The U.S. Army Video Teletraining Program for the Battle Staff Noncommissioned Officer Course at the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas, has long since established its reputation as a cost-effective program.
VTT eliminates the need for students’ temporary duty assignments and allows one instructor to teach many Soldiers at remote locations. Its savings benefits just grew as the nonresident training program recently eliminated a third-party contracting agency, which connected all sites, in favor of a more direct connection that the Battle Staff Noncommissioned Officer Course can control.
The result is a new clarity in photo transmission for students, as well as a staff of instructors excited to deliver the next generation of VTT with enhanced equipment, said Master Sgt. Andrea Thomas, Video Teleconference manager and senior instructor, BSNCOC.
“We are the controlling tower, if you will,” Thomas said. “It will be easier, and it saves the Army money. This equipment is phenomenal. Our old equipment, you kind of had to patch it up and keep it going. We were well overdue.”
The new equipment will ease operations and help get instructors back to the fast-paced business of training the future leaders of the Army.
“I love it; it’s back-to-back-to-back classes,” Thomas said. “It’s a phenomenal course, and you get to train NCOs. What is better than that?”
“It’s been a good experience being an instructor and sharing the knowledge and my experience with the fellow noncommissioned officer out there in the field,” said Sgt. 1st Class Khambao Mounlasy, VTT instructor. “It’s fun. I learn new things every day from the students as well.”
Because they are transmitting remotely, VTT instructors have experienced their fair share of technical difficulties.
“We have to have a back-up plan because Murphy’s Law has littered our course with everything you could think of,” Thomas said. “In the wintertime, our East Coast folks at posts such as Fort Drum, New York, and Fort Bragg, North Carolina, have bad weather and a lot of connectivity issues. We have seen it all. We have been quite talented in working around those issues, and we have accomplished the mission every time — graduating as many NCOs as possible. That is the goal, and that is what we are here for.”
Thomas said the support of USASMA’s leadership helped the success of the Battle Staff Noncommissioned Officer Course.
“I am thankful that we have the leadership that we have [at USASMA] because they are very supportive,” she said. “And the team we work with — we know there is a chain of command to follow, but we all treat each other as peers and that’s what works.”
Thomas said the experience she has gained as part of BSNCOC will serve her well as she transitions out of the Army. “The leadership, networking and being able to connect to people and seeing what works in the organization [has benefited me],” Thomas said. “I was able to get all of those tools working here in the Battle Staff.”
Staff Sgt. Roy P. Benavidez had a feeble grip on consciousness when he was pulled out of a rescue helicopter May 2, 1968.
He had just been through a harrowing six-hour firefight, and the danger wasn’t over. Benavidez arrived at his forward operating base just west of Loc Ninh, Vietnam, and was placed on the ground amid other bodies that had been retrieved from a battle just miles beyond the Cambodian border. His eyes were caked in blood and tightly shut. He couldn’t speak as his jaw had been dislodged by the butt of a North Vietnamese rifle. The rigors of combat left him exhausted and motionless. A doctor pronounced him dead.
Benavidez felt a body bag envelop him. The zipper began its raspy trek up his legs. He couldn’t get the doctor’s attention. A fellow Soldier who recognized Benavidez interrupted the doctor, imploring him to check for a heartbeat. The doctor placed his hand on the wounded Soldier’s chest. The slight pressure gurgled forth a bit of fortitude from Benavidez’s waning strength, and he uncorked what he later called “the luckiest shot” he ever took. He spit in the doctor’s face.
Benavidez was rushed into surgery immediately, his ordeal concluded. It was one that involved so many feats of gallantry that nearly 13 years later, before awarding Benavidez — who retired as a master sergeant —the nation’s highest military honor, President Ronald Reagan told White House reporters, “you are going to hear something you would not believe if it were a script.”
Benavidez’s astonishing saga began during his second tour in Vietnam. He was part of Detachment B-56, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces, which began operations in the country in February 1965.
