By Example: Combat medic braved enemy bullets, flames to save Soldiers

By JONATHAN (JAY) KOESTER
NCO Journal

This story is part of a periodic NCO Journal feature that takes a closer look at an Army award in an NCO’s career. This month, we focus on the career of an NCO who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The Distinguished Service Cross is the Army’s second-highest award, behind only the Medal of Honor. AR 600-8-22 says of the Distinguished Service Cross, “The act or acts of heroism must have been so notable and have involved risk of life so extraordinary as to set the individual apart from his or her comrades.”

Then-Spc. Christopher B. Waiters, a combat medic, had just finished a long overnight clearance mission with the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, in Baqubah, Iraq. He and his team had been out since 10 p.m., so about 8 a.m. the next morning, April 5, 2007, Waiters laid down to get some sleep.

“Then I just heard this thunderous boom,” Waiters said. “First it was like, ‘Whoa, what just happened? Wake up everybody!’ Then over the radio you hear, ‘Hey! We have guys in a burning [Bradley]!’ [Using my nickname], my XO, 1st Lt. Timothy Price, said, ‘Hey Voodoo, let’s roll!’

“So we go, and it’s just us two trucks,” Waiters said. “It wasn’t very far away, maybe a 3-minute drive. We came around a corner, and as soon as we did, we started getting shot at. So, I faced my vehicle east, he faced his west. Two bad guys came out, and I immediately raised my weapon and dropped them. We were about 120 meters from the burning [Bradley], and the whole road was on fire. There were people everywhere, just scattered.”

Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, then the vice chief of staff of the Army, presents the Distinguished Service Cross to Staff Sgt. Christopher B. Waiters on Oct. 23, 2008, during a ceremony at Fort Lewis, Wash. (Photo by Phil Sussman)
Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, then the vice chief of staff of the Army, presents the Distinguished Service Cross to Staff Sgt. Christopher B. Waiters on Oct. 23, 2008, during a ceremony at Fort Lewis, Wash. (Photo by Phil Sussman)

Waiters didn’t immediately think of the consequences of his next decision. He quickly decided he had to run to the burning Bradley Fighting Vehicle despite the incoming enemy fire. Price told him not to leave because he wouldn’t make it back.

“Next thing you know, I was going down the road,” Waiters said. “I didn’t think about the decision I had made until the bullets were already coming at me. That’s when you think about, ‘What have I done?’ After that, it was just pure adrenaline and fear.”

Halfway to the Bradley, Waiters was pinned down by enemy fire. Then a truck came around the corner, firing from a gun turret on the back. “Tim, my XO, destroyed the driver and gunner with his .50-cal, which allowed me to keep running down the road.”

After dropping his weapon and gear because of the weight, Waiters jumped on top of the Bradley and pulled two Soldiers out. He treated the two Soldiers and evacuated them to safety, but he then learned there was a third Soldier still trapped in the back of the Bradley.

“So I ran back down ‘Death’s Alley,’ as I like to call it,” Waiters said. “By that time, my whole unit had converged on me. It turned into a rescue mission. We had snipers up, and they were taking guys out. We had platoons moving and clearing as they made their way down.”

Roaring flames prevented Waiters from reaching the third Soldier from the top of the Bradley, so he kicked open the back door. He tried again and again to reach the Soldier through the flames. On his fifth attempt, he was able to grab the Soldier and pull him out, but the Soldier had already died. Waiters secured his body and proceeded on with the mission.

“I had melted boots, melted gloves,” Waiters said. “I had been shot in my [body armor] plates front and back a few times. I had a long 60 minutes of, ‘I shouldn’t be alive.’”

Another medic on the scene, Sgt. Jeffrey Anello, told the Fort Lewis, Wash., Northwest Guardian he was shocked when he surveyed the wreckage.

“Seeing the Bradley smoldering and knowing he was able to retrieve two of the Soldiers in it alive, it was amazing,” Anello said. “By the looks of it, nobody should have been alive. We’re very proud of Sgt. Waiters, [after] serving alongside him for three-and-a-half years. It sets a standard for us, of putting others before yourself, to do your job.”

