By Sgt. Leon CookJuly 1, 2014
JOINT BASE LEWIS MCCHORD, Wash. - As Dr. Rory Cooper sat strapped into the seat of an Air Force C-17, he glanced at his empty wheelchair a few feet away and contemplated the last time he rode in this type of aircraft.
Cooper, a military veteran who was medically separated after a training accident resulted in a spinal cord injury, said this was actually his second time in a C-17.
"The first time, I was flat out in a coma. It was nice to be awake this time," Cooper said.
Cooper is now one of 68 civilian aides to the secretary of the Army, or
CASAs, representing the 50 states, five territories, and the District of Columbia, who met at Joint Base Lewis-McChord for the 59th annual CASA conference June 23-25.
Like Cooper, many of the CASAs are veterans themselves. They are prominent figures who have been selected to serve as a link between America and its Army.
Laura DeFrancisco, CASA program director, said CASAs assist the secretary of the Army by informing the public of challenges facing the Army and by giving the secretary feedback on how the Army is perceived in their areas. DeFrancisco's goal for this year's conference, was for the CASAs to experience the Army they represent along with all of its current programs and challenges.
CASAs learned about the state of the Army today, the future of the service, and how leaders are preparing for the future. During his presentation, Secretary of the Army John McHugh said if a second round of sequestration-mandated budget cuts goes into effect the Army will be forced to reduce in size again to an active-duty strength of 420,000.
"The chief of staff and I agree that at that figure the Army could not meet the requirements placed upon it as part of the Defense Strategic Guidance," McHugh said.
Reducing the size of the Army has a huge effect on the nation at large, but an even larger impact on those Soldiers who are suddenly forced to find a new job. Aides learned about the Army's new program to help these suddenly transitioning Soldiers, the Soldier for Life program.
Soldier for Life seeks to help Soldiers through every stage of their career, but is especially targeted at those making the transition from Soldier to civilian. The Army and private sector partners created 13 apprenticeships for transitioning Soldiers, including programs for pipefitting, welding, commercial truck driving, and software engineering.
Cooper, who represents Pennsylvania, said Soldier for Life could be very successful if the Army remains committed.
"When it gets up and running and they have enough cycles where young Soldiers internalize the concept of being a Soldier for life, and if they get the Army veteran community to buy into it as well, it could be very powerful in helping the transition," Cooper said.
CASAs also learned how I Corps is countering sexual harassment and assault. They visited the JBLM Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention Resource Center, a new facility that provides victim's advocates, response coordinators, investigators, and legal experts in one facility. McHugh said he will make the facility an example for other posts to follow.
They visited the JBLM Mission Command Training Center, where they saw and used a wide variety of simulators. The aides drove military vehicle simulators, navigated a virtual battlefield with the Virtual Battlespace 2 program, and even tried their hands at a leadership development simulator in which they listen to a high-risk Soldier and attempt to address his issues.
"We certainly didn't have anything like this in my day," said retired Brig. Gen. Tracy Beckette, a CASA from eastern Missouri.
Almost everywhere the CASAs went during the conference, there were informational, static and interactive displays. Some rode in Strykers manned by Soldiers from 3-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 7th Infantry Division. Others joined Rory Cooper on his short flight in a C-17 from McChord Field to Gray Army Airfield.
The aides had plenty to think about as they took the last flight of the conference -- the flight home. After three days of intense discussion and experience, each CASA left with the challenge from the secretary of the Army to use what he called their enormous influence in their states and communities, to help the public understand the issues at hand.