Staff Sgt. John Joss may not have reached the medal stand Wednesday, Sept. 14, at the 2016 Paralympic Games, but the four-year member of the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit certainly proved his name belongs alongside the shooting world’s elite.
Joss started the day next to 40 of the world’s best shooters in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, competing in the mixed R6-50-meter rifle prone competition. By day’s end, his scores netted him a fifth-place finish. It was the highest finish for an American man at the competition.
While not bringing home any hardware is certainly disappointing, the top-five finish showcased Joss’ deftness with the rifle in his first Paralympics. He qualified for the medal round after a sixth-place finish in outdoor qualification amid blustery conditions. National Paralympic Coach Bob Foth said Joss made smart decisions throughout qualification in reading wind speed and movement. Once action moved indoors for the finals, Joss improved his standing by one position.
“This is totally different than anything I’ve ever done before,” Joss told USA Shooting after the competition. “I felt calm and on fire at the same time. I know I was working with a kind of shaky hold. I was making smart decisions, but there isn’t much I could do at the end. I did the best I could, and I really took a lot out of it. It’s hard to hit a target that small alone, then when you have an elevated heart rate, a pulse in your hand and your front sight starts moving around, it makes it a lot harder.”
Joss’ performance is also testament to how far he has come since sustaining both physical injuries and emotional hardship in 2007. Joss had both of his legs seriously injured in an improvised explosive device attack while deployed north of Baghdad, Iraq. He returned to the United States to undergo multiple surgeries and begin a grueling rehabilitation process before he was dealt another blow — Joss’ father was killed in a vehicle accident two months after his arrival at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.
Joss subsequently made the difficult decision to amputate his right leg. He began shooting competitively at Fort Benning, Georgia, to supplement his rehabilitation. Joss soon found success. He joined the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit in 2012. In 2013 and 2014, he won gold at the USA Shooting National Championships. Two years later, he has served notice to the rest of the shooting world that he will be a force in the coming years.
WCAP swimmer back in action
Sgt. Elizabeth Marks returns to the pool Thursday, Sept. 15, for the first of three events she is scheduled to compete in.
The Paralympic swimmer from the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program competes in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay Sept. 15. She will swim the 4×100-meter medley relay Friday, Sept. 16, and closes the Rio Paralympics in the SM8 200-meter individual medley.
Marks has already claimed one gold medal at these Paralympics, winning the SB7 100-meter breaststroke with a world record time during the weekend.
Former Staff Sgt. Bobby Henline has spent nearly nine years trying to empower wounded warriors such as himself. Now he wants to help employ them.
Henline is working to open a restaurant dedicated to hiring veterans in San Antonio, Texas. The location is not far from the medical facilities he frequents at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, where he has received treatment since 2007 for burns that cover nearly 40 percent of his body. Henline was burned in a roadside bomb blast in 2007 in Iraq that killed the four Soldiers he was riding with. Since then, he has undergone 46 surgeries and six months of rehabilitation. His likeness is permanently altered.
On his arduous road to recovery, Henline found comfort and strength in humor. He has enjoyed a newfound career as a stand-up comedian, telling his story on stage as a coping mechanism. Henline found that taking others along on his journey has helped other injured — and sometimes disfigured — Soldiers face their lives with the same exuberance. He hopes his new venture takes that notion a step forward.
“I’m trying to give back,” Henline told People Magazine earlier this month. “This is a great way to do it, through empowerment and food.”
Henline is partnering with Richard Brown, a Marine and Korean War veteran, who owns a hamburger restaurant in San Clemente, California. The restaurant is one of Henline’s favorite stops, not only because of the savory hamburgers but also because the two men share an interest in helping their fellow veterans.
Brown will teach Henline all he needs to know to run his own business. Henline will solely hire veterans to work at the restaurant.
“It’s not just me getting a restaurant,” Henline said. “It’s me learning to fish, it’s me teaching other veterans how to fish and to continue on to help the stability of other veterans not just myself.”
‘That’s all I remember that day’
Henline has only a couple vivid memories of the day his life changed.
It was April 7, 2007, and Henline was part of a convoy that was making stops at various forward operating bases, or FOBs, delivering supplies and transporting Soldiers north of Baghdad, Iraq. He was a part of the 82nd Airborne Division and was weeks into his fourth deployment.
“We were doing the typical, ‘Get the convoy ready,’ that morning,” Henline told The NCO Journal in 2014. “There are two things I remember. One was that there were two Soldiers in the vehicle who normally didn’t ride with me. I also remember getting a second cup of coffee. The S-4 captain, who was sitting behind me, he wasn’t there yet. So we were sitting around waiting, and I ran and grabbed another cup of coffee while we were waiting on him.
