By Sgt. Christopher M. Gaylord, 5th Mobile Public Affairs DetachmentAugust 15, 2011
JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. " At a point in her life when most other girls were probably trying on makeup, playing with dolls and dreaming of fairytale love, Shannon Baird had her mind set on something else completely: becoming an elite Navy Seal.
Unfortunately, since the military doesn’t allow females to join special operations units that aspiration would never pan out for her.
But Baird is living proof that even with dreams you can shift fire.
A performance enhancement specialist with the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness-Performance and Resilience Enhancement Program on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Baird now works alongside the military instead of as a member of it.
“If I joined the military I wanted to be the best of the best,” said Baird, a Coos Bay, Ore., native. “If you tell me I can’t be the best of the best " the cream of the crop " then I’m out.”
But while she did sideline the possibility of a career in uniform, Baird never put to rest her desire to help the military community to some capacity.
The help she gives comes in the form of mental preparedness, something she says is absolutely crucial when it comes to any kind of performance.
It’s Baird’s job to work with Soldiers at both the individual and unit level to fine-tune the mental skills that allow them to perform successfully, whether it be in anticipation of a combat deployment, to prepare for a sporting event or simply to garner a little more confidence.
“These Soldiers are well prepared in terms of tactical and physical training, and my role is to add a deliberate and succinct mental training for them as well,” she said.
Baird and the other members of her team at CSF-PREP teach units things like how to set realistic, achievable goals; how to use tactical deep-breathing as a relaxation technique and specific cue words to remind them where to focus; and how to effectively direct attention during even the most stressful tasks.
And they’re lessons she’s been bringing to the 109th Military Intelligence Battalion for the past six months. In that time, she’s worked on multiple occasions with the unit in a classroom setting and even maxed one of its company’s weapons qualification scores.
“Everyone 100 percent qualified from our company, when normally 75 percent might qualify,” said Sgt. 1st Class David Benbrook, the first sergeant for Company B, 109th MI Bn. “She refocused us not to worry about the things you can’t control and only about the things you can.”
Baird headed into the field to work with Soldiers from B Co. for the entire duration of a ten-day field training exercise Aug. 8-18 intended to prepare them for a deployment sometime within the next year.
She put together a specifically-tailored program for the company, which she refers to as a strategic mental plan, and will spend each day observing the Soldiers perform a specific training mission and then preparing them for the following day’s training.
As the company’s senior sergeants give their Soldiers classes on the next day’s training events, Baird interjects occasionally to remind them how important it is to incorporate things like mental imagery into their preparation for tasks.
“If you can imagine it, you’ve done it,” she told the Soldiers Aug. 10 as they rehearsed how they would execute a counter-improvised explosive device range as members of a three-vehicle convoy " their first exercise.
While the Soldiers stood talking through their actions in groups of four " as if to be seated in Humvees " Baird walked from group to group, intervening when she felt it necessary to provide a little mental coaching.
She told one of the Soldiers, Spc. Alexandra Czarnota, a human intelligence collector, to focus on the underlying task rather than several minute details while practicing what she would say over the radio to relay information about a suspected IED.
Staff Sgt. Richard Pendleton, Czarnota’s platoon sergeant, said that, like Czarnota, Soldiers often get wrapped up in details and technicalities when doing something and forget what’s really important.
They worry too much about how they sound on the radio and calling things up perfectly, when what’s important is that they get the information across, he said.
Pendleton said the skills Baird teaches are crucial to Soldiers, especially when the execution of tasks requires them to keep a cool head.
“These skills she gives them allow the Soldiers to calm themselves down, so they can react in a manner that will help them do their jobs better,” he said. “To put out that nine-line medical evacuation request better, or that nine-line IED report, or to evacuate a casualty and not be so stressed.”
“She loves us, and she loves the military, so she really helps from the heart,” he added of Baird.
Because the military literally saved Baird’s life, helping from the heart is all she can do for the community that, since childhood, has been such a big part of her being.
“We were dirt poor when I was a kid, and I was starving to death, and my mom made the decision to go into the military to make sure I got food in my belly,” Baird said. “I feel like the military saved my life.”
But it’s especially because of her mother’s deployment to the Gulf War that she now feels what she calls a responsibility to the Soldiers she works with.
“She left me home alone and scared to death that she wouldn’t come home,” Baird said, “so being able to finally get back to the community and give Soldiers skills that might bring one more parent home " one more brother, sister or father " that’s priceless.”
Baird says that at CSF-PREP that’s exactly what the team is doing.
“We’re giving Soldiers another weapon " a weapon they’ll always have, and that they can use to achieve the end result, and with any mission the end result we all want to see is everyone coming home,” she said.
And although Baird will likely never be seen as a member of the military’s most elite troops, she can’t say she’s given up her dream " she just found a new one.
“This is my dream,” Baird said. “I’m living my dream; it’s just a different dream.”