By Rob McIlvaine, FMWRC Public AffairsApril 26, 2011
Two years ago, Family and Morale, Welfare & Recreation Command began offering Army battalions a pilot program called Warrior Adventure Quest. WAQ includes high-adventure recreation activities to help Soldiers transition from combat operations to a "new normal," reducing the potential for high-risk behaviors that are counterproductive or otherwise harmful.
"During the research and development stages of WAQ," said John O'Sullivan, Outdoor Recreation Program Manager at FMWRC, "behavioral health specialists noted many Soldiers did not talk about their experiences during war simply to maintain a stoic image. Consequently, the new guys didn't gain much knowledge about what to expect before, during and after a deployment. The idea behind WAQ began as a way to introduce a better outlet for stress, but has also developed into a tool to help break down these communication barriers and enhance unit cohesion."
Beginning in March 2008, WAQ was vetted by an Integrated Process Team of Army medical, psychology and behavioral health, social service, religious, and safety professionals.
Representative organizations involved were the Office of the Surgeon General, Army Medical Department, Medical Command, Combat Readiness/Safety Center, Army Substance Abuse Program, Army National Guard, Army Reserve, Army Center for Enhanced Performance, Special Operations Command, FMWRC, and Installation Management Command.
The Army, through a partnership between FMWRC and the Office of the Surgeon General, tested WAQ with three pilot programs during Sept., 2008. Using lessons learned from these initial activity offerings, the program began officially in Jan. 2009.
"Ultimately, the Army will offer this one-day program for all returning Soldiers," O'Sullivan said. "The target group is Soldiers in 'reset' - a period up to 120 days after returning."
Following the peak stress experienced during the execution of a mission, Soldiers enter the redeployment and post deployment phase. This is when many can experience manifestations of numbness, invincibility and inevitability. These feelings can lead to destructive behavior, such as alcohol and drug abuse, driving at excessive speeds, marital problems and suicide.
According to the Army's Combat Readiness/Safety Center, between October 2001 and October 2009, 287 Soldiers died from motor vehicle and personal injury accidents within one year of returning from deployment. Approximately 21 percent of these deaths occurred within the first 30 days of post-deployment and approximately 67 percent within 180 days of post-deployment.
During the Warrior Adventure Quest program, Soldiers at the platoon-level learn about resiliency through bonding, cohesion and esprit de corps.
The platoon is provided a high adventure activity, such as white water rafting, skydiving, mountain biking or paintball skirmishes. Following this activity, the platoon participates in a Leader-led After Action Debriefing. The debriefing was developed by the Army Medical Department Center and School for the Army's psychological resiliency building program to assist Soldiers in reaching a "new normal," as they transition back from deployment to their home station. While talking about the WAQ activity, they learn how to discuss the high-adrenaline combat experiences they've had, and might have kept bottled up.
At Fort Benning, Ga., Outdoor Recreation Manager Farrah Myers remarked on how well the program is being received.
"We have received nothing but positive feedback from the groups of Soldiers who have gone through the program. Last week we had a female Soldier, who couldn't swim and was terrified of water, make it through a day of scuba," Myers said.
SSG Shimeca Tillis is with Bravo Company, 14th Combat Support Hospital.
"I thought I'd never be able to overcome a personal fear of water. I wasn't even planning on participating because I can't swim, but I was encouraged by other Soldiers to at least give it a try. A little motivation goes a long way," Tillis said.
Tillis thought the scariest part of the whole day was the fear of the unknown and having to step outside her comfort zone.
"I really felt kind of silly at first. But everyone really put me at ease. This really made me feel part of a team by not being pushed to the side just because I couldn't swim. Everyone was really positive and helped me through it. I'm honestly so grateful that I experienced this," Tillis said.
As of April 2010, there are 35 garrisons conducting WAQ activity programs, while another 6 garrisons are in various planning stages, preparing to implement their programs in the coming months. The program has so far served approximately 1,450 platoons, or 37,554 Soldiers.
Recently at Fort Lewis, Wash., Soldiers, NCOs and officers of the 377th Field Artillery Regiment returned from a year in southern Iraq.
They found a cure for their "adventure bug" by taking a white water rafting expedition down the scenic White Salmon River in the southern part of the state.
Sponsored by the FMWR Joint Base Lewis-McChord Adventure Center, the team-building event gave the Soldiers an opportunity to experience a high adrenaline event in a safer environment.
At 42 degrees Fahrenheit, the Salmon's water temperature proved numbing when the 28 "Bulldogs" navigated the treacherous waters with the help of their raft guides. Although the team figured they could successfully challenge the 14-foot drop down a waterfall, they plummeted into the river's cold water. With the buddy system firmly established, though, they all were recovered without injury.
A series of measurements are in place to test effectiveness of the program.
There are indications that participation may have a long-standing impact in reducing high risk behaviors and establishing resilient factors, or cohesion.
According to a U.S. Army Combat Readiness / Safety Center report, research specifically examining post-deployment motor vehicle and personal injury accidents recounted (as of Oct 07), "186 Soldiers died within one year of returning from deployment. In fact, almost 30% (50) of these Soldiers died within the first thirty-days post-deployment and 63% (118) died within 180-days of return. Additionally, 60% of our Soldiers involved in fatal accidents were grade E-5 (SGT) or below, (while) 40% were our senior leaders".
Army National Guard 1SG Michael Mullins, Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center Warrior Adventure Quest Noncommissioned Officer in Charge in Indiana, believes the program is a chance to change Soldiers' lives.
