JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas –The U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) conducted their first People First Symposium at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston, May 17-20. The hosts for the symposium were Lt. Gen. Theodore Martin, TRADOC Deputy Commanding General, and Cmd. Sgt. Maj. Daniel Hendrex, TRADOC Command Sergeant Major.
TRADOC is based out of Fort Eustis, VA, and the higher headquarters for the U.S. Army Medical Center of Excellence (MEDCoE). Located at Fort Sam, MEDCoE facilitated the event by providing facilities, logistics and manpower. Attendees included dozens of hand-selected Soldiers and Civilians of varying ranks and grades from each of TRADOC’s 10 Centers of Excellence, to include the MEDCoE.
December 2020, Gen. Paul Funk II, TRADOC Commanding General, directed the establishment of a TRADOC People First Assessment Team, or PFAT, to evaluate how effectively the command, that trains over 750,000 Soldiers and service members annually, was executing the Army People Strategy as outlined by Gen. James McConville, the 40th Chief of Staff of the Army. The Strategy is clear – to acquire, develop, employ, and retain the diversity of Soldier and Civilian talent needed to achieve Total Army readiness. The end state will be a ready, professional, diverse and integrated Total Army Force: Active, Guard, Reserve Soldiers, Civilians and contract employees.
Martin has been with TRADOC for the last three years and was recently announced as the next Commander, U.S. Army Combined Arms Center, or CAC, one of five major subordinate headquarters of TRADOC. CAC has the primary mission of preparing the Army and its leaders for war. He recalled that three major events propelled the command to take the decisive action of establishing the PFAT: the murder of Vanessa Guillen, which put a spotlight on sexual harassment and assault in the Army; the murder of George Floyd, which put a spotlight on racial injustice in America; and the apparent rise in extremism during the last election cycle that culminated in the attack of the capital building on January 6.
“I have been in TRADOC for three years,” Martin said. “Whenever we find out that things are not working, we like to jump in and try to fix it.” The Army is a values-based organization. As an American institution, however, the People First Strategy identified three major culture challenges that harm Army teams: racism and extremism, sexual harassment and assault, and suicide.
“We thought, if it’s happening in America, it’s happening in our Army,” Martin said. After the Fort Hood report, that detailed several missteps in the Vanessa Guillen tragedy, the command wondered if TRADOC’s policies and procedures would hold up to the scrutiny of thorough analysis. “One of the key take-aways from the Fort Hood Report,” Martin explained, “was there was a gap between what the generals and the command sergeants major thought was going on versus what the junior leaders, like squad leaders, platoon sergeants, lieutenants and captains, thought.”
Sarah Bercaw, TRADOC Diversity Director and lead planner for the symposium, said Funk’s primary task for her and her team was to stand up a PFAT charged with evaluating TRADOC, down to the lowest level, to identify issues across the TRADOC enterprise before they become major problems.
“General Funk asked, ‘what would those findings look like if someone wrote a similar report about TRADOC?’” Bercaw said. Her team has visited each center of excellence and briefed initial findings and recommendations to unit leaders and the TRADOC command team. “Our assessment capability provides General Funk a feedback loop where he can very quickly conduct his own evaluation of his command footprint and have a better feel for any major gaps and seams occurring within the command.”
To accomplish their monumental task, the PFAT operated in a phased approach. In phase one, they conducted internal TRADOC Headquarters’ evaluations; phase two included assessments of TRADOC subordinate units. Phase three includes the symposium, developing long-range action plans to fix deficiencies, and implementing initial changes in areas identified for improvement. Bercaw considers the symposium and the outcomes from the working groups to be a starting point for the plans that will be operationalized and adopted into the TRADOC Campaign Plan later this summer.
The symposium had two equally important elements. The first two days of the symposium included junior to mid-grade Soldiers and Civilian attendees as the third iteration of TRADOC’s Leadership, Resiliency, and Mentorship event initiative. TRADOC leaders conducted two other Leadership, Resiliency, and Mentorship events, one at Fort Eustis and one at Fort Leavenworth, each using the same successful formula.
This week’s Leadership, Resiliency, and Mentorship event kicked off with a dinner with a special guest presentation by Purple Heart Recipient, Justin “JP” Lane, a double- amputee, medically retired Soldier who spoke of his amazing story of resiliency. The group also participated in a “Your Voice Matters” listening session and culminated in a Staff Ride to the Army Medical Department Museum.
Part two of the symposium, May 19-20, was considered a People First improvement event. Attendees included a hand-selected group of operational leaders, planners and subject matter experts tasked to collaborate in working groups to develop solutions to the major problem set identified by the PFAT team: Behavioral Health, Social Media, and the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response Program, or SHARP.
According to Bercaw, there was one important thing the two groups of symposium attendees had in common. “All of the attendees, whether they are an operational leader or a junior Soldier, whether they attended part one or part two” she explained, “Are asked to remain a conduit between TRADOC leaders and our formations down to the lowest level.”
Hendrex, who assumed responsibilities as the TRADOC Command Sergeant Major in September 2020, agreed. “Part one of this event is intended to create a link between TRADOC senior leaders and our junior leaders.” Hendrex said attendees will be called on in the next 60 to 90 days to continue the dialogue directly with TRADOC senior leaders on these important topics. “That’s why we asked the command to send their top folks; they have to be willing and able to support this effort for as long as it takes,” he said.
The MEDCoE representatives were Sgt. Robert McManes and Capt. Shelby Seymour. A medical service officer from Baltimore, MD, Seymour is currently a company commander for the Basic Officer Leaders Course (BOLC) and the Captains Career Course (CCC). She has been in the MEDCoE since MAR 2017 and also served as a BOLC instructor and executive officer in a 68W Combat Medic training company.
Seymour said the symposium was not what she expected at all because she had never been asked to provide feedback to a four-star level command sergeant major and a three-star general in such an informal setting. Attendees, who were asked to wear civilian clothes, were only identified by their first and last name for the duration of the event; they were essentially asked to leave their rank at the door to promote a free flow of conversation.
“It was a privilege to attend and made me feel heard,” Seymour said. “Having leaders break multiple barriers to try and understand what really happens at the user level was remarkable.”
She was surprised that Martin, Hendrex, and fellow attendees fostered such a comfortable environment that allowed everyone to provide honest feedback and unfiltered opinions. “This did not feel like a typical AAR (after action report) when the leaders provide counter arguments to every comment you make,” Seymour said. “The business casual and informalities broke down the barriers of rank. The resulting experience was a unified front of individuals looking for ways to make our Soldiers and unit better.”
Funk, Martin, and Hendrex are all former Armored Reconnaissance, or Cavalry, Scouts. When it comes to the successful listening sessions, Martin credits his Cavalry background with his appreciation for listening, observing, watching, and learning more while talking less. He learned something new with each listening session.
“I’ve learned that we have good policies, the right policies, in place,” Martin said. “Down at echelon, however, the word is not getting there, so we are not communicating effectively.” He believes the symposium and the lines of communication it has opened will help bridge the communication gap immensely.
General Funk has a list of fundamentals to help guide the command within his intent. Martin recalled Funk’s Fundamental number 14: ”A good idea only becomes great when it is shared.”
“The symposium allows bottom-up communication,” Martin said. “Now we need to figure out how to communicate back down through the echelons.”
Gen. Funk will be briefed on People First Symposium outcomes on May 25. For more information on the US Army TRADOC, visit https://www.tradoc.army.mil/. For more information on the Army’s People Strategy, visit https://people.army.mil/.