DARIEN, Ill. - The biggest emphasis in the Army Reserve today is readiness.
Readiness is the Army's buzzword used to cover a multitude of measurements. At the core, it's a snapshot of a unit's ability to deploy.
Are the Soldiers healthy? Are they trained? Do they have the right tools for the job?
Unfortunately for Soldiers, there's no "hooah" way to promote readiness. It's not like going to the range to blow a 40-pound crater charge, feeling the thrill of an explosion hitting your chest.
Readiness is usually conveyed by power-point slides, jam-packed with color-coded stats ranging from red to green to show how "healthy" a unit is in different categories.
The "thrill" of readiness lies in doing the minute, tedious groundwork that spreads with gradual impact across the force. There is no shotgun-blast solution to fill this need.
That's why the 416th Theater Engineer Command (TEC) kicked off a three-day readiness huddle on Friday, hoping to improve the entire command.
"I guarantee you one thing, when you signed up to come into the Army, you didn't sign up to do dental exams. You didn't sign up to do periodic health assessments. You didn't sign up to do FLIPLs (investigations on equipment loss and accountability). You signed up to serve your country and to do the neat stuff," admitted Maj. Gen. Lewis Irwin, commanding general of the 416th TEC.
He spoke to an audience of approximately 150 commanders, command sergeants major and senior staff members from three brigades, seven battalions and various direct-reporting units. In all, the 416th TEC is responsible for about 13,000 Soldiers in 171 units across the Midwest, South and West Coast of the United States.
"We are the leadership of the Army Reserve," he told the room during his opening remarks. "We, in this room, are the leadership ... We have other teammates around the globe who are also senior leaders in the Army Reserve, but we are the leaders (here). Right? And we have to worry about these things."
For most 19-year-old Soldiers, their priority list doesn't start off with scheduling dental and physical health appointments. So it's up to their unit leaders to encourage and promote those priorities.
Already, the TEC is showing success in major readiness areas. Irwin pointed to a graph produced by the U.S. Army Reserve Command placing the 416th TEC tied for first in overall medical readiness performance. The 416th TEC was also the only major subordinate command out of 16 operational and functional commands to actually improve statistically this summer in the medical area. Additionally, unofficial reports from various Army training sites marked the 416th TEC as having among the best-prepared and best-trained units in the Army Reserve.
Just a year ago, the command was ranked near the bottom (11th out of 16) in medical readiness. Those improvements started around the time Irwin began his tenure as the new commanding general, but he was quick to deflect the praise.
"Command teams did it," he said pointing back at the room. "It's not about me ... You've done a lot of hard work."
That hard work has been going on for years in the Army Reserve.
It was by coincidence that the workshop schedule began on the 9/11 anniversary, but Irwin pointed to a fundamental impact that attack had on shaping the Army Reserve he sees today.
Before Sept. 11, 2001, Irwin was a major who had transitioned from active duty a year prior. Now as a major general, he sees an Army Reserve that has transformed drastically over a course of 14 years. Back then, leadership was more worried about keeping names on a battle roster than with preparing those names, those Soldiers, to fight and deploy into harm's way, he said.
"Frankly if the Army Reserve of pre-9/11 was the Army Reserve today, I probably wouldn't be in uniform anymore. But that's not who we are. And I tell, you that's not who we are going to be, ever again," he said.
The Army Reserve is simply a better force than it was less than two decades ago, he said. But amidst those successes, Irwin reminded his command teams there is still a lot of work to do. Retention, recruiting and reporting all need to improve, he said. He highlighted that one of the best way of retaining good Soldiers is by promoting them when they deserve it. The key benchmarks that help junior Soldiers stay in are promotions to sergeant and staff sergeant, he said.
Ultimately, readiness can be summarized by one cliché, but true phrase: Taking care of soldiers. Already the command has implemented tracking tools and policies that hold first-line and mid-line leader accountable.
"It's working," Irwin said of those initiatives. "Part of it working is I can look at unit by unit and see who is on board and who is not on board, who's having success and who's failing to move the needle."
Overall, the workshop covered 20 different readiness points. They ranged from Soldiers' physical fitness, individual training requirements, equipment accountability, sending Soldiers to school, professional online training (known as Structured Self Development) and so on.
These priorities were not made up by this command. Irwin pointed to Gen. Mark A. Milley, chief of staff of the Army, for defending these standards. A few months ago, Milley was the commanding general of Forces Command when he held a commander's conference with various two-star generals and above.
"He gave us very clear guidance," Irwin said of that conference. "Very clear guidance. That guidance was, and I quote, 'Your mission is to build readiness.' That's the beginning, middle and end of his guidance."
Irwin emphasized that same guidance again this weekend, further enforced by the dozens of staff members and leaders who took time away this weekend to improve their own units and forces.
Hopefully after this workshop, Army Reserve engineers will look at readiness not as just another buzzword, but as a reality they can achieve together with their Soldiers.