Category Archives: Showcase Features

Boxing gloves help amputees learn strength and confidence


By MICHAEL L. LEWIS
NCO Journal

For the more than 1,000 Soldiers who’ve lost a limb during combat in Iraq or Afghanistan, the road to recovery is long and hard. Learning how to walk, use the restroom, cook, shop and change the baby’s diaper again requires retraining the body, mind and spirit. And one of the best ways to accomplish this training, according to a team at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., is with boxing gloves.

“This is more than just going on a trip or playing sports, it’s about giving [amputee] Soldiers life, and giving back a sense of normalcy after their procedure,” said Harvey Naranjo, the Military Adaptive Sports Program coordinator at Walter Reed. “We are providing a treatment, not just a fun extracurricular activity. Our goal is for them to learn everything they need to learn so they can apply it once they leave here.”

Sgt. Eric Hunter (right) practices punch combinations with David Sheehi, a volunteer coach with the boxing adaptive sports program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center at Bethesda, Md., in July.
Sgt. Eric Hunter (right), who lost a leg in combat, practices punch combinations to help regain his balance with David Sheehi, a volunteer coach with the boxing adaptive sports program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., in July. (Photo by Michael L. Lewis)

The program, housed under the rehabilitation department at the nation’s premier center for wounded warrior care, is designed to help service members learn to use different muscles to compensate for the loss of a limb. Through the varied mechanics of sports such as archery, rowing, skiing and lacrosse, combined with field trips into real-world settings, Soldiers develop strength and agility, especially those learning to walk with prostheses, Naranjo said. But nothing develops balance and confidence like adaptive boxing, said Sgt. Eric Hunter of the 5th Special Forces Group at Fort Campbell, Ky., a recent program participant.

“The hardest thing for me with my prosthetic was just being confident in myself,” he said. “I was able to stand up. But in my head, I guess, I was just scared to. Definitely, boxing has helped build confidence in my balance. When you first come in here, you can throw maybe one punch, and then you’re falling down, trying to gather your balance again. After being down here, I’m pretty much able to stand up the whole time. I may lose my balance a couple times, but it’s been a tremendous improvement.”

That confidence helps those in the program be better NCOs, said Staff Sgt. Nick Lavery, a program participant from the 3rd Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, N.C.

“I think this program creates a better leader, and it trains future leaders as they are developing into NCOs,” he said. “It breeds mental toughness and confidence in what your body is able to do. It’s a direct translation to what we do professionally: You’re building a skill set that you’re able to take back to your professional environment.”

The training also develops a different style of leadership, Lavery said.

“It’s a humbling sport for sure,” he said. “A lot of military guys are type-A, confident dudes, and they don’t want to necessarily take a risk or the chance of going into a situation where they may not feel so superior. But once you’re able to get past that kind of mental block, and you take that humbled approach, you’ll realize huge benefits.”

 

Intense — physically and mentally

Though the program trains participants in the basics of boxing, the goal is not to create the next Floyd Mayweather Jr., said David Sheehi, a boxing coach who volunteers with the program.

“It’s not about fighting. We’re not really trying to teach them how to go into the ring and do this for a living,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is just use the sport in a positive way — the fitness part of it. In boxing, those athletes are some of the fittest in the world. When you try to train a football player or baseball player to be a boxer, they just can’t do it. They’ll go three or four minutes and just get tired out.”

Boxing provides a physical and mental workout that is not easily matched, Sheehi said.

Marine Corps Sgt. Ryan Donnelly (left) practices punch combinations with Michael Martin, a volunteer coach with Walter Reed's boxing adaptive sports program. (Photo by Michael L. Lewis)
Marine Corps Sgt. Ryan Donnelly (left) practices punch combinations with Michael Martin, a volunteer coach with Walter Reed’s boxing adaptive sports program. (Photo by Michael L. Lewis)

“It’s a very strenuous activity, and it keeps them in shape without running,” he said. “A lot of them can’t run yet, and they can’t do the ellipticals or bicycles yet either. So what do we do? What we do is we work the upper body. It works just as well, it burns just as many calories as just doing the lower body, and it keeps their weight down.”

The intensity surprises many, said Sgt. Christopher Hemwall, a participant formerly with the 2nd Cavalry Regiment in Vilseck, Germany.

“My first day, I spent two hours working down here,” he said. “The next day, I woke up, and I couldn’t move my left arm or my back at all — I was so sore. So that was surprising. No one warned me about that.”

Because participants don’t fight each other — they work individually with coaches on various punch positions and combinations — even those with traumatic brain injury can participate and reap the benefits, Sheehi said.

“They never spar. We have no contact at all,” he said. “Because the purpose of this is not for competition, it’s therapy, that’s why it’s very safe, even for TBI patients. Originally, they didn’t even want TBI patients to touch this — no way! So we had to show them that it helps TBI patients with the thinking process as we throw numbers of combinations out.”

