FORT RILEY, Kan. — Vice Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Lloyd Austin capped off a week-long series of visits to several Army installations, with a final visit to Fort Riley, Kan., Friday. The visits were part of an effort to develop a better understanding of the “health of the force.”
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 met with are concerned with taking care of their Soldiers and about having the right resources. Finding ways for the Army to provide them was one of the goals, Austin said.
Now, Austin and those who accompanied him 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.
Austin said his trip to the field has shown that getting resources to the field, including more behavioral health providers, is currently a challenge to be addressed.
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 that warrant a further look for use across the force.
The purpose of Austin’s visit was to identify “best practices” already in place, decide how to implement them across the force and identify friction points in delivering services to Soldiers and their Families.
Suicide prevention to be addressed
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 the suicide trend in the Army. The general said suicide “is the toughest enemy I’ve ever faced.”
The suicide problem is a “complex problem set,” Austin said, that requires a “sophisticated solution.”
It will require agencies working together to build resiliency into Soldiers and Families.
Brig. Gen. Donald MacWillie, commander, Fort Riley, said 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. 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 signs of suicide in other Soldiers and emphasizing the need for Soldiers to take care of one another.
Tour participant Surgeon General of the Army Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho 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 and 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.
Keep Soldiers, Army connected
A difficult time for Soldiers 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, who accompanied Austin on his installation visits.
“A lot of the issues that we have today occur in those first couple months of that transition,” Ferriter said.
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. Now the Army has a requirement that all Soldiers transitioning to a new installation must have a sponsor who will help them integrate.
Additionally, Ferriter said, about two-thirds of military Families live in the local communities off post. The Army is working to make stronger connections with those communities, with community groups, and sports teams to ensure 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. The Army has worked to develop a program where military spouses’ career credentials can be transferred from state to state. About 23 states now participate, he said.
The Army is also making a similar effort to allow the children of military Families to transfer credits from one school to another.
Commanders are engaged
Following the visit to installations chosen both for 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 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 problems 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.
Tour participant Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond Chandler III 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 — … and that they are working on these issues diligently and aggressively as can be,” Chandler said.
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.”
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.