By Spc. Levi SpellmanApril 14, 2011
FORT SILL, Okla. -- In the Army, people come from all walks of life. They are a microcosm of the society whose members fill its ranks, representing all of the triumphs and challenges of the American experience.
Yet, some of these ordinary men and women take up the mantle of public service, and bear the responsibility of safeguarding their nation. It is a complex profession with incredible demands on Soldiers and - when compounded by problems at home - it can exact a price.
The 214th Fires Brigade is addressing these demands in a unique way. Earlier this year, the brigade instituted the Battle-To-Battle program, a Soldier-generated initiative designed to help peers who may be experiencing personal difficulties.
A 2008 Army study reported 128 Soldier suicides for the fiscal year, the highest rate since 1980, when record-keeping began, according to CNN. Though the figures closely reflected those of the same civilian demographic group, it prompted leaders to increase the level of care available to Soldiers.
"It's necessary to educate young [Soldiers] on the ability to solve problems at a [personal] level. The reduction of suicides is an important piece of leadership," said Col. Mike Cabrey, 214th Fires Brigade commander.
For most of these young Soldiers, seeking the advice of a peer, or a "battle buddy," is the first step in acknowledging they need help, said Spc. Lashaunta Anderson, the individual behind the program. For many of them, she said, it is the only step they are willing to take.
In addition to the stresses of combat deployments and extended absences from loved ones, or even the nature of military service, young Soldiers also face many of the challenges of adulthood for the first time, she said.
"There are some of people around military bases who want to take advantage of them. Without a support system, young people who are in trouble can make some pretty bad decisions," said Anderson.
As a Soldier in her thirties, Anderson regularly found herself mentoring younger troops during her time at Fort Bragg, N.C. Eventually, she realized how rarely these individuals approached their chain of command with their issues, leaving them unaware of the benefits of many of the Army's programs and services.
Most of the problems she encountered with younger Soldiers revolved around financial and relationship issues, substantiating the same claims made by the 2008 Army study.
"We have a lot of young Soldiers that find themselves in adult situations, and they just aren't equipped to handle it," she admitted.
It was not until her transition to Fort Sill that Anderson saw an opportunity to make a real difference.
During newcomer briefs, Cabrey invites his newest Soldiers to contact him directly via Facebook. He encourages them to voice personal concerns, ideas or anything they could think of to help improve the brigade, said Anderson.
"So, I sent Colonel Cabrey a message about what I was thinking, and he got the ball rolling," she said.
Several aspects of the endeavor are unique, said Cabrey, citing the types of training given to counselors, the personnel selected to become those counselors and even the origins of the program.
Though not meant to circumvent the chain of command or the programs already in place, junior enlisted Soldiers are receiving training meant for noncommissioned officers, said Cabrey. The subjects include suicide prevention, financial counseling and crisis management, all of which are designed to guide Soldiers toward more specialized help from highly-trained professionals, he said.
Consulted throughout the development process, Anderson is happy with the end result. Providing confidentiality and accessibility, she believes it competently addresses many of the issues facing at-risk individuals.
One of the program's core strengths, believes Cabrey, is a by-the-Soldier/for-the-Soldier approach. While most directives in the military originate at the top and are pushed down to the lowest levels, the Battle-To-Battle concept bucks that trend, seeing Soldiers take a hand in solving their own problems.
"What we're calling the Battle-To-Battle network of peers - it already exists, whether commanders want it to or not. Now, we're taking advantage of that and making it work for the Soldier," said Cabrey.
The program is still in its infancy, and terms of success remain difficult to accurately quantify but, with 30 Soldiers being trained as peer counselors each quarter, it is an opportunity to make a real difference, said Cabrey.
"If our efforts here can save even one Soldier, then I'd call that success," he said.