The moves and training also reinforce soldiering skills many participants feel have faded as they’ve worked through the laborious rehabilitation process, Sheehi said.

“A lot of them feel vulnerable now that they have a prosthesis or are missing a limb,” he said. “So we show them how to dodge a punch and how to counter a punch. It doesn’t matter [that they’ve lost a limb], because all the power comes from your hips, not the legs. As long as they’ve got that, they can do this and be just as good at it as someone with uninjured legs and arms. When they see that, you can see the look in their face: ‘Wow, I am somebody. I can do just like I did before.’”

Hemwall, for example, was looking to regain his agility through the training.

“The biggest reason I was doing it was learning the stance, the movement,” he said. “I’m not so much worried about how to take a hit or how to throw a punch, but I’m trying to learn how to move lightly on my feet again now that I have a prosthetic. I like to think that I used to be pretty quick and agile, and I’d like to get back to that.”

The training is also helping him return to form as a role model for those he will lead.

“It’s helping me get back into physical shape, and being an NCO, you’ve got to lead by example,” Hemwall said. “If you are not in shape, then that’s what your Soldiers will be. Boxing teaches you discipline.”

 

Light at the end of the tunnel

Oftentimes, the most significant injuries participants have to tackle are emotional or psychological, Naranjo said.

“I had one patient who couldn’t walk on what we call shorties — a patient with significant limb loss, we put them on these little stubbies to learn how to walk and we graduate up, up, up,” he said. “For some of them, it’s really difficult to walk around, especially if they used to be 6 feet tall. Well, one patient would never get out of his chair; he would never use his stubbies. But if you don’t learn to use your stubbies, then you won’t be able to develop the core muscles required to walk.

“So we were at this restaurant, and this guy was with his buddies. But the ramp was too narrow for him to get up with his wheelchair. But he saw his buddies — all amputees with prostheses — getting out of their chairs and going up into the restaurant. So this guy had to do it, too. He walked for the first time in public so that he could be with his peers and participate. Long story short, he’s now a Paralympian.”

Sheehi recalled an even more dramatic transformation.

“We had a female Soldier come through here who had been injured about 3 months beforehand. She really just did not want to talk to anybody; she was still in shock,” he said. “When I talked to her, she really didn’t want anything to do with it (boxing). It took a couple times for her to try, but once she did it, she opened up like a flower. Everybody in the entire room could not believe that she was talking, she was having a fun time, she was enjoying herself. This opened her up. She saw light at the end of the tunnel.”

And that’s the whole point of the program, Naranjo said — give recovering Soldiers and NCOs hope that they can do everything and anything again.

“This is as valid a treatment as any other medical discipline that is out there. It’s not all fun and games,” he said. “It lets us assess their full function outside the clinic. How did they navigate the airport? How did they use the restroom? If they were on a bus trip and it only had one of those tiny little bathrooms, how did that quadruple amputee use the restroom? Oh, the baby is crying on the bus and needs a diaper change. Can he change that diaper with one arm? On that bus? So we are assessing their whole ability to function in all those little things that we usually take for granted.”

And though the program is designed to teach independence, it is only together that Soldiers actually heal, Lavery said.

“Nobody’s here to embarrass anybody or beat anybody up,” he said. “It’s about us all getting better and growing both in the sport as well as individual Soldiers.”

Bradley Master Gunner Course graduates embody ‘higher standard’ of NCOs


By PABLO VILLA
NCO Journal

The title “Mike Golf” carries significant clout throughout the U.S. Army, according to Patrick Hoffman.

The sobriquet is applied to master gunners, the Army’s NCOs who are subject-matter experts on the weapon systems housed within military fighting vehicles. Hoffman, a retired first sergeant and Bradley Master Gunner Course instructor at Fort Benning, Ga., helps train Soldiers for these positions, which carry a significant amount of responsibility.

Hoffman says a Bradley master gunner not only maintains the stabilized platform 25 mm cannon that is mounted on the vehicle, he is also responsible for conducting the training program for Bradley-equipped units at the battalion level and higher, a job that places a heavy burden — and a high demand — on the Soldier who accepts it.

And Fort Benning’s Bradley Master Gunner Course is doing all it can to churn out more of them.

“A lot of people who understand the role of the master gunner — and have good master gunners — hold them to a higher standard than anyone else,” Hoffman said. “It’s more of, ‘you’ve been trained to be able to make us successful back in our unit.’  So they expect you to be able to do that, and do it well.”

From Armor roots

Fort Benning’s Bradley Master Gunner Course has its roots in the U.S. Army Armor School’s master gunner program, which began in the 1980s. The program aimed to provide battalions with a noncommissioned officer who was a trained expert on maintenance, operation and training for the M1 tank’s gunnery system. It was deemed a success as it allowed units to have multiple crews that were trained and could be effective using vehicles with complex weaponry. These units were able to use the vehicle in the most efficient manner possible in accordance with established training methods.

