Outdoor professionals breathe life to WAQ program
September 24, 2012
The third in a three-part series on the Warrior Adventure Quest Program.
GRAFENWOEHR, Germany -- In 2004, more than 130 Soldiers survived a 12-month deployment only to die months later in the relative safety of their communities.
The Army took notice.
After careful dissection, the Army deduced that these Soldiers were seeking the high levels of adrenaline they had grown accustomed to while downrange. During the reintegration cycle, their bodies couldn't properly dial back the need for the euphoric high that the danger of a combat zone provided.
Many found the answer by engaging in high-risk activity -- like driving too fast, at times under the influence of alcohol, and losing control of their cars, trucks and motorcycles. This reckless behavior spanned the spectrum of rank with approximately 40 percent representing Soldiers in senior leader positions.
The following year, Carol Potter, a senior program analyst with the Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Policy Office at the time, and Dan Reinhard from the Defense Safety Oversight Council, shared these haunting statistics with a group of more than 1,000 Armed Forces Recreation Society professionals at a National Park and Recreation Association conference in San Antonio, Texas.
For many, including John O'Sullivan, IMCOM Europe FMWR outdoor recreation program manager at the time, the answer was easy -- FMWR's Outdoor Recreation could beget a healthier reintegration for Soldiers.
"We instantly saw the light," said O'Sullivan. "We were specialists in high-adrenaline activities. If the Soldiers could learn how to do the activities we offered, relieve their stresses in a safe environment, we could mitigate those risks."
O'Sullivan, who now works as the program analyst for Army-wide outdoor recreation, and his small group, which included Wolfgang Schultes, Outdoor Recreation director, FMWR in Grafenwoehr, presented their idea to the senior leaders. And while they didn't hear anything forthwith, the wheels were turning.
After more than two years of defining and redefining a program that would come to be known as the Warrior Adventure Quest, the principle idea came to fruition.
O'Sullivan and his colleagues teamed up with a slew of medical and behavioral health professionals, including the Office of the Surgeon General, Walter Reed Medical Center, U.S. Army Medical Department and the Army Substance Abuse Program to gauge the benefits of the program.
"We wanted to make sure we were helping and not just feeding the beast," he said. "And everyone agreed that this program could benefit greatly."
Soon thereafter, a pilot program generated at three bases worldwide with an array of activities from biking 30 miles of mountain trails in Vicenza, Italy, to tandem skydiving over Seattle near Fort Lewis. It then spread to 24 Army bases worldwide as experts continued to gauge the effects.
The first official iteration of the program started in Grafenwoehr in January 2009. Schultes, who had been there from the beginning, witnessed this collaborated idea come to life.
"Through this process, I've seen a huge shift in how outdoor recreation programs benefit the Soldiers," said Schultes. "It significantly lifts it from recreation to a meaningful activity that provides opportunities to develop life skills."
During these times of war the Army has been beset with the notions concerning the well-being of Soldiers. The Warrior Adventure Quest is a facile victory. With central funding from FMWR and oversight from the Installation Management Command, it merits the fulcrum of the Army's dedication to the overall health and well-being of its Soldiers.
To date, more than 116,000 Soldiers representing 4,645 platoons have journeyed through the program at more than 40 bases worldwide. While bases like Fort Hood, Texas, have a constant influx of returning Soldiers, thus running the program year round, Grafenwoehr is currently dealing with surges, hiring additional manpower during each iteration and coupling its workforce with borrowed military manpower.
Currently in its fourth iteration, the Grafenwoehr WAQ program is running with a team of five outdoor recreation professionals and six Soldiers to support recently redeployed 172nd Infantry Brigade Soldiers.
Recreation assistant Royce Ueoka bridges the gap between these two formidable forces.
As a master sergeant in the Army, Ueoka had experienced WAQ on three occasions, scuba diving in the Alf Kirchen Center near Munich while redeployed with the 2nd Cavalry Regiment. He said the program changed his life.
"I think it was because of the benefits of the WAQ program as a participant that guided me to apply for the job. I was thoroughly impressed with what the program offered. I saw the benefits."
Ueoka now works with as many as 60 Soldiers a day, offering activities including high ropes, mountain biking, canoeing and rappelling.
And while he is now a civilian, Ueoka said the Army mentality is hard to breach. Sgt. Kurt Hafner, 3rd Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment, 172nd Infantry Brigade, agreed, saying he had to step out of his normal role as a noncommissioned officer for this temporary gig.
"My job in the Army is to train Soldiers on how to accomplish a task with a block of instructions, with no deviating from that training," said Hafner. "But during the WAQ programs, we show them the way and let them implement it themselves."
It's not always easy, he said.
"I'm stepping out of my normal role to allow them to make a mistake and help them through that mistake. In the Army, you usually don't let them get to that mistake."
But making mistakes and pushing through a stressful situation is the intent of WAQ.
"You learn a lot about yourself and your fellow Soldiers that way," said Spc. David Morgan, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 172nd Infantry Brigade. "You have Soldiers who were fearless in a combat situation, but put them 20 feet off the ground on a high ropes course and that strong and steady guy isn't so steady anymore."
Morgan experienced the program himself after returning from deployment last year.
"Iraq was tough. We went through a lot of things down there and this program gave me that outlet I needed. I started to do more outdoor activities and learned ways to manage my stress."
When his unit commander asked for volunteers to help run the WAQ program, Morgan's hand shot up.
"Being on the other side and running the program feels better," he said. "I knew the effects of it. I believed in the program."
Spc. Jason Aguilar from the 172nd Infantry Brigade, however, was skeptical.
"When I got told I was going to be working this program for six weeks I thought 'Oh great, it's going to be a hippie adventure where I'm supposed to talk about my feelings -- just another form of therapy without pills.'"
After a few weeks, he realized how far from the truth that original assessment was.
"I came in with a bad attitude, but it's changed. I have a different perspective about what the program is trying to do, it really does try to help people," said Aguilar.
Statistics back up Aguilar's claim.
Within the first year of WAQ, a survey conducted by the Army Combat Readiness and Safety Center indicated an average of 35 percent fewer accident incidences and 13 percent fewer behavioral incidences among WAQ participants as compared to Army norms. Additionally, WAQ participants were involved in 50 percent fewer fatal or permanent injury-related accidents. These statistics continue to improve as the program evolves.
While the proof is already in the pudding, the experience of WAQ goes well beyond the mental benefits. It's also a great introduction into ODR's programs, which include diverse, vigorous and comprehensive outdoor recreation activities and instruction for active duty, family members, DoD civilians and other authorized patrons.
In Grafenwoehr, patrons can participate in weekly activities including Monday night bike rides and Thursday night rock climbing. Ski trips, caving excursions, paintball, hiking and klettersteig are also offered throughout the year.
"You can play a video game where you walk through the woods, or you can get up and walk through the woods," said Hafner. "See things for what they really are."