He was the highest-ranking officer at one of the Army’s most significant posts, commanding more than 30,000 soldiers during wartime and overseeing the equivalent of a small city.
But after nearly three years in El Paso, the general is leaving his hometown to take a new assignment. On Thursday, Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard surrendered command of Fort Bliss and the 1st Armored Division to one of his old classmates, Maj. Gen. Sean MacFarland.
Those familiar with the Army say Pittard had one of the toughest jobs you can have in the Army, which is to convert a post from one command to another, and he is highly regarded by those in charge.
Pittard’s next stop is a temporary assignment as a special assistant to the Army’s training commander, four-star Gen. Robert Cone, at Fort Eustis, Va.
After that, Pittard, 54, says he doesn’t know what he plans to do. Although it’s generally thought he is well positioned for promotion to a top command, Pittard says he is considering retiring from the Army and transitioning to a civilian job in El Paso.
“When the time comes to retire, this is a place where the community, and potential employers, would welcome him,” says Brig. Gen. Richard Behrenhausen, who retired from the Army 22 years ago after commanding Fort Bliss. “He would bring an awful lot to the community.”
Pittard, a 1977 Eastwood High graduate, returned to his hometown to become senior commander of Fort Bliss in July 2010. His mantra is “Make a difference!” and, by all accounts, he did.
He became known for leading the Army nationally on some of its most difficult issues – everything from soldier suicide to renewable energy.
On occasion his frank remarks invited controversy, but the post now has the lowest suicide rate in the Army and is on track to become energy independent by 2018.
Pittard built training ranges that rival Hollywood sets, spending $500 million to modernize ranges and transform the post into a regional training hub. He launched a slew of programs meant to help military families and soldiers returned from combat.
Pittard also opened the post to El Pasoans. All that is needed to drive on Fort Bliss is a driver’s license. He’s also opened the post to media scrutiny, overturning a long-time policy that journalists be escorted on post.
But even as Pittard leaves Fort Bliss, the Army is facing new problems such as a sexual assault epidemic and questions about the care of the military’s growing veteran population here in El Paso and elsewhere.
On Tuesday, the general held his last press conference and, afterwards, spent nearly two hours in one-on-one interviews with local reporters – one last time.
He talked frankly about everything from sexual assault and suicide, to Army culture and tensions in Syria, Iran and North Korea. Here are excerpts from those conversations.
Q: Amidst all that is going on at Fort Bliss, I don’t want to forget that Fort Bliss soldiers are fighting overseas and dying for their country right now. We were reminded of that recently when eight Fort Bliss soldiers were killed in action in Afghanistan. As a commander, how do you respond?
It’s to ensure, so you can sleep at night, that you’ve done all you can to prepare soldiers for combat – whether it’s getting the newest counter-IED training and equipment here at Fort Bliss, whether it’s making our training as realistic as possible or having ranges that are world class.
We have done that at Fort Bliss. That’s what keeps us going. That’s our mission. For a soldier to die because they weren’t trained enough, to me, is negligence, so we will not allow that here.
There are improvised explosive devices that you sometimes don’t find. Our unit in Afghanistan right now, 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division, has found about 70 percent of them. That is a high rate of detection, but there are still 30 percent we don’t find.
Of that 30 percent, half will end up detonating.
The hardest part of this job is knowing that the people we lead we are leading into harm’s way. America’s still at war in Afghanistan, and that has been brought home most definitely by the deaths of eight of our solders in just the past couple weeks.
That’s the hardest part, knowing the people who are wounded – who are killed – will be people we know. They are our fellow soldiers, our friends, people we have known for years.
Q: After more than a decade of military intervention and a massive aid effort, the U.S. says goodbye to Afghanistan next year. What are the key considerations as the Army transitions to a peacetime force, and how will life change on Fort Bliss?
There will be more time to do the kind of training we need to do to prepare our solders. Home station training will be something everybody will want to do, and we are positioned better than any other installation to do it.