Eventually, the program expanded to include mechanized infantry and cavalry units. The M3 and M2 versions of the Bradley fighting vehicle — named for U.S. Gen. Omar Bradley — entered service with the U.S. Army in 1981. By 1983, it had its own Master Gunner Course at Fort Benning.

The Bradley Master Gunner Course is aligned under the 316th Cavalry Brigade, which is part of the U.S. Army Armor School that joined the U.S. Army Infantry School in 2010 to form the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning. The course lasts 14 weeks and is split into two phases. The first phase deals with maintenance where students learn about ammunition capabilities, ballistics, the functions of turret components, surface danger zones, target safing and range overlays. The second phase of the course is gunner-specific. Students learn about training devices, range operations, ammunition forecasting, training management and creating short-range training plans.

Molding senior enlisted advisers

Sgt. 1st Class Travis Larson, the maintenance team chief for the Bradley Master Gunner Course, says that though much of the subject matter will sound familiar to Soldiers, there is a bigger mission in the curriculum.

Sgt. 1st Class Travis Larson is the maintenance team chief of the Bradley Master Gunner Course at Fort Benning, Ga. Larson organizes the course’s maintenance team and all of its classes, students, resources and planning. (Photo by Pablo Villa)
Sgt. 1st Class Travis Larson is the maintenance team chief of the Bradley Master Gunner Course at Fort Benning, Ga. Larson organizes the course’s maintenance team and all of its classes, students, resources and planning. (Photo by Pablo Villa)

“They learn everything they thought they knew,” Larson said. “We have people who have been on Bradleys for 10 years, and they come here and they learn — or relearn — everything that they knew about the Bradley, from how to tear it apart, how to put it back together, how to service it, how to implement it in both training and in war. But more specifically, we teach people how to be the senior enlisted adviser of all things gunnery to their commander at whatever level they are selected to be at.”

With the goal of the course geared toward preparing capable leaders, the prerequisites to take part in it are commensurately stringent.

Soldiers entering the course must be sergeants to sergeants first class, though waivers may be granted for promotable specialists. National Guard master sergeants are also allowed in the course. A GT (General Technical) score of 100 is required.  Other prerequisites are platform-based — Soldiers must pass a gunnery skills test within six months of entering the class. A passing score on gunnery table VI must also be achieved.

“One of the reasons we have the prerequisites the way they are is because we don’t have time to teach people the basics here,” Larson said. “This is an advanced course. You have to arrive here ready to go.”

Lessons from experience

Once Soldiers do arrive to one of the five courses offered each year, they are instructed by a cadre made up of NCOs and former NCOs, all of who are graduates of the course. Most of them have held a battalion-level position as a master gunner.

Learning from Soldiers who have been through the challenges of the course and have experienced the trials of the master gunner role in the field is a boon for students.

“We have first-hand experience,” Hoffman said. “We’ve been there. We’ve done a lot. Being in the vehicle, you know how to teach in a way that they would grasp it and understand the big concept of everything. Almost all of us who are contractors, and the branch chiefs and team chiefs, have all held battalion positions or above.”

Larson said, thanks to the NCO and former NCO instructors, graduates of the course come away with the knowledge and ability to make decisions on their own in a significant role. Larson said the authorized slots for Bradley master gunners are at the platoon, company, battalion and brigade levels. The NCOs in those positions teach their units how to properly use, maintain and utilize the Bradley’s firing mechanisms and lift them to an acceptable level of competence. The number of master gunners who serve in each unit varies depending on the mission. For example, infantry units will always have four Bradleys. Scout units will have from three to six.

“The work ethic is different with an NCO cadre,” he said. “Having an all-NCO cadre cuts out a lot of bureaucracy. Civilian instructors are former master gunners and that is a prerequisite to becoming a contractor. They know as much, if not more, than most of us.”

Furthermore, Hoffman says because of an Army requirement to have gunner crews for unstabilized platforms — such as those found on the Stryker vehicle — some graduates of the course will be sent to light units solely to conduct their training program.

As such, Bradley master gunners are in high demand and are also often called upon to serve in a higher capacity far more quickly than other NCOs, Hoffman said. Larson says the Mike Golf title is indicative of an NCO who has been through meticulous training and has the potential to thrive in an environment with a large amount of responsibility.

Moving forward

Recent changes at Fort Benning may eventually have bearing on how the Bradley Master Gunner Course is conducted. The post’s transition to the Maneuver Center of Excellence and acquisition of the U.S. Army Armor School from Fort Knox, Ky., has started conversations about meshing portions of the Bradley curriculum with that of the Stryker Master Trainer course. There are also efforts under way to develop a master gunner course for unstabilized vehicles. However, no concrete plans or timelines have been laid out.

In the meantime, students and instructors in the Bradley Master Gunner Course continue to toil in an effort to provide the Army with its necessary supply of Mike Golfs.

“It’s a lot of work,” Larson says of both the Bradley master gunner role and the instructors who teach it to students in the course. “There’s always work. A master gunner’s job is never done.