For his actions that day, Waiters received the Distinguished Service Cross. Waiters is now a staff sergeant serving as a platoon sergeant with the 1st Squadron, 71st Calvary Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, at Fort Drum, N.Y.

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Tell me how your actions that day represent the best of the U.S. Army.

A lot of people call me a hero. I don’t think I’m a hero. I think every Soldier is a hero because they raise their right hand, and they’re willing to die. I think it’s just looking out for people you don’t even know. I didn’t know those Soldiers. To me, they just wore my uniform. Those are brothers. They would have helped me on any given day. My job is a medic. If that’s what I have to die doing, that’s what I have to die doing. That’s what I signed up for.

What do you hope your Soldiers can learn from the actions you took that day?

Never give up, and always give your best. What I always tell my Soldiers is that you can’t save everybody, but you can save people. It’s all about, are you willing to die that day to do it? Are you willing to stick to that oath that you solemnly swore to do? Do that to the fullest, everyday of your life. That’s what makes you a Soldier. It’s not a 9-to-5 job. It’s a career. It’s a life choice you make. You just have to be able to conquer your fears and go out and give it your all.

What makes a good NCO?

After being struck by an improvised explosive device in Baqubah, Iraq, a Bradley Fighting Vehicle immediately caught fire with its occupants still inside. Then-Spc. Christopher B. Waiters attempts to climb into the burning vehicle to rescue a trapped Soldier. Waiters had previously treated and evacuated two other casualties back to his Stryker. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army)
After being struck by an improvised explosive device in Baqubah, Iraq, a Bradley Fighting Vehicle immediately caught fire with its occupants still inside. Then-Spc. Christopher B. Waiters attempts to climb into the burning vehicle to rescue a trapped Soldier. Waiters had previously treated and evacuated two other casualties back to his Stryker. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army)

A good NCO is a guy who you know you can count on. A good NCO is not that screamer, that barker, anymore. A good NCO is the guy who can look at you and say, “I’m disappointed,” and you, as that Soldier, are going to take that to heart. A good NCO is the guy you can call any day of the week. A good NCO is going to get you the answers. He’s going to work harder to make your life easier. … It’s guidance. It’s wisdom. It’s a guy who can take what he did as a young Soldier and take it and teach it to the rest, so that we become a successful corps.

What role have NCOs played in your development?

I got some good leadership. They guided me in the right direction. But I grew up with, “Don’t come back without the mission being accomplished,” even if it was just, “Go to S-1 and get this.” It was always, “Get the mission accomplished.”

What advice do you have for young Soldiers and other NCOs?

Be patient. The new guys want to get in there; they want to be leaders. But they need to watch what their leaders do, instead of just trying to jump in there. They need to ask questions. A lot of new NCOs don’t want to ask those questions because they feel like they’re stupid. They’re not stupid; you’re learning. If they are open to learning, they are going to be successful NCOs. You have to give respect and earn it at the same time. Back in the day, you could just yell at all Soldiers. That’s the way it was. Now, you need to know every one of your Soldiers. You need to know that you can’t raise your voice to this guy, because he’ll shut you out. Once a Soldier shuts you out, there’s no getting to them. Then you have to know that you can talk to this other guy in a calm tone of voice, and that’s worse than yelling at him. You have to understand them, know their backgrounds, their families, all that stuff. With the new Army, you have to know each individual Soldier; you can’t treat them all as one unit.

What is your MOS, and how did you get into it?

I’m a 68W (health care specialist). I was originally a 91B, combat medic. The recruiter sat down at the house, and he went over all the MOSs. Of course he started off with all [maneuver] series. And my dad sat there and said, “Infantryman? No. Armor? No.” My dad was a retired sergeant first class. It came to 91B combat medic. I like medicine. You can’t save all, but I can save as many as I can. It’s interesting. I think it’s the most gratifying job you can have. You’re respected by all.

