WEST POINT, N.Y. -- Spc. Brittney Verberkmoes recalled the impact that suicide had on units at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, after witnessing the grief others felt as they dealt with the tragic loss of a fellow Soldier.
Verberkmoes, a multimedia illustrator with the 95th Civil Affairs Brigade, never had a personal connection with the individuals who had died. Still, the significant feeling of loss forced her to evaluate her mental health and consider the level of trust she had with her peers and leaders, she said in an interview last week.
"The Army tells us to look out for each other, but it makes you think," said Verberkmoes, who joined the service about three years ago. "Am I looking out for my battle buddies? Is our leadership looking out for us?"
Similar questions were brought up during a “people first” solarium at the U.S. Military Academy here, which also aimed to rid sexual harassment/assault, and discrimination/extremism within the Army ranks.
One hundred junior officers and enlisted Soldiers, representing a range of experiences and backgrounds throughout the active-duty, Guard, and Reserve, participated in the weeklong event that ended March 19.
Christopher J. Lowman, the senior official performing the duties of the undersecretary of the Army; Vice Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Joseph M. Martin; and Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael A. Grinston opened the event March 15.
Event organizers divided personnel into small groups to address the harmful behaviors that have impacted cohesion and trust in the Army. Through a series of moderated discussions and exercises, each group concentrated on one of the three topics to share their ideas to help solve them.
"If you are a Soldier in the U.S. Army, you are 30 times more likely to die of suicide than you are from COVID-19," Martin said.
The Army lost close to a "battalion's fill of Soldiers" to suicide last year, he added.
Further, the Army's Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program implemented in the past decade "is not working" and in need of support, Martin said.
"We don't know the answers -- that is why we are here," Grinston told participants.
"You have an obligation to speak up this week," said Grinston, adding that participants should expect deep and uncomfortable conversations. "You owe it to the future of the Army to speak up, because we need your advice. All views are important."
Shift in culture
While assigned to a focus group on sexual harassment/assault, it took some time at first for Spc. Jennifer Avila to open up about an incident she had nearly a year ago.
She said it felt good to talk to others about her past. She wasn't alone, as other group members shared their stories.
As a Guard Soldier on active-duty orders, Avila also acknowledged her initial fear of reprisal and lack of understanding of the SHARP process. The event gave her a better appreciation of the reporting process, which she plans to use to help educate others in her unit before they deploy later this year.
Holding a fear to "speak up" when a problem occurs is something that Verberkmoes also noticed during her group discussions about suicide. Junior Soldiers are often intimidated to express their thoughts openly with higher-ranked individuals, she said.
Verberkmoes admitted that there is a particular "fear of getting into trouble," she said. She believed that most Soldiers choose to stay quiet to avoid adding another issue to a leader's long list of daily responsibilities.
Both Avila and Verberkmoes felt a shift in the Army's culture was necessary to combat behaviors that can be detrimental to unit readiness and cohesion.
"Soldiers that are just coming into the Army see and understand the world differently," Verberkmoes said. "They can see an issue differently than the older generations, so we have to come to a mutual understanding."
In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower led the first Project Solarium, which laid the foundation for a Cold War policy, officials said. In 2014 and 2015, Army captains participated in a series of solariums to evaluate the aspects of talent management, vision and branding, culture, education and training, and mission command.
"I feel very proud to be part of this change, and I am willing to go back to my unit to be part of a solution," Avila said. "Solarium is giving Army's leaders a window into what is happening" throughout the total force.
Having an opportunity to participate in the solarium was a step in the right direction, Verberkmoes said, as she hopes senior leaders will continue with similar feedback mechanisms in the future.
“We've done a lot of programs over the years to get after the harmful behaviors,” Lowman said last week. “We've spent a lot of money and a lot of time and a lot of emphasis over the years, with not a whole lot of change.”
By using a different approach, he expects the solarium to positively impact the Army's assessment of current policy and structure toward suicide, sexual harassment/assault, and discrimination/extremism, he said.
“That's really why we're here -- not to talk to you about those behaviors, but frankly to listen,” Lowman added. “We are here listen to each and every one of you.”