“That’s all I remember that day.”
Henline’s vehicle was at the front of the convoy traveling near the Diyala province village of Zaganiyah when an improvised explosive device detonated underneath it. The blast hurled the humvee nearly 50 feet down the road. Four Soldiers — Capt. Jonathan Grassbaugh, Spc. Ebe Emolo, Spc. Levi Hoover and Pfc. Rodney McCandless — were killed instantly. When fellow Soldiers reached the vehicle, they found he was severely injured, but alive.
Two weeks later, Henline emerged from a medically induced coma at Brooke Army Medical Center at San Antonio, thus beginning a medical odyssey filled with painful moments, both physical and emotional.
But one thing came easy to him — humor.
Henline says laughter helped keep spirits high for him and the medical personnel working with him. It also helped his wife, Connie, and the rest of his family cope with their loved one’s ordeal and changed appearance.
“Joking around at the hospital, that was my way of using my sense of humor to let my family know I was OK, to let staff know I was OK,” he said. “It was how [I chose] to deal with the pain during physical therapy, laughing about it, joking with the other patients. I could see my family worrying. My mom couldn’t even get me a drink. She was shaking just trying to put the straw to my mouth, real scared. So it was kind of like, ‘Don’t worry, I’m still here. Even if today I’m kind of groggy.’ I’d still make a little joke to let them know, ‘It’s OK. I’m inside here. I just can’t move right now.’
“I think when I was talking a lot better and able to sit up and stuff, that’s when they were finally like, ‘OK, he’s still in there. He’s back. He’s still being that goofball.’”
From surgery to the stage
Henline spent almost the next two years working to regain a sense of normalcy.
His face was scarred by the burns he suffered and puffed by various skin-graft surgeries. His left ear was gone; his right was reduced to a rough-hewn stub. His smashed left hand eventually became too painful to bear, and he asked doctors to amputate it. After removing the protective goggles he was forced to wear for a year, it took time to get accustomed to the stares.
While jokes helped, Henline couldn’t shake the notion that he needed to heed a call. He just didn’t know what it was. Then his occupational therapist made a “stupid” suggestion.
“One day she told me, ‘You should try stand-up comedy!’” Henline said. “She has this really high-pitched voice, one of those happy people all the time. ‘You’ve got to try stand-up comedy. You’ve got to try it!’ I’m like ‘That’s stupid. It’s not going to work. This, here at the hospital, is funny. We could joke about it here.’ I wasn’t gonna go up on stage and people are gonna go, ‘Oh, you got blown up in Iraq? That’s funny.’”
Henline said he grew up admiring comedians such as George Carlin and Robin Williams. But he never considered actually taking a stage. However, after a steady stream of good-natured pestering from his therapist, he obliged, sealing the deal with a pinkie swear.
“My occupational therapist’s sister lives in L.A., and she’s in a band,” Henline said. “So one day, I’m going out there for a consultation to see a doctor. She tells me, ‘My sister’s in entertainment. She might know a place you could try it while you’re out there.’ Sure enough, her sister calls me and says, ‘Hey. Comedy Store. Go sign up at 5 o’clock.’”
Henline’s very first set took place August 2009 at the famed Los Angeles club on the same stage graced by some of comedy’s biggest names. He returned to San Antonio and began performing open-mic sets three nights a week. A year-and-a-half later, he was in Los Angeles when a chance meeting with a talent agent landed him an appearance in the Showtime documentary “Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humor.” The film, released in April 2013, follows Henline and four other veterans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan as they work with comedy A-listers to explore their experiences through the healing power of humor.
Three years later, Henline is still healing. He wants to continue to help others do the same. He says one of the biggest driving forces behind him is the memory of his fellow Soldiers who didn’t come home with him that fateful day.
“It’s that same old thing, you’ve got to drive on,” Henline said. “Survivor’s guilt was really bad for me in the beginning. But you’ve got to live on for those who don’t live anymore, the guys who sacrificed it all. There were four other guys in that humvee who didn’t make it. I sat on the couch, and I felt sorry for myself. I gave up. But what’s that doing for them? I’ve got to live on for them. Any of them would trade places with me. They’d rather be in pain and look funny and be here. Their families would rather have them back. That’s a big push for me that helps drive me on.”
Medical and technological advances have given modern-day Soldiers who have been injured on the battlefield access to an elite level of immediate trauma care from their fellow Army physicians and combat medics.