On that fateful March day, the 33-year-old Benavidez was in a church service when he heard frantic radio chatter from the front. When helicopters from the 240th Assault Helicopter Company returned to the FOB’s flight line, their pilots revealed the cause of the frenzied voices. A 12-man reconnaissance team of Green Berets were pinned down by up to 1,500 North Vietnamese infantry soldiers in dense jungle terrain. The enemy had successfully forced the helicopters to abandon an initial rescue effort.
Benavidez immediately acted. He grabbed as many medical supplies as he could and hopped on a helicopter to assist in another extraction attempt. The scene he surveyed from the air was grim — the entire team was wounded, most of them beyond the ability to fight. They were surrounded on all sides by enemy forces that occasionally shot at the chopper Benavidez was riding in. Benavidez directed the pilot to hover over a nearby clearing where he jumped 10 feet into a muggy thicket with the intention of recovering the men.
When he landed on the ground, according to his Medal of Honor citation, Benavidez sprinted 75 meters toward his fellow Soldiers’ position as small arms fire pierced the foliage around him. By the time he reached them, Benavidez was wounded in the leg, face and head. Despite his injuries, he took charge, repositioning the Soldiers and directing their fire to facilitate the landing of a rescue helicopter. Benavidez drew the helicopter in with smoke canisters. When it arrived, he carried and dragged half of the wounded team members to the aircraft. He then provided protective fire by running alongside the helicopter as it moved to pick up the remaining team members. With the enemy’s fire intensifying, he hurried to recover classified documents on the dead team leader.
When he reached the leader’s body, the citation states, Benavidez was severely wounded by enemy fire in the abdomen and grenade fragments in his back. At the same time, the helicopter pilot was mortally wounded, and his aircraft crashed. Although in critical condition because of his multiple wounds, Benavidez secured the classified documents and made his way back to the wreckage, where he pulled his fellow wounded Soldiers out of the overturned aircraft. He positioned the stunned survivors into a defensive perimeter. Under increasing enemy automatic weapons and grenade fire, he moved around the perimeter distributing water and ammunition to the weary men. With the beleaguered group facing a buildup of enemy opposition, Benavidez began calling in tactical air strikes and directed the fire from supporting gunships to suppress the enemy and allow another extraction attempt.
By the time another helicopter was able to land, Benavidez had been directing the fight non-stop for nearly six hours. But the battle still wasn’t finished. In fact, it moved closer. After ferrying one group of wounded Soldiers to the helicopter, Benavidez was returning for the others when he was clubbed from behind by an enemy soldier. In the ensuing hand-to-hand combat, Benavidez sustained bayonet wounds to his head and arms before killing his adversary. Enemy fire intensified as he continued carrying the wounded to safety. He killed two enemy soldiers who rushed the craft before returning a third time to the perimeter of the fallen helicopter to secure classified material and bring in the last of the wounded.
Benavidez mustered the last of his strength to board the helicopter, the last man to leave the battlefield. The aircraft was riddled with bullet holes, covered in blood and without any functioning instruments, but the pilot somehow lifted off. Benavidez lost consciousness as soon as it cleared the jungle canopy.
He was awarded the Medal of Honor on Feb. 24, 1981. According to his citation, his efforts “saved the lives of eight men. His fearless personal leadership, tenacious devotion to duty, and extremely valorous actions in the face of overwhelming odds were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service, and reflect the utmost credit on him and the United States Army.”
Benavidez was born in Lindenau near Cuero, Texas. He was orphaned at age 7 after his parents died from tuberculosis. Benavidez and his younger brother, Roger, were raised by a grandfather, uncle and aunt in El Campo, Texas.
He attended school sporadically before dropping out at age 15 to work full time to help support the family. Benavidez enlisted in the Texas Army National Guard in 1952 during the Korean War. In June 1955, he switched to active duty. He completed airborne training and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he eventually became a member of the 5th Special Forces Group. He was sent to Vietnam in 1965 as an advisor. During a patrol, he stepped on a land mine. Doctors told Benavidez he would never walk again. After a year in the hospital — and following an unsanctioned rehabilitation regimen — Benavidez walked out of the facility determined to return to Vietnam to help his fellow Soldiers.
