Army senior leaders speak during a Family Forum at AUSA 2021.
Army senior leaders speak during a Family Forum at AUSA 2021. (Photo Credit: John Bell) VIEW ORIGINAL

WASHINGTON — The Army’s most senior leaders addressed a range of questions from Army Families in a livestreamed event at the Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting and Expo, Oct. 12.

Taking questions from an in-person audience and from Facebook were Army Sec. Christine Wormuth; Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville; and Sgt. Major of the Army (SMA) Michael Grinston. The panel, which convened for Family Forum III: Senior Leader Town Hall, was moderated by Deputy Chief of Staff, G-9 (Installations) Lt. Gen. Jason T. Evans.

Among the audience were Family members and numerous active duty Soldiers, including several general officers, as well as retired Soldiers and Army civilians.

COVID-19 Vaccination

One Soldier asked via Facebook how to get a waiver from getting a required COVID-19 vaccination.

“The reason that the Department has mandated the vaccine for the entire military is, it’s a health, safety and readiness issue,” Wormuth said.

“We have safe, effective vaccines that can protect our Soldiers, their Family members, our Department of Army civilians and contractors from COVID.

“I’m sad to say that the number of notices that I’ve gotten in the last few months of Soldiers, or dependents or DA civilians who have passed away from COVID has been increasing markedly,” she continued.

Wormuth noted that Soldiers can apply for medical or religious exemptions, which are evaluated by senior Army leaders.

While about 91% of active duty Soldiers have received the vaccine so far, McConville said, deadlines are approaching. All Soldiers must get their second dose (or only dose for the single-dose vaccines) by Dec. 1 to be considered fully vaccinated by the Dec. 14 deadline. All DoD civilians must receive their second dose (or only required dose) by Nov. 8.

For Army civil servants in particular, McConville said, “It really bothers me, because we are losing a good amount of Department of the Army civilians” to COVID-19. “I lost a former battalion commander,” he noted.

“We want people to get it. It’s safe for themselves. It’s safe for their buddies if they’re going to deploy,” McConville said.

Grinston compared resisting vaccination to resisting body armor for combat. “Imagine… all of a sudden I got this new body armor and said, ‘Well, I’m not going to give it to you, but you’re still going to deploy.’“

“You would never question the Secretary or the Chief [of Staff] to tell you that you’ve got to wear that body armor,” the SMA said.

Marijuana Challenges

Col. Jason Clarke is garrison commander of Fort Irwin in California, where marijuana use is legal under state law. He said more Soldiers are now testing positive for the drug. “How is DoD and Army leadership working with state and federal legislators to address these concerns?” he asked.

“We still have the same drug testing policies in place that we’ve had in place for many years,” Wormuth said. For recruiting, however, “We’re seeing that run into the fact that many, many young Americans are growing up in states where pot is legal. So I think we’re going to have to grapple with that in a more comprehensive way.”

McConville agreed more refinement is needed. “The question becomes, what are the rules? Prior use—is that OK? You come up ‘hot’ at MEPS—is that OK? And once you get on active duty, when does it become not OK? … We’re going to have to figure that one out.”

For Fort Irwin, Clarke also noted cannabis farming is competing with installations like his for water and energy.

McConville acknowledged the stress such a water-intensive crop can pose to nearby installations, especially when combined with climate change.

“Who gets access to your water? If they kind of suck it all out so they’re growing pot with it, you’re left in a very difficult situation.”

McConville confirmed that Headquarters Department of the Army would work with Fort Irwin to address any potential occupational and environmental health hazards.

Domestic Violence

Another questioner asked what the Army is doing to address domestic violence. Wormuth noted this is a key concern for the Army’s senior leaders—one that has been exacerbated by the social isolation and higher operational tempo that have come with the pandemic.

The focus is twofold, she said—prevention and response.

“Ideally, what we’d like to do is catch Families that are having problems and support them before violence happens,” Wormuth said.

The Army does this through programs like “This Is My Squad,” Strong Bonds, financial readiness counseling, ensuring a healthy command climate, and other efforts, she added.

After an incident of violence, the Army provides resources to victims, Wormuth said. And the service must ensure cases are investigated and offenders held accountable, relying on the expertise of the Army Criminal Investigations Command and Judge Advocate General Corps.

Two recent developments may help, according to Karen Carlisle, director of Soldier and Family Legal Services for the Judge Advocate General Corps, speaking from the audience.

Since December, victims are eligible for a form of legal representation known as special victims counsel. And Army Legal Assistance offices have been representing victims as well, Carlisle said.

McConville noted the Army must earn victims’ trust in order to fully help them.

“The idea of building these cohesive teams at every single level and really giving people access or feeling that they can trust someone they can go to, whether it’s sexual harassment/ sexual assault, whether it’s suicide, or behavioral health issues, or domestic abuse… who does that person trust that they can call?”

Grinston emphasized the importance of leaders knowing their Soldiers—and knowing their Families.

“You gotta know your squad,” he said. “That’s knowing the people that are right next to you, asking those simple questions… If people don’t make eye contact in the U.S. [culture], that’s a sign… that something is going on,” he said.

As another example, it’s a possible concern when a Soldier is reluctant for his or her supervisor to meet a spouse, Grinston explained.

“I’d ask every leader in the Army to go out there and just talk to your people, their Families. And if they say no… why is that?”

The SMA noted that recent changes provide more financial stability for spouses who separate from an abusive service member.

Other topics raised in the 1.5-hour forum included reducing the administrative burden for Families of adult dependents with disabilities; the struggle to afford food for some Army Families; combatting online disinformation; making sure Soldiers inform their Families of their wishes in case they die before them; and compensation for delayed arrival of household goods during PCS moves.

The secretary of the Army closed the event by noting how valuable such direct feedback is to the senior Army leadership.

“It is so helpful for us to hear directly from Families about what their concerns are,” Wormuth said. “It’s really helpful for us to get this kind of feedback, and we value the opportunity to hear directly from you. So thank you so much for taking the time to be with us.”

The full discussion can be viewed on the Army’s YouTube channel.