But the trek from the battlefield to the next round of care has been a perilous journey — the injured Soldier is typically extricated from harm’s way and into an aircraft, but often without a doctor present and with fewer resources onboard. A 2012 study of 4,600 deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan showed that 87.3 percent of Soldiers died while en route to a military treatment facility.
A recently installed program at the U.S. Army Medical Department Center and School at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, aims to bridge that gap. And the program’s NCOs are expected to be a large part of its success.
The program, which began in 2012, is designed to provide flight medics with additional paramedic and critical-care training, and civilian certifications. It meets this end by incorporating high-tech lessons from civilian medical professionals. Though the program is open to E-3s to E-8s, it is NCOs who provide stability and ease the transition from previous flight-medic teachings to the current best practices, said Master Sgt. Michael Cluette, the NCO in charge of the Flight Paramedic Program.
“The flight paramedics who we graduate now will be the future of where aviation medicine goes. So the transition point will be extremely important for those who are graduating here,” Cluette said. “You have to be that mature noncommissioned officer to do that.”
Owning responsibility for battlefield care
The impetus for the Flight Paramedic Program was an Army physician’s nagging feeling.
Lt. Col. (Dr.) Robert Mabry authored a study of service members injured on the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2001 to 2011. The study, published in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery in 2012, found that of the 4,596 battlefield fatalities analyzed, 87.3 percent died of their injuries before reaching a military treatment facility, or MTF. Of those pre-MTF deaths, 24.3 percent were deemed potentially survivable.
Although battlefield medicine has vastly improved during every war since World War II, Mabry said that 24.3 percent statistic cited in his study — those whose lives might have been saved — kept nagging him.
“That’s where we can make the biggest difference in improving patient outcomes,” he said.
What Mabry found is that no one owns responsibility for battlefield care delivery, meaning that “no single senior military medical leader, directorate, division or command is uniquely focused on battlefield care,” he said. “The diffusion of responsibility is a result of multiple agencies, leaders and units of the service medical departments each claiming bits and pieces with no single entity responsible for patient outcomes forward of the combat hospitals.”
Commanders on the ground own the assets of battlefield care — medics, battalion physicians, physician assistants, flight medics and all the equipment. But they are “neither experts in, nor do they have the resources to train their medical providers for forward medical care,” he said.
What Mabry concluded from his studies and field experience was that the solution to the gap in care cannot be addressed with a “single-bandage” approach.
A solution, he said, would require “evidence-based improvements in tactical combat casualty care guidelines, data-driven research, remediation of gaps in care and updated training and equipment.”
And to supervise those medics, their training, and the medical evacuation equipment and procedures, there would need to be a specially trained and qualified physician in charge of that pre-hospital phase, he said.
Mabry illustrated the power of patient outcome data by tracking a National Guard medevac unit from California whose members were mostly critical-care trained paramedics in their day jobs — working for the California Highway Patrol and other EMS agencies. They deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, taking their civilian EMS model with them, he said.
“I compared their patient outcomes to the standard medevac outcomes and found a 66 percent reduction in mortality using the civilian medic system,” he said.
As a result of that outcome, the Army has revamped its training of flight medics.
Providing a higher level of care
The Flight Paramedic Program began in earnest at Fort Sam Houston in 2012 under the 187th Medical Battalion and through a partnership with the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
The flight medic course taken by 68Ws is six months long and is followed by the two-month critical-care course. The critical-care course includes six weeks of embeds with various hospitals throughout San Antonio as well as with San Antonio AirLIFE, which provides Soldiers with a close look at the high-tech application of medicine in the civilian world.
“Your EMT basic course in the civilian world is about 140 hours of training,” said Maj. Matthew Nichols, director of the Flight Paramedic Program. “Paramedic training is 1,000 to 1,200 hours, and you already have to be an EMT basic. So that just goes to show you how advanced [the program’s civilian-inspired] paramedic training is. It’s above and beyond all the extra pharmacology, anatomy, physiology, hemodynamics, all that kind of more in-depth medical training they get in the paramedic course. Then they go on to an eight-week critical-care course, which is two weeks in the classroom of even higher-level, very intense, very fast-paced critical-care transport medicine akin to what ICU nurses do. They get to see how it is applied by professionals in that field. It’s definitely a much higher level above the EMT basic level.”
That closer look at the civilian side of trauma care is also something that was highlighted in Mabry’s study, which stated that civilian trauma systems evolved after the Vietnam War as a result of Army medics and nurses who returned from the conflict and took on civilian jobs. Mabry said that as a result of this war experience, sick or injured civilians in the United States are transported to a trauma center by an aircraft, accompanied by a critical-care flight paramedic and a critical-care flight nurse, both of whom are highly trained and experienced.
