Squad leaders across the Army want the chance to lead their soldiers – at home and on the battlefield – as the service tackles issues such as sexual assault, discipline and suicide.

That was the message from 32 squad leaders handpicked by their commands for a working group created by Sergeant Major of the Army Dan Dailey.

"Give [squad leaders] the time to conduct training," said Staff Sgt. Nathan LeDoux, an advanced individual training instructor with the 264th Medical Battalion at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas. "Give them the ability to take the initiative and solve soldier problems. Give them the opportunity to handle soldiers' issues and work on soldier development."

Staff Sgt. Jonathan Miller, who was the 2014 Drill Sergeant of the Year, agreed.

"As noncommissioned officers, we need to have that freedom. We need the left and right limits, but let us operate inside that," he said. "We need to get back to the basics. We lost a step, and we need to get back to that, to instill that discipline in soldiers."

Dailey, who brought the squad leaders together as part of the Army's "Not in my squad" campaign, said he was pleased with the feedback he received.

"We're looking for ideas and solutions," he said. "We want this to be their program, and based on what we learn, we may continue to do this."

He said he was especially encouraged that the squad leaders, on their own, decided they wanted to take on the responsibility of taking care of soldiers and combating sexual assault and other issues facing the Army.

"They realize, and I didn't have to tell them, that they want the responsibility, they have to take responsibility, and they're in a position to do it," Dailey said. "And I know they can do it."

The soldiers also recommended the Army replicate similar working groups at installations across the Army. This would encourage NCOs to share ideas and best practices and get involved in the "Not in my squad" campaign.

"Not in my squad. Not in our Army. We are trusted professionals" is the Army's sweeping campaign to fight sexual assault and harassment in the ranks.

Dailey, a career infantryman who has been the Army's senior enlisted soldier since Jan. 30, came up with the "Not in my squad" concept. The idea is to put first-line leaders directly into the fight against sexual assault and sexual harassment, issues that are among the top priorities for senior Army leaders.

As part of that push, Dailey called on the various commands across the Army to provide 32 squad leaders to come together to brainstorm ideas and recommendations on how to fight sexual assault as well as tackle issues such as morale, training, discipline, standards and education.

The squad leaders chosen for the working group were selected by their commands, and the only criteria set by Dailey was they had to be successful NCOs who had served as squad leaders for at least one year.

In all, there were 24 active-duty NCOs, four from the Army Reserve and four from the National Guard.

The soldiers arrived in Washington, D.C., on Monday and spent Tuesday and Wednesday in small group discussions. They briefed Dailey on their recommendations Wednesday afternoon and met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Thursday.

While "Not in my squad" started as a sexual assault prevention program, it evolved into a broader discussion about ways to inspire leaders to be good stewards of the Army profession, officials said. As a result, the squad leaders soldiers focused not only on sexual assault prevention but how they could create an overall culture of respect, dignity and inclusion, officials said.

Many of the topics the squad leaders discussed were similar to the concerns raised during a recent NCO Solarium at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

During the Solarium in April, 79 NCOs – sergeants first class, master sergeants and first sergeants – worked with expert facilitators to develop proposals to address hot-button topics such as training and education, fitness and standards.

Those NCOs called for a better physical fitness test, better integration of mission command training in NCO education, stricter adherence to Army standards, and improved talent management.

"We have some problems in the Army," Dailey said, adding that some of those problems detract from the Army's mission to "fight and win our nation's wars."

"We don't steal from each other," he said. "And I mean that about everything. We don't steal pride, trust, an individual's wellbeing, or it could be their iPod. We're all on the same team."

But those problems can be overcome with strong leadership, Dailey said.

"It's easy for me to make a program for the Army, but that doesn't build success," he said. "We are a people organization. If we give you the responsibility to lead nine soldiers outside the wire in Afghanistan or Iraq, you have the same trust, honor and prestige to do that in garrison."

During their briefing to Dailey Wednesday afternoon, the squad leaders appeared to be enthusiastic about taking on the challenge.

Among the highlights:

More proactive leadership

Several of the groups – the 32 squad leaders were split into six small groups – agreed that squad leaders must be proactive and lead by example.

They also should empower their subordinates, advocate for them and praise them in public.

"We all too often look at the negative. On the spot corrections are a prime example," Miller, the drill sergeant, said. "How often do we go up to somebody and say 'you did outstanding on that PT test,' or 'your uniform looks sharp?' It doesn't happen to the level it should."

Squad leaders also must be involved in their soldiers' lives, Miller said.

"It's one thing to show up to work every day, but they don't just work for you, they work with you," he said. "They have lives, they have families, and other things that help make them successful."

More accountability

It's up to squad leaders to hold soldiers accountable for their actions, said Staff Sgt. Derrick Queen, the NCO in charge of the Medical Simulation Training Center at Madigan Army Medical Center, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.

"This is being an NCO. This is nothing new," Queen said. "The only way to make this happen is hold leaders accountable for what they're doing and not doing."

Soldiers understand what needs to be done to combat indiscipline or an issue such as sexual assault.

"It's not that any of us doesn't get it," Queen said. "It's that people aren't doing it and nobody's holding them accountable."

Better training

Computer-based training is ineffective, and soldiers don't learn anything from it, some of the leaders said. Also, without computer-based training, squad leaders get more time with their soldiers.

"Let us conduct some training," LeDoux said. "Soldiers will mimic their squad leaders."

Better talent management

The Army promoted a lot of soldiers very quickly during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some are unprepared for the jobs they're assigned, the NCOs said.

One NCO said the selection process for squad leader "should be more intensive."

One of the small groups suggested doing away with the automatic promotion system, said Staff Sgt. Cassandra Muschamp, a G-1 strength management NCO with the 593rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

"Our group came to a consensus that it needs to go away," she said. "We promoted leaders prematurely, people who were not ready to be a leader. Leadership isn't grown overnight."

Others suggested that maybe not everybody wants to be a leader.

This led Dailey to ask the group if every skill level and military occupational specialty needs a leadership track.

Might there be opportunities for senior or technical specialists who are technically proficient but who don't want to lead? he asked.

Don't forget to reward high performing soldiers

It's important to recognize soldiers for performing well, especially when that recognition is delivered in front of the soldier's peers, the NCOs said.

"Time is huge for soldiers," Queen said. "Reward them with a three-day pass if they perform well. Just like negative things go 'round, positive things go around as well."

And when you have to discipline or punish soldiers, "make sure you're fair," Queen said.

Staff writer Kevin Lilley contributed to this report.