EL PASO, Texas - Fort Bliss, which like the rest of the Army has seen a steep increase in the number of reported sexual assault and harrassment cases, held a stand-down Monday in an effort to help curb the problem.
According to a U.S. Army report, the rate of violent sexual crime in the military has increased more than 60-percent since 2006.
Those disturbing numbers led Fort Bliss to take part in an Army-wide stand-down to stress its SHARP program, or Sexual Harassment/Assault Response Program.
All of the roughly 30,000 Fort Bliss soldiers took part in a program that the Army hopes will change the trend of increased sexual assaults among the ranks in recent years.
"Really, what we're interested in doing is getting back to the basics here and have frank, open and candid discussions about why this is still happening in the Army," said Lt. Col. Jim Hardaway.
Sexual assaults in the Army rose from about 19,000 in 2011 to more than 26,000 in 2012, inspiring talks between Congress and top military officials earlier this month.
"We see this as an insider threat that's got to be stopped as soon as possible," Hardaway said. "So at the end of the day, it's not about power point slides or watching videos, it's about having a frank discussion from our most junior soldiers to our leaders about how we can stop this from happening in the future."
Hardaway said he thinks the numbers may be up simply due to the SHARP program, which makes it easier to report sexual assaults.
"Sexual assault get most of the press, because that's a crime, people go to jail for that," Hardaway said. "But we're seeing it starts usually as a sexual harassment incident, it starts as innuendo, as a joke, as just a passing comment. No one thinks anything about it and when we let that go it just snowballs into something bigger."
Sgt. Robert Perez, from Seattle, said "it affects the mission, it affects moral. Without that trust, how can we trust in wartime situations, deployment scenarios. There's got to be lots of trust."
"We're a team," Staff Sgt. Ryan Knight from Indiana said. "We've got to look out for our buddies and make sure stuff like this doesn't happen."
Hardaway added: "There is no room for the jokes, for the innuendo. It may have been ok 20-30-40 years ago just because nobody said anything. They really weren't OK, just nobody stopped it."
Monday's all-day training included both male and female soldiers. Fort Bliss, which has a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment and sexual assault, has had five guilty pleas or convictions involving sexual assault over the past couple of years.