“So the thought is, if a guy who is in a motorcycle accident two hours outside San Antonio is going to get a certain level of care in the back of an aircraft en route to a major hospital in San Antonio, then our Soldiers who have been wounded on the battlefield deserve the same, or as close to the same as we can provide within the Army,” Nichols said.
To accomplish that, Nichols said, the Army is taking the expansive knowledge base available in its hospitals out to the point of injury. Handing flight paramedics the knowledge and training needed to make the proper interventions — and just as importantly, the knowledge to perhaps not intervene — is expected to help decrease mortality numbers.
“A lot of people think that an ambulance driver in the U.S., that’s all they do — they pick up someone and they transport them to the hospital so the doctor can take care of them,” Nichols said. “But, no, those EMTs and those paramedics are conducting care. And the more care they are able to give with their knowledge and their skills, the more likely that that person transported is able to survive their injuries.
“Increasing the level of care provided in back of the aircraft with the critical-care flight paramedic alongside the ECCN (en-route critical care nurse) will help these long transports from point A to point B,” he said. “If anything goes south in that period of time, medically, then you have someone in the back who will be able to treat them better. The aircraft can only go so fast, so you can’t really ask them to go much faster to get them to the hospital. So the paramedic and the nurse in the back of the aircraft are trained to be able to handle those situations and basically mitigate life loss.”
The role of NCOs
The long-term goal of the Flight Paramedic Program is to transition all of the Army’s flight medics to become critical-care paramedics.
Through May 2014, 124 Soldiers have become nationally registered paramedics and 115 have graduated the Army’s critical-care course. Another iteration of the course began in July and is expected to conclude in March. Plans for expansion are being made in 2015. The quickening pace of training goes on despite the expected drawdown of troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to be prepared for disaster missions at home as well as for any future conflicts.
In the meantime, the transition to a new kind of flight medic training isn’t leaving legacy medics behind.
“I’m one of the legacy F3s (flight medics),” Cluette said. “It isn’t so much that we didn’t know how to use the combat gauze or how to stop a bleeder or put our hands in someone’s chest. What we don’t get as the legacy individuals is a lot of the why-not-to-do-it or why-we-are-doing-it. We know the physiology from Baby Whiskey Land (medic school), we get the anatomy from Baby Whiskey Land, but what we don’t get is when to do it, when not to do it. We just go by the numbers, and the thought process for the legacy [medic] is, ‘When fear gets in your head, training takes over.’ You know just to follow the numbers, because I was trained to do it that way.
“The paramedic, we are now telling them, ‘Yeah, you were trained this way. But I need you to understand why you’re doing it, what you have to do if it doesn’t work and understand why it’s not working in order for you to fix it.’ An EMT might understand he may have to do it, but I may do it way too early or unnecessarily simply because I didn’t get enough of the understanding that what I was currently doing was enough.”
The bridging of the gap when flight medics of the old and new discipline come together will be eased by NCOs, Cluette says.
“NCOs will bolster that leadership to help coach and mentor the F3s when those Soldiers move out and junior Soldiers come in” Cluette said. “They will provide that leadership to help coach and mentor them on how to interact with each other. Because in an aviation company for flight medics it kind of varies, so if I’m a F2 (critical care flight paramedic) and I’m an E-3, and I have a F3 who is an E-5 or an E-6, and I’m having to train them, you have to be mature enough in order to understand that isn’t a leadership, this is a professional mentorship where I have somebody teaching me something that I need to know to help save lives on the battlefield. NCOs can do that.”
Knowledge sustainment is a key tenet of today’s Army. That notion is not only harbored by the NCOs that are part of the Project Warrior program at the U.S. Army Medical Department Center and School, or AMEDDC&S, at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, it is practiced on another level.
The program is geared toward taking battle-experienced Soldiers and putting them in positions where they can pass on the insights and knowledge they’ve gleaned from combat training centers, or CTCs, to benefit Army schools as well as the rest of the force. One vital component to foster this learning is the Lessons Learned program, a compilation of reviews and research that helps provide combat health service support on the battlefield.
Project Warrior, which was introduced in 1989, garnered the spotlight again in May 2013 when the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, announced its re-establishment in an effort to infuse the force with seasoned officers who had completed rotations as an observer, coach and trainer, or OCT, at a combat training center.