Little did he know he would enter the annals of U.S. Army history.
In 1976, Benavidez retired with the rank of master sergeant. He returned to El Campo with his wife and their three children. He devoted his remaining years to the youth of America, speaking to them about the importance of getting an education. His message was simple: “An education is the key to success. Bad habits and bad company will ruin you.”
Benavidez died Nov. 29, 1998, at age 63. He was buried with full honors at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.
By STAFF SGT. SHARILYN WELLS
and STAFF SGT. FELIX R. FIMBRES
U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command
The first Operation Toy Drop, organized in 1998 by Sgt. 1st Class Randy Oler, collected 550 toys for local children in need. This year, more than 4,300 paratroopers participated and donated more than 6,000 toys. The operation, run by the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (Airborne,) has become the largest joint airborne operation in the Army.
Contrary to what the name implies, paratroopers do not actually jump with the toys. Soldiers donate new, unwrapped toys for children in need, then are entered into a lottery. Those chosen are awarded the opportunity to earn foreign jump wings from allied jump masters who have traveled to Fort Bragg from around the world.
Operation Toy Drop combines the efforts of Army, Air Force and civilian service organizations in a truly unique event. Since its first year, the operation has expanded to include aircraft support from Pope Air Force Base’s 43rd Airlift Wing and welcomed the participation of Soldiers from Fort Bragg’s XVIII Airborne Corps, 82nd Airborne Division and Special Operations Command.
“It’s a win-win situation,” said Harris Luther, Prime Knight manager for Pope Field at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. “You got the Army guys who don’t get to get foreign jump wings very often, jump with foreign jumpmasters and oh, by the way, help kids by donating a toy. Then the aircrews, when they come in, get (the opportunity) to land in the dirt and fly certain routes, all the while getting guys out the door — which is all training. There’s no losing process here at all, none.”
Who was Sgt. 1st Class Randy Oler?
Oler, a Tennessee native, joined the Army in 1979 as an infantryman. He spent time in Ranger and Special Forces battalions throughout his career, and deployed in support of operations Desert Storm, Provide Comfort and Joint Endeavor. In 1995, he joined U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (Airborne) to become a civil affairs specialist.
“He loved to drink his Mountain Dew and had to have his cigarette with it. You had to get to know him, and when you got to know him — once you learned to know him — you loved him,” said Luther, who met Oler while coaching youth sports. “(He was) just a true American and a very caring person. He truly cared about people. You just can’t say enough good things about him.”
Oler’s close friends describe him as a man’s man, a true American; a gentle giant who loved kids. When he approached four of his close friends with a crazy idea that involved an airborne operation, foreign jumpmasters, toys, children, and lots of fun, they all jumped on board.
The first toy drop in 1998 was small – only a few hundred jumpers exited the aircraft and a matching amount of toys were collected. But Oler had planted the seed, and over the years, his operation grew.
“I thought that the idea, the concept that he (Oler) came up with, was an awesome idea,” said Willie Wellbrook, loadmaster and retired Air Force master sergeant. “Not only for the fact that the jumpers get something out of it but also the big thing was the kids – it’s all about the kids. And I was more than happy to jump on that bandwagon.”
By April of 2004, Oler had been promoted to Sgt. 1st Class and was finishing up an assignment at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. With relocation orders in hand, Oler warned his friends that he might not be there to fulfill his duties for the operation, but he would do as much as he could.
That same month, he suffered a heart attack while performing jumpmaster duties aboard a C-130 aircraft. At 43 years old, Oler was pronounced dead at Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg. After Oler’s death, the operation was dedicated to him in his memory.
“Losing Randy was real hard, because I was here the night Randy passed away on the aircraft,” explained Wellbrook. “I got the call that we had an in-flight emergency. I just didn’t realize at the time who it was – until the next day. Losing Randy was tough, because Randy was the heart and soul of this operation.”