It’s important we do training the way we actually fight in combat, which is with our joint partners. We are well positioned here to work with other services like the Air Force and Marines.
Q: You’ve been a commander for the entirety of these recent conflicts. What should we learn from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that may be helpful as we consider other threats such as Syria, Iran or North Korea?
Whatever we do, make sure we are focused on the military and political end state. Getting into Iraq, we have transformed that nation. We transformed it into a form of democracy smack dab in the middle of the Middle East. What is the better Iraq supposed to have looked like? What is the better Afghanistan supposed to have looked like?
So, for Syria, what is the end state? For Iran, when I hear people say, “Oh, let’s just bomb some of the sites.” Well, bombing is an act of war, which would mean we are at war with Iran. Is that what we want to do? I don’t know, but it is important to understand what we are getting into.
Q: The Army has undergone a truly radical cultural shift over the course of your career; it’s hard to overstate how big the shift is. I believe your West Point class was the first or second to graduate women.
It was the second.
Q: Now there are many women in the Army and some are taking combat roles. The Army has also gone from denying the existence of gay people, to “don’t ask, don’t tell,” to accepting all sexual orientations. What are your thoughts on how the Army has changed over the course of your career?
For me, having women at West Point wasn’t a cultural change because I was used to going to school with women my whole life. It was more of a cultural change for those upper class cadets. I feel better about being an American because of those changes. We are closer to the ideal, but we are not there yet.
You’ll never ever hear me say anything about the “good ol’ days,” because I just don’t believe they were. They were good old days for some folks but not for all folks. People, for example, talk about how World War II brought the nation together. Well, we were still segregated.
Q: We were recently reminded that cultural change hasn’t always come smoothly with recent revelations about a sexual assault epidemic in the Army. Is it a cultural problem?
There is something to be said about the culture that we have. It takes being able to lead elite soldiers into combat and face an enemy. Then you have to attack that enemy and destroy that enemy. We have a culture that promotes the ability to do that, but, at the same time, that culture may work against us as far as being able to be more sensitive and show our emotions. There is a tension there.
But if our soldiers know what the standard is, they will know how to deal with it, and the standard is sexual assault is a crime. It’s not ‘boys will be boys’ or anything like that – it is a crime!
Q: How can the Army, the military really, end this sexual assault problem?
The chief of staff of the Army says it’s our No. 1 priority right now; it has been our priority here at Fort Bliss for a long time. That’s why we’ve seen some success.
The sexual harassment piece of it, as well as assault, was part of our respect and dignity campaign, which we started two years ago. That’s where the no profanity signs came from.
Now that we’ve done the baseline training for supervisors – this is how you treat people – we are looking for the little dictators out there. We are looking for the people who are harassing our soldiers or who are toxic leaders.
We have a support group for our female soldiers called Sisters in Arms, which has been very helpful. Because people are feeling more comfortable, we are getting more and more people coming forward.
That is good because we are finding these predators; they are in our own ranks, and we need to police them out. We have gotten rid of members of the chain of command – members from all ranks, private through colonel – have been removed.
We also have SHARP, that’s Sexual Harassment and Assault Response Persons. Each SHARP representative has a cell phone and can be called no matter when it is – 24/7.
Q: Should sex crimes be removed from the military chain of command as some in Washington suggest?
If I thought removing sex crimes from the jurisdiction of the military to civilian courts would work, I would be on board. But our experiences here are a little bit different. I’ll give you an example.
In North Dakota, one of our soldiers was off duty at home and he and a friend went to a party. They got drunk and our soldier raped this young lady. The district attorney decided not to take the case. We did not do that. We took action, and he was sentenced to 10-years’ confinement.
If I thought the civilian courts would make a difference, I’d go that route. But that’s not the major issue here. The issue is in our own military, identifying who is doing this and then taking action.
