KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany - It’s one thing for Soldiers and family members to be told people are the military’s number one priority; it’s another to experience it first-hand.
That’s the purpose of the 21st Theater Sustainment Command’s Commander’s Ready and Resilient Council (CR2C), part of an Army-wide initiative to help Soldiers deal with health, housing, finances, and other issues so they can focus on their jobs and be physically, emotionally, and mentally ready for whatever comes their way.
“We are looking at the whole Soldier, to make them as mission ready as possible,” said Community Ready and Resilient Integration Specialist Michelle Irwin with the garrison’s Army Substance Abuse Program (ASAP).
Each garrison runs their CR2C program similarly, but at Rheinland-Pfalz, Irwin said they decided to go a step further by taking a more grass-roots approach and talking to the people affected.
“The company commanders and first sergeants know their Soldiers and the particular issues they face,” she said.
So in June 2019, the garrison’s ASAP organizers began holding quarterly breakfast meetings with company-level leadership. Meetings initially focused on general risks, but over time they centered on problems Soldiers are currently having in the units.
“Now it’s more Soldier-driven, based on what’s going on and not a random ‘this is the risk of the month,’” she said. “It’s very much tailored to the folks who are here now.”
She said there’s also a strong emphasis on identifying potential issues ahead of time.
“The only way you know is by asking the questions,” Irwin said. “‘What do you guys find more difficult, picking a green nutritional food or making a budget?’ I always say we spend time figuring out what issues are there before things go wrong.”
Also present at the meetings are the leaders of three working groups: physical and emotional fitness, social and family fitness, and spiritual and ethical fitness. The working groups consist of representatives for housing, legal, finance, childcare, healthcare, and many more. If a unit says they have a high number of Soldiers struggling to pass their PT test, for example, the relevant working groups will brainstorm different ways to address that issue and provide resources to assist.
“We like to get to the very heart of the problem,” Irwin said. “If they are feeling stressed about PT tests, we want to help them pass before they get to a place where they are seeing their career end. We are trying to help Soldiers have the most positive and successful career they can possibly have and provide as many resources as we can.”
First Sergeant Mike Woolley, a combat medic and tactical combat casualty care instructor, is part of the command team that leads the more than 800 Soldiers, Department of the Army civilians, and local national employees that belong to C Company at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. He said he has the same concerns as any first sergeant – or even any parent. That includes everyone’s physical and mental health, development of personal and professional responsibility and social intelligence, and quality of life.
“I appreciated the thought that went into providing the ‘take what you need’ tool box of applications and avenues of approach to reach our populations from angles that are new or less traditional command tools,” he said of the quarterly breakfast meetings.
Woolley, a former Marine who’s been in the Army since 2005, said he used to have a “nobody cares, work harder” mentality, especially when it comes to things like PT.
“When I’m looking for a reason not to push myself – COVID, competing work interests, dog-ate-my-PT-belt,” he said, “[the ‘nobody cares, work harder’ mentality] seems to center me on the reality that my fitness is in my hands and everyone else is in the same situation. Don’t burden them with my mental weakness and just row, grind, push, pull.”
Woolley said he still has high expectations for himself and his Soldiers, because being the “fittest, [most] durable tactical athlete possible, both physically and mentally” is part of a Soldier’s responsibility to his family, fellow Soldiers, and country. But he’s learned there are other things to consider.
“As I’ve gotten older and my kids have grown and joined the services, [I’m] wanting to equip, train, and care for other people’s sons and daughters the way that I want my children’s leaders to care for them,” he said. “Recognizing, investing in, and developing the human capital and influencing long-term outcomes is how we can incrementally improve our collective fighting position.”
For many of his Soldiers, being stationed in Germany is their first and longest time being so far away from family, a challenge made even harder due to COVID-19.
“[I want to] recognize and communicate this to them and let them know that they are not alone,” he said. “I want to help them become the most durable version of themselves.”
He said it was at a company quarterly breakfast that Irwin suggested using social media as a tool to connect with Soldiers. Woolley immediately signed up for a Facebook account.
“Our nation’s enemies actively use this and other social platforms to sow and foment divisiveness, discontent, confusion, animosity, antipathy, isolation and depression in our ranks and nation,” he said. “Why can’t we use the same platforms to be accessible, available, encouraging, thoughtful, cohesive and present?”
The insight he gained, Woolley said, has been invaluable.
“It has been amazing to glimpse behind the curtain we all hang between our professional and personal lives,” he said. “I’m able to see when someone shares a recent illness, loss, fear. I can [send a message] and check in. Even during COVID isolations, winter weather, and reduced hours of daylight, we can still be there.”
Irwin said suicide prevention has been a main focus at CR2C meetings within the last year. Commanders and first sergeants were clear that slides alone were not effective.
In response, the chaplains in the working groups developed a PT exercise that combined physical training with risk resiliency.
“Soldiers in groups of four run half a mile with a stretcher together,” Irwin said. “Then they get a 10-pound bag thrown on the stretcher. This bag represents a stressor, like debt. They run another half mile and get another bag, which represents relationship problems. Eventually they have four bags of stress.”
For each half mile they complete after that, they get a resource and can drop a bag. A resource might be information regarding financial assistance available through Army Community Service or Army Emergency Relief.
“At the end, they do a de-brief and talk about how it was to work in a team of four and how you always need your buddies,” she said. “They recap resources.”
Woolley said another way he reached out to his Soldiers about suicide was by writing about it.
“Michelle Irwin shared that a show on Netflix romanticized suicide,” he said. “I went home and binge watched it. Then I wrote an email to everyone in my company: ‘Subject: 13 Reasons Why You Should Not Kill Yourself.’”
He also posted it to Facebook.
“This was my first post,” he said. “I invited anyone so inclined to write back. I was not prepared for the number or depth of the replies I received. It is still fairly humbling for me to think about. Suffice to say it resonates in our culture.”
Woolley said he has several CR2C-inspired initiatives planned, including a financial readiness symposium and an ACFT train-up and diagnostic test to identify strengths and weaknesses, and to confront any fear associated with the new fitness test.
“What we are needing to instill is long term commitment to our values and mission,” he said. “Commitment is greater than compliance.”
Irwin said that’s why CR2C is so important for company leadership.
“It’s our job to help them understand how helping their soldiers be ready is important in every area of life,” she said. “Being physically fit is important and nutrition is important, but so is finance, so is ethical behavior. If we can get to those people before they make a bad decision or just quit on being a Soldier altogether, we’ve done something right.”