HRC refines Army’s leadership mold of the future

By MARTHA C. KOESTER
NCO Journal

In this era of Army transition, noncommissioned officers at U.S. Army Human Resources Command at Fort Knox, Ky., are on the front lines in determining the right Soldier for the right unit at the right time. With new career tools and processes on the way, Soldiers will be better prepared for what lies ahead by taking ownership of their records now, said Sgt. Maj. Jonathan A. Uribe-Huitron, chief of the Enlisted Promotions Branch at Human Resources Command. That means noncommissioned officers must take responsibility for ensuring that their records are correct and current.

The Army’s promotion system is the Army’s way to shape its future leaders, Uribe-Huitron said. “By following the leader development strategy, the U.S. Army Human Resources Command wants to guarantee that leaders have a certain level of knowledge, experience and training for their skill set,” he said.

leadership2
Sgt. Maj. Felix RamosRosario (left), HRC’s Command Management Branch sergeant major, urges the senior enlisted population of the Army to remain flexible when competing for promotion. Sgt. Maj. Rodney Allen, former senior NCO at HRC’s Enlisted Personnel Management Directorate, says programs such as Centralized Selection Lists, the Qualitative Management Program and the Qualitative Service Program are going to have a significant impact on Soldiers. (Photo by Martha C. Koester)

However, if Soldiers are wondering what they need to do in order to improve their chances for promotion, Uribe-Huitron said it’s all outlined in DA Pamphlet 600-25, the NCO Professional Development Guide. “[It tells the Soldier] that they should have completed X, Y and Z in military education; in civilian education, they should be doing this; as far as key positions, they should have done that; and so on, and so on,” he said.

Soldiers in competition

Because vacancies may be limited in some career management fields within the evolving Army, flexibility is important for Soldiers at any level, said Sgt. Maj. Felix RamosRosario, sergeant major of the Command Management Branch at HRC.

In fiscal year 2015, which begins Oct. 1, the Army is due to begin an initiative in which sergeants major wishing to serve at the command sergeant major level will have one opportunity to serve at the battalion level and one opportunity to serve at the brigade level. As an exception, there are additional opportunities to serve at the command sergeants major level, but only at installations where the mission is to train battalion command sergeants major and to set the conditions for units to deploy successfully. Such positions are located at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif.; Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La.; Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Grafenwöhr, Germany; and 1st ArmyDivision East and Division West. Some NCO academies also require this second-time exception.

After filling the brigade and battalion positions at the command sergeant major level, sergeants major are then eligible to compete for nominative positions, may be assigned in other broadening type assignments or may elect to retire. In years past, command sergeants major were selected for up to a third or fourth battalion or up to a second or third brigade.

“The [one battalion, one brigade] concept promotes competition,” RamosRosario said. “The limited vacancies make it a lot harder for individuals to get an opportunity to serve at the command sergeant major level.”

Though the Army is downsizing, opportunities still exist and the Army leadership strives to put the right person in the right place at the right time, said Command Sgt. Maj. Charles E. Smith, command sergeant major of Human Resources Command. Competition counts, and “that’s why Soldiers always have to stay a little bit ahead of their peers,” Smith said.

NCOs wishing to compete at the senior-most level should know that remaining flexible regarding their career options will go a long way, officials said.

“The best advice I can give is to remain flexible when competing because the No. 1 message is that serving as a command sergeant major or a sergeant major in a key billet, at any level, any location, in any unit across the Army is an extraordinary privilege and honor,” RamosRosario said.

Maintaining updated records

The biggest issue affecting NCO promotions that regularly challenges HRC branches such as the Enlisted Promotions Branch is that NCOs are not doing their due diligence to update their records, Uribe-Huitron said.

Sgt. Maj. Lon Culbreath, chief of the Sergeants Major Branch at U.S. Army Human Resources Command at Fort Knox, Ky., describes the assignment process for sergeants major and command sergeants major. (Photo by Martha C. Koester)
Sgt. Maj. Ron Culbreath, chief of the Sergeants Major Branch at U.S. Army Human Resources Command at Fort Knox, Ky., describes the assignment process for sergeants major and command sergeants major. (Photo by Martha C. Koester)

“NCOs seemingly wait until the last minute to update their records, and there’s a specific calendar [for semi-centralized promotions to sergeant and staff sergeant] that we have to follow,” Uribe-Huitron said. “Everything has to be updated by the eighth of the month because we pull an order of merit list. … We’re not looking on the ninth, the 10th, the 11th. [We have a certain amount of time] to do the various processes so we can meet the Army requirements.”

