Recently, U.S. Army Alaska (USARAK) officials undertook a massive effort to train more than 3,500 Soldiers on how to offer support to fellow teammates who may be struggling. The training, provided at both Fort Wainwright and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson by the Army Resilience Directorate's Ready and Resilient program, is part of an ongoing multi-pronged plan by officials to address underlying risk factors that may have contributed to the deaths by suicide of Alaska-based Soldiers in 2018 and 2019.
Based on the recommendations of an epidemiological consultation (EPICON) in Alaska, conducted from March to September of last year by a team from the Army Public Health Center, USARAK leaders are prioritizing leader development, said Sgt. 1st Class Liliana Rivera, the USARAK R2/Suicide Prevention Program Manager.
"(Some) leaders don't know how to approach a difficult topic with their Soldiers," Rivera said. Junior NCOs may struggle with setting and communicating effective boundaries with their Soldiers, making it difficult for them to enforce standards while also being empathetic and showing them they care, she said.
The training, given to leaders ranging from brigade commanders to specialists, focused on delivering Engage workshops. Engage sessions focus on bystander intervention and prosocial behavior, teaching people the skills to become aware of, and develop empathy for, the problems of others, as well as how to take action.
"It is to help encourage people to be able to safely, effectively and eagerly help others where there may be no benefit to them (personally)," said Fernando Llamoca, a Master Resilience Trainer-Performance Expert (MRT-PE) from Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Llamoca was one of more than 40 MRT-PEs from R2 Performance Centers across the Army who converged in Alaska to provide the training.
During the weeks-long effort, MRT-PEs taught Soldiers not only how to spot possible situations where engagement is needed, but also methods for direct and indirect engagement, and how to plan ahead if they meet resistance to their intervention.
"Engage is a tool that is designed to help Soldiers identify times when they need to exercise their personal courage and speak up about something, or act on something, that may be wrong," said Master Sgt. Kevin Edmondson, Noncommissioned Officer in Charge (NCOIC), R2 Integration and Training Division, ARD.
"People in general can always find a reason not to take action, but we want our Soldiers to get past those passive moments and take on a more active role in mitigating risk."
MRT-PEs taught two Engage skill sessions a day. During each of the sessions, Soldiers received an additional block of instruction on the Soldier Leader Risk Reduction Tool, which helps leaders identify risk among their Soldiers and connect them to relevant resources.
Rivera said senior leaders who participated in the Engage workshops and recognized the benefit approached her afterwards to request follow-on training for their Soldiers. Leadership goes beyond training Soldiers to be technically proficient; it includes being engaged in Soldier's lives, Rivera said. Leader development will be an ongoing effort at USARAK.
"Overall, the intent is to build more trust in leaders. If (Soldiers) don't trust (their) leaders you can't have that connection," she said, "and if you don't fully know your Soldiers, you miss little things because that trust is not there."
"Part of being a leader is understanding how to build that trust," Rivera said, "Not just in a crisis, but day-to-day."
To request Engage training for your unit, contact your nearest R2 Performance Center.
If you or a loved one are having thoughts about suicide, contact the Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, or text to 838255.