FORT LESLEY J. MCNAIR, Va. - When I learned I would be attending the Soldier 360 Leaders Course I wasn't sure what to expect. I anticipated an endless amount of coffee paired with equally as bland PowerPoint slides. I soon learned that this would not be like any course I had taken before.
On the first day, as I looked around for familiar faces in attendance, I was greeted by a friendly woman who introduced herself as Dr. Mary Lopez and her dog, Gen. Molly. As Lopez shook my hand she expressed how happy she was that I was there. I don't think I have ever meet a friendlier stranger. Her overt kindness caught me off guard and I wondered what role she had in all of this.
More than 50 noncommissioned officers (NCO) from different branches of service participated in the weeklong training hosted by the U.S. Army Military District of Washington on Joint Base Myer - Henderson Hall, Va., Nov. 27 - Dec. 1.
During the introduction, the class was formally introduced to Lopez, a retired Army colonel, and retired Army Brig. Gen. Steven Salazar, CEO of 360 Inc.
Together, in 2009 using scientific research, the pair developed the Soldier 360 Leaders Course and soon assembled a team of experts. The training team currently includes Dr. Jim Spira, psychologist; Dr. Teddy Ballard, physical therapist; Gus Kennedy, spiritual counselor; and Martha Borowski, financial advisor.
"The objective of the Soldier 360 course is to equip leaders with life skills," said Salazar. "This course is of value to anyone, however, is particularly useful to leaders in the military who carry the burdens of our Nation. We target noncommissioned officers in particular because they are the core, the backbone of our [military]. Each NCO has their own core and we want to ensure that they have the proper tools to make themselves as strong as they can be."
The training team identified many topics to be covered throughout the week, including stress management, journaling, fitness, sleep, depression, couples and parent-child communication, leadership, sex, suicide and even hypnotism, among others. Spouses were welcome to participate during the final two days of the course. The team assured us we would leave as different people and more effective leaders.
Following the introduction, I was immediately doubtful to say the least. I was convinced the team's mission was too ambitious, after all it was only a five-day course. I wasn't alone in my opinion.
"I was very skeptical after hearing everything on the first day," said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Sirlen Arriaza, an automated logistical specialist with 911th Engineer Company, 12th Aviation Battalion. "They said this was a week for us to focus on us. I could tell this was a different kind of class, so I was willing to see what it was all about."
The instructors spoke with such conviction and passion. So like Arriaza, I was determined to keep an open mind.
Hypnotism is what I questioned the most. When they explained it, all I could think of was an episode from the 90's sitcom "Martin," when the character Pam was accidently hypnotized to act like Martin. To my relief, Lopez explained that real hypnotism isn't anything like what we see on television or in the movies.
After I watched the first participant be hypnotized and listened to him discuss his experience, my curiosity grew. I wanted to see if it was real or just a bunch of hocus pocus.
It is difficult to explain my experience with hypnotism, however, I do believe in it now. Lopez was right. It was nothing like what you see on television. It is as if your mind falls into this dream state where everything is very peaceful and all of the noise in your mind and around you is silenced.
It was a very unique experience. The night after that session I slept the best I had in a long time, just as Spira, who conducted the hypnotism, predicted.
Every morning, excluding the first day, began with physical activity and self-reflection through a warrior yoga session led by Justin Blazejewski, Marine veteran and lead yoga instructor.
Yoga was something I had never done before and had no interest in ever trying. I did not understand how contorting my body into what seemed to be random poses equaled an effective full body workout.
As the week progressed and the sessions intensified, others and I learned that yoga was not only a worthwhile form of exercise, but also a pleasant and calming way to begin the day.
"We are always so busy," said U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. Holly Mason, a flight medic with U.S. Air Force District of Washington. "It was really nice to have this time to try something new. I enjoyed yoga a lot. I don't think I would have tried it if it wasn't for this course."
Each day the course alternated between traditional classes and physical activities. I was impressed how in depth the classes went.
Additionally, throughout the day the training team members met with service members individually to discuss personal concerns related to finance, physical therapy, spiritual fitness and counseling.
With each new lesson, Lopez encouraged us to remember the tools we were learning and to stow them away in our mental rucksacks. She also encouraged us to look in our rucksacks and let go of anything that was weighing us down.
This analogy was my biggest takeaway from the entire course. It challenged me to reexamine myself. By doing this, I realized I had been walking around for a long time with a lot of unnecessary weight in my rucksack. I was able to identify some things I really need to address in my life. This realization caught me off guard and honestly put me in a bad mood for rest of the day.
The next morning, while I was still bothered from the previous day's realization, JFHQ-NCR/MDW Command Sgt. Maj. Paul E. Biggs spoke to the class about leadership and the value of the course. He said something that really resonated with me.
"You all have your own resiliency packets, your own way to compartmentalize and make things right," said Biggs. "You want to think you have everything under control, but sometimes you just don't know if you do until you talk about it."
It was then I realized that was exactly why I was upset. I thought I had everything under control and that my way of dealing with things was working. In reality it wasn't and that truth was what bothered me so much. The only thing left for me to do was to start to truly unburden myself with this excess weight.
On the final day of the course we participated in what the training team called the Fish Bowl. This was the most intense exercise of the course. It involved us sitting in a circle with four chairs in the center, while participants took turns sharing their experiences of getting through difficult times.
The stories shared ranged from stressors at work to tragic personal losses. I was taken aback by many of the stories that were shared. Not only were these individuals strong enough to overcome difficult events in their lives, they were brave enough to share some of their darkest times with people they met less than five days ago.
"Hearing all of the stories left the biggest impact on me," said Mason. "You see all of us in our uniforms and we look like we can handle anything, but to hear all the things that people are dealing with, yet still manage to lead and take care of others, is really impressive."
"I am not skeptical anymore," said Arriaza. "There are a lot of things we as leaders forget to practice with ourselves. How can we help others when we are all messed up inside. This class helped me a lot. Yesterday I woke up and I was happy, I haven't been happy in a long time."
During the graduation ceremony, each participant was given the opportunity to share their opinions of the course. Each service member had positive things to say about the course and the instructors.
"When you can meet someone for the first time and feel comfortable telling them something you have never told anyone before, obviously they are doing something right with this," said Mason. "I am walking away pleasantly surprised."
"The 360 Leadership course is years beyond it's time," said Staff Sgt. Terrance D. Rhodes, with 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard). "We learned techniques and different indicators that we can apply not only to our Soldiers, but also in our own lives and families."
In closing, Biggs stressed the importance of this course.
"The investment that was made to do this is an investment in you," said Biggs. "You are the future of our force and that's what makes it all worth it."
The U.S. Army Military District of Washington serves as the Army Forces Component and core staff element of Joint Force Headquarters-National Capital Region, which conducts operations that deter, prevent and respond to threats aimed at the National Capital Region. The U.S. Army Military District of Washington also conducts world-class ceremonial musical and special events in support of our nation's leadership.