“It’s a very academically challenging course. There’s a lot of technical knowledge that can be applied not only to being a master gunner, but being a Soldier as well. We teach planning and resourcing that’s crucial for any NCO.”

Virtual training opens for the dismounted Soldier


By JONATHAN (JAY) KOESTER
NCO Journal

Until recently, if NCOs wanted to lead their Soldiers through realistic virtual training, the only options available were training on things that could be driven or flown. If you weren’t a driver or a pilot, you were out of luck.

Into that gap steps the Dismounted Soldier Training System, or DSTS, the first system dedicated to training the dismounted Soldier.

“The Army has never had a simulator for the individual Soldier on the ground,” said Daniel Miller, military analyst at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and project leader for the DSTS. “We’ve had simulators for things that fly and things that are driven for decades and decades, but we’ve had nothing for the Soldier. This is the first simulation of its kind where we have a simulator for the Soldier himself or herself.

Sgt. David Harrison, left, and Spc. Eric Smit of A Company, 72nd Brigade Support Battalion, 212th Fires Brigade, instruct members of their company how to set up and use the Dismounted Soldier Training System. (Photo by Jonathan (Jay) Koester, NCO Journal)
Sgt. David Harrison, left, and Spc. Eric Smit of A Company, 72nd Brigade Support Battalion, 212th Fires Brigade, instruct members of their company how to set up and use the Dismounted Soldier Training System during a training exercise at Fort Bliss, Texas. (Photo by Jonathan (Jay) Koester, NCO Journal)

The system is much more than the simple shooting simulations of the past, including having weapons that are realistic and untethered, Miller said.

“In past shooting simulations, you have this weapon, but you can’t really move around the weapon because it has that cord,” Miller said. “In DSTS, we wanted the Soldier to be free, like he is on the battlefield. So he has his weapon, and he can shoulder it or whatever.”

Any movement a Soldier makes, whether it’s raising his weapon, kneeling, or going into a low crawl, is shown in the simulation. It makes for a realistic way to train small units in a number of missions.

Recently, NCOs and Soldiers of A Company, 72nd Brigade Support Battalion, 212th Fires Brigade, trained on room clearance by using the DSTS at the Simulation Center at the Fort Bliss, Texas, Iron Warrior Training Complex. First Sgt. Louis Aguilar, first sergeant for A Company, said the DSTS allowed his Soldiers to train cheaply and quickly, without having to take the time and expense to get a squad to the field.

“We try to go through the crawl, walk, run system,” Aguilar said. “And so [DSTS] gives you a good crawl phase. One, you have the resources right there. You don’t have to drive out to the field to find the proper buildings and such. [The Soldiers] are able to understand the concept. We had the classroom portion, but being able to put them in the simulation and still be in that crawl phase before they actually go out to a field site and do the walk and run phrase is really helpful.”

Spc. Eric Angelo Depaula of A Company took part in the training. In the past, he had participated in room clearing with a unit in combat, as well as been part of shoot house training with live ammunition. Despite all that experience, Depaula was impressed by what he experienced in DSTS.

In this screengrab from the training of A Company, 72nd Brigade Support Battalion, 212th Fires Brigade, you see the virtual Spc. Eric Angelo Depaula begin to lead a team in to clear a room after they have stacked up outside the door.
In this screengrab from the training of A Company, 72nd Brigade Support Battalion, 212th Fires Brigade, you see the virtual Spc. Eric Angelo Depaula begin to lead a team in to clear a room after they have stacked up outside the door.

“The reality of it all was impressive,” Depaula said. “The way the mechanism moves. I’ve done glass houses and I’ve done shoot houses where the movements have to be in-person, but this is almost similar to it because it’s so realistic. And the interaction with the computer, where you actually have to come into a room and shoot the target, versus going into an empty room and doing a “bang-bang” simulation … This is a step up. The weapon is the same weight. Even the body armor simulation is good. This is maybe about 10 pounds less than what we would normally use to go into a room [in combat].”

As the Soldiers trained on the system, the NCOs and officers leading the training immediately noticed a big problem in communication. The sergeant leading the virtual mission wasn’t telling his Soldiers what needed to be done. Confusion reigned, and the training was becoming a mess.

But that led to another benefit of DSTS. The company leaders simply paused the mission and moved to the classroom for some quick instruction on the proper way to clear rooms. The training led to important lessons being learned quickly, Aguilar said.

“You can do on-the-spot correction if the Soldiers are being too quiet,” Aguilar said. “In room clearing, silence is important when you first initially go into a door. But once you get through that door, communication is very important and vital. So if the Soldiers are not communicating with each other, you can stop them right there on the spot and say, ‘Hey, look. You all need to communicate with each other. Let’s start over.’”

