FORT HOOD, Texas (February 22, 2017) -- Soldiers with the Fort Hood-based 504th Military Intelligence Brigade and 15th Military Intelligence Battalion pioneered an innovative way to fostering resiliency across their formations, Feb. 16, during the brigade's Resiliency Leaders Development Forum at West Fort Hood. The event touched on weighty concepts not often seen in traditional Army training, but allowed Soldiers to open a dialogue about difficult but universal emotions such as shame and vulnerability.
Modeled after the brigade's internal Leaders Professional Development program on the book, "Daring Greatly," by Dr. Brené Brown, the Resiliency Forum took Soldiers out of their comfort zones to discuss perceptions about vulnerability and shame. Both factors are leading contributors to behavioral health concerns, including suicide.
During the Forum's opening comments, Command Sgt. Maj. Ryan Hipsley, the senior enlisted advisor for the 504th Military Intelligence Brigade, said the purpose of the day was to get people talking about an uncomfortable topic in an unfamiliar setting. In the end, however, he said the experience would benefit Soldiers and their units.
"The things I want you to think about over the next few hours ... Are you comfortable with being uncomfortable, because many of you today are going to be uncomfortable. You're going to be in small groups, not necessarily with your friends, peers or battle buddies," Hipsley said.
Hipsley used an analogy to illustrate Soldiers' comfort levels in their small groups, charging, "Are you going to put the armor on - are you going to put the helmet on, and the (Improved Outer Tactical Vest), the ballistic glasses, the gloves and the hearing protection; will you be engaged, or are you going to take that stuff off, and be able to have a genuine discussion with somebody else in your group?"
The Resiliency Forum started with a talk by Col. Laura Knapp, Commander of the 504th Military Intelligence Brigade, to all 500-plus Soldiers in attendance. She said the subjects of vulnerability and shame are difficult for most people, and that all humans want interpersonal connection to one another.
"It's hard to speak up, it's hard to say, 'I'm struggling,' because we're finding, especially in our military culture that there is a drive for perfection," Col. Knapp said. "Today that's what we're going to talk about, we're going to talk a little bit about what gets in the way, because when we're vulnerable, we all aspire to have belonging, feel valuable, to feel valued, and to show up every day. And it's being aware of who we are, be appreciated for who we are, and have a sense of connection, not just in our workplace, but also in our family."
During the large group session, Soldiers answered questions about trust, and the figurative masks that one puts on to hide sadness, depression, shame and embarrassment. In the afternoon, Soldiers divided into 20-25 person small groups and met in locations across West Fort Hood to discuss vulnerability and shame. In doing so, Soldiers explored new concepts, and leaders facilitated discussions on identifying local solutions or skill work to shift perspectives.
Chaplain (Maj.) Chuck Lowman, the 504th's brigade chaplain and Officer-in-Charge of the event, said the Resiliency Forum was designed to challenge Soldiers' inward feelings of inadequacy and know they are valued members of a team.
"Our hope is to help our Soldiers be able to challenge that (inward) voice with the truth that they are a valued member of the team, who has a voice, and has something to contribute," Lowman said.
Lowman said the initial planning process brought together representatives from the Army's Family Advocacy Program, Army Community Services, the Fort Hood Suicide Prevention Office, the Behavioral Health Department at Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center, and unit chaplains to discuss the event. He said the group consensus was "to get at the heart of what would create such despair within a person."
He added, "I'm in favor of the non-standard, personal interaction and participatory activities where the individual is involved."
During the small group sessions, which were facilitated by senior Noncommissioned Officers and company-grade and field-grade officers, each group utilized the book "Daring Greatly" as the small group leaders guide to generate discussion. The book is based on the author's 15-plus years of research on shame's effects on individuals, families and organizations. The author's research on shame led her to a connect with herself and others on the path to "wholehearted living."
While each group used the book as a base, the groups were free to discuss whatever topic came up. Some groups talked about societal expectations on genders, and others talked about humans' unachievable drive for perfection.
For one small group leader, the discussion about "Minding the Gap," based on a chapter from "Daring Greatly," resonated in her personal life, and those of the group's participants.
"I think we put a lot of expectations on ourselves to be perfect in every way: perfect wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, Soldiers, and there's this gap between where we are, and where we want to be, and shame lives in that gap," Sgt. 1st Class Sarah Stricklin said. "I think the lesson I took away was that we should always strive for personal improvement, but we can't allow what we see in the media, movies, and our friends' lives, through the filter of Facebook and Instagram, to dictate our expectations and make them so unrealistic."
Stricklin, who serves as the 504th's Sexual Assault Response Coordinator, said vulnerability is different than weakness, but to truly grow as a person or in a relationship requires vulnerability and courage.
"The only way to have a successful career, marriage, and family life, is to be vulnerable. You can't grow in any of those categories if you don't allow yourself to be vulnerable," Stricklin said. "Shame, or fear of not being "x" enough, hinders us from being vulnerable."
Building trust among a team's members is imperative for mission accomplishment. Command Sgt. Maj. Hipsley said that trust is the bedrock of the Army, and referred to the "America's Army -- Our Profession" theme, "One Army, Indivisible." The theme directly supports the intent of the Secretary of the Army and the Chief of Staff of the Army to enhance readiness, mutual trust, and cohesion throughout the Army. Trust among Soldiers, their leaders and subordinates, and the American public is the foundation of the Army's success.
Stricklin believes many Soldiers who participated in the Resiliency Day were apprehensive about discussing personal struggles but came away with a stronger mind and attitude to building resiliency.
"I think there were quite a few people that didn't fully "buy-in" at first to spending a day 'talking about feelings,' but I think we did this so we are able to go back out in the fight," Stricklin said. "We can't do our jobs and be the best Soldiers at peak performance if we aren't taking care of ourselves and our emotional needs."