Risk Reduction: A Mission Essential Task
Holland, Diana M., Army
After several years at war, some Army units have faced high rates of soldier substance abuse, misconduct and mental-health concerns. Leaders struggle to address these challenges while in the various stages of Army force generation. Here's how one battalion overcame excessive rates of soldier misconduct and reestablished a unit culture that fosters safe and responsible decision making. Ultimately, this effort not only benefited the organization at home-station but also enabled it to have a safe and productive deployment to Afghanistan in 2010-11.
The 92nd Engineer Battalion (Black Diamonds) deployed to Afghanistan in 2001 and to Iraq in 2003, 2005 and 2006. In between each combat tour, officers transferred in and out of the battalion, but most of the enlisted soldiers remained because there was not enough dwell time available to replace them. By 2008, the battalion had a large population of Black Diamonds who had been with the unit for more than five years. Some of those soldiers had histories of Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) violations, substance abuse and behavioral-health challenges. It was difficult to track patterns of misconduct and discharge those soldiers because of numerous leadership changes and an aggressive deployment schedule.
Following the final Iraq rotation, and with no deployment in the immediate future, the Army moved most of the "homesteading" soldiers out of the battalion and rebuilt it with new personnel. Most significant was the severe depletion of the senior NCO population. The Army did not immediately replace them, leaving junior soldiers with minimal supervision.
By summer 2008, the 92nd Engineer Battalion faced extensive challenges regarding good order and discipline. Each month, the Black Diamonds populated the Fort Stewart, Ga., police blotter with driving under the influence infractions, "hot" urinalyses and domestic-violence incidents. Local law-enforcement agencies and Fort Stewart legal advisors reported that the battalion had serious drug and gang problems. Some soldiers seemed to believe that their leaders did not care how they behaved. In September, following two weekends of alarming misconduct, the leadership took decisive and dramatic steps to stem the immediate crisis and develop a plan with follow-on phases intended to change the mind-set of the soldiers, rebuild the unit's reputation and morale, and shape an enduring culture of safe and responsible decision making.
Seize the Initiative
In September 2008, the battalion initiated its first Force Protection Week. The purpose of the week was to give uninterrupted attention to the unit's drug use, alcohol abuse and other discipline issues. Getting everyone's attention was essential. To maximize the shock effect across the organization, only a small number of people in the battalion headquarters knew of the plan until the first morning of the program. The battalion initiated an alert at 0400, held a formation in the motor pool at 0600 and locked the gates. Once assembled, the battalion commander directed force-protection training and tasks for the week. Those tasks included: urinalyses; health and welfare inspections; classes on substance abuse, mental health, ethics and installation resources; effective counseling methods; visits (by appointment only) to the homes of all onpost family housing and offpost residences; and company command team briefings on their plans to reduce misconduct. The battalion closed the week on a positive note with a unit run, and command teams briefed on Friday that soldiers and leaders appreciated the event because it showed that the battalion cared about their welfare.
It was also important to acknowledge good behavior. Since soldiers valued their free time more than almost anything else, the battalion published a policy letter that awarded three-day passes to companies that achieved 30 consecutive incident-free days. Once rewarded for two separate 30-day periods, the companies had to achieve 92 consecutive incident-free days to earn an additional pass. This policy had an almost immediate effect on the nature of peer pressure in the unit. Once a negative influence, peer pressure became a force for responsible behavior.
Build the Momentum
The battalion then initiated actions to sustain the momentum achieved by Force Protection Week. First, the units needed to improve their sense of teamwork and pride. The precipitous drawdown of the battalion's assigned strength had eliminated established teams. Junior soldiers and NCOs were serving in leadership positions for which they had little preparation, and many did not know how to build new teams or handle another soldier's problems in garrison. To assist the new leaders, the battalion directed that one Thursday afternoon each month would be devoted to team-building activities, which included sports. Companies also instituted their own programs and events to build teams and become more familiar with their soldiers.
Also important at this time was taking aggressive actions against soldiers who did not adhere to Army standards. The battalion completed courts-martial and nonjudicial actions, but administrative separations moved slowly. With the discharge paperwork stalled, the undisciplined soldiers continued to stand in the ranks and live in the barracks around good soldiers. This created the perception that there were no consequences for bad behavior. The battalion quickly focused leaders and the S-I on establishing a timely administrative separations process. Soon, numerous chapter packets sailed through the system. When NCOs escorted the first batch of separated soldiers to the front gate of Fort Stewart-and hence out of the Army - the Black Diamonds knew that their leaders were serious about discipline.