Soldiers must update their records thoroughly and not at the last minute, Enlisted Promotions Branch officials urge. Soldiers often wait until the day eligibility closes, which does not allow enough time for a thorough review, officials say.

Where enlisted promotions are concerned, it’s all about ensuring data accuracy, Uribe-Huitron said. Soldiers competing for senior NCO positions in the Army can be derailed by an out-of-date record.

“A Soldier should always continue to have his or her records updated, because when you’re competing for a brigade command sergeant major position … we are looking for key indicators,” RamosRosario said. “There are Soldiers in our inventory who have failed to keep their records updated [with requisite skill identifiers], and we could not identify them to either be eligible or to compete for a brigade.

“So, it never ends. It doesn’t matter how long you have been in the military − even if you are trying to transition out and complete your certificate of release or discharge, or if you need to update Exceptional Family Member Program paperwork. Updating things like that are critical so we can manage who is eligible for what board, where we can assign a Soldier post-board, etc.”

The right Soldier for the job

Dealing with the senior enlisted population, the Sergeants Major Branch at HRC follows a professional development road map to ensure that the right sergeant major is going to the right formation at the right time, said Sgt. Maj. Ron Culbreath, chief of the Sergeants Major Branch at HRC. In developing the future leaders of the Army, branch officials know that, though Army readiness takes priority, it doesn’t have to be at the expense of the service member and his or her family’s preferences.

“In the career branches, you have to set Soldiers up for their next promotion; you have to set them up for their next school, whether it’s going to be Drill Sergeant School or to keep them competitive in the Army,” Culbreath said. “In the sergeant major arena, you have to balance Army readiness a lot more with Soldier preference because for a lot of these Soldiers, it’s their last assignment.”

Plans are in motion to downsize the Army’s active-duty force from 510,000 Soldiers to 450,000 by 2015, and positions Armywide are at a premium.

“As we complete the Army structure and we reduce our force, certain positions and certain units are going away,” RamosRosario said. “So, we have reduced the number of opportunities [sergeants major can] serve at a particular level, whether it is battalion or brigade. There are opportunities to serve, but they are few and far between.”

Along with tools such as promotions and the centralized selection list process, the Qualitative Management Program, or QMP, and the Qualitative Service Program, or QSP, will help to shape the future of the force.

Soldiers must make sure their NCO Evaluation Reports have quantifiable bullet comments and substantive information that set him or her apart from their peers, said Sgt. Maj. Wayne A. Penn Jr., sergeant major of the Transition Branch at HRC.

“Under QSP, the Army is really looking to retain the best of the best of the best,” Penn said.

As the Army transitions to a smaller force, its focus will remain on the business of building strong leaders, HRC officials said. Though some senior NCOs may face involuntary separation through a number of tools, Soldiers are advised to remain competitive and flexible under the Army’s leader development strategy.

“Every decision that a Soldier makes should be a calculated one,” RamosRosario said.

“At [HRC], we have a very huge mission, and our mission is very important because we affect many Soldiers,” said Sgt. Maj. Rodney Allen, the former senior NCO of the Enlisted Personnel Management Directorate at HRC. “As the Army prepares to draw down, programs, such as CSL, QMP, QSP, are going to have an impact on Soldiers. [At HRC,] we strive here to make sure that we’re making the best decisions, using the most extreme precision that we can to guarantee we put the right person in the right place at the right time.”

Tips from the Enlisted Promotions Branch

More than 26,000 telephone calls and 40,000 e-mails are answered each fiscal year at the Enlisted Promotions Branch at U.S. Army Human Resources Command at Fort Knox, Ky., said Sgt. Maj. Jonathan A. Uribe-Huitron, chief of the Enlisted Promotions Branch at HRC. The branch helps contribute to Army readiness by providing the Army with a system for Soldier advancement, which ensures a continuous supply of well-trained people to fill vacancies of the next higher grade. Branch personnel works to ensure the Army has a fair and equitable system that is consistently merit-based. Noncommissioned officers may reduce the likelihood of their promotions being hampered by keeping the following tips in mind.