Spc. Eric Angelo Depaula of A Company, 72nd Brigade Support Battalion, 212th Fires Brigade, trained with his unit in September on the Dismounted Soldier Training System at the Simulation Center at Fort Bliss, Texas. The unit worked on room clearing during the training. (Photo by Jonathan (Jay) Koester, NCO Journal)
Spc. Eric Angelo Depaula of A Company, 72nd Brigade Support Battalion, 212th Fires Brigade, trained with his unit in September on the Dismounted Soldier Training System at the Simulation Center at Fort Bliss, Texas. The unit worked on room clearing during the training. (Photo by Jonathan (Jay) Koester, NCO Journal)

Although some posts like Fort Bliss have dedicated training locations for DSTS, the system is designed to be completely portable, and can be used anywhere an NCO can find electricity and about 1,600 square feet of space.

“Literally, you could have the truck roll up to a company day room or a battalion or brigade classroom and set it up in there, as long as it has the electrical requirements and space,” Miller said. “We built the system to train the individual Soldier and the small unit, fire teams and squads. It’s really built for a 9-person squad. But we have a bank of 5 computers, and with those computers we can conduct company-level exercises.”

In addition to the cost savings, and the time saved from not having to drive out to the field, the DSTS can allow NCOs and Soldiers to train on missions that they couldn’t train on any other way, Miller said.

“There are some things that are just too dangerous to do in live training. You can do them here; no one is going to get shot,” Miller said.

In addition, a myriad of virtual situations can be created.

“I can’t make you cold, and I can’t simulate the ruggedness of the mountains of Afghanistan in terms of what it’s going to do to your shortness of breath, getting you physically tired,” Miller said. “But I’ll put you on the ground in Afghanistan. Or I can put you in the jungle … whatever you want. I can put you any place on the big blue marble, and you can train.”

 

Where to find DSTS

If you are an NCO looking to train Soldiers on the DSTS, the system is widely available and is coming to new locations each month. Here is a list of the current locations for DSTS.

  • Fort Benning, Ga. — Two systems
  • Fort Bragg, N.C. — Three systems
  • Fort Bliss, Texas — Two systems
  • Fort Campbell, Ky. — Three systems
  • Fort Hood, Texas — Two systems
  • Fort Lewis, Wash. — Three systems
  • Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
  • Fort Pickett, Va.
  • Fort McCoy, Wis.
  • Camp Casey, Korea
  • Fort Stewart, Ga.
  • Fort Carson, Colo.
  • Fort Riley, Kan.
  • Fort Hunter Liggett, Calif.
  • Schofield Barracks, Hawaii
  • Camp Grayling, Mich.
  • Fort Drum, N.Y.
  • Camp Atterbury, Ind.
  • Fort Knox, Ky.
  • Fort Dix, N.J.
  • Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa.
  • Fort Wainwright, Alaska
  • Fort Richardson, Alaska
  • Camp Shelby, Miss.
  • Grafenwöhr, Germany
  • Fort Sam Houston, Texas

 

NCOs help keep life quiet at disciplinary barracks


By JONATHAN (JAY) KOESTER
NCO Journal

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was originally published in the June 2011 edition of the NCO Journal. We are republishing it because of interest generated by the recent convictions of Pfc. Bradley Manning and Maj. Nidal Hasan. Both will be held at the United States Disciplinary Barracks.

Walking through the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., is unlike any Hollywood depiction of a prison. There is no yelling, no cursing, no fights and, frankly, no excitement. The Hollywood voiceover might say it is “quiet … too quiet.”

But as any Soldier who works there will tell you, working at the USDB is nothing like Hollywood would have you believe.

“Though most days are quiet, you have to remain vigilant at all times,” said Staff Sgt. Anthony Smith, assistant operations sergeant. “To keep things calm, you have to get out there and do your job. You can’t be a timid person.”

Dropping any bravado is one of the first things Sgt. 1st Class Mamie Williams, operations sergeant, tells young Soldiers to do when they come to work at the USDB.

“Take everything that you learned from the movies or any books you have read and toss it out of the window. It won’t do you any good here,” Williams said. “We have a lot of junior Soldiers who come in thinking that they’re supposed to be the hard, tough guy who is mean and yells at the inmates. That’s really not the correct approach.”

The original United States Disciplinary Barracks was built by prisoners and opened in 1921. The building, dubbed “The Castle,” was made of stone and brick, and was operational until September 2002. The Castle in the center has been torn down, but the outside walls of the complex remain. (Photo courtesy Fort Leavenworth Public Affairs)
The original United States Disciplinary Barracks was built by prisoners and opened in 1921. The building, dubbed “The Castle,” was made of stone and brick, and was operational until September 2002. The Castle in the center has been torn down, but the outside walls of the complex remain. (Photo courtesy Fort Leavenworth Public Affairs)

It may not be dramatic or exciting, but what you will find at the USDB is a group of professionals working hard to keep inmates and the public safe in an atmosphere centered on rehabilitation.