Though, the program had previously been largely suspended throughout several Army disciplines because of the operational requirements of Iraq and Afghanistan, it never stopped at Fort Sam Houston, where up to 42 AMEDDC&S NCOs at a time have continued honing the skills necessary for success in the highly technical world of Army medicine.
“We haven’t stopped in the NCO realm,” said Master Sgt. Mike Eldred, the senior enlisted advisor for AMEDDC&S’s Center for Pre-Deployment Medicine. “In the rest of the Army, they’re re-establishing. But we’ve been doing it the whole time.
“When the rest of the Army stopped their programs, AMEDD decided to keep it, because it was beneficial for the way ahead into the future for 2020-type Soldiers,” he said. “They would learn and be able to apply those lessons learned and those insights that they’ve gained from their peers that have been gone that could be applied to training down here.”
Evolving with changing times
The precursor to the U.S. Army Medical Department Center and School was established in 1920 at Carlisle Barracks, Pa. For more than 25 years, the Medical Field Service School developed medical equipment and doctrine for the battlefield before having its mission transferred to Fort Sam Houston in 1946.
The school underwent significant changes in structure throughout the years while incorporating the functions of the Army Medical Department. In July 1991, the Army surgeon general, Lt. Gen. Frank F. Ledford Jr., established the AMEDDC&S and in 2005, the Base Realignment and Closure process co-located a large portion of enlisted technical medical training (the Army’s, Air Force’s and Navy’s) at Fort Sam Houston.
Project Warrior, which has had a presence at the post since the mid- ’90s, has been a vital part in helping Soldiers evolve with constantly changing tactics and technology, Eldred said, ensuring AMEDDC&S can meet its mission to “envision, design and train a premier military medical force for full spectrum operations in support of our Nation.”
“Basically, what we’re doing with the program is we’re taking experienced Soldiers who have already taken a little bit of ‘baptism by fire,’” Eldred said. “They’ve been out there in a combat zone or in some significant training events that really set them apart as experienced Soldiers. We draw them in through a voluntary program. We go out and advertise and recruit. Once we bring them in, they go to the CTCs. They basically get those big wrinkles knocked off; their tactical and strategic skills are refined. Then they come here for two years and start to spread that higher education and are better able to articulate the needs of advanced training.”
Building a Project Warrior
The process of developing a Project Warrior is relatively the same for both officers and NCOs.
In the case of AMEDDC&S NCOs — most of whom are Army MOS 68W health care specialists — Soldiers who are identified as candidates and pass review from the program’s command sergeant major serve a 24-month assignment at a combat training center such as the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La. Upon completion of their rotation, they are assigned to positions at Fort Sam Houston and Fort Rucker, Ala., where they can make the biggest impact and dispense the knowledge they’ve accrued.
“The CSMs have been very good with the Project Warriors when [the program’s graduates] PCS,” said Master Sgt. Michael Cluette, the former AMEDDC&S Project Warrior program manager and current AMEDD Flight Paramedic Program NCOIC. “They don’t send them in a downward spiral. What I mean is while they were at the CTCs, they were a platoon sergeant trainer and they were training platoon sergeants how to be better at what they do. So when they come here after they’ve learned and start pushing these tactics through doctrine and everything else, the last thing you want to do is take this guy and put him back as a platoon sergeant or as an aid-station NCOIC. You want him to continue forward with his knowledge.
“A lot of times, they’ll look to try to get [Project Warrior graduates] into those brigade positions or somewhere with a higher position, if possible. Sometimes it may not be possible, and that’s just where the cards may fall. But their knowledge won’t be lost, because it’s like a virus. If I teach my 38 soldiers in my platoon what I know, as they grow up, they’re going to take their knowledge and spread it. So it just festers like a virus.”
To ensure knowledge sustainment and adaptability, Cluette said, Project Warrior candidates must be well-rounded and not focused on one role of care.
“We don’t want somebody who has only been in a CSH (combat support hospital). We don’t want somebody who has only been mechanized,” Cluette said. “We need to get that soldier and that medic who has diversified and not just somebody who is in that tunnel.”
The diversification proves helpful in tying together the multiple medical assets on a battlefield, knowing their respective expectations and how those assets work together.
“At that training event — when they get to teach somebody and they’re coaching them at the CTCs — they have to be able to talk to them at a strategic level and say, ‘Look, when you do your piece here and when you look forward, you’ve got to know what that next guy is going to do for you and provide for you,’” Cluette said. “You’re going to have to link, ‘Well once it gets there, he’s going to have to go here.’ And you have to know what’s on that battlefield to do that.”