Junior Enlisted Promotions

▪ Boards convene as early as the 20th of the month proceeding the board month and are completed no later than the fourth day of the board month. The president of the board is a command sergeant major or sergeant major unless the membership consists of both officers and NCOs, in which case the president will be the senior member.

▪ Leaders should assist Soldiers in reviewing their promotion point worksheet, or PPW, and enlisted record brief, or ERB, for accuracy. Soldiers must be integrated onto the PPW by the eighth day of the board month.

▪ It is the Soldier’s responsibility to ensure that his or her record is current, that all required updates are complete and that the information is accurate in the ERB and the PPW.

Senior Enlisted Promotions

▪ Soldiers’ eligibility for promotion consideration is based upon the parameters established by the Army G1.

▪ Promotion eligibility will be announced in a military personnel, or MILPER, message, which will also include the parameters for the board.

▪Who is eligible for promotion is determined by a query of the electronic records in the Total Army Personnel Database, or TAPDB, or the Total Army Personnel Database Reserve, or TAPDBR.

▪If a Soldier’s electronic record is found to be incorrect, it will not be pulled into the eligible population. It is the Soldier’s responsibility to notify the Enlisted Promotions Branch as stated on the MILPER message.

▪ Soldiers must read the MILPER message to ensure that they meet eligibility requirements.

▪Soldiers may access their My Board File using the link cited in the respective MILPER message. If a Soldier cannot access their board file, this means that the Soldier’s records indicate that they are ineligible for consideration based upon the parameters established in the MILPER message. Soldiers who meet the eligibility requirements cited in the MILPER message but who cannot access their board file should contact the Enlisted Promotions Branch.

Source: Enlisted Promotions Branch

CSL selection changes

The Command Selection List system fills the Army’s brigade- and battalion-level command sergeant major and sergeant major key billets with the Army’s best-qualified senior noncommissioned officers.

Beginning in fiscal year 2016, command sergeants major and sergeants major will be required to “opt-in” to compete. This will also mean that they are “all-in” and will therefore compete in all sub-categories in which they are eligible.

Using the command preference designator, or CPD, sergeants major and command sergeants major will rank their CSL sub-category preferences and associated units. The board will create one Order of Merit List for each functional category, of which there are now four: operations, generating, training and key billets. Primary choices are then aligned to sub-categories based on OML order and NCO preferences.

HRC has consolidated its officer and enlisted Command Management Branches. This puts the program management of all CSL billets, boards and slating processes now under the Officer Personnel Management Directorate.

Sources: U.S. Army Human Resources Command, www.army.mil/standto

New NCOER expected to more accurately assess Soldiers’ performance

By DAVID VERGUN
Army News Service

On Aug. 1, the secretary of the Army approved the new Noncommissioned Officer Evaluation Report. Implementation will be in September 2015.

“The new NCOER will come out in five phases: inform, educate, train, roll-out and after-action review. Human Resources Command is beginning to build the NCOER into the Evaluation System now,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Charles E. Smith, senior enlisted adviser for Human Resources Command.

Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III provided his take on the new NCOER:

The new Noncommissioned Officer Evaluation Report, approved in August and expected to be implemented in September 2015, was designed to more accurately assess Soldiers' performance. (Photo by David Vergun)
The new Noncommissioned Officer Evaluation Report, approved in August and expected to be implemented in September 2015, was designed to more accurately assess Soldiers’ performance. (Photo by David Vergun)

“The biggest challenge during the preparation and transition of the new NCOER over the next year will be to ensure NCO leaders at all levels clearly understand the new report, and its role in evaluations. We must ensure the new NCOER is perceived as a tool that delivers the best measures available to review and evaluate performance.