“If you are looking for a [military occupational specialty] where there is a whole lot of excitement, you are going to be sadly disappointed if you come to this field,” Williams said. “It has its days that are exciting and challenging, but more importantly, you get up close and personal with Soldiers. We deal a lot with mentoring our junior leaders and junior Soldiers. It’s a good job if you want to develop your leadership skills as an NCO or learn what it takes to be a leader.”

The prisons

Although the USDB has a long and storied history at Fort Leavenworth, a new prison building, the Midwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility, opened in October after being built as part of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure recommendations. Because of BRAC, correctional facilities were closed at Fort Sill, Okla.; Fort Knox, Ky.; and Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.

The JRCF cost $95 million to build. It has 512 beds with an operational capacity of 460 inmates. The facility currently holds about 150 inmates, leaving some wings empty.

In September, the 15th Military Police Brigade was reactivated after 34 years. Under its command are the 40th Military Police Internment and Resettlement Battalion, which oversees the USDB, and the 705th MP I/R Battalion, which oversees the JRCF.

The JRCF houses inmates who are serving terms of five years or fewer, while the USDB holds inmates serving terms of more than five years, including those serving life sentences and those who have been sentenced to death. The JRCF also holds Soldiers who are in pre-trial detention. Before his trial, Pfc. Bradley Manning was held at the JRCF beginning in April 2011. Following his conviction in August 2013 of leaking classified information to WikiLeaks, and subsequent sentence of 35 years in prison, Manning will be held at the USDB.

Pre-trial inmates are held in the maximum-security wing of JRCF so they can be segregated from those already convicted. Because of the presumption of innocence, pre-trial inmates are treated as regular Soldiers as much as possible, said Master Sgt. Patrick Manning, noncommissioned officer in charge of the directorate of operations at the JRCF.

The USDB has seven inmates on death row, though the last execution by the U.S. military was in 1961. On April 13 of that year, Pfc. John Bennett was hanged for the rape and attempted murder of an 11-year-old girl in 1954 in Allied-occupied Austria. The most recent person sent to the USDB death row was Maj. Nidal Hasan, who was found guilty in August 2013 in the killing of 13 people, mostly soldiers, in a rampage at Fort Hood, Texas.

Though the JRCF is a new facility at Fort Leavenworth, the USDB’s history on the post goes back to 1875, when construction of the first prison began. The building was erected by prisoners and opened in 1921. The facility, dubbed “The Castle,” was made of stone and brick and was operational until September 2002. The new USDB facility, which opened that same month, is about a mile north of the old location.

Most of the old USDB was torn down, though the outside walls of the complex remain. The area has been converted to other uses, including a small deli called The 12th Brick Grille, which refers to the inmate-produced bricks used to build the prison. Every 12th brick was stamped “USMP,” as the original name of the facility was the United States Military Prison.

The new USDB facility cost $67.8 million to build and has three housing sections that can hold 140 inmates each, for a total of 420. Both the JRCF and USDB reflect a design strategy that eliminates cell bars. Each cell, instead, has a solid door with a small window that looks into the prisoners’ common area. Each common area is provided natural sunlight from high windows and skylights.

Minimum- and medium-security inmates have some freedom inside prison walls. They have jobs, and educational opportunities are available. Inmates also have access to telephones, though all conversations are monitored. Inmates are allowed to make a list of up to 20 phone numbers they may call.

Inmate common areas have TVs with satellite cable. However, prison directors monitor the satellite feed, censoring objectionable content. For instance, inmates at the JRCF recently went a period of time without the Fox network (and, perhaps more importantly, its NFL football game telecasts) because directors blocked the channel when the series Prison Break was on air.

Learning the skills

The skills Soldiers and NCOs need to work inside the walls of the USDB and JRCF include maturity, patience, discipline, a calm demeanor and a thick skin.

Young Soldiers have to be immediately ready to deal with inmates who are older and often previously were authority figures in the Army. Those inmates will use every trick in the book to manipulate the young guards, prison officials say.

Staff Sgt. Dawn Shields searches a cell at the United States Disciplinary Barracks. Shields, who works in a housing unit at the USDB, said the key to doing her job and staying safe is being “firm, fair and consistent” with inmates. (Photo by Sgt. Vincent Daly, Fort Leavenworth Public Affairs)
Staff Sgt. Dawn Shields searches a cell at the United States Disciplinary Barracks. Shields, who works in a housing unit at the USDB, said the key to doing her job and staying safe is being “firm, fair and consistent” with inmates. (Photo by Sgt. Vincent Daly, Fort Leavenworth Public Affairs)

Meanwhile, those young Soldiers must treat each inmate firmly but fairly, no matter what abuse is thrown at the Soldiers and no matter what crime the inmates may have committed. Being nonjudgmental toward the inmates’ crimes is one of the first hurdles young Soldiers must overcome, senior NCOs said.

