EL PASO, Texas - Unprotected sex can be more difficult to discuss with soldiers than drunk driving, substance abuse, or mental health issues, said Fort Bliss spokesman Maj. Joe Buccino.
But troubling new data prompted commanding general, Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard to break the silence.
Thirteen soldiers were living with HIV on post in 2012, making Fort Bliss the installation with the most cases of HIV in the Army for a second year in a row, said Buccino. There were eleven soldiers living with HIV in 2011.
"Some leaders don't feel comfortable taking about it, so that's why there is an emphasis on making this public. Making it known what the risks are," said Buccino.
Pittard addressed the "surge" in new infections in a recent column in the Fort Bliss Monitor.
"There are a number of commonalities among our Soldiers who have been affected," wrote Pittard. "All of our recent cases have been a result of men having unprotected sex with men. African-American and Latino Soldiers were affected disproportionately in far greater numbers. The majority of our HIV cases resulted from online solicitations for sex, particularly from the websites Craigslist, Grinder, and Adam for Adam."
"Those websites have not been placed off limits," Buccino told ABC-7 Tuesday. "I think it's just an educational issue and I think what we're learning through this, is that the civilian population uses those sites to solicit from soldiers because they believe soldiers are cleaner and safer than the rest of the civilian population."
Soldiers are tested when they return from deployment and every two years.
"However, there is a six-month incubation period for HIV during which time it will not come up on a test," Buccino said. "And in fact, during that incubation period you're more likely to transmit the disease to someone else if you have unprotected sex."
Despite access to dates and sexual encounters at our fingertips, Fort Bliss Chief Army public health Nurse, Elizabeth Miller said many people still hold misconceptions about sex and risks associated with it.
"It's concerning nationwide because a lot of our soldiers tell us they see HIV as another STD and that's simply not true. It's still a deadly virus that is out there and they need to make sure they're having protected sex," said Miller.
"HIV is still very impactful, not only for the health of a soldier but also because you can effect other people," said Buccino. "Additionally, it's going have an impact on how you serve."
Pittard also wrote that a diagnosis of HIV severely limits a soldier's career options.
"Soldiers with HIV cannot serve outside the Continental United States and are permanently non-deployable. HIV-positive Soldiers may not attend military schools greater than 20 weeks or schools that incur an additional service obligation. Frequently these Soldiers are compelled to change their Military Occupational Specialty to a career field which can accommodate these severe restrictions," Pittard wrote.
In 2012, there were 784 soldiers from Team Bliss that were diagnosed with sexually transmitted infections (STI's) in addition to HIV.
"We must work to educate our Soldiers and curb STI's," Pittard wrote. "Protect yourself by always having safe sex."
The military began testing service members in the mid-1980s for HIV and before March 29, 2004, HIV testing intervals varied among the armed services. In 2004 it became uniform across the armed services that testing would take place every two years.
The HIV infection rate across the military is about two out of every 10,000 service members, according to a Department of Defense news release in 2004, which is equal to or lower than the civilian population in the United States for the same age and gender.
In Sept. 2011 "don't ask, don't tell" was repealed, allowing gay, lesbian and bisexual people to join (or serve openly in) the military.
"Being openly gay (in the military) is not a risk factor at all," said Miller. "The risk factors are that they are engaging in unprotected sex."
"The army's inclusive of sexual orientation and of all genders," said Buccio. In Jan. 2013 U.S. military leaders lifted the ban on women serving in combat positions. "The army is more inclusive society is more inclusive and the army is a part of society. Now you're dealing with the full range the full complexity of human behavior..I think it's made us a better army and developed better leaders."
Pittard urged soldiers searching for more information on STI's to contact the William Beaumont Army Medical Center urology department at (915) 742-5140.