“It’s not just tactics or strategy. It’s also equipment,” Eldred said. “So we have people that go evaluate new equipment. They assist these highly experienced Soldiers who are going out and actually fielding this equipment. They’re testing it and seeing what the future of equipment in the Army is. But also, if there’s a problem with equipment out in the field, we capture that, bring it back and help them make modifications to the current equipment or change a set kit and outfit so what we give to Soldiers and the units is better.”
A synergy of information
Once Project Warrior NCOs are in place, they have proved to be able teachers, an invaluable source of knowledge and a vital asset for officers, Eldred said.
“[The Project Warrior Soldier] knows what that team needs in order to accomplish the mission,” Eldred said. “They’re helping an officer see what their needs are. We, as NCOs, teach those individuals and teams. We understand that mentality. So if you’re only pushing officers through this program, you’re only going to get an oversight, you’re only going to get the planning aspect, you’re only going to get the overall project idea. But if you get the NCOs injected in there, like we are now, then you’re giving the rest of the project or program a perspective of what it takes to get the individual and the team trained. They put it in the ‘Blue Book,’” he said referring to the key job that NCOs perform. “This is what we do; we do drills. That’s what we’re still doing. It’s just that now, this is a highly refined level of how to do drills.”
But one of the important facets of Project Warrior is that it is not a license for top-down training approaches. It is cooperative learning with all Army branches at its best.
“We really don’t dictate to anybody or give orders on anything,” Cluette said. “It’s more of the teaching, coaching and mentoring of our peers, and even some of the seniors that are here who ask us questions. We have Project Warriors who teach [Basic Officer Leadership Course], who teach the Captains Career Course. We have senior NCOs who influence those officers. So it’s a strategic-level oversight that we’re trying to influence and not just at the squad-level or company level. We’re trying to do that broad strategic planning kind of thing to where we can get that information out.”
And getting information out is critical in the domain of Army health care, where mere minutes can make an enormous difference in the outcome of tending to an injured Soldier.
“We’re so technically heavy,” Eldred said. “When you’re talking about a program of instruction like we have in the 68W training that covers things like anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, the Tactical Combat Casualty Care course — all those things and we have to get certification for emergency medical technician. It’s a very intense amount of training and knowledge base that they already have to have. So if we don’t front-load that information (through Project Warrior) as far as tactics and strategy, they never ever get it. They just get focused on just the technical aspect. That was a problem in the old Army. We had leaders who were coming up with no strategic and tactical knowledge because all they did was just technical. So we’re trying to overcome that and get these guys past that level and widen their knowledge base.”
‘You’re keeping people informed’
The resurgence of the Project Warrior program Armywide comes during a lull in the near constant deployments that have been a fixture throughout the past 13 years. As the Army shifts focus away from Iraq and Afghanistan, Eldred and Cluette said, it is a prime time to get a firm grasp on lessons learned during the past decade and prepare to apply them to future conflicts.
“The different platforms for lessons learned are expanding. We’re trying to reach the individual,” Eldred said. “We’ve been able to assist in creating programs like the BCT3 (Brigade Combat Team Trauma Training course), which is a mandatory train-up for all 68Ws before they deploy. So the combat medic gets this training because of Project Warrior’s influence. Down the road, we want to put a lot of the lessons learned straight from the field — not just into the manuals that people sometimes read — but into training at the lowest level. We’re trying to inject that information and keep people relevant, keep their tactics and their concept of combat relevant.
“The future is mobility and flexibility,” Eldred said.
Ensuring that an eye is fixed keenly on the future will pay dividends for the Army’s future Soldiers, Cluette says.
“I think the CTCs are going to be very advantageous to all the brigade combat teams,” he said. “This time around was a COIN fight; the next time around, we might be back in a linear battlefield. These Project Warriors are going to be those guys who learn how to do the strategic linear battlefield. But we’re going to be gone. So as we phase out, those younger Project Warriors are going to have to pick up that knowledge and be able to push that out. There’s so much that we do, medically, to support the warfighter that the Project Warriors have a wider, strategic grasp on then, say, maybe one of the Soldiers down in the trenches. The Project Warriors just understand it better. And that’s why we’ve pulled them in to teach that at the CTCs to teach that.”
Adds Eldred: “If you’ve ever read The 360-Degree Leader, it’s this great book on leading from the middle. That’s what this is. It’s teaching people laterally, not just vertically. You’re keeping people informed. If someone has a tactical or a strategic question, they come to us. They come to a Project Warrior.”
Referee famed for tagline ‘No one is more professional than I’ a driving force for enlisted son
By PABLO VILLA
Father-son pairings in the Army aren’t uncommon.