What we haven’t been doing a very good job of in the past is helping our victims. Our goal is to turn our sexual assault victims into survivors. It’s been amazing how our victims have been treated before as far as being asked not to “rock the boat” and reporting.
We had all the senior leaders on Fort Bliss watch the movie “The Invisible War,” which was a difficult film to watch but helped give us some clarity on just how big the problem is.
Q: I know you don’t have any oversight of the Veterans Administration, but, as a soldier, are you concerned about the care of veterans here? I gather more than 400 days is the average processing time for disability claims for veterans in El Paso.
We can do so much better. I know that Veterans Affairs Secretary Shinseki has got a tough job to try to make the whole VA system more effective for our veterans. We’ve been working with Congressmen Gallego and O’Rourke on ways we can improve.
From our perspective, we really don’t have a whole lot of impact on the Veterans Administration; however we’ve begun an initiative for a veterans fusion office so that veterans have a place to go to get the information they need.
Q: You also recently raised the issue of the long ER wait times. I hear from doctors that Beaumont is understaffed. For a long time, there have been many, many open positions at Beaumont posted on USA Jobs, but hiring is frozen due to the budget pressures.
Yes, but we are looking at getting waivers for certain positions. Overall, William Beaumont is doing OK. I was concerned because we were down to five operating rooms from our normal seven or eight, but now we’re bringing that back up since it has been brought to my attention.
Q: You’ve created a culture of seeking help on Fort Bliss that has made the suicide rate here the lowest in the Army and have launched other novel initiatives such as the wellness fusion campus and net zero program. Are those going to continue after you leave?
I hope so. There is a reason why we have this 10-day overlap. Most senior commanders have got one day to transition. We just felt that what we are doing here at Fort Bliss and the 1st Armored Division was so important that we should take 10 days. I wanted to make sure Maj. Gen. MacFarland saw everything and understood the context behind the decisions that have been made.
Q: The Army is shrinking its force. How long is Fort Bliss going to remain at its current strength and how much will be cut?
We know that with sequestration and other budget pressures that, probably by 2016, we will lose one of our combat brigades.
Q: There is still some empty space at the Freedom Crossing shopping mall on Fort Bliss. It’s a beautiful center, but it’s also an experiment for the Army. What are its prospects?
The prospects are good, but it has been a difficult exercise in many ways. A commanding general talking to CEOs to try to convince them to come… we are working it hard.
Texas Roadhouse Steakhouse, the first of its kind on any military installation, opens May 27. We have a jewelry store coming in as well as an urgent care clinic, and we are going to transform the rest of Freedom Crossing into almost like an outlet mall.
The use of the Grande Theater, Buffalo Wild Wings – all of that – has helped to make the center the third-largest revenue generating entity in all of AAFES, the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which is worldwide. That is amazing.
The open access to Fort Bliss helped us with Freedom Crossing. The population base at Fort Bliss could not make it profitable; we needed the population base of El Paso.
Q: I gather it can be hard to go from a command position to a non-command “desk” job. Are you ready for your new assignment?
(Laughs) I’ll be OK. You know, 12 of the past 14 years I’ve been commanding. That’s also part of the reason the transition, maybe, to something in civilian life would be good. Because if I am not able to command at the next level… there are only so many slots.
Serving as a division commander here in my hometown really made the difference. If I had served as division commander anywhere else, I probably wouldn’t even be considering leaving the military. It has been just a neat experience, and I don’t know what else I would want to do.
Q: After this temporary position, what’s next?
I don’t know and that’s exciting to me.
Q: But you want to retire in El Paso?
Eventually, but there are so many challenges out there that I want to pursue. The best days at Fort Bliss are still ahead in so many ways. It has been an honor and a privilege to serve as the commanding general of Fort Bliss and to be a part of this greater community – Fort Bliss and El Paso. I just thank everybody for their support; it does make a difference, and I really appreciate it.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.