Close friends couldn’t see continuing Operation Toy Drop without Oler; that year’s event was in jeopardy. Oler had been able to do all the coordinating in his head and didn’t write anything down. But by August, Oler’s friends decided he would have wanted them to continue to help children around the community.
“The next couple of years were pretty rough,” said Scott Murray, Oler’s friend and a former Soldier in the XVIII Airborne Corps. “We just didn’t have the heart.”
“I don’t think you’ll ever meet another person like Randy,” Wellbrook said. “Randy left a legacy. … It’s blown into a huge operation, and I think Toy Drop will be here as long as kids are in need.”
Staff Sgt. Travis Mills didn’t enjoy the pomp that most individuals revel in during the lead-up to their 25th birthday. Mills was weeks into his third deployment to Afghanistan as part of the 82nd Airborne Division of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, as his milestone date neared.
On April 10, 2012 — four days before turning 25 — Mills was on a routine patrol in Afghanistan’s Ghanzi province when he stopped to set his backpack down. The bag detonated an improvised explosive device and changed Mills’ life forever.
“I woke up for the first time on my 25th birthday to find out that I had no arms and legs anymore,” Mills said last month in a video interview for NowThis News.
Mills is one of five surviving quadruple amputees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His story is told in the new book, Tough As They Come, released by Convergent Books on Oct. 27. Mills co-authored the book, available in hardcover, on Kindle and Audible, with Marcus Brotherton. It chronicles Mills’ journey from being a high-school star athlete to suddenly being forced to reconcile with the fact that he no longer had arms or legs. Mills is also the subject of a documentary, “Travis: A Soldier’s Story,” released by Fotolanthropy in 2013.
A medic reached Mills moments after the blast and affixed tourniquets to his 6-foot-3 frame to keep him from bleeding out. Even under extreme duress, Mills could only think of others.
“I was yelling at him to get away from me,” Mills told the Associated Press. “I told him to leave me alone and go help my guys.
“And he told me: ‘With all due respect, Sgt. Mills, shut up. Let me do my job.’”
The medic saved Mills’ life. His limbs, however, were lost. Mills knew at that moment he faced a drastically different future. He would never again be able to lead his squad, hug his wife or pick up his infant daughter.
“I guess the last thing I said was, ‘My baby girl, am I ever going to see her again,’” Mills said in the documentary. “I was really worried about what life was going to be like afterward, you know, like with all this.”
Mills struggled during the painful and anxious early days of rehabilitation. He could do nothing for himself. He questioned his self-worth. He implored his wife to leave him so that she wouldn’t be burdened by his condition. His demeanor changed when his six-month-old daughter would crawl on his chest at the hospital.
“(She) didn’t realize anything was different about me,” Mills said. “So, at that moment I realized I had to make sure that I pushed forward and took care of my family like I was supposed to do. … So, I just decided to take physical therapy and occupational therapy as a real job.”
The road was long and arduous — doctors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center told Mills his rehabilitation and transition to prosthetics would take three years. Through tremendous willpower Mills completed his rehab in 13 months. He said paperwork added four months to that period.
Today, Mills has focused on being a living embodiment of his personal motto, “Never give up. Never quit.” Referring to himself as a “recalibrated Soldier” rather than a wounded warrior, he can not only walk on prosthetic legs, he can run, drive, snowboard and ride downhill on a mountain bike. In 2014, he took part in a jump with the U.S. Army Golden Knights parachute team.
In tandem with the book he recently completed, Mills has also been building the Travis Mills Foundation, which he founded in September 2013. The nonprofit supports combat-wounded veterans and their families by developing and maintaining long-term programs that help wounded Soldiers overcome physical obstacles, strengthen their families and provide adaptive recreation.