But not many share the unique success of Staff Sgt. Alexis Ramos and his father, retired 1st Sgt. Rafael Ramos. Both are accomplished noncommissioned officers. And both are polished in the world of pugilism.
As an assistant boxing coach for the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program headquartered in Fort Carson, Colo., Alexis Ramos has a hand in the preparation of the Army’s elite boxers as they vie for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. For those qualifiers from WCAP’s winter sports teams, that preparation reached fruition in February during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Meanwhile, WCAP’s summer teams are building up for their own runs to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The younger Ramos — along with head coach Staff Sgt. Charles Leverette and assistant coach Staff Sgt. Joe Guzman — is part of WCAP’s NCO staff that is laying the groundwork for the Army’s boxers.
Alexis Ramos is also an accomplished boxer in his own right. He’s a three-time champion of the All-Army and Armed Forces tournaments, the military’s U.S. Nationals qualifiers, feats that culminated with a berth in the U.S. trials for the 2008 Olympics.
He says his success in the sport and throughout his Army career can be attributed to determination and perseverance, traits that he has learned and honed as an NCO.
“I’ve been through a lot in my short career,” Alexis Ramos said. “I’ve had to fight through that. So I think ‘resilience’ is the biggest word that I try to teach everyone. You can overcome anything if you put your mind to it.”
He also has benefited from the knowledge and life experience gleaned from his father, he said.
“I can relate back to when I was a kid and used to see everyone talking to my dad,” Alexis Ramos said. “I can relate to the way he used to deal with all those situations when he was progressing throughout his career. And I’m very glad that I had that experience.”
From humble beginnings to the Hall of Fame
That experience lifted Rafael Ramos to a first sergeant position and a command sergeant major nomination in 1997. But he gave up the chance to become a sergeant major and retired after a 21-year Army career as a communications specialist and as a medic to allow his son, Alexis, and daughter, Marelyn, to graduate from the San Antonio high school they enrolled in during the mid-1990s. The elder Ramos, a native of Puerto Rico, has remained in San Antonio since leaving active duty and has worked as a clinical research associate in addition to his other, more high-profile job in the ring.
During the past 20 years, Rafael Ramos has developed into a top-flight professional boxing referee, evidenced by his mention in the 2013 book Third Man in the Ring, by Mike Fitzgerald and Patrick Morley, which takes a closer look at the world’s best boxing officials. He began officiating fights in 1987 at the request of then-Olympic boxing head coach Hank Johnson, who also coached the installation’s boxing team at Fort Bragg, N.C., where Ramos was stationed. This came after a stellar amateur career in three weight classes while in the Army. Ramos was also a taekwando natural, taking up the sport while at Fort Bragg and winning a silver medal at the North Carolina state tournament in 1986.
His success inside the ring as a fighter and official culminated in 2012 when he was inducted into the Puerto Rican Boxing Hall of Fame, a remarkable accomplishment considering his humble beginnings and struggles to learn the English language before joining the Army. Not a year later, Ramos is one of three who will be formally inducted into the San Antonio Boxing Hall of Fame on March 1 during a ceremony at the Alamodome. After the ceremony, Ramos will perform his officiating duties as part of the fight card featuring a rematch between super middleweights Julio César Chávez Jr. and Bryan Vera.
“I was fortunate that they inducted me,” Rafael Ramos said. “But for me, the emotions were so great. My family was there. My friends were there. Peers came out from everywhere.
“As an NCO, I tell the people that you always can look forward and you always can be great if you dedicate yourself to do it. Dedication is everything. If you’re going to be a Soldier, you’ve got to become a good Soldier and be dedicated to become the best of who you are. And that’s what I did.”
NCO values a boon for boxing
While both Ramos men have been indefatigable when the gloves are on, they both credit their time as NCOs as the catalyst for their success inside the ring.
For Alexis, the opportunity to work closely with Soldiers came after his father’s initial hesitance.
“He didn’t want me to join the Army,” Alexis Ramos said of his father. “He wanted me to go to college. He said if I wanted to join the Army, he wanted me to do it as an Army officer. I was initially going to live up to his wishes. That’s why I joined as a reservist. But as I continued in my Army career, I saw that relationship of the enlisted Soldier and the NCO. There’s a reason why they call us the ‘backbone of the Army’. We deal with Soldiers every day, and I like that. I like dealing with Soldiers. I like that one-on-one. I like being able to be that mentor, that counselor for Soldiers and helping them through problems.”