“NCO leaders must understand the process on how to effectively manage rating profiles,” Chandler continued. “It is very important to the future of the Army that Soldiers view the Army as an institution which is clearly able to identify premier leaders in a highly competitive environment. Therefore, as we prepare for the system to roll out around September 2015, I expect all NCOs to take the time to learn and understand how the evaluation system works, and how it supports the selection and promotion processes.”

The new NCOER will require insightful narratives instead of what are often nondescript, bulleted lists in the current NCOER. Also, the evaluations themselves will be different for junior and senior NCOs, explained Sgt. Maj. Stephen J. McDermid, with HRC’s Evaluations Selections & Promotions Division, Evaluations Branch.

The interval between approval and implementation will allow enough time for training on how to use the new NCOER. The months ahead will also ensure that the critical information technology portion of the implementation goes smoothly upon launch, he said.

In the coming weeks and months, regulations and pamphlets will be updated and Soldiers from installations Armywide will travel to HRC at Fort Knox, Ky., for two weeks of training so they can go back and train their assigned units and personnel, he added.

Besides training at Fort Knox, HRC will send out mobile training teams Armywide, to include the active component, Guard and Reserve,” to train the whole force from sergeants through general officers in this process,” Smith sai.

“If more training is required, we’ll send out additional teams, because we’ve got to make sure the foundation is done properly,” he added.

 

Why change?

In 2010, the chief of staff of the Army directed a review of the current NCOER, which has been in place since 1987, McDermid said. The chief had concerns that it did not reflect current leadership doctrine and was over-inflated. He also wondered whether or not there needed to be more than one type of NCOER, instead of the one currently used for all NCO ranks.

By 2012, the sergeant major of the Army, his board of directors, and NCO working groups had reviewed the process and came up with some recommendations, which were then validated by a Council of Colonels and General Officer Steering committee.

HRC was then tasked with gathering feedback from the field and reviewing the Department of the Army Centralized Selection Board after-action reviews and also leader engagements with general officers and command sergeants major.

Earlier this year, the new Officer Evaluation Report was implemented. It has some similarities to the new NCOER, so feedback and after-action reviews on that were helpful in preparing the launch of the NCOER, McDermid said.

 

How it works

There will actually be three different NCOERs, McDermid said.

The direct level form is for sergeants, and it’s pretty straightforward, he said. It will have only two categories: “Met Standard” or “Did Not Meet Standard.” Whichever category is selected for this NCOER will require a bullet comment, also called a “task statement,” to support the checked category, he said.

The organizational level form is for staff sergeant through first sergeant/master sergeant and will have four categories. “Far Exceeded Standard” is the highest or best, he said. The next highest category is “Exceeded Standard;” the third category is “Met Standard;” the least desirable category is “Did Not Meet Standard.”

The strategic-level form is for command sergeants major and sergeants major. It will contain an in-depth narrative on his or her effectiveness to the organization. Because a narrative style of writing is much different than bulleted lists, training will focus on effective writing and how to write clear, accurate, descriptive, and thorough assessments, McDermid said.

 

Rater responsibilities

There will be “a delineation of rating roles and responsibilities for the raters and senior raters,” McDermid said. The current NCOER has both rater and senior rater assessing performance and potential. In the new NCOER, the rater will focus only on “performance” and the senior rater only on “potential.”

“Senior raters will provide an assessment of the rated NCO’s overall potential compared to NCOs in the same grade, establishing a Senior Rater Profile for senior raters of staff sergeants to command sergeants major. Similar to Officer Evaluation Report, each senior rater’s profile will limit assessments of ‘Most Qualified’ to less than 50 percent. The supporting comments from the senior rater must send a clear message through enumeration, performance and potential. When properly articulated, this will assist the selection boards in selecting our top athletes to serve in positions of increased responsibilities,” said Smith.

A supplementary reviewer will be used in two situations, he added. The first is when there are no uniformed Army advisors or rating officials within the rating chain and second is when the senior rater or someone outside the rating chain directs a relief for cause.

Doctrinally, the new NCOER is expected to benefit the Army by better identifying talent within the Army, moving that talent to the best location and billet, and providing the Army with a better means of identifying which Soldiers should be put in key assignments. The new NCOER will also identify top-notch performers and provide them with educational and professional development opportunities. The NCOER will also be a useful tool in moving Soldiers around in the Army as they change assignments, McDermid said.

