EL PASO – Two young men, sporting fresh crew cuts, poke dollar bills into the underwear of a tall, lean, young woman. She lightly kisses her patrons on the cheeks and nods in gratitude as she returns to the center of the stage of the strip club, grabs the pole, and hoists herself up to the rhythm of the music booming in the background.
After the two young men sit down and begin to drink their beers, I approach the young woman on stage. She slides down the pole gracefully while staying in sync with the beats to her routine. She approaches me at the front of the stage and never breaks eye contact. I had no idea how to approach her to ask the question that had been running through my mind since first catching wind of the information that had been given to me…
Then the words just flew out of my mouth.
“Do you see a lot of military personal during your shifts?” I asked.
“Oh, we get lots of military guys in here, especially over the holidays. You know, they get lonely being stuck here without any family and stuff,” she said.
The next thing I ask is if she has seen a decrease in military personal coming into the club and she replies, “not at all, they are always in here and are pretty much my best customers.” She wanted to know why I was asking her these questions and I explained that I worked for a magazine and was writing a story about an HIV outbreak at Fort Bliss.
“Why are you here?” said the dancer.
I elaborated in the remaining three and a half minutes of her routine that I had received information that the increase of reported cases of HIV among soldiers here in El Paso may not have been exclusively contracted from men sex with men (MSM) according to sources revealed in a statement made by Maj. Gen. Dana J. H. Pittard in the online Fort Bliss Monitor in February.
The dancer suddenly straightened up as if her body had been hit with an electric shock or possibly fear. She then asked me not to reveal her identity in order to keep her job at the strip club and with one swift move she hooked up her bra from the stage floor and disappeared with a patron into the VIP room.
The Fort Bliss commanding general, Maj. Gen. Pittard warned in his section of the online Fort Bliss Monitor “Thoughts while working out at in the gym” with a passage titled “Protect Yourself.” It provides information and data regarding an outbreak and increase of reported HIV infections among Fort Bliss soldiers.
“In 2012, the HIV infection rate at Fort Bliss was among the highest in the Army with 13 Fort Bliss soldiers infected,” said Pittard. He explained that the reported cases have been attributed to men having unprotected sex with men due to online solicitations for sex. Such websites as Craigslist, Grinder, and Adam for Adam were listed as the top sites for online solicitations. Pittard said that there were many sexually transmitted diseases in addition to the HIV outbreaks in 2012, and that from Fort Bliss, 784 Soldiers were diagnosed with sexually transmitted infections (STI’s).
“This may reflect a civilian preference for military partners under the assumption that our soldiers are free of HIV,” said Pittard.
However, before this statement was released in the online Fort Bliss Monitor, I was informed that an order to stay away from strip clubs in El Paso was issued to the troops at Fort Bliss according to another source, a soldier, who also fears retaliation. This order was given right after the holiday season when there were allegedly a high number of reported cases of Ft. Bliss soldiers contracting HIV at a local strip club.
“We were told to stay away from that strip club and that we are not allowed to go there because soldiers contracted HIV,” said the young soldier.
Individuals from local law enforcement and hospital personnel also confirmed that they were informed of the situation and were told to be cautious, according to sources who also asked to remain anonymous because they fear retaliation.
I couldn’t get anyone to agree to be quoted and identified as a source on this story. At one point I was told to “back off” the story.
Looking for statistics, I contacted Darrel Petry, the Public Information Officer for the El Paso Police Department and I requested information on any arrests that were made during the time period of January 2012 through March 2013 for prostitution at 15 local strip clubs. Petry said that there were no arrests for prostitution during that time period at any of those strip clubs. However, Petry said that during that time-frame 32 individuals – 24 females and eight males – were charged in the El Paso City/County area on charges ranging from Prostitution, Promotion of Prostitution, to Aggravated Promotion of Prostitution. “As for the El Paso Police Department many of the arrests that we make for these types of offenses are the result of undercover operations,” said Petry.
Irene Ovalle, a public health supervisor in the Department of Public Health for the city of El Paso who oversees The M Factor and the HIV testing outreach programs said that they have started a new program called Condom Distribution. “What we are trying to do is set it up on the internet where you can come in and pick up condoms and at distributions sites as well,” said Ovalle.
Ovalle said that they are also working with Fort Bliss to do condom distribution because they provide testing to many of their soldiers. “More people are getting tested and soldiers do come here because we do provide confidential services and after counseling service, and advise them to notify their officers, because they do also provide treatment for them,” said Ovalle.
In a second interview with Ovalle in late April, she said that she had just received information that because of this new program the numbers of reported HIV cases at Fort Bliss have begun to decline.
In trying to write this story I met with a lot of resistance from Fort Bliss and everyone who gave me information refused to be named for fear of retaliation or loss of employment. A list of places soldiers are not allowed to visit is posted every three months on the Internet and all over the base. The most recent one released in November 2012 does not list any local strip clubs as places that are off limits to the soldiers.