FORT RILEY, Kan. -- The chief of staff of the Army visited Fort Riley March 24, to conduct sensing sessions for the repeal of the law commonly known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
Gen. George Casey Jr., returned to Fort Riley for the first time in nearly two years for his final visit to a Forces Command installation prior to retirement.
"General Casey will retire as the chief of staff of the Army here in the next few weeks and this is his last trip on the road as the chief of staff of the Army, so it was an honor to have him come out and visit Soldiers of the 'Big Red One' and visit Fort Riley," said Lt. Col. Matt Van Wagenen, chief of operations, 1st Infantry Division.
Casey conducted three "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" sensing sessions with more than 60 Soldiers to see how the training was being received and to get feedback on training materials. Soldiers participating included company, battalion and brigade commanders, first sergeants and Garrison Commander Col. Kevin Brown.
Van Wagenen said Casey set forth to accomplish a set of objectives during the visit.
"One was coming out to the First Infantry Division and getting assessment of the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' repeal chain-teach (method) that (Department of Defense) has directed across all the services," Van Wagenen said. "What he wanted to do was touch down to junior Soldiers, mid-level leaders and our brigade and battalion commanders on post to find out how the training was going, (if) is it effective and what were their concerns about it."
Prior to his departure, Casey told Van Wagenen "that he achieved all of his objectives coming out to (Fort) Riley and was very pleased with how the training was going."
"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" training is one step in the DoD's plan to implement the repeal of the law that, since 1993, did not allow gay servicemembers to serve openly in the armed forces. President Barack Obama signed the repeal Dec. 22, 2010.
According to the DoD website, the training provides senior leaders with the tools they'll need to educate the force on what is expected in a post-repeal environment.
Training began in February with key populations of the Army who have "unique skills sets," according to the DoD website. These populations include chaplains, lawyers, personnel specialists, military investigators and recruiters.
"Those were the primary population groups that he looked at and really gave him a clear assessment across the force," Van Wagenen said.
Chaplain (Capt.) Glen Wurdeman, squadron chaplain, 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Inf. Div., has received the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" training and was part of the sensing session with Casey.
"I thought the training was pretty thorough," he said. "It covered anticipated situations, tried to ease people's concerns about what would and, especially, what would not be changing.
Wurdeman said he also thought Casey's visit was more than just a "show."
"(I think it was) a genuine attempt to try to figure out what's going on in the trenches, what Soldiers at all levels are thinking about (the repeal) and about how it will affect their life and especially their readiness to serve at combat," Wurdeman said.
Wurdeman said the training taught him how the repeal could affect his specific job.
"One of the things that they emphasized to us is free exercise of religion on the part of chaplains, worship services, Bible studies and spiritual counseling remains sacrosanct. There's no change at all to that," he said.
SERGEANT MAJOR OF THE ARMY ALSO VISITED
The new sergeant major of the Army accompanied the chief of staff to attend a Warrior Leader Course and visit the post's Warrior Transition Battalion.
Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III visited the Warrior Transition Battalion to thank the cadre, civilian staff, volunteers and warriors in transition for their work in taking care of wounded, injured and ill servicemembers.
"You do so much and so much is put upon you. We can't thank you enough," Chandler said.
Fort Riley's Warrior Transition Battalion was the first in the Army to open a permanent complex in May 2010, located near Irwin Army Community Hospital, and Fort Riley has received praise for its implementation of the integrated disability evaluation system, which aims to streamline the Department of the Army and Veterans Administration's processes for medical evaluation boards, compensation and pension.
Warrior transition units support the rehabilitation and successful transition of wounded, ill and injured Soldiers back to active-duty or to veteran status.
Chandler, who was sworn in March 1, as the 14th sergeant major of the Army, asked for feedback from the cadre, civilian staff, volunteers and warriors in transition.
Lt. Col. Andy Price, Warrior Transition Battalion commander, said the cadre to warriors in transition ratio may be slightly too high at 1 to 10. Another area of concern, he said, was a perceived difficulty for cadre who voluntarily serve in a WTU to be promoted compared with peers who stay in their military occupational specialty, or MOS, continuously and do not leave to serve as Warrior Transition Unit cadre, drill sergeants or recruiters.
"For (continue on active-duty) Soldiers, there is difficulty getting promoted against peers in your MOS because they aren't in the MOS," said Master Sgt. Kevin Walker, a former warrior in transition and Warrior Transition Battalion cadre member.
Chandler said some analysis could be done, like on a recent sergeant first class promotion list, to determine whether Warrior Transition Unit cadre were promoted as frequently as their counterparts, like drill sergeants and recruiters, who step away from their primary MOS to serve in those capacities.
Chandler met with warriors in transition who arrived at the unit anywhere from one day ago to more than one year ago.
Sgt. Patrick Brodersen, a Kansas National Guardsman and warrior in transition, lost his right index finger when he sneezed while running a table saw on a deployment to Djibouti. His finger was reattached in Djibouti, and he arrived at the Fort Riley WTB about three weeks ago for surgery on the tendons and to continue physical therapy.
A spouse whose Soldier has cancer, but is not yet assigned to the Warrior Transition Battalion, volunteers her time in the unit doing administrative duties and event planning on special functions with the Soldier and Family Assistance Center.
"I'm making sure Soldiers and families are taken care of," said Shelia Smith, spouse of Sgt. 1st Class Fred E. Smith.
Chandler met with other cadre, staff, volunteers and warrior in transition to learn how he can improve the experience in a Warrior Transition Unit.
The Fort Riley Warrior Transition Battalion has a diverse population of Soldiers from the Active Duty, Army Reserve, Army National Guard, as well as Department of the Army civilians, contract employees and volunteers to complete the mission of taking care of warriors in transition and their families.
"We couldn't do this without all of us working toward the final solution," Chandler said.
Having served three years with the National Guard, Chandler said he has a special place in his heart for the National Guard and Reserve component.
"WTUs, and not just the Soldiers but the cadre, is where I'll be focused the next four years. I wanted to tell you 'thank you' on behalf of General Casey and General (Peter) Chiarelli," Chandler said.
Chandler told warriors in transition in the unit, "You're an example for me. You are who I look up to."