By C. Todd Lopez
FORT RILEY, Kan. (July 27, 2012) -- Vice Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin capped off a week-long series of visits to several Army bases, with a final visit to Fort Riley, Kan., July 27. The series of visits was part of an effort to develop a better understanding of the "health of the force."
During the trip, the vice talked to installation senior leaders and brigade and battalion commanders about issues involving the Integrated Disability Evaluation System, sexual assault and sexual assault prevention, suicide prevention and wounded warrior care.
Army leaders Austin talked with during the visit are concerned with taking care of their Soldiers, and are also concerned about having the right resources to do so. Finding ways for the Army to provide those resources was one of the goals of the visits, Austin said.
When Austin and the senior leaders who accompanied him on the trip return to Washington, D.C., they will consolidate their observations, analyze the needs of commanders in the field, and find better ways to provide them with what they need to take care of their Soldiers, the general said.
"The policy changes that need to be made, we'll endeavor to make those policy changes -- to speed up processes, to improve the quality of delivery of service," Austin said. "And where there are resources that need to be applied we'll look at getting more resources out to the field as well. We'll also endeavor to share best practices."
Austin said that getting resources to the field, including more behavioral health providers, is something that he suspected was going to be seen as a challenge. He said his trip to the field has shown that to be true.
What the general also said was that during his trip, he learned that installation commanders are concerned about taking care of their Soldiers and that many are already working on solutions for suicide, sexual assault and sexual harassment prevention, for instance, that warrant a further look for use across the force.
"We've had the opportunity to meet with and talk with leaders and commanders and health professionals and others," Austin said. "And what these discussions have confirmed for me is that we've made progress in a number of areas. Indeed, there are pockets of excellence at every installation."
Still, Austin said, the Army has a way to go to achieve its goals. The purpose of his visit was to identify "best practices" already in place and decide how to implement them across the force and identify friction points in delivering services to Soldiers and their families.
"We will do what is necessary, because this is about taking care of our most precious asset, and that is our people," Austin said.
A key goal of Austin's trip was to address efforts being made in suicide prevention, and to also ask commanders what tools they need to help fight back the suicide trend in the Army. The general said suicide "is the toughest enemy I've ever faced."
The suicide problem in the Army is a "complex problem set," he said, that requires a "sophisticated solution."
The solution will require a number of agencies working together to build resiliency into Soldiers and families.
Brig. Gen. Donald M. MacWillie, the commander of Fort Riley, said at his installation he is attacking suicide on "four fronts." The first of those is to simply engage with Soldiers.
"We're letting them know that life is good," he said. "And with that, it takes courage and strength when you come forward and say you need some help. If we can break through that -- that very bottom level -- we see success."
MacWillie also said that at Fort Riley, educating and empowering leaders is part of the solution. There, he said, he wants his leaders to know their Soldiers, to know the indicators of suicide, and to also know the stressors that may cause suicide. He also said that they are educating Soldiers to know how to identify in other Soldiers the signs of suicide, and emphasizing the need for Soldiers to take care of one another.
The Fort Riley community is also working with academia, such as at Kansas State University, and also with professionals locally to learn more about the suicide problem and to learn ways to combat it.
Finally, MacWillie said, Fort Riley has integrated 214 behavioral health providers on post who are "integrated down to the lowest level, down to where the Soldiers see that behavioral health provider."
Surgeon General of the Army Lt. Gen. Patricia D. Horoho, one of those who accompanied Austin on the trip, said increasing the number of behavioral health providers is something the Army has been "working really aggressively" at since 2007. Since then, she said, the Army has increased behavioral health providers by 83 percent, and is now working to embed those providers into brigade combat teams, as well as to make behavioral health a part of a Soldier's primary care experience.
"It's making sure that behavioral health -- the mental and the spiritual, the total aspect of our Soldiers and our family members -- is in the fabric of who we are and it's one component of wellness," Horoho said.
KEEPING SOLDIERS CONNECTED TO THE ARMY
A difficult time for Soldiers, and one potentially at the center of the very problems Austin is investigating now, is when they transition from one installation to another. Making that transition is something the Army is working to get a handle on, said Lt. Gen. Michael Ferriter, commander, U.S. Army Installation Management Command, and assistant chief of staff for installation management.
"A lot of the issues that we have today occur in those first couple months of that transition," Ferriter said. The general also accompanied Austin on the installation visits.
As Soldiers move around the Army, Ferriter said, it's important for them to stay connected to the Army, and to retain a sense of belonging. The Army, he said, has a sponsorship program that helps make that possible. In November, the Army published a requirement that all Soldiers transitioning to a new installation must have a sponsor that will help them integrate into their new unit.
Additionally, Ferriter said, about two-thirds of military families live in the local communities off base. The Army is working to make stronger connections with those communities, with community groups, and with sports teams, for instance, to ensure that military families stay engaged.
Finally, Ferriter said, the Army is working, from headquarters-level in Washington, to further efforts that help keep military spouses employed when they move from state to state as part of the transition process. Continuity, Ferriter said, is critical. To that end, the Army has worked to develop a program where credentials that military spouses might need to do their jobs can be transferred from state to another during a transition. About 23 states now participate, he said.
The Army is also making a similar effort that will allow the children of military families to transfer school credits from one school to another.
"What we offer is a full layer cake of opportunity to create stability and certainty during this time of a lot of movement," Ferriter said.
COMMANDERS ARE ENGAGED
Following the visit around the force, at installations chosen both for their size and their diversity, Austin said he came away with one clear picture of the Army's health.
"The overriding piece of feedback is that commanders are engaged and are very concerned about taking care of their troops and are very focused on building a better force," Austin said.
Lt. Gen. Howard B. Bromberg, deputy chief of staff, Army G-1, another participant in the visits, said he was impressed to have found that commanders are already engaged with their Soldiers to tackle the very problems that the senior leader team visited to address.
"What I was really encouraged with on this trip was the open dialogue amongst commanders and young Soldiers about our increase in behavioral health, our increase in willingness to talk about suicide, to talk about the challenges of military life," Bromberg said. "We talked to several family members as well and talked about their challenges. I think as we go through and we increase our numbers of trainers and resiliency, increase our number of people who understand the challenges our Soldiers face -- I think that's how we are going to attack (it)."
Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III, who also participated in the six-installation tour, said it was important for Soldiers to see leadership from the highest levels of the Army -- leaders they don't often interact with -- tackling the problems that affect them.
"Soldiers really want to know their leaders are doing everything they can -- including from a Department of the Army level, who they really don't hear too much from -- and that they are working on these issues diligently and aggressively as can be," Chandler said. "I think they wanted to hear from the folks here that we are engaged, we are working this and we are going to help them in many of the areas we talked about."
Austin said if the Army is going to tackle the problems it faces with suicide, sexual assault, behavioral health issues, and Soldier care, it must continue to do what he and his team have already done.
To really get at the problem, Austin said, requires getting down to the lowest levels "and take a knee beside that commander, and say tell me what's going on specifically and what resources do you need to better fight that fight. That's worked for me in every fight I've been in, never failed me, and every time I've seen us get our leadership focused on a specific issue, we're successful."
During the week, Austin and his team visited Fort Bragg, N.C.; Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Benning, Ga.; Fort Stewart, Ga.; and Fort Gordon, Ga. They concluded their trip at Fort Riley.