During this time, the command sergeant major designed a risk-assessment worksheet for the battalion. He used the Army's checklist as a baseline and then adjusted it to meet the unit's situational needs. Leaders at all levels used this worksheet during counseling to assess risk levels in all soldiers. It enabled units to focus attention on "high-risk" soldiers while monitoring "medium-risk" soldiers. In addition, the assessment maintained continuity between outgoing and incoming leaders.
Coping with soldiers' suicidal behavior was also a focus during this time. In addition to completing mandatory Army suicide-prevention framing, the battalion launched an aggressive information campaign to discourage destructive behavior and encourage Black Diamonds to take care of each other. Leaders at all levels frequently talked to soldiers about identifying those who needed help and pursuing counseling. Talking points at formations included the following:
* Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
* If you think no one cares about you, look to your left and right - there are 600 Black Diamonds who care.
* If you kill yourself, your pain is over, but the grief and guilt will affect your friends and family for the rest of their lives.
* Many suicide attempts result in permanent injury.
* If you suspect or know that another soldier is contemplating suicide, it is your responsibility to act. Do not wait for someone else to take charge.
Constant communication on these themes appeared to make a difference. Many Black Diamonds participated in counseling programs in the subsequent months. Soldiers talked openly to their chain of command about personal and professional problems.
Sustain Long-Term Stability
As the rates of misconduct declined, the battalion instituted a comprehensive risk-reduction board to monitor trends and prevent the resurgence of poor decision making. Units often address topics such as suicide prevention, safety and sexual assault in separate meetings. The 92nd, however, concluded that many soldiers exhibit multiple areas of risk. Furthermore, solutions were common across all areas: leader involvement, education and fraining, substance-abuse treatment, behavioral-health programs, UCMJ and administrative separation. Therefore, it was more effective for the battalion to consolidate the issues into one meeting. In this monthly event, battalion leaders and staff (public affairs, chaplain and safety officer) discussed trends. The battalion motorcycle mentor briefed soldiers' progress in motorcycle courses. The battalion equal opportunity leader and unit victim advocate discussed fraining statistics and active cases. The company commanders briefed the status of mediumând high-risk soldiers and determined focus areas for the future. This forum successfully brought together all relevant leaders and subject-matter experts into one meeting and provided everyone with a common understanding of the battalion's trends as well as a unified way ahead.
Sustained risk-reduction efforts take time and energy and often seem unrewarding. It is hard for a leader to determine what exactly causes a soldier to make mature decisions. Is it all of those safety briefings? Which discussion convinces a soldier to get counseling? Would our soldiers act in accordance with the Army Values anyway? Are we making a difference? Though some of these questions are unanswerable, the 92nd Engineer Battalion can be confident that its risk-reduction campaign was successful. For most of 2009 and 2010, the battalion enjoyed quiet weekends and holidays. Companies earned multiple three-day passes for achieving 30 or 92 incident-free days. Two companies earned the Commanding General's 180-day Alcohol-Incident Free streamer. Then the battalion deployed to Afghanistan in late spring 2010 in support of the surge. The emphasis on safety, standards and discipline at Fort Stewart set the conditions for a safe and rewarding deployment. For the entire combat tour, the battalion maintained the best safety record in the engineer brigade and one of the best in Regional Command-East. The Black Diamonds had become a safe and professional group of soldiers, and reducing risk proved to be as important as any other mission essential task.
A platoon leader briefs his soldiers before a convoy mission in Afghanistan.
A 526th Engineer Company's platoon leader conducts a safety briefing before executing convoy live-fire training at Fort Stewart, Ga.
Left, a leader in the 984th Engineer Company conducts a safety briefing before beginning road construction at the U.S.-Mexican border near Yuma, Ariz. Below, MG Cucolo presents HHC, 92nd Engineer Battalion, with a streamer for achieving 180 consecutive days of alcohol-incident-free conduct.
By LTC Diana M. Holland
LTC Diana M. Holland is the commander, 92nd Engineer Battalion, Fort Stewart, Ga. Her previous assignments include plans officer, Operations Directorate, U.S. Central Command; S-3, 92nd Engineer Battalion; plans officer, 3rd Infantry Division; and assistant professor, U.S. Military Academy (USMA). A graduate of USMA, she has master's degrees from Duke University and the School of Advanced Military Studies, Fort Leavenworth, Kan.…
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Publication information: Article title: Risk Reduction: A Mission Essential Task. Contributors: Holland, Diana M. - Author. Magazine title: Army. Volume: 61. Issue: 9 Publication date: September 2011. Page number: 63+. © Association of the United States Army Feb 2009. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.