“We try to bring in people that have been wounded overseas that are now recalibrated warriors,” Mills told NowThis. “They’re no longer wounded. But they might need help learning how to kayak, canoe, boat, swim, fish. Get, you know, their confidence back where they can go back out in public and do whatever they need to do. I want people in my situation to know that it’s OK the way you look, it’s OK to struggle. You’re going to fall down. Don’t be embarrassed about it. Just get out there and keep going at it.”
Mills currently lives in Manchester, Maine, with his wife, Kelsey, and daughter, Chloe, in a 4,000-square-foot house laden with technological amenities designed to help Mills with day-to-day activities. The home was a gift from a foundation established by actor Gary Sinise and the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, a nonprofit named for a firefighter killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It is a comfortable setting for Mills to continue his work to help himself and others.
“I put personal friends in body bags. They’re not here. I am,” Mills told CNN last year. “How selfish would it be if I gave up?”
Army officials are looking to usher in a new era of the professional Soldier-athlete, led by graduates of the Performance Triad course, which was piloted at three Army installations this year. The course focuses on three tenets ─ nutrition, sleep and activity ─ as the keys to optimizing Soldiers’ performance. After the data and feedback collected is reviewed, which is expected to be complete in the spring, the Army will determine if the Performance Triad concept will be rolled out to the rest of the force.
“This is the stuff that [Soldiers] already do,” said Sgt. 1st Class Darin E. Elkins, who works in the rehabilitation and reintegration division of the Office of the Surgeon General of the Army in Falls Church, Va. “They already eat, they already sleep, they are already active. We are giving them a guide on how to use those tenets better.”
Don’t call it a ‘program’
Not to be dismissed as just the latest Army program, Elkins said, the Performance Triad offers an opportunity for real change.
“We see it over and over again,” he said, “that Soldiers come into this thinking it is just another Army program, another rock in their rucksack, and they are only there because they have to be. But within an hour of understanding what it actually is, the light goes on, and their attitude changes.”
Soldiers are supplied with a guidebook and a Fitbit Flex wireless wristband, which helps track their nutrition, sleep and activity levels. A host of apps for mobile devices, including ArmyFit, MyFitnessPal and FitbitDashboard, are also recommended for Soldiers to further record their progress.
“We want to build a more resilient, more ready Soldier,” Elkins said. “A stronger Soldier that we can develop into a Soldier-athlete ─ that’s the mission.”
As health insurance costs continue to rise, the Army believes preventive care is crucial in its quest for healthier Soldiers. Long-term health benefits, reducing the risk of diseases and reducing the risk of health-care costs are behind the Army’s commitment to the Performance Triad.
“It’s very expensive to bring a new Soldier in, train him, feed him, clothe him. And then, if they’re broken, they’re of little or no use,” Elkins said. “The Soldier’s Creed says, ‘I will maintain my arms. I will maintain my equipment. I will maintain myself.’ But how do you maintain yourself? This is a guide to show how you do it.”
“As a medic, I think the Performance Triad is really good for overall wellness ─ that the body being healthy can overcome illnesses on its own,” said Sgt. Aaron Ormerod of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., the site of one of the pilot courses. “It’s a great idea for helping people to help themselves, rather than relying on the Army always handing out antibiotics for every little thing.”
During the 26-week course, which was also piloted at Fort Bliss, Texas, and Fort Bragg, N.C., squad leaders educated Soldiers on the importance of nutrition, sleep and activity, using an informal type of setting. Leaders were encouraged to use personal experiences to connect with their Soldiers during discussions.
“Whatever your approach is, we want you to look at your approach, whatever you do to motivate your Soldier,” Elkins said during a leaders’ course at Fort Bliss. “Again, it’s not a program. It’s a change in the DNA of the Army, so we change the DNA of society.”
“If you are a good squad leader, you are the center of your Soldier’s Army universe,” said Sgt. Maj. Michel Pigford, a Performance Triad instructor from the Office of the Surgeon General of the Army. “The knowledge you get from your sergeant is like no other.”
The 3rd Squadron, 38th Cavalry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division at JBLM; the 4th Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division at Fort Bliss, and the 189th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 82nd Sustainment Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg took part in the pilot course.