“It’s not really a physically demanding job but more of a mentally demanding job,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Steven Raines, command sergeant major of the 705th MP I/R Battalion. “You have to be a very diverse noncommissioned officer to be able to handle not only the physical stuff that comes with the Army, but also the mental stuff that comes with working with inmates.”

“It has different stressors,” said Sgt. 1st Class Steven Varnado, training NCO for the 705th MP I/R Battalion. “It’s not like the combat stress of getting shot at every day, but it does have its stressors that wear and tear on the body. You feel just as exhausted after four or five days of working in that facility as you would going out on a mission.”

And make no mistake, 31E internment/resettlement specialists do go downrange. They deploy and usually focus on detainee operations on the battlefield. Senior 31E NCOs have worked hard to make sure that is the case.

“This MOS previously was only garrison duty,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Jonathan Godwin, command sergeant major of the USDB and 15th MP Brigade. “We are now a deployable organization based upon the skill sets we bring to the table.”

A needed MOS

The Army was close to discarding that skill set until its importance was demonstrated by the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. When the world saw the abuse some military police personnel had inflicted on foreign detainees, the need for a professional group of well-trained internment specialists became very clear. The Army’s internment specialists went from being on the chopping block to growing to the point where the 15th MP Brigade now includes nearly all 31E Soldiers.

“I remember when I first got here in 2000, the secretary of defense said, ‘We’re shutting you down. We don’t even need your MOS,’” said 1st Sgt. Charles Clements, first sergeant of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, USDB. “But then Abu Ghraib kicked off, and they said, ‘Oh, we have guys who can do this for real? That’s their job?’”

Although 31B military police and 31E Soldiers often train together and progress through the NCO Education System together, the mindset each must bring to his or her job is completely different.

While military police are trained to be aggressive and often need to be aggressive to complete their mission, internment specialists learn to use interpersonal communication skills to control a situation, said Master Sgt. Michael Bennett, battalion operations NCO.

“When the [31Bs] deploy, they go and close with the enemy. They’re out there … getting in firefights,” Bennett said. “We already know that the bad guy is right in front of us, behind the door. Our job is just to keep them locked up and to provide them with the basic human rights that they deserve.”

Rehabilitation

A recent Pew Center study released in April indicated that more than four in 10 state prisoners return to prison within three years of being released. Meanwhile, officials at the USDB and JRCF said they rarely see their inmates re-offend after release.

The motto at the USDB is “Our Mission, Your Future” and is meant to focus on the balance the military and civilian staff bring to making sure inmates are prepared for life on the outside.

“We try to have a mindset knowing that, for the majority of the inmates, eventually they are going to be released. We would like for them to get the social skills and a job skill set that will allow them to be productive members of society,” said Sgt. Maj. Joseph Fowler, of the directorate of operations at USDB. “Eventually, they are going to be your neighbor, my neighbor, your family’s neighbor. … So, we take pride in the vocational and educational training that we provide for the inmates.”

The different atmosphere also stems from the inmates having military backgrounds and few prior offenses, Fowler added.

“We are dealing with only military prisoners, and they all have some level of training and a level of discipline,” Fowler said. “Though they committed a crime, most of them have a love of their country and really respect the rank that people are wearing. … The environment is much different than what is portrayed on all the TV shows.”

Each inmate has a job to do during the day, and the skills learned in that job are meant to serve them later. Some of the first jobs inmates do upon arrival, such as laundry or kitchen duty, are unpaid. The inmates must work their way up to jobs in textiles, embroidery or woodworking that pay up to about $1 an hour.

One of the more competitive jobs to get is at the licensed barber college. Five inmates work there at any given time, and if they complete their training, they’ll receive barber’s licenses. Those five inmates cut the hair of all the other inmates every two weeks. For Soldiers or NCOs who work there, the haircuts cost $4.

In addition to the inmate work details, the correctional facilities at Fort Leavenworth provide medical and dental services, religious activities, workout facilities and libraries to their inmates.

That all adds up to a mini-post behind the prisons’ walls. From the 68X mental health specialists to the 92G food service specialists, 32 different MOSs work together in this unique environment.

“The brigade comprises Soldiers from 32 MOSs that, just by their reaction, just by them coming to work with an attitude, could very well spark a situation that could escalate out of control,” Godwin said. “The type of Soldier who works here is someone who is mature, someone who has foresight and knowledge of how to de-escalate.”

No spotlight

Just as important as knowing what kind of NCO can succeed in the 31E occupational specialty is knowing who is better suited serving the nation elsewhere.

Cells at the Midwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility do not have bars. The two-person cells have solid doors with thick windows. The cells open to a common area where inmates can sit or watch television. The JRCF cost $95 million and was built to comply with American Correctional Association Standards. (Photo courtesy Fort Leavenworth Public Affairs)
Cells at the Midwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility do not have bars. The two-person cells have solid doors with thick windows. The cells open to a common area where inmates can sit or watch television. The JRCF cost $95 million and was built to comply with American Correctional Association Standards. (Photo courtesy Fort Leavenworth Public Affairs)

“We don’t need someone in this MOS who is looking for the spotlight,” Godwin said. “This is not a self-serving MOS. We are servants to the people, the community and the nation.