One of the key advantages of the new NCOER, is that it will “ensure depth and experience are met before an individual is promoted,” Smith said. “Once a leader is selected for the next grade, that person will be developed and mentored to assume that next highest grade.”

Smith said that “in the past, rating officials were not held accountable.” The new evaluation and assessment tools will ensure rating officials assess more accurately.

Successful training and IT efforts in the coming months alone will not ensure that the NCOER is a success, Smith cautioned. Leaders have to buy in and take ownership of it.

“I recommend the top leader in each formation serve as the master trainer during this critical time,” Smith said. “We’ve got to get this right. Folks’ careers are on the line as we write these new evaluation reports. If we do this right, it will lay the foundation for success in the future.”

 

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Avatar-based simulations to boost counseling skills

Related Story:

By GARY SHEFTICK
Army News Service

The idea began with six-foot avatars interacting with students in a classroom, and matured into computer-based simulations to help Soldiers with counseling.

Emergent Leader Immersive Training Environment software, known as ELITE Lite, can now be downloaded by Soldiers (with a CAC card) from the Army MilGaming portal at https://milgaming.army.mil/.

Soldiers can select whether they want to be a virtual officer or NCO. Then they interact with uniformed avatars that have problems ranging from disagreements with their platoon sergeant to driving under the influence and sexual harassment. Responses provided to the avatars determine the direction of the counseling sessions.

Five ELITE Lite training modules are now being used as part of cadet leadership classes at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. And the virtual scenarios may soon be part of the curriculum for junior NCOs in the Warrior Leader Course.

Leaders who go through the ELITE virtual training sit at a computer facing the virtual Staff Sgt. Jacob Garza. They will use the computer screen and mouse to choose responses to what Garza says. (Photos by Jonathan (Jay) Koester, NCO Journal)
Leaders who go through the ELITE virtual training sit at a computer facing the virtual Staff Sgt. Jacob Garza. They will use the computer screen and mouse to choose responses to what Garza says. (Photos by Jonathan (Jay) Koester, NCO Journal)

This new type of interactive training is the wave of the future, said Marco Conners, chief of the Army Games for Training program at the National Simulation Center, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Today’s training tools need to have an element of “captivation and entertainment,” he said.

“Soldiers today have grown up in a digital age,” Conners said. “Students tend to learn faster and more if you place it into an interactive game environment instead of standing up there with a butcher board.”

Simulations fill a vital need, he added.

“It’s critical that our young leaders learn how to counsel Soldiers,” Conners said. “Counseling skills help these leaders prepare Soldiers for any mission. Just as important, ELITE helps Army leaders develop to their full potential.”

Requests to develop counseling simulations came to Conners, in 2011, first from the Maneuver Training Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Georgia. Then about a week later, the same request came from the Fires Center of Excellence at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Only a few weeks after that, a request came from West Point.

For a solution, Conners turned to the Army Research Laboratory’s Human Research and Engineering Directorate, Simulation and Training Technology Center, or STTC, in Orlando, Florida, and the Institute for Creative Technologies, or ICT, at the University of Southern California.

The ICT had been working on a similar effort for a number of years. The ICT was a natural fit as it is a combination of computer scientists and researchers, and “there’s some Hollywood state-of-the-art stuff that they do,” he said.

ICT’s first idea was to have life-like avatars interact with students in a classroom setting. They put together a demonstration at Fort Benning’s Clark Simulation Center. The technology “floored” him, Conners said.

Soon he realized, however, that avatar classrooms would need to be built at least on 14 posts, camps and stations where the Warrior Leader Course was taught. So his team determined that computer-based avatars would make more sense.

ICT first developed three virtual scenarios: In one, a Soldier could not get along with his platoon sergeant. In another, a Soldier was bouncing checks. In the third, a Soldier had a DUI.

A team from ICT went to Fort Benning to develop the DUI scenario by interviewing Soldiers and leaders. They listened to the vernacular of