“[The Performance Triad] is a tool just like anything else,” said Sgt. Brendon Wellendorf of JBLM. “As an NCO, my job is to ensure that my Soldiers are ready for their mission at hand. If they aren’t healthy, or they’re not physically fit enough to complete the mission, then I failed my job. So this is just another excellent tool to put in the toolbox.”
“I want to use this class to learn about the tools … and how to better talk to my Soldier,” said Staff Sgt. Christopher Stambaugh of Fort Bliss. “I know he eats some fruits and vegetables, and he doesn’t eat fast food too often, so that’s good. But I know he could use more exercise.”
Recipe for success
The Performance Triad formula is simple for building healthier Soldiers. It calls for at least 150 minutes of activity per week, eating eight servings of fruits and vegetables daily, and getting seven to eight hours of sleep a day. It also means cutting out popular energy drinks such as Monster and Red Bull, and cutting back on cheeseburgers.
“I am amazed at how just wearing the FitBit Flex on your wrist makes Soldiers constantly think about that stuff,” said Staff Sgt. Adam Wolf of JBLM. “I had a couple of guys who decided not to go eat at Burger King because they didn’t want the additional calories on their nutritional sheet. So it’s a constant reminder throughout the day that they need to be trying to do things that optimize their performance.”
“We’re going to give you information on those Monsters [drinks] you love so much,” said Pigford during a squad leaders’ course at Fort Bliss. “There was a Soldier yesterday who found out that [the drinks] had the same properties as the carpet you walk on. He decided he wasn’t going to drink that anymore. But we’re not asking Soldiers to cut out everything they do.”
Physical activity is another important component of the Performance Triad concept.
“With the Fitbit Flex, we have had an increase in what Soldiers are actually doing,” Wolf said. “Now, I have Soldiers who no longer drive to work from the barracks or drive to the motor pool. They actually walk, because we have a competition to see who can get the most steps in a week. We’re seeing Soldiers become more active in their everyday activities versus just doing physical training at one period of time.”
When it comes to sleep, the Fitbit can help track the number of hours each Soldier gets, as well as offer insight into patterns and whether a deep sleep was achieved.
“If [a Soldier is] out eating junk food every night and only getting four hours of sleep because they’re out playing video games as soon as they get off work, you’re not going to have a very effective Soldier the next morning,” Wellendorf said. “[The Fitbit] is something that allows you to see exactly what [the Soldier’s] performance is when you’re not monitoring.”
Pigford and Elkins offered a list of information on sleep to a class of squad leaders at Fort Bliss.
“You have lost 20 percent of your cognitive ability just by not getting 6 to 8 hours of sleep,” Pigford said. “You wake up 20 percent dumber.”
“That means you pull your trigger slower,” Elkins added. “That means you drive your vehicle slower. That means you can’t process questions as fast. You’re not able to respond as fast.”
NCOs are the focus of the Performance Triad pilot course because Soldiers and squad leaders are the ones who make things happen, Elkins said.
“If you look at Army programs across the board ─ Sexual Harassment Assault Response and Prevention, Operations Security ─ it’s from the leadership down,” he said. “This, on the other hand, is from the Soldier up, how it impacts the unit and on up.
“That’s why we’re doing this ─ for you,” Elkins told Soldiers in one of the pilot courses at Fort Bliss. “This is not a program, this is a lifestyle. If you want to invoke change, you have to take part. Be part of the change.”
Ultimately, the goal of the Performance Triad plan is not to change people’s minds, Elkins said, but to show that there are better options to attain an optimal performance.
“I found that Soldiers became significantly more involved, that everyday they were saying things like, ‘Hey, man. It’s 9 o’clock, and I met my goal: 10,000 steps. I think I’m going to up my goal for the next week and see if I can do that,’” Wolf said. “Guys are actually bragging about it. It creates a healthy competition, I think.”
NCO Journal Writer Meghan Portillo contributed to this story.