadership fails to understand is that it’s not the junior enlisted we need to worry about—it’s our own bosses and peers. Yes, bystander intervention is important, and this is not a dismissal of the necessity of teaching intervention. But how do you tell your soldiers to intervene when the sexual comments are coming from their first, second, or third line leadership? How do you hold your formations accountable when the accountability likely needed most is within the inner circle? 

    We all can accept and understand the concept of sexual assault being associated with power, not sexual attraction; however, the two are not inherently different. Physical attraction will precede any form of power exerted; commentary, looks, and subtleties will precede any direct form of assault. When individuals are allowed to get away with the small issues, a sense of autonomy and power is born, and with it, the belief that they will not be held accountable for their actions. When a male NCO (or officer) is making comments to a junior enlisted female, she is left with a choice: do I say something, potentially risk not getting believed, anger him and be labeled a stuck-up liar/bitch or do I grin and bear it, hoping it goes away? Those of us who trust the institution or who have been fortunate enough to have progressive-minded leadership would say, “report it.” That’s the Army answer, absolutely. But what happens when the leadership seems like a tight-knit circle and the victim is left feeling as if her leadership won’t believe her?

    What happens when it’s no longer an NCO/junior enlisted dynamic, but it’s a junior officer/senior NCO dynamic? The power dynamic technically would be in favor of the officer; but the reality of such a dynamic would fall under the guise of mentorship. A SNCO who takes the junior officer under his wing—and a junior officer new to the army who is eager to learn and prove herself. 

    Female service members are failed by the Army daily through these types of interactions. And it is easier to smile, fake laugh and move on. Because yes, the vast majority of men will not respond violently. But that is not guaranteed for every man. We are taught from the very beginning of our lives to walk with our keys in our hands to use as a weapon, carry pepper spray, take self-defense courses. But how do you teach female service members to always be wary while simultaneously trusting these men with their lives? Sexual assaults in the military are significantly underreported—and why? Is it because the Army isn’t doing enough? Is it because there are people in high rank who abuse their power and leave the victims feeling helpless? Or is it simply because the Army programs are well intentioned but ultimately misguided? 

    The Army needs to consider how SHARP is implemented at the unit level, how SHARP issues are handled, and if there are changes that need to be made. The SHARP brief that treats every soldier equally is wrong—leadership needs to have a separate brief, and it needs to come from higher. Every single NCO and officer need to understand that they are held to a higher standard, and discussions need to be centered around power dynamics, and how their actions can have a direct impact on unit cohesion, morale, and performance of their soldiers. Leaders need to feel as if they are consistently under a microscope from higher when it comes to how they interact with others. Leaders need to know the signs of abuse—because that’s what it is. Long term sexual harassment and assault are abuse; they should be treated as such. Soldiers need to be empowered to call out behavior of those who outrank them, and trust that there will not be blowback. Leaders need to understand this concept: SHARP might be misguided, but ultimately it is on us to set the standard. 

There will be male service members who read this and respond defensively, and I hope it is because those men have had the benefit of good leadership. Others will read it and roll their eyes—“everyone’s so sensitive these days.” And to those men: yes. Yes, I am sensitive about issues that affect a majority of the female population in the military. I am sensitive about sexual assault and harassment. This article is nothing more than a recommendation from a junior officer who spent time enlisted prior to commissioning. But it’s the words of a female service member who has suffered a sexual assault at the hands of a senior NCO; it’s the words of a leader who had a peer abuse his position. It’s the words of someone who wants her soldiers to know and have trust that leadership is held to a higher standard. It’s the words of someone who could have been Vanessa Guillen. 

About the author: Lieutenant Brightside enlisted in the Virginia Army National Guard in 2014, and commissioned in 2017 as a Chemical Officer. She’s served as a PL, ChemO, and HHB XO. She’s married with a dog, no kids; and spends her free time getting texts from higher about her political posts on the internet. 

About the Editor: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.

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