Sustaining an inclusive culture of trust

By Capt. Kami MilesJuly 17, 2020

(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT LEE, Va. – Trust is the dynamic binding force between leaders and subordinates in the Army, and must be maintained to promote the safety of Soldiers.

Building trust allows a Soldier the opportunity to combat their concerns about having their voice heard. Some still choose to hide behind a veil of silence, seeking protection from the effects of retaliation.

As the Army steps up efforts to increase safety initiatives within our ranks, one company command team at Fort Lee, Va., is driving a program to forge an inclusive culture of trust that empowers Soldiers to speak up. Silence is deafening, and every Soldier deserves a leader who listens and fosters a climate of acceptance.

The U.S. Army Ordnance School's Alpha Company, 16th Ordnance Battalion, 59th Ordnance Brigade, recently held a forum for Soldiers to speak openly with senior leaders about the challenges they face in today’s Army.

The panel started as an internal company event to create a safe space for female Advanced Individual Training students. News of the forum spread quickly through the school, resulting in more than 100 leaders and students attending the forum. The environment that resulted, originally designed to focus on trainees, turned into an opportunity for every Soldier to listen, learn, and share.

The Alpha Company command team wanted to create a safe space for Soldiers where trust, transparency, and candid dialogue between young Soldiers and senior leaders could thrive, said Capt. Andrew Lee, Alpha Company commander.

The current social climates in today’s Army, as well as other current national events, inspired the team to develop a panel of influencers from across Fort Lee to openly address topics such as suicide, sexual harassment and sexual assault, retaliation, and professional development.

“The company command team wanted to provide our best assets a safe environment where we have panelists of all backgrounds and ranks come together and help empower our future leaders through shared experiences, mentorship, and just reminding them that their voice is important,” said Lee.

The session’s discussions were led by a panel of eight senior leaders, varying in rank from Lt. Col. to Chief Warrant Officer 5 to Sgt. 1st Class. While the opening discussions followed a defined course, they quickly turned to very candid conversations with much of the forum being driven by the audience’s questions and personal accounts.

“As leaders, we are charged to bridge the gap between ourselves and our Soldiers. Trust has to be established now, in the beginning phases of the Soldierization process,” said First Sgt, Theresa Allen, Alpha Company’s First Sergeant. “By doing this, it eliminates a Soldier’s fear of communicating with their leaders.  It's about taking care of Soldiers, even when they don't want you to, because ‘This Is My Squad!’”

The panel offered guidance and support on how to navigate scenarios evolving around SHARP, leadership growth, and family struggles. The forum broke down barriers and gave Soldiers the chance and confidence to ask questions they previously may have been scared to ask a leader.

The SHARP program, which stands for the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, is the Army’s integrated, proactive effort to eradicate sexual harassment and sexual assault within the ranks. The program provides every Soldier, regardless of differences, the right to privately speak to a Victim Advocate, retain confidentiality, and aims to reduce the stigma of reporting for all genders.

The experience left an indelible mark on Spc. Chloe Brown, an aspiring wheeled vehicle mechanic with the U.S. Army Ordnance School. She attended to see the support around her and others in the Army.

“This made me realize a lot of the non-commissioned and commissioned officers actually care about the Soldiers,” Brown stated. “It was really empowering to see all of them together to give us their support.”

Brig. Gen. Michelle Letcher, the 42nd Chief of Ordnance, addressed the crowd to drive home the importance of this event in helping all Soldiers.

“It’s a very important time not just in our Army, but in our nation for us to have a discussion about the service, not just of women, but of all our service members,” added Letcher.

Regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, physical abilities, political beliefs, or other ideologies, all Soldiers should feel encouraged and comfortable to speak up when they or their teammates feel threatened. This forum inspired a diverse population of Soldiers, and reminded each and every one that their voice matters.

Looking ahead, Lee and Allen both agree that events such as these will foster personal and command growth, and will develop more cohesive teams through mutual trust. Leaders should not shy away from talking about sensitive and uncomfortable topics with their Soldiers.

There is a danger in remaining silent, and professional development that address the hard, uncomfortable issues are a stepping stone to fostering a culture of inclusive trust between all leaders and subordinates.

The command team plans to continue organizing more sessions for all Ordnance School Soldiers, and will act as a catalyst for future programs to kindle a binding trust between leaders and subordinates across the Army.