That desire to mentor and train makes the role of coach a natural fit for the younger Ramos, who took an interest in boxing in high school, despite his father’s wishes against it. Rafael Ramos didn’t offer his son a blessing to take part in the same brutal sport he participated in for so many years until he found his son in the backyard of their San Antonio home engaged in a boxing match with several friends in attendance.
“We called them ‘backyard championship fights,’” Alexis Ramos said of the makeshift bouts. “We’d invite football players, and we’d just go at it. We even created a belt. For a while I had it, which was cool for a 119-pounder fighting all these guys. But one day, my dad walked into the backyard, and that’s where he brought me into boxing. He said, ‘Oh, you want to fight? OK, let’s do it.’”
Alexis trained under Wilfredo Esperon, a friend of his father’s who was an Air Force veteran and was nationally ranked as an amateur boxer.
After enlisting in the Army in 2005, Alexis continued his training. He credits his first NCO, Staff Sgt. Shawn Sullivan, with encouraging him to continue chasing his boxing goals while also instilling in him what it meant to be a Soldier. Ramos’ time under Sullivan further engrained the impact that a positive, professional NCO can have on his Soldiers. The elder Ramos says he has seen his son evolve into that figure.
“As an NCO, he’s moving really fast,” Rafael Ramos said. “He’s dedicated himself. He’s very professional. That’s what I like to see from my son, because he puts his mind to a goal and he’s going to accomplish it.”
For now, that goal is helping his fellow coaches and fighters prepare for a potential position on the U.S. Olympic team. He’d like to dispel notions that being a part of WCAP, the program that trains and promotes nationally and internationally ranked athletes, is an easy assignment.
“A lot of people kind of get this negative image of WCAP, like, ‘That’s all they do? That’s a cake walk,’” Ramos said. “But when they come over here, they realize that we are Soldiers first. We still get tasked out. If our command needs us, we return to units and deploy as needed. And you’ve got to realize that, at the same time, WCAP is a selection of the very elite. At any one time there’s only between 70 and 100 Soldiers. It’s not a lot of people, a very small percentage. We continue our athletic training, our academic training and Soldier careers in addition to competing for our respective sports.”
As such, Ramos strives to be the best Soldier he can be and continues to forge his own path, even if it appears to be one that’s been traveled before.
“My dad, he’s left a hard road. But I would say you can’t always try to achieve what they’ve achieved,” Alexis Ramos said. “It seems like I’m following in his footsteps, which I am. But I wasn’t trying to measure up to him. I was trying to go on my own path. It just happens to be that both of us love boxing and so it ended up this way. But I would say just do your best, follow your own footsteps and aim above the mark so you can always reach the standard.”
‘No one is more professional than I’
Standards are something Rafael Ramos maintains steadfastly when he steps inside the ring.
Ramos has officiated a multitude of fights on five continents and has built a reputation as one of the best referees in the sport because of his control, knowledge of the rules and fairness. He was the third man in the ring for the March 2010 superfight between welterweights Manny Pacquiao and Joshua Clottey at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Ramos also officiated the 2009 Ring magazine and ESPN fight of the year between lightweights Juan Manuel Marquez and Juan Diaz in Houston. His most recent big-name main event came in June 2013 when Mikey Garcia defeated Juan Manuel Lopez to defend his featherweight title.
But no matter who is in the ring when he’s refereeing, Ramos always has one final message for the combatants before they touch gloves.
“When I give my instructions to the fighters, you’re gonna hear me say: ‘No one is more professional than I,’” Ramos said. “That comes from the NCO Creed. That’s how I honor the Soldiers — the active-duty, retirees and the fallen Soldiers. That’s why I do that.”
It also came as a request from Alexis, who wanted his dad to present an homage to NCOs and Soldiers in front of the hordes of boxing fans who might be taking in one of his fights.
“I asked him as, one, an NCO myself and, two, as him being a retired NCO, and for Soldiers in general, if he would be able to say that before the fights,” Alexis Ramos said. “All the great referees have their own tagline. But I think representing the Army and representing the NCO Creed every time he steps out was something that a lot of people would recognize and a lot of Soldiers would appreciate it.”
And how does Rafael Ramos handle the pressure created by the angry glaze of lights, high-profile fighters and an audience of millions? His answer is one that applies to his son’s NCO career and all Soldiers looking for success.
“Because I was an NCO, I know we put the mission first,” Ramos said. “We forget everything around us, and we dedicate ourselves just to that mission or to that fight. Just like all NCOs, we have to do whatever it takes to accomplish the mission. So I focus, and that’s what I do. That’s how I do it. That’s how all Soldiers do it.”
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