“The objectives of Army correctives are to protect the community from offenders, provide a safe and secure environment for the incarceration of military offenders, and prepare inmates for eventual release so they will be productive members of society. We do our jobs efficiently and effectively, but in a low-key manner.”

Soldiers and NCOs often learn they need to tone things down when they arrive in the 31E field.

“One of the biggest things, if you were to switch over from a different MOS like infantry, you need to take the mindset of that MOS, that Type-A personality and switch it to, not necessarily Type B, but somewhere in between,” said Staff Sgt. Michael Dayus, brigade operations NCO.

So, why take on this difficult job — one where you won’t receive accolades for good work, but if anything goes wrong, it could become national news? The teamwork of an outstanding group of NCOs is the key for many.

“Having held a prior MOS and this one, I think the NCO corps in the 31E field is better than any NCO corps I’ve been around,” said Sgt. 1st Class Brian Wildman, operations sergeant for JRCF. “I’ve met many, many amazing NCOs as a 31E that I never met in my prior one, which I held for almost four years. I think the loyalty that is really instilled in the 31E field plays a crucial part.”

And joining the 31E specialty doesn’t necessarily mean you’re destined to go to Fort Leavenworth, Wildman added.

“There are only three or four prisons that you can go work at, but there are a ton of BCT [brigade combat team] slots that you can go to all over the United States, or OCONUS [outside the continental United States].” Wildman said. “There are always people looking for subject-matter experts with detainee operations. You could deploy. It’s actually limitless as to where you could go as a 31E NCO.”

The training and experience Soldiers receive as 31Es create NCOs who know how to lead, Master Sgt. Bennett said.

“We force a great amount of responsibility on our young Soldiers right off the top,” Bennett said. “When we get a brand-new Soldier in from AIT [Advanced Individual Training], they’re charged with watching 80 to 100 individuals. … If we do it right, then they will grow into a great NCO.”

The opposite is true, as well, he said.

“It kind of helps us weed out those who don’t need to be an NCO,” Bennett added. “If they can’t take care of the guys in the cell block, maybe they’re not ready for a team or a squad.”

The experience helps Soldiers and NCOs prepare for a future outside the Army, said Sgt. Maj. Stephen Hansen, brigade operations sergeant major. Most stay in the law enforcement arena, though not necessarily at correctional facilities.

“Just around here in the area, there are a lot of retired 31Es who have taken over prison systems or sheriffs’ departments because of their knowledge in corrections,” Hansen said. “So, it’s definitely an asset to be in this MOS after you retire or ETS [expiration term of service] from the military.”

Though you could spend months — even years — at the USDB and JRCF and witness nothing that would raise your pulse, the 31E Soldiers know they have to stay vigilant at all times. Godwin said guards eventually develop a sixth sense to anticipate when trouble is brewing.

“The biggest thing we fight here is complacency, because rarely does anything happen,” Godwin said. “But we have to be prepared for something to happen at a moment’s notice.”

Because it isn’t Hollywood, those in the 31E field know fame doesn’t await them at the end of another tough day. Their rewards are less exciting, more quiet — just like they keep the USDB and JRCF.

 

WHAT IT TAKES

NCOs talk about what it takes to work at the USDB and JRCF.

  • MATURITY: “If the place caught on fire, it was my job to get them out. … That was my first day in the Army. I was responsible for 40 grown men, and I was 18 years old. I grew up fast and learned fast.”
    — Master Sgt. Michael Bennett, battalion operations NCO
  • DETERMINATION: “You have to be a person who is really, really headstrong and is not easily persuaded — a person who is more naturally a leader than a follower.”
    — Sgt. 1st Class Steven Varnado, training NCO for the 705th MP I/R Battalion
  • A CALM DEMEANOR: “You have to ignore the games that go on. Don’t respond in kind. People are going to push your buttons, and you have to let it roll off your back.”
    — Sgt. 1st Class Warren Freeman, JRCF housing unit NCOIC
  • A THICK SKIN: “They’ll try to find that one nitpicky thing, that one name that you don’t like being called. … There are a lot of mental games inmates play with females that a male might not have to go through.”
    — Sgt. 1st Class Mamie Williams, operations sergeant
  • LEADERSHIP AND TRAINING: “We’re outnumbered 10-to-1. When you are a lone NCO on a tier of 60 inmates, that’s when your training from your leadership really kicks in. Or, that’s when your mentorship of that Soldier kicks in.”
    — Staff Sgt. Michael Dayus, brigade operations NCO
  • VIGILANCE: “You could go years and nothing ever happens. Then there goes that one time when a Soldier is taken hostage, and it’s everything you can do to get in and get that Soldier out.”
    — Master Sgt. Michael Bennett, battalion opersations NCO