Army chief of staff Raymond Odierno speaks at a news conference Friday in Ft. Bliss, Texas. He spoke about the efforts the Army is taking to eradicate sexual assaults. (Juan Carlos Llorca / AP)
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FORT BLISS, TEXAS — The U.S. Army chief of staff said Friday eradicating instances of sexual assault will not only require revamping training programs but also holding conversations with soldiers to change the climate within their ranks.
Gen. Raymond R. Odierno said during a news conference at Fort Bliss that it's "not about PowerPoint slides, this is about people talking about these very difficult issues and understanding each other."
Odierno spoke after delivering the keynote speech at an Army graduation ceremony.
He said he recently told two- and three-star generals his priorities are to care for the victims and investigate every case, as well as changing the climate of tolerance toward sexual assault and sexual harassment in the Army. To achieve that, they've taken a new approach to sexual assault and harassment institutional training programs — from the basic training and non-commissioned officer levels all the way to the top.
"We have a huge program... we have new modules but this is about having conversation and interactive training," Odierno said. "I believe the most important thing is the interaction. Dialogue to recognize this problem from everybody's point of view, that's a first step."
The Pentagon estimated in a recent report that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year, up from an estimated 19,000 assaults in 2011, based on an anonymous survey of military personnel.
Odierno said that the recent case in which a Fort Bliss chaplain pleaded guilty to assault charges does not represent all chaplains in the Army or Fort Bliss.
"Chaplains can be trusted, is this one bad apple? Apparently yes," he said.
Odierno added that part of that culture shift means that those who tolerate sexual assault or harassment will be punished and expelled from the Army. He also said it will take time to get to a point where Army personnel see each other not as male or female but as soldiers with a shared purpose.
He also stressed that actions will be taken against those who engage in sexual harassment or assault.
"It doesn't matter who it is, what rank they are, we are going to take action," said Odierno, who also praised the efforts done at Fort Bliss to curb sexual assaults and harassment.
Odierno spoke about the base's "sisters in arms" program in which female soldiers and officers get together to talk about issues. He also said the victim advocate program in Fort Bliss that, he said, is starting to take hold and be successful.
The base has more than 640 victim advocates and has provided about 300 cellphones to them so victims can reach out to them at any given time.
Odierno also spoke about the financial constraints the Army faces because of automatic spending cuts, the lack of a national budget since 2010 and a shortfall in their operational accounts to support the operation in Afghanistan.
He said the Army has had to significantly cut down on training to the point where only soldiers that are about to be deployed receive training.
"Our readiness levels are going to be lowered and I am very worried about that," he said.