Fort Pickett drop zone serves as location for unconventional SHARP training

Marine Master Sgt. Jason Elson, Aerial Delivery and Field Services Department, descends after freefalling from a C17 aircraft during the Jumping for SHARP event April 11 at Blackstone Army Airfield. (U.S. Army photo by Terrance Bell)

FORT PICKETT, Va. (April 17, 2019) — Initial entry training Soldiers receive many hours of instruction on the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program.

As a result, they are familiar with behaviors leading to sexual misconduct, what constitutes sexual assault and ways to report it. They also are taught how such acts affect individuals, units, missions and the Army.

A great deal of this learning is facilitated by PowerPoint presentations, classroom discussion and written materials. On April 11, however, the message delivered to a group of 40-or-so Quartermaster School advanced individual training students was quite out of the ordinary and vivid. The training took place on the tarmac of Fort Pickett’s Blackstone Army Airfield at an event titled “Jumping for SHARP,” hosted by the Aerial Delivery and Field Services Department.

The day started with various advocacy organizations providing information briefings amid the distant hum of an aircraft rolling into the training area and the toils of nearby troops readying for a pending airborne operation. An assortment of SHARP banners and posters fluttered in the display area, acting as a backdrop for the event.

When the C17 lifted off and gained altitude, all eyes focused skyward to see the first canopies open and travel in circular patterns as the operators – most of them students in training themselves – steered them to the specified landing area. A freefall team of instructors also exited the aircraft with a large SHARP banner that they delivered by parachute to the training site.

That display of professionals at work was followed by the event’s most poignant moment – a first-hand survivor’s account by ADFSD instructor Staff Sgt. Bianca R. Love. The 12-year rigger Soldier recounted how she was sexually assaulted twice in a matter of months at her first duty station.

“Needless to say, my first year in the Army was not what I thought it was going to be,” she told the attentive audience.

Candid and brutally forthright in her account, Love said she frequently tells students about her first sexual assault as a teaching point and way to help her cope. What she hadn’t revealed publically up until that day is a second case of sexual violence; one in which she blamed herself for setting the stage that allowed it to happen.

“I’ve never told anybody about the second time – the one that really impacts me the most,” she admitted to the crowd. “This is the first time I’ve spoken about it outside of counseling.

“I know they say rape is never your fault,” she continued, “but to me, I felt like this time it was my fault.”

Love said the first assault, which was reported, caused her to shut down her emotions and dull the painful memories with alcohol. One night, she found herself drinking with two people who turned out to be perpetrators rather than friends.

“Had I not been drinking; had I not gone over there; if I had just gone to counseling; then maybe it wouldn’t have happened again,” she revealed from behind the lectern.

Nonetheless, Love fought through her tribulation with the help of one Paige Harper, a Soldier she knew from AIT. A battle buddy like no other, according to Love’s description, Harper ensured she got to places on time, ate regular meals and kept her spirits up. Harper’s intervention pushed Love’s life back to normalcy.

“I know what Paige did is the greatest gift I wish I could repay – she restored my faith in people. She taught me that everyone would not break my trust; that some people really do want to help and care; that I was strong, and I could overcome anything with a little help from my friends … just like that Beetles’ song.”

Love did overcome her ordeal through counseling and support, but it left her with wounds she said will never fully heal.

“I am standing here today, still in the Army 12 years later telling my story, because I am a survivor,” she said. “Anything worth wanting is hard. Nothing in life is easy, and I will have to keep working to make it better.”

At the conclusion of the staff sergeant’s speech, the hum of aircraft was more prominent as well as the sound of the wind occasionally rippling the banners. The audience members – mostly 20-somethings – sat in silent contemplation and astonishment. Some were visibly shaken. One was Pvt. Michelle McKeiver, who said Love’s story was painful to hear.

“Deep down, I was in shock,” said the 19-year-old from Charlie Company, 262nd QM Battalion. “Personally, I know someone who’s been through a similar situation, so for her to come out and actually present that was pretty brave. I commend her for that.”

Additionally, McKeiver said, it was difficult for her to grasp the concept of Soldiers – sworn to protect others – committing violent crimes.

“I’m a bit upset that something like that actually happens in the military,” said the Richmond native, “especially knowing we enlist to protect others and ourselves as well. How can we protect others if we can’t protect our own?”

McKeiver’s observation was similar to that of Pfc. Valentino Hanson, a 28-year-old Atlanta native.

“It was hard to hear, but wonderful to know that she came so far to overcome it,” said the Charlie Co., 262nd Soldier. “I love hearing from people who have gone through struggles and use it to encourage others. That’s what we need the most. A lot of times, unfortunately, people don’t receive what you’re telling them unless they know you can empathize.”

Moving forward, McKeiver said Love’s story was a wakeup call in a sense; Soldiers need to support one another in a way that screams “I got your back.”

“We need to come together more and more – not like units – but like family,” she said. “For example, like one of the sergeants said, when someone tells you they’ve been raped, you have to believe them. They have to depend on you for support.”

McKeiver’s assertion of trust and dependency parallel with the goals of Sgt. 1st Class Michelle Metzger, the 92R Parachute Rigger Course manager who coordinated Jumping for SHARP. She said the event was designed to show Soldiers how sexual assault can affect people and operations.

“An event like this gives the subject flare,” she said of the airborne operation/SHARP union. “If I was a student being taught by PowerPoint, I don’t think I would absorb the info like I would in this type of environment.”

In addition to Love’s recount, students received information briefings from the James House crisis intervention agency, the Army Criminal Investigation Command and Fort Lee’s Family Advocacy Program.

Jumping for SHARP was among the many installation activities highlighting the April observance of Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month.

Story by Terrance Bell , U.S. Army Garrison Fort Lee Public Affairs

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Drop zone serves as location for unconventional SHARP training