Risk Reduction: A Mission Essential Task

Article excerpt

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. …