"I believe that the National Guard is really the ideal setting for this program because Soldiers literally redeploy to the U.S. from OIF or OEF and within one week they are back at home in their communities and with their Families. This sudden change can make reintegration a challenging time for them," Mullins said.
CSM Rodney Spade attended a conference to hear a presentation about WAQ and he became convinced that this could be a tool to help Soldiers at Camp Atterbury. He volunteered to be the pilot program for the National Guard since the camp is a premier mobilization platform
CSM Spade went about selling senior leadership on the idea, and CSM Daniel Jensen from the installation's Directorate of Plans, Training, Mobilization and Support provided the vision and leadership. Mullins became project manager.
To resource the program, the team had to use ingenuity, sweat and just plain hard work to build everything from the ground up.
"We literally went out into the woods and carved our own new bike trails. We built our own paintball courses. And we did it without using civilian contractors," said Mullins, who along with Spade and Jensen has deployed three times to combat zones.
"We lived it and we want to help returning Soldiers experience the benefit of this program and our personal experiences," Mullins said.
For Soldiers returning from deployment, the National Guard and the Active Army differ in what awaits them.
Active Army Soldiers return to an Army installation with a full complement of Soldier resources, programs, and activities specifically designed to help them reintegrate. They have a support system and a military community who fully understand what they went through and what they need to successfully reintegrate.
"When a National Guard unit returns, the Soldiers go through a demobilization process that ranges from four to seven days and they are immediately returned to their former lives, Families and civilian jobs," Mullins said. "The WAQ program should prove to be exactly what's needed."
"Unlike other programs, WAQ is unique in that it identifies and addresses problems Soldiers might be having and provides alternative solutions through supplementary behaviors. Affecting change in their behavior is the key to unit readiness, because we know he will be called again," Mullins said.
"This has a residual effect which leads to a stronger, healthier and more effective Army," Mullins said.
"I have known many Soldiers, including many friends, who have returned from a deployment with uncharacteristically negative behavior. Whether it is alcohol or substance abuse, divorce, or even suicide, negative behaviors manifest in a variety of ways, with a variety of consequences. I have had friends who have taken their own life and this drives me to champion WAQ," Mullins said.
WAQ is not therapy, but according to Mullins, it can have therapeutic effects on Soldiers.
"When I was a young paratrooper stationed at Fort Bragg years ago, I remember seeing lots of great young Soldiers come and go. We were known to live hard and fast, often with short career cycles due to the consequences of negative behavior. It was often said when someone got in trouble for doing something seemingly outrageous, 'what do you expect from someone who jumps out of planes for a living'' I think in hindsight that it was that adrenalin addiction that pushed them to do some of those things," Mullins said.
Mullins believes participation in WAQ gives a Soldier an effective coping outlet that can be drawn upon during the reintegration process, when they begin to see a pattern of high-risk behavior in themselves or their battle buddy.
"The events in WAQ provide a climate of fun and high adventure that the Soldiers can enjoy together. This type of cohesion and esprit de corps reinforces resilience and builds and strengthens teams," Mullins said.
The Army National Guard comprises approximately one-half of the U.S. Army's available combat forces and approximately one third of its support organization. National coordination of various state National Guard units is maintained through the National Guard Bureau.
The Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center, activated in February 2003, has trained thousands of regular and reserve forces just prior to deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. This garrison and Camp Shelby, Miss., are the two primary Guard bases with this mission.
Notwithstanding Mullins' anecdotal evidence, WAQ now has a year of empirical evidence that suggests WAQ is making a difference.
WAQ utilizes a series of surveys to measure short and long-range effectiveness. The long-range effectiveness of this program is being tracked with assistance from the Combat Readiness / Safety Center providing data on accident rates, and the Defense Finance and Accounting Service providing data on accident and behavioral incidents.
Furthermore, garrisons use RecTrac™, MWR's system that provides a data collection repository, to capture and track personnel who have participated in the WAQ program and monitor those Soldiers' involvement in other MWR activities after the WAQ program.
"With 41 garrisons currently involved and another 45 with outdoor recreation operations waiting in the wings to participate," said O'Sullivan, "we now have the statistics to suggest this program may contribute to reducing accidents caused by unsafe behavior and to reducing behavioral incidences."
In an initial data check of nearly 10,454 Soldiers participating in WAQ, compared to a total Army population of about 747,000 in 2009, WAQ program analysts reported 50.4 percent fewer accidents resulting in fatality, permanent or partial disability. They also reported 32.8 percent fewer accidents resulting in restricted work ability or one or more days away from work. A similar data comparison through Defense Finance and Accounting Service records of behavioral incidences resulting in pay adjustments indicated WAQ participants were involved in 13% fewer incidences than overall Army norms.
In surveys providing immediate impact of a WAQ event, 21.8 percent of Soldiers who initially had a negative or neutral perception about group cohesion in their unit changed to a positive response at the conclusion of the program. Likewise there was a 17 percent positive change in believing the Army cares about Soldiers, and an 8.6 percent change in believing company-level leaders care about their Soldiers.
"We've had great buy-in from Army senior leaders," said O'Sullivan, "but we need the tactical mission commanders to incorporate WAQ into their re-set schedule."
As in so many things, word-of-mouth will undoubtedly spread the message that WAQ is helping Soldiers with tools to help find their new "norm" after deploying downrange.
When adventure programs are offered to Soldiers in a supervised and safety-conscious environment,A,A they serve as a stimulating alternative to self-destructive behaviors, an outlet for stress, a vehicle for team cohesion, and a tool for coping with the transition back to a non-combative environment.
For more information, contact John O'Sullivan, FMWRC WAQ Program Manager at firstname.lastname@example.org.