The TRiMS team was composed of soldiers who wanted to improve our unit’s approach to sexual harassment and assault prevention–some individuals had formal training to be Victim Advocates (VA) and others were just passionate about the cause.
How many times do soldiers go to the range to qualify on their weapon? How many times have soldiers been to the field to train with their team? How many times have soldiers actually practiced sexual harassment (SH) prevention? If the answers are notably different, why?
The military trains service members to do their jobs in dynamic and immersive environments, conducting increasingly complex iterations to practice and then maintain proficiency. The military should approach training on sexual harassment prevention like it trains everything else, focusing on repetition, seriousness, iteration, and personal and team mastery.
One approach to SH prevention is bystander-intervention training. This training takes a communal approach to fostering a climate of dignity and respect. This training isn’t a new concept- many corporations use this approach for SH prevention. However, military units are uniquely suited to internalize such a training model for SH prevention programs because of an existing culture of training.
My unit at Joint Base Lewis-McChord tried out bystander intervention training, a program which we call Trust in My Squad (TRiMS). The TRiMS team was composed of soldiers who wanted to improve our unit’s approach to sexual harassment and assault prevention–some individuals had formal training to be Victim Advocates (VA) and others were just passionate about the cause. The training facilitators then introduced the TRiMS training during Foundational Readiness Day, a day dedicated across the Army to build trust between Soldiers. The focus was on training all soldiers to identify and deal with situations that themselves would not constitute sexual harassment, but that could—if left unaddressed—contribute to an environment where sexual harassment might go without intervention. We argue that a truly effective SH prevention program deals with an individual’s “below the threshold” aggressions before they cross the SH threshold. It is precisely because this “grey area” is difficult and uncomfortable to deal with that we wanted to focus on it.
The program begins by teaching soldiers to recognize inappropriate comments and actions and then to intervene. For example, the first scenario given to the teams was of one soldier repeatedly asking another soldier about his/her weekend plans despite the second soldier’s clear discomfort. The first soldier never specifically asks the second soldier out on a date and never says anything of a sexual nature. A third soldier, the “bystander trainee,” participates in a roleplaying scenario with other team members to practice one of the intervention strategies they just learned. The other two participants were instructed to react realistically — if the bystander intervention was successful, the interaction concluded, but if not, it continued until the bystander succeeded or the facilitator stopped the training. If the soldier was successful, they proceeded to a more complex scenario. If the soldier wasn’t as successful, they were asked to run through the same scenario again. Between iterations, there was a brief review of what went well and what didn’t. During these transitions, soldiers talked about how they would want to have somebody intervene for them or how they would protect each other, and then they demonstrated in the next round. In repeating scenarios and engaging in more complex interactions, soldiers build not only their own confidence, but also confidence that their teammates will be there to take care of each other.
Unlike many Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) trainings, and more like other military training on issues that the Army has deemed essential to readiness, the training is active rather than passive. Soldiers do not simply watch a video, or a fully scripted interaction play out in front of them. Instead, the focus is on the soldier navigating the dynamic training and practicing preventing SH in a small group setting. This training can and should be run frequently to build and then maintain proficiency and build skills.
Practicing these scenarios does not eliminate the need for formal training on processes and resources. But practice helps put these requirements in context. TRiMS reviewed what soldier’s responsibilities and options were in the situation they witnessed and tied in a large number of resources. While all the Soldiers in the room had been through numerous iterations of the military’s SH training program, they had lots of questions about how it actually employed in realistically complex scenarios like the ones in front of them. More widespread adoption and evaluation would be required to assess the program’s effectiveness, but feedback from soldiers at JBLM is encouraging.
TRiMS aims to familiarize the soldier with the idea of intervention and to get them comfortable handling and discussing something that is inherently uncomfortable and often taboo.
Early feedback indicates that soldiers have previously witnessed interactions where a teammate was clearly uncomfortable, but soldiers reported they did not know how to address the interaction or whether something might fall under the umbrella of sexual harassment, which made them hesitant to say something. TRiMS aims to familiarize the soldier with the idea of intervention and to get them comfortable handling and discussing something that is inherently uncomfortable and often taboo. Further, it standardizes and trains on appropriate language for any soldier to be able to correct another. The training teaches them to balance our mandate to treat each other with dignity and respect with the need to confront a comment or action that might contribute to an unacceptably permissive environment for SH or SA. Operationalizing these skills and ensuring bystanders who intervene are protected will be a challenge, but that should not deter us from trying, especially if soldiers are engaged with the training.
I had never heard a soldier ask for more SH prevention training until we ran TRiMS. Soldiers were not only engaged during the session itself, but immediately were thinking of other scenarios to run– changing up anything from the entire scenario to just adding in a dynamic of rank to the scenario at hand. Soldiers also asked for Equal-Opportunity-focused scenarios and talked through situations they’ve experienced themselves. In a People First Army, TRiMS allows Soldiers to demonstrate to other Soldiers that they are not only valued by the group, but also to be protected. There were some skeptics. The first group of skeptics were concerned that the training would perpetuate the idea nobody could say anything because they feared repercussions. However, what we experienced instead, was that this training enabled soldiers to respond to an inappropriate comment or action before it spirals into something worse. It empowers people to have a simple and immediate conversation about behavior that doesn’t foster a climate of dignity and respect.
The second group of skeptics were concerned that this training did not sufficiently address what may be grooming behavior (i.e., behavior used to gain access to a victim, often through creating an environment that is permissive for SH or sexual assault.) Importantly, though, the training does not preclude people from using formal reporting mechanisms and resources. Instead, it is additive and recognizes that soldiers are confronted with these types of situations every single day and normalizes and forces the process for standing up for one another when currently we are staying silent. It gives soldiers real-world, practical skills to stand up for one another, instead of expecting them to do so without practice and the repetition of scenario-based training.
In one instance, one week after running the training, we had an unexpected measure of success. One soldier was making another soldier uncomfortable, and a third soldier intervened. The third soldier (the one who intervened) told one of our VAs about it, and the VA immediately asked how they could help. The soldier, smiling, told the VA that they didn’t need any help. Instead of ignoring the interaction, the soldier had felt equipped to immediately handle the situation. Surely, this is a success.
This training also asks us to have a victim-focused mindset where we prioritize the victim’s needs over the perpetrator’s. If this program is successfully able to reinforce a climate of dignity and respect, we might even end up being able to differentiate between individuals who missed a social cue once versus a perpetrator who is intentionally and repeatedly grooming. With a victim-focused mindset, we could also help create trust in the SH program to encourage Soldiers to report, allowing us to deal with perpetrators more than we are able to now because soldiers aren’t reporting. TRiMS is a non-standard approach for how the military deals with SH training–it requires delegation of training below the level of formally certified instructors and then creates dynamic environments that don’t necessarily have a right answer. While it is by no means a full solution to the SH problem, it is an example of what our training should strive to look like. Further, this training program nests easily within existing resources for SH prevention and response. It requires minimal investments in resources and time, and it is built on improving the lived experiences of our Soldiers. It is victim-focused, without being victim-blaming. Essentially, it builds trust, through using the training mentality that we already have, that our soldiers can and will do the right thing.
Rebecca Segal is a First Lieutenant and Field Artillery Officer in the U.S. Army stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, WA.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.
Photo Description: A Soldier from 1st Support Battalion, 1st Special Warfare Training Group (Airborne) fires an M4 carbine while an noncommissioned officer looks on during marksmanship training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina October 1, 2020. The Soldiers took part in the training, zeroing their individual weapons, in peparation for a battalion shooting competition.
Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by K. Kassens