FORT POLK, La. -- Often, when an officer takes command of a unit, he or she might not know the Soldiers well.

Granted, the outgoing commander most likely gives a brief to let the new leader know what to expect, but some areas - including potential problems - might be missed. To help the commander better assess what's in store, the Army Substance Abuse Program has developed a tool to provide commanders with a look at the health of their unit.

The Unit Risk Inventory, part of the Army's Risk Reduction Program, is a commander's tool to prevent, reduce and manage high-risk Soldier behaviors and promote a prevention-focused approach, thus increasing Solider and unit readiness. Data is provided to commanders furnishing a "snapshot" of their unit relating to 14 risk factors such as deaths, accidents, injuries, sexually transmitted diseases, suicide gestures and attempts, unexcused absences, drug and alcohol offenses, traffic violations, crimes against persons, crimes against property, spouse abuse, child abuse and finance difficulties.A,A

Capt. David Marshall, commander, B Company, 88th Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, said the URI provided him with valuable information when he assumed command in April 2009. "Within 90 days of taking command I did a Unit Risk Inventory," he said. "I did another one this April. Seeing the trends from the past year gives me an idea what kind of training I need to focus on."

Marshall said that lately, the biggest risks seem to be spousal abuse, driving under the influence and illegal drugs.A,A "Sometimes it's hard to determine the validity of the surveys because some Soldiers might not take them seriously," he said. "Some of their answers might throw the surveys off. What we do is compare our surveys with the historical data within the unit. That gives us a better idea on whether the assessment is valid. But we can't take the results for granted - we have to assess the situation."

Over the past year, Marshall said the issues in his unit appeared to be about the same.A,A
"I don't know if it's the same Army wide, but here, financial issues, spousal abuse, illegal drugs and suicide are the biggest risks," he said. "We have to find a way to mitigate them. The survey is a tool that allows us to put our focus where it needs to be."

Financial problems with younger Soldiers is his unit's most pressing issue, Marshall said. "That can lead to other problems, like underage drinking, DUI and spousal abuse," he said. "Those are the hard hitters we have to continue to harp on. We can't overlook them - we have to attack them."

Marshall also spoke about the Army's focus on suicide. "Suicide is a very serious issue in the Army," he said. "It (the Army's focus on suicide) has increased since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started and is happening Army wide. As a commander, I can't take any suicide gesture for granted - I have to address it. Any suicidal thoughts, indications or gestures have to be addressed."

Looking for indications of Soldiers contemplating suicide is not just a commander's job, Marshall said.

"All leaders have to be aware, see the signs, recognize depression, mood swings and lack of motivation that are not commensurate with battle buddies," he said. "These are all signs Soldiers could become suicidal. "The Army has changed over the past few years. There is a level of sensitivity you have to have with Soldiers. We don't shy away from discipline, but we do handle things in a professional manner."

Once a problem is identified, Marshall said it's the leader's duty to address it. "The Unit Risk Inventory helps us do that," he said. "It's a tool I encourage all commanders to use. It can help them assess the climate of their unit."A,A

Debbra Sanchez is the Fort Polk Risk Reduction coordinator. She said there are three questions concerning suicide on the URI.

"The URI asks if in the last 12 months, has the Soldier thought about suicide, made a plan or attempted suicide," she said. "Within 24 hours we'll provide the commander with the results, and within 10 days they get the results of the entire URI."

In addition to the URI for new commanders or an annual look at the unit, there is also a Reintegration Unit Risk Inventory given to units returning from a deployment. Sanchez said these anonymous inventories can give new or veteran commanders a look at the unit's mindset so they know where training should be focused.A,A

"The URI or R-URI might not be always truthful, but it gives a good indication of the mental health of Soldiers within a unit," she said.A,A

Just as it is Army-wide, Sanchez said suicide, as well as other issues, are a concern on Fort Polk. She said there are many places for Soldiers to get help, such as Military and Family Life consultants, chaplains and the Fort Polk Army Substance Abuse Program.

"The key is to get the Soldiers to come in and work toward a resolution before the issue, whatever it is, becomes a big problem."

Sanchez said leaders must let their Soldiers know they're there for them.
"That falls on the shoulders of commanders, first sergeants, platoon sergeants, even squad leaders," she said. "All leaders need to be aware of what help is available. We must remove the stigma of seeking help. Military Family Life consultants can play a big role in that because of their confidentiality."

The prolonged conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have most likely contributed to some of the risky behaviors challenging some Soldiers, Sanchez said.

"I think the war has had an effect on all of the issues facing Soldiers," she said. "They go overseas, are gone for between 12-15 months, living in the field with people trying to kill them, then return to civilization and are faced with the problems of everyday life, such as bills and Family decisions.

It's tough on all of them and can be overwhelming if they are not given help. It can certainly lead to suicidal thoughts, relationship issues and alcohol and drug problems."

When providing help, Sanchez said it's important for the Soldier's psyche to market programs in a positive manner. "We need to be careful how we label programs, such as domestic violence prevention," she said. "That has a negative connotation. If we call it marriage enrichment, then perhaps Soldiers would be more willing to take part in them."

Sanchez said many issues tend to be cyclical. That's where information provided by a URI can come in handy.

"Sexual assault seems to increase in the summer, while spousal and child abuse or neglect seem to occur most often just prior to or after a deployment," she said. "URIs can provide that type of historical data so commanders can focus on those issues at that time."

Sanchez said the Military and Family Life Consultant Program provides anonymous help for Soldiers facing issues from anger management and relationship issues to deployment stress and suicidal thoughts.

"We urge commanders and Soldiers to take advantage of the service offered by the MFLC program," she said.

Page last updated Tue July 20th, 2010 at 17:37