Drive on: 45th Sustainment Brigade gets big mileage out of behavioral health initiatives
November 22, 2012
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan - One of the largest sustainment brigades in Afghanistan is getting a lot of mileage out of simple behavioral health initiatives implemented for its motor transport operators.
With the incorporation of the initiatives, the 45th Sustainment Brigade has reduced its average number of losses of motor transport operators due to behavioral or mental health issues per quarter from eight to one.
The initiatives are the brainchild of Maj. Edward Dowgin, the executive officer of the 117th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, a New Jersey Army National Guard subordinate battalion within the brigade that includes five units and is headquartered in Trenton, N.J. Dowgin long had a notion what changes could be made to decrease BMH losses and he decided to incorporate the initiatives and study their effects in conjunction with a process improvement class.
"We lost 12 soldiers between February and August due to BMH issues," said Dowgin, 35, of Hamilton, N.J. "That is a high percentage considering we only have 465 motor transport operators in the battalion. But those losses had a growing snowball effect on the battalion - the loss of those soldiers adds stress and workload to remaining soldiers. Then the remaining soldiers are at a higher risk for early re-deployment."
Using Lean Six Sigma analysis theories and statistical data provided by brigade surgeon Capt. Pedro Manibusan, Dowgin realized BMH issues needed attention long before a soldier requested or required an evaluation. Dowgin concluded the only time he could help soldiers prevent early re-deployment due to a BMH issue was before a BMH episode ever occurred. Otherwise, the soldier's future was in the hands of a behavioral health specialist and their respective commander.
With prevention of BMH issues in mind, Dowgin implemented three solutions to offset the root causes of the high number of operator BMH losses. Although each was fairly simple, the three combined solutions - one resiliency day per week, dynamic counseling sessions with first line supervisors that include personal issues, and immediate counseling of soldiers who received Uniform Code of Military Justice action - reduced losses by 87 percent this quarter.
With the battalion's unparalleled operations tempo that's included nearly 2 million miles of driving to 45 far-flung forward operating bases and combat outposts, Dowgin said that an increase in the frequency of days off was a clear-cut solution. The brigade now gives each soldier one day off every seven days (without affecting mission) versus the previous standard of one day off every 10 days.
"The soldiers were simply not getting enough time off and it had become an issue," Dowgin said. "People need time to unwind. They need time to call their own and decide what they want to do, whether it's go to the gym or sleep all day."
Dowgin's second solution involves an ongoing monthly counseling for all specialists and below that entail discussion of personal issues, not just mission-specific issues. Dowgin defined the concept as compassionate leadership.
"First line supervisors should get to know their subordinate Soldiers on a personal level," Dowgin said. "Once a month at least, these meetings allow soldiers to explain what is going on in their lives to their supervisors."
The third solution stemmed from Manibusan's behavioral health statistics that revealed 57 percent of soldiers who re-deployed early due to BMH issues had recently been the subject of UCMJ actions. Dowgin quickly implemented a counseling program for all Soldiers immediately following an UCMJ reading.
"The counseling emphasizes 'don't feel bad, life's not over' following UCMJ action," Dowgin said. "These are usually good soldiers who made one mistake. The counseling encourages them to bounce back and drive on."
Dowgin said the initiatives will remain in place for the remainder of the 45th's tour, which is set to conclude in January. He said he'll encourage the Third Sustainment Brigade, the 45th's replacement brigade, to sustain the BMH gains made by the 45th.