WASHINGTON -- Speaking at a symposium designed to uphold equal opportunity standards in the service, the Army's new chief of staff re-asserted his emphasis on prioritizing people -- Soldiers and civilians who comprise the Army's active-duty force, National Guard and Reserve units.

Gen. James C. McConville, days after taking over the service's top military position, appeared at the Military Equal Opportunity (MEO) Policy and Training Symposium to highlight his No. 1 priority for the service: people.

McConville assumed the position of chief of staff of the Army from Gen. Mark A. Milley, the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

While readiness along with modernization and reform will continue to be high priorities under McConville, the foundation for those efforts begins with people and assuring fair treatment for each member of the Army, he said.

"People are the ones that enable us," McConville said Wednesday. "The strength of our Army is our people; that's our greatest weapons system."

The two-day symposium provides updates to policy and training for Army military equal opportunity professionals where promising practices and successful techniques that directly impact Soldier readiness, climate and morale issues are honed.

Participants discussed the annual bullying and hazing report to Congress, proposed changes to policies and migration status of military equal opportunity complaints to the Integrated Case Reporting System database, MEO's system for fielding reports of incidents.

Spurgeon Moore, acting deputy assistant secretary of the Army for the Equity and Inclusion Agency, said the symposium goals include building cohesion and synergy while reinforcing standards.

The Army plans, he said, to re-establish the annual symposium at a time when senior leaders have pledged to eradicate harmful practices and behaviors from its ranks. MEO professionals serve as the principal advisor to commanders on identifying any unintentional or intentional discrimination or biases at each level of the Army.

"What we have is a function that is necessary to the readiness and success of the Army. Commanders must have trust, confidence and faith in the MEO professional to provide the pulse and temperature of their commands," Moore said. "MEO professionals are the fixers, mediators, ombudsman and leaders inside the organization."

In order to combat harmful practices and behaviors, Soldiers must be willing to act when they see a fellow Soldier in need, or is not treated with dignity and respect, McConville said. The general lauded the recent efforts of Soldiers in their home communities and said that a similar mindset must be adopted toward unfair practices in our Army.

"If there's a boat going under, there's a Soldier jumping in to pull someone out," McConville said. "If there's a terrorist incident with someone with a weapon, Soldiers are running in to intervene and save lives. What we've got to do is create a culture with the same thing: when they see someone that's harming a Soldier, they step in -- they intervene."

Giving Soldiers equal and fair treatment enables them to achieve their potential and tap into their skills and talents, McConville said.

HIDDEN GIFTS

In preparation for a deployment during the Iraq surge in 2007, McConville, then a brigadier general, took an unorthodox approach in assessing the skills of his Soldiers. He conducted surveys with National Guard troops under his command, asking them to write down their civilian professions on a spreadsheet.

When McConville looked at the document, he found a wealth of talent within his ranks. One sergeant owned his own engineering and design firm. A major in the unit also held a high-ranking position with the Texas Highway Department and used his expertise to help build roads during the deployment. The general said a pair of Soldiers from the Midwest understood the basics of farming to help build farms on the overseas tour.

"So we had all this talent that we didn't know was there that we [hadn't touched]," McConville said.

McConville said Soldiers should be placed in the right career fields based on experience and background. The Army's new talent management system, the Integrated Personnel and Pay System-Army, will help transition the largest military service to better manage its vast talent pool by consistently evaluating Soldier skills from the active force, the Guard and the Reserve.

"What we want to do is start treating people like they're not interchangeable parts and start aligning them by their talents with the right jobs," McConville said.

STARTING EARLY

With about 120,000 new recruits joining the Army's ranks each year, properly indoctrinating Soldiers into the Army culture will be another area of emphasis.

McConville said assigning young recruits a squad leader or supervisor to properly enforce Army values will help build cohesive units at the lowest levels. The culture change must begin during Soldiers' indoctrination into the operational Army, he said.

"Those sergeants are teaching them right from the beginning what right looks like," McConville said. "How they treat each other with dignity and respect, how they take care of each other. They're building cohesive units. The secret sauce of our Army is cohesive teams."

Sgt. Maj. Jason Enochs, equal opportunity sergeant major for Army Pacific Command, said MEO professionals are uniquely trained to assist those commanders in maximizing human potential to ensure all persons are measured by their merit, performance, and potential in support of readiness.

"Those young leaders build their cohesive teams by displaying the right characteristics to achieve better morale, greater commitment, and increased trust inside their squad," Enochs said.

McConville said younger millennials and Generation Z Soldiers boast a wealth of talent, but respond to motivation techniques differently than previous generations.

"They don't want to be treated just like another cog in the system," McConville said. "They're not a widget. They want to be recognized for what they bring to the table, what their talents are and they will stay with us."