FORT POLK, La. — Brig. Gen. Andrew Hilmes, commanding general, U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center and director of Army Safety, visited the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk training team March 24. A member of the JRTC and Fort Polk Public Affairs Office interviewed Hilmes prior to returning to his home station at Fort Rucker, Alabama.
Q: What is the purpose of your visit to the JRTC and Fort Polk?
A: As the commanding general of the Combat Readiness Center and director of Army Safety, my charge is to run the Army safety program day-to-day. The best way I can get a sense of where we’re at is to get out and visit as many installations as possible and gauge their safety program.
By visiting with installations, meeting with leadership there, finding out what challenges they have, it helps me make informed decisions when it comes to safety policy and safety program management.
My sergeant major and I usually travel quite a bit, but the pandemic has put a halt to a lot of that. We’re just now getting back on the road. The JRTC and Fort Polk was at the top of my list because of the mission here. This is one of the Army’s premiere training centers, and touches thousands upon thousands of Soldiers each month. When we think about safety, especially tactical safety, and how to train safely and successfully at the same time, there’s really no better place to visit than to one of the Army’s combat training centers. We were very eager to get here.
Q: Have you been to the JRTC before? When? For what purpose?
A: I came here a couple of years ago to check on a unit. I was in the 3rd Infantry Division and we had several of our units that rotated through. I came to check on those Soldiers and see how they were performing.
Prior to that, I’ve been here as part of a rotational unit, not always the most pleasant experience, both times in preparation for deployments.
Q: Did you have any expectations of what you would find at the JRTC, and how were those expectations met?
A: The one thing that hasn’t changed is the professionalism of the Soldiers and leaders, and the dedicated DA (Department of the Army) civilians that run Fort Polk and the JRTC. It is a premiere installation, professional in every aspect. I did get to spend some time during this trip with members of Ops Group, and their professional reputation is solidly intact. That was more of a confirmation of what I’ve always thought of this location.
JRTC and Fort has always had a reputation as being a tough place. We don’t train to mediocrity, we train to a very high standard. Fort Polk has always done a very good job of pushing you. Units come here and think they are pretty good, and maybe they self-identify one or two weaknesses. The JRTC is good at making you understand those are definitely weaknesses, and then they help you make it better.
I’ve been impressed with the complexity we’ve brought into the rotational scenarios. JRTC is flexible in the way it will change each rotation. The mission sets are never quite the same. You may start with live fire one rotation, you may end with it the next, and put it in the middle in the next. It doesn’t matter.
What you’ve done at Peason Ridge is impressive, and I think it is probably one of the best, if not the best, way in the Army we can truly test a brigade combat team’s operational reach by forcing them to make that movement.
JRTC has evolved with the times to meet the complex operations we expect our forces to fight in.
Q: What do you think of the JRTC teams who facilitate training and the job they do during rotations?
A: I’m impressed. I spent a lot of time with the respective safety offices here; the team is small but I would say they punch well above their weight. When a brigade combat team comes through here for a rotation, typically they bring a safety officer who is on the brigade staff. The JRTC team does a good job of linking up with that safety officer months in advance, advising them on friction points they can expect to receive while here and what they need to focus on. Once that safety officer is on the ground, they have multiple touch points with that individual daily.
The challenge at JRTC is that the brigade combat team is typically 4,000 or 4,500 Soldiers, and you do a great job of stressing that brigade and spreading them out over a large distance. You don’t have the luxury, with a small safety office, to cover down that brigade combat team. The only way we can compensate for that is through our observer/controller trainers — they essentially become safety disciples themselves, covering down at echelon, across that formation, and they do a lot of the work to make sure that rotational unit is not taking on unnecessary risks.
It’s truly a team effort.
Q: What is your message for the JRTC team?
A: My message would be they are doing a great job. In the safety business you can never rest on your laurels. You’re only as good as your last meal. The challenge is how you ensure proper risk mitigation is being conducted throughout a rotation. JRTC does a wonderful job identifying when units are at the most risk. What I heard yesterday is that it is typically during RSOI (Reception, Staging, Onward Movement and Integration) when the units are acclimating to Fort Polk, and then at the end of the mission when they are getting ready to start rotating Soldiers back to the RUBA (Rotational Unit Bivouac Area). The unit might be prone to smelling the barn, so to speak, and get a little bit complacent.
Q: Studies have shown that military vehicle driving mishaps spike from April through June. Can you provide insight as to why that is and its importance?
A: We are entering a period of elevated risks for tactical vehicle mishaps. Every year, about a third of the Soldiers who die in tactical vehicle mishaps, are lost in the months of April, May and June.
Why is that? Some of that is operation tempo. May and June are not the busiest months in terms of miles driven, but it’s right around the time that we start to increase our mileage. That’s probably based on weather — the summer months are usually better for training. You have longer periods of illumination.
The other, probably more important, driving factor is that we start to see a lot of Soldiers PCSing. Each summer in the Army, about a third of our Soldiers take PCS orders and move somewhere else, often, without a replacement on site to backfill them, especially at the noncommissioned officer level. The challenge then becomes at the E-5, E-6 and E-7 levels, do we have transition plans for those noncommissioned officers who are leaving? If it’s not viable to have the backfill on site to replace them, and we have to have someone to act in that position, we must be deliberate and ensure they understand what we expect of them, what their responsibilities are going to be, and that we have a good leader handoff.
That’s the challenge I would throw at JRTC: How are you going to mitigate that risk during what the data tells us is a high risk time for vehicle mishaps? Is Fort Polk going to rise up and set the standard for the rest of the Army? That’s the challenge.
Q: What is the answer to cutting the vehicle mishap numbers?
A: The first thing is the Army’s drivers training program needs to be a big deal to us. Every year, 20% of the Soldiers who enter the Army do not have a civilian driver’s license. The first time they are likely to drive a vehicle in the Army will be a big, unwieldy, multi-ton Army vehicle with tons of blind spots. We need to make sure we have good programs in place to train our Soldiers to standards. The 40-hour course we have that gives them their license is not good enough.
We expect our Soldiers to drive off-road, with night vision goggles, in convoy movements driving extended distances, with dust and other limiting conditions.
I’ve spoken with Brigadier General (David S.) Doyle, (commanding general, JRTC and Fort Polk) and he is already all over it. We had a team here about a month ago providing training to 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, but he (Doyle) had already done a pretty deep dive on driver’s training across the installation to see where Fort Polk units were.
I know that as rotational units come through, OC/Ts now take time looking at the driver’s programs units are bringing with them, they’re making sure units’ drivers are licensed and qualified on the vehicles they are assigned. We’re not going to risk the great training you provide here.
The second thing is evaluate how well units are conducting their troop leading procedures at echelon.
OC/Ts are in good position to stop a unit if they see a failure to conduct the right pre-combat checks, the right pre-inspections and a failure to do sufficient planning before you start a movement.
If we don’t do a sufficient map or physical recon of the route we’re about to use, and we don’t identify potential hazards along that route, we’re increasing our risk profile.
I think JRTC is well positioned to help with that challenge, but make no mistake, it’s an Army-wide issue.
In closing, Hilmes spoke about the most dangerous time of year for Soldiers.
With safety, much of the risk when we lose Soldiers is predictable.
Part of it is knowing when to expect more risks and when things are more dangerous. Ground safety, it’s the third quarter when we see more mishaps occurring.
Most people think the holidays are the most dangerous times for off duty safety, because Soldiers are going home on leave, doing a lot of traveling over Thanksgiving and Christmas when the weather might be bad, but it’s actually not the most dangerous period. The most dangerous period is later this summer over the July 4 weekend.
The Fourth of July is our most dangerous time, and July is the most dangerous month to be driving, whether motorcycle or four-wheeled vehicle.