"We've been given a mission. We're getting after it and we're spending a lot of time and energy on it," said LTC. Curby Graham, a project manager for SHARP, or Sexual Harassment and Assault Response Prevention.
Commanders and victims' advocates cut a teal ribbon to the SHARP/Domestic Violence Resource Center on Womack Army Medical Center campus this afternoon. The SHARP Center provides a one-stop area for sex assault victims to receive legal, medical and psychological care.
Teal represents April as Sex Assault Awareness Month, but the idea for a resource center began in January.
Graham said that's when he was ordered to take a look at a SHARP model center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. By February, Fort Bragg's center was up and running.
Previously, a sex assault victim may have to visit half a dozen offices scattered across the post to receive the care they need. Now, counselors and care are consolidated in the SHARP Center, and instead of having to recount their story to those agencies an estimated 17 times, sex assault victims are able to go on the record at the resource center once. If they choose to seek legal action and press charges, the victim would go on the record a second time.
Inside the center, one hallway is lined with private rooms where sex assault victims are assigned a Special Victims Counsel, or able to contact their unit's SVC. A rape kit may be ordered, and JAG officers are accessible to file a report.
"We're having people come forward with cases that are three, four, five years old," said Graham of the increase in soldiers reporting rape. "Only this time they feel they have enough trust in the command and the fact that there are ways to be taken care of."
Major General Clarence K.K. Chinn, an 18th Airborne Corps commander, echoed those thoughts when he spoke during the center's ribbon cutting, calling military sex assault a "threat to our force."
"The key is to know that that the Chain of Command will protect them and we will take the proper action," said Chinn, noting sex assault and harassment compromise the integrity and readiness of the Army.
The general also noted that a soldier's professional competence should not be confused with their character, creating a defense for sexual predators.
One female soldier and recent sex assault victim, applauded Fort Bragg's efforts to make resources more easily available. It's what made her come forward last month.
"It changed my outlook," she said, asking to remain anonymous. "I knew from the moment an I called the hotline that the people I was entrusting with my care, cared about me."
"They ensured I was okay in healing my body and spirit. I felt completely safe. I felt secure," she said.
For more than a year, Dr. Sarah Stein, an associate professor of communications with North Carolina State University, has been working with Fort Bragg leaders on military sex assault research. She said the visibility of the SHARP center, and the vocal command support is just the beginning of tackling the issue. Bystander allegiance must be examined, she said.
"There has to be a culture shift so that instead of protecting your buddy who perpetrated an action like that, you say 'I'm going to protect my buddy who was victimized by that,'" said Stein.
Historically, the professor noted that victims have shied away from reporting sex assault, for fear of retaliation and discharge from the military, while the accused continued to thrive professionally.
"There's nothing that will kill morale more than seeing somebody who really violated your life and your career be promoted while you really come to an end," she said.
Graham said victims have a choice to report an assault as restricted or non-restricted. A restricted report would result in a victim simply tapping into health resources, while non-restricted reports would head to commanders and legal counsel.
The military and the Army in particular, have been under a microscope as critics claim they're taking on sex assault cases at any cost.
The recent court-martial of Fort Bragg Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair was closely monitored by lawmakers and the Pentagon as Congress grappled with whether to take sex assault prosecution out of the military's hands due to command influence.
Sinclair's case began as a sex assault trial, and ended as a misconduct trial when digital evidence suggested political pressure versus facts was at play in prosecuting Sinclair for assault. The main accuser in this case was also criticized when her sworn statements, testimony and evidence told the story of a long-term consensual relationship. Her legal team maintained Sinclair used his position and rank to force that relationship to continue.
The Army dropped sex assault charges against Sinclair, who would plead guilty to misconduct and adultery. He is currently awaiting final penalties from the military to include retirement at a reduced rank.
At the end of the March trial, Sinclair's defense team noted that he'd been unfairly labeled as a rapist, and would never be able to escape the stigma.
The case brought up questions of false reporting, something Graham said is few and far in between, and something military criminal investigators are good at detecting.
"You don't get justice for a victim by doing injustice to someone else who is not guilty," he noted of the issue.
More soldier victims, Graham said, are choosing to move forward with taking legal action.
"We want to get after the individuals that are perpetrating these events," he said.
Stein shot back at the idea of false reporting, saying it's an idea widely perpetrated by traditional and entertainment media.