Close ties to the Army bring rapport for social workers
April 1, 2010
- Civilians bring special skills to social work services for soldiers and families.
- Teams use combat stress control lessons in garrison, home environment.
Fort Sill, Okla.--Drawing on close family ties to the Army, Cheryl Kottke and Nancy Jo McLeod, outreach social workers for social work services, have an immediate rapport which they constantly seek to bolster with Fort Sill Soldiers and family members.
Social work services, a program unique to Fort Sill, was the brainchild of an Army major who developed the concept from a program that used active-duty combat operations stress control teams that worked with Soldiers down range. Instead of using green suiters, SWS employs civilian professionals to work with Soldiers and their families in garrison. Kottke was the first on board along with her assistant, Gerald Simmons. Together they implemented the major's idea, though with so many units to reach their impact was minimized. She then added McLeod to the staff in 2009, who with an additional three social work assistants enabled the duo to get out, interact with units and build recognition for what they had to offer.
McLeod came into the position armed with an understanding of the effectiveness of social work programs thanks to her husband, a National Guard officer who has deployed twice.
"He's my role model of what a resilient Soldier looks like," she said. "He's demonstrated the things I teach Soldiers so I know it's possible to help them too."
As for Kottke, her social worker apple fell close to the tree her father, a retired Army medic, established. She said an effective social worker has to be driven and passionate about Soldiers. "Knowing what they are doing is very important, and anyway we can support them and help them benefits everyone in the community," she said. "It's a big mission for us, and if we do our jobs well, it benefits a lot of people."
Meeting that mission requires the women to get out of the office and interact with units forming their modus operandi for SWS efforts on post. These women won't be found in starched white coats hiding behind massive desks armed with notepads and observing sterile white lab rats.
In establishing contact with a unit, they may employ a morale survey to help commanders get a feel for what's going on in their units. "Back-briefing the results with a week or so, the survey points out some areas we can help them," said Kottke. "From there we can come back train unit Soldiers and help identify issues to clarify or remedy."
Leading a unit charged with turning civilian recruits into Soldiers through basic combat training, Lt. Col. Kelly Ivanoff, 1st Battalion, 19th Field Artillery commander, said SWS professionals are a tremendous benefit to unit leadership and to his Soldiers and family members who seek their services. He said the friendly manner in which the social workers speak to his Soldiers sets everyone at ease providing a good backdrop to examine issues that need addressing.
"Social workers assisted with a unit dinner pairing with our master resiliency trainer to discuss resiliency efforts put forth by the Army chief of staff," he said. "They employed vignette-based scenarios then broke out the 30 or so diners into small groups to discuss the specific issues.
"It was a great event, because it established a comfortable environment and included family members from which to work as a team while communicating resilience and strength," he said.
McLeod said the in garrison briefings provide a great opportunity to educate Soldiers on what to expect when they deploy. "We met National Guardsmen and reservists from across the country, and we're able to brief them and prepare them almost as well as garrison Soldiers," she said.
About the only difference between transient Soldiers and their in-garrison brethren is Soldiers posted here may encounter Kottke or McLeod around post. The women said after briefings they let Soldiers know they can come in and talk anytime. However, sometimes the women will meet and discuss concerns with them at the post exchange, a unit break area or other similar places where Soldiers are comfortable.
Other times comfort might not be the central issues. McLeod mentioned a commander who requested she come out to the field where his unit was training to talk with a Soldier and give him some ideas of how to cope with an issue.
"It worked out well for the Soldier and he didn't have to miss the training," she said.
Although SWS focuses on Soldiers needs in conjunction with deployments, the staff has also interacted with families, too. Briefings may offer spouses a greater understanding of how to prepare for a deployment and what to expect during the time apart. The social workers may follow up with spouses to talk with them during the deployment to see how they are doing and see if they need any additional help.
While their mission varies from unit to unit, SWS responds to commander needs providing training to anywhere from five to 400 people. Kottke said smaller groups are better as they have more chances to observe body language and look at faces to see if the Soldiers are getting the information. McLeod said this focus on faces allows the social workers to observe those "ah-ha" moments when Soldiers comprehend the information and perhaps how it relates to them.
Kottke and McLeod either respond to unit requests to talk with its Soldiers or take their skills to the units and communicate their interest in being of service. Instances include meeting with Soldiers before deployment to discuss potential stresses associated with combat and to offer resiliency strategies.
One of the programs' strengths is its ability to adapt to cultural shifts within the Army. "With Comprehensive Soldier Fitness coming down, we can adjust our services to fit with master resiliency training so we can support it and not compete against it," said McLeod. "We're always looking for the latest information so we can give Soldiers the best information possible."
Kottke said SWS functions as a team, coming to a consensus in developing training plans. This team atmosphere is enhanced by the assistants who each have active duty military backgrounds and can provide immediate feedback from a servicemember's perspective. She said training only differs in the individual experiences of each presenter.
The future looks bright for SWS thanks to increased awareness across the Army. Kottke said the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine recently began evaluating the staff's work on post. Using SWS data, CHPPM is recommending other posts replicate what they do here. Additional study will be completed and Kottke and CHPPM personnel will co-present the findings at the annual Force Health Protection Conference later this year in Phoenix.
Should the program gain acceptance at other stateside posts, Kottke said this will fit nicely with the basic SWS premise: to keep Soldiers' boots on the ground.
"By doing that we're helping them get the training they need, helping commanders keep their Soldiers busy doing their jobs and reducing the demand on behavioral health services," she said. "We are here for Soldiers and their families from the time they prepare to leave and are deployed to when they return and get ready to go out again."