Sexual assault prevention study to focus on young men in military, alcohol use
By DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. (Tribune News Service) | Published: April 1, 2017
Fort Bragg will host a nearly $3 million study aimed at creating a program that addresses sexual assault and high-risk alcohol use on military installations.
The study is already underway. Installation leaders, including commanders at the brigade level and above, were briefed on the project during an event Friday that also kicked off the installation's Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month activities.
Dubbed the Prohealth project, the study will test an innovative approach to preventing sexual aggression among men in the military.
It's being conducted as a collaboration between Fort Bragg's Womack Army Medical Center, Brown University, Rhode Island Hospital and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
The funding, about $2.7 million, is provided through a grant from the Department of Defense's Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs, which fosters novel approaches to research in the face of the needs of the military.
Unlike other sexual assault prevention programs, the efforts being tested at Fort Bragg are not universal.
The target population is young males, between 18- and 24-years-old, and specifically, those who have adverse drinking habits. About half of all sexual assaults in the military involve alcohol, officials said.
The first phase of the program, which is expected to take four years to complete, is underway, with teams of researchers offering surveys to Fort Bragg troops at various on-post facilities, including bowling alleys and physical fitness centers.
Lindsay Orchowski, staff psychologist at Rhode Island Hospital and assistant professor at the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University's Alpert Medical School, said researchers are looking for a baseline of social norms on Fort Bragg, documenting personal beliefs and perceptions of the Fort Bragg community.
Orchowski said officials would use what they learn from the anonymous surveys, interviews and focus groups to create a prevention program that they would then test among 20 soldier volunteers.
That program would be aimed at addressing misperceptions among those norms and educating soldiers on how they can intervene when they observe situations that could lead to a sexual assault.
Alan D. Berkowtiz, a consultant on the project and subject matter expert for sexual assault prevention for the military, said those norms can be important, because people are influenced by their peers, even when they don't have accurate information about them.
By way of example, Berkowitz said that many high school students may believe their peers drink alcohol, even if that's not the case.
"It's a different kind of peer pressure," he said.
Typically, good behaviors among a larger population are underestimated, Berkowitz said. And negative behaviors are believed to be more rampant than what exists.
A way to combat those negative beliefs, he said, is to tell the truth. That can change attitudes toward drinking and how soldiers respond when they see a situation that could lead to sexual assault.
The final phase of the project would involve expanding the program to a wider audience and testing how the new program compares to existing sexual assault prevention programs.
In addition to Orchowski, the other leaders on the project are Cristobal S. Berry-Caban, senior scientist in Womack Army Medical Center's Department of Clinical Investigation, and Donna Kazemi, associate professor at the school of nursing at UNC Charlotte.
Berry-Caban said the clinical trial approach would allow the team to measure the effectiveness of the program they develop. He said each of the collaborators bring unique skills to the program. Together, they hope to create a program that is uniquely suited to the young military men, instead of trying to adapt an existing program.
On Friday, more than 200 Fort Bragg leaders learned about the ongoing study during a three-hour luncheon.
Capt. Guy Allsup, Fort Bragg's Sexual Harassment/Assault Response & Prevention program manager, said officials try to reinforce prevention programs throughout the year, but said April is a time when "all of Fort Bragg is coming together and surging together."
The leadership luncheon was the kick-off event. At least one other event is planned for each week of April, including a motorcycle ride and special programs at York Theater, Fort Bragg's Family Readiness Group Center and other locations across post. Information will be posted around the installation.
Allsup said bringing on-post leaders together ensures there is buy-in on the programs from the top. And it shows soldiers that their higher-ups are leading the way.
In addition to a briefing about the ongoing study, the event also featured remarks by Leonard Wheeler, a former NFL defensive back who now speaks on effective communication, and a theatrical prevention education program that used soldiers as actors and was led by Janine DiVita, an actress and singer best known for roles on Broadway and in musical theater.
DiVita developed the program, known as Empowered Voices, with Stephanie Brooks, a prevention coordinator at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.
On Thursday, the pair were at Fort Bragg's Soldier Support Center, working with a team of soldiers who had volunteered to perform as part of the program.
Those soldiers performed a series of skits for leaders on Friday, mimicking scenarios taken from real experiences on and around Fort Bragg.
DiVita said the program encourages soldiers to put themselves in others' shoes. The interactive skits also allow those in the audience to practice how they might respond in the scenarios.
It's nothing like your typical sexual assault prevention program, which would rely heavily on PowerPoint presentations, Brooks said.
"This is something different," Brooks said. "It's engaging. It's interactive.'
DiVita said the program would deal with a variety of issues, from sextortion to how best to intervene and how seemingly minor choices can have bigger impacts.
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