By Spc. Gregory Argentieri, 173rd ABCT Public AffairsSeptember 15, 2008
VICENZA, Italy - Paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team got WAQed during three days of high-adrenaline, high-adventure outdoor activities here Sept. 8 - 10.
The first of its kind, the Army's Warrior Adventure Quest pilot program kicked off on Vicenza's Caserma Ederle by providing members of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, a chance to blow off steam while adjusting to a calmer paced lifestyle far from the battlefield.
WAQ is a specifically designed program to support Soldiers during their reset period, which is 40 to 90 days after redeploying from downrange. Paratroopers from the 173rd ABCT have just returned from block leave following a 15-month tour in Afghanistan.
A partnership endeavor of the Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command and the Office of the Surgeon General, WAQ provides Soldiers with positive alternatives to risky post-deployment behavior that causes accidents and injuries. The program combines outdoor recreational activities with Battlemind training to assist troops in their reintegration to garrison and family life.
Battlemind is a U.S. Army psychological resiliency building program and refers to a Soldier's inner strength and courage. The training builds upon proven leadership and shared experiences to enhance unit cohesion and Soldier support by opening communication between the ranks.
Battlemind works hand-in-hand with WAQ, which is designed to help Soldiers adjust to a new norm at home - after returning from combat - with white-water rafting, kayaking, canoeing, skydiving, paintball, high-ropes courses, rock climbing, rappelling, mountain biking, skiing and snowboarding.
For example, "When Soldiers are deployed, their driving becomes aggressive to avoid [Improvised Explosive Devices] and such, but when they get back home they have to readjust back to defensive driving," said Kelly Nebel, Outdoor Recreation Program manager for Installation Management Command-Europe. "WAQ helps Soldiers adjust ... to home life."
Overall, the U.S. Army Garrison Vicenza Outdoor Recreation office was pivotal in making the WAQ pilot a reality and a success, said Nebel.
For Chris Wolff, director USAG Vicenza Outdoor Recreation, "It was a great opportunity to be part of the first WAQ pilot program and to provide these services to so many returning Soldiers."
Wolff's staff executed every WAQ planning detail here, with additional outdoor recreation specialists brought in from U.S. installations in Germany to assist. Together, they provided the Bravo Company paratroopers with three full days of safe, adrenaline-boosting fun.
Activities held during the first day centered on white-water rafting in the Noce River, as "First Rock" Soldiers navigated extreme waves, experienced defensive and aggressive swimming, and completed group river crossings.
"Instead of hearing the same briefs over and over again, falling asleep and getting in trouble, this was perfect," said Spc. Mathew Cannon, a 20-year-old 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company Soldier from Sapulpa, Okla. "Some people might learn from a class, but everyone learns from (actually) doing it."
On the second day, Cannon and his platoon mates enjoyed a paintball outing on Woodsball Field, which is located near Padova, Italy. Small teams competed against each other on a course designed with trees and plywood obstacles. Activities included instruction on state-of-the-art paintball equipment, playing techniques, team communication, cover-and-fire, and team movement.
"This was a well-planned, well-organized event that really motivated the Soldiers," said Sgt. 1st Class James Knight, platoon sergeant for Bravo Company's 2nd Platoon, "A lot of Soldiers got on the bus not knowing what to expect, and then came away with a new perspective on paintballing. The Soldiers really enjoyed themselves."
In fact, "I had a blast," said Knight, 26, who is from Monroeville, Ala.
On the third and final day of WAQ, members of the 173rd ABCT began their morning with roughly 30 miles of mountain biking on nearby hills and roads.
"We got a chance to do something fun together as a platoon - versus other deployments when there was nothing out there for us when we returned," said Staff Sgt. Dabian E. Harris, 29, from Bravo Company's 1st Platoon.
"Mountain bilking is a great way to see Vicenza, and I am definitely going to do it again," added the native of La Quinta, Calif.
After the last adventure was completed, every WAQ participant gathered outside the Golden Lion processing facility on Caserma Ederle for a program-ending barbecue and to swap tales. Additionally, FMWRC's Command Sgt. Maj. Abe Vega recognized those who ensured the pilot's success.
Throughout the three days of high-adventure fun, participants noted that Soldiers bonded up and down the ranks in a relaxed environment. In the past, Soldiers received what they called dry classroom instructions on how to deal with the stress and readjustments to normal life that follow a deployment. Warrior Adventure Quest has found a way to allow troops to decompress in way they are more familiar with - while allowing community members to express their support.
"What impressed me about the WAQ experience was the great reception from the Soldiers ... and the unlimited passion from the staff of Outdoor Recreation," said Sgt. Maj. Tammy Coon, senior enlisted advisor of FMWRC's Soldier Programs and Community Recreation. "It was contagious."
According to FMWRC officials, planning is under way to bring the WAQ program to an additional 24 Army garrisons over the next year. The long-term goal is to have every BCT participate in WAQ within 90 days of redeployment from a combat environment.
A number of survey and assessment tools will be used to evaluate the effectiveness of the program, officials said, including statistics from the Combat Readiness/Safety Center, the Reintegration Unit Risk Inventory, the Unit Behavioral Health Needs Assessment, and a new online survey, the Warrior Adventure Quest User Survey.
The Army plans to cycle nearly 80,000 Soldiers through WAQ over the next year at a cost of just under $7 million. If it cuts the fatality rate in half, it will have paid for itself.
(Additional information provided by FMWRC public affairs)