FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. – Resilience is key when it comes to leadership, and few know that better than retired Command Sergeant Major Chris Fields, 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).
During more than 30 years of service, Fields survived improvised explosive device attacks, watched Soldiers under his command die and struggled to reconcile his faith with the realities of military war-fare. Through all the pressure and trauma, resilience is what allowed him to lead.
Since retiring in 2012, Fields has worked to deliver that message to Soldiers fighting their own personal battles. His most recent stop led him back to Fort Campbell on Feb. 5 for a leadership training session with Soldiers assigned to 2nd Brigade Combat Team.
“I really never left,” he said. “The reason I stay involved with the Fort Campbell community is that while I was in, if I’d known what I know now, I would have been a more effective leader. And effective leadership is what we need most in any organization.”
Fields shared that knowledge as part of February’s Eagle Day. Launched in November 2020, Eagle Day is a 101st Abn. Div. initiative during which leaders suspend routine operations on the first Friday of each month to engage their Soldiers and carry-out activities designed to build cohesion, strengthen resilience and promote healthy behavior.
“Eagle Day is an opportunity for Soldiers to get to know their leaders and vice versa,” said Lt. Col. Stewart U. Gast, commander, 39th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 2nd BCT. “As Command Sgt. Maj. Fields put it, you build trust through leader presence, which allows leaders to better understand what a Soldier needs to develop their resiliency.”
Fields said it is essential to recognize trauma is universal, and every Soldier battles it to some degree.
“Building a resilient Army will lessen the long-term effect of trauma,” he said. “That requires a culture of holding individuals accountable for their actions, building a climate of understanding and most importantly, building resilience through change in the culture.”
Soldiers often arrive on post bearing the weight of childhood trauma, Fields said. They may see joining the Army as a means to find or prove themselves or have a romanticized view of military service.
Fields’ own childhood was defined by struggles. His single mother worked two jobs and struggled to provide for the Family, and he was nearly drawn into California’s gang culture.
“I went to the military to find out if I was tough enough to take what they had to hand out,” he said. “I used to say I came in to get money for college or go see adventure. In reality, once I started peeling it back more, I understand I came in to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life.”
Those feelings are common among Soldiers, and the noncommissioned officers they interact with daily play a major role in their development, Fields said. They are also strongly positioned to lead a culture change.
“First impressions, obviously, are lasting impressions, but the continued day-to-day operations of the unit are important,” he said. “I used to say, if you want to know the temperament of your unit, go look in the latrines and see what’s written on the walls.”
Ways leaders can boost morale include living their unit’s motto, keeping their language and tone respectful and making sure Families are treated well, Fields said. A strong unit culture fosters a strong “deep culture,” which refers to shared values and bonds among Soldiers.
“Let’s say you have a specialist and he goes to the gym,” Fields said. “He brings his buddy, not because he shames him into it but because he says, ‘hey, I’m going to the gym.’ (And the buddy says,) ‘let me go with you.’ It’s less individualism and more collectivism when it comes down to collectively displaying the unit’s mantra.”
Building those bonds also can create a support system to help Soldiers through combat-related trauma.
“When I went over, I was in east Baghdad and there were a lot of horrific things that went on during that time,” Fields said. “You had extrajudicial killings, and a lot of things like the Wild West … it was watching the inhumane treatment of other humans.”
Fields began to wonder who could treat other human beings that way, and why. From there, he wrestled with the idea that he could be capable of the same things.
“You start asking yourself questions you wouldn’t normally have asked if you were in Clarksville, Tennessee,” he said. “Combat starts a trail of questions and assaults that are against your life.”
Many Soldiers turn to dark humor to cope with the stresses of a combat zone, Fields said. But that solution can have long-term consequences.
“The reality of it is, if you do that for 12 months – not only do words have meanings, but what your body is going through is changing,” he said. “Your body has a specific biochemical reaction, and the sympathetic nervous system releases hormones that cause changes to occur throughout the body. All the fight or flight reactions start to change a Soldier, and you start living to get your next adrenaline rush. Or you start to fall into boredom, which can lead to depression.”
That makes it difficult for Soldiers to adapt when they return from deployment unless they have a support system, Fields said.
“The first thing Soldiers need to realize is they’re not the Lone Ranger,” he said. “They’re not the only one who has thought about those things. And the other thing is … another warrior’s testimony will help another warrior process what they’re trying to get through.”
Fields found his own support system in Christianity and said faith in a higher power can make a huge difference in a Soldier’s ability to make sense of their struggle.
“Becoming a man of faith is where I found my questions being answered,” he said. “When I have God’s validation, whose else matters? And in that validation, I found peace. In peace, I found strength. And in that strength, I understood the way forward.”
Leaders who attended the training were inspired to move forward in their own ways and share Fields’ strategies with their units.
“It was very moving and helpful,” said Sgt. 1st Class Michael Haney, 39th BEB, 2nd BCT. “Knowing the fact that you can go through some very heart-wrenching stuff and being able to talk about it and use it as a teaching tool to help someone else is awesome.”
Haney left the workshop with one major takeaway: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and yesterday’s tragedy is today’s triumph.”
“When he said that, I thought, it really was a good outlook,” he said. “And I think teaching it to the junior enlisted, who are for the first time away from their Families, that it can make a difference.”
Sergeant First Class Stephenie Kaauamo, 39th BEB, said the training reinforced the importance of building resilience among young Soldiers.
“I’m 54, so I grew up in a completely different mindset and with a different society structure,” she said. “A lot of these kids really don’t have the same coping mechanisms as somebody who didn’t grow up with the internet or a cellphone … so resiliency is one of those things that need to be taught.”
Overcoming mental roadblocks is an important part of that process, and one Fields emphasized, Kaauamo said.
“Everybody internalizes differently than the other person,” she said. “Really, the only limitation you have is what your own mindset tells you that you can and can’t do … I’m guilty of that myself, and I have to stop and check myself because you have to show these kids it can be done.”
Kaauamo knows that from her childhood experiences and living out of her car for two weeks during a low point. Fields’ emphasis on childhood trauma connected with her and the other Soldiers in attendance because each have faced their own personal struggles growing up.
“Their past doesn’t have to define their future,” he said. “They can come out of it and be more resilient, or just start being resilient, and understanding that they don’t have to live out the script that they read or lived through. They can, with God’s help, rewrite the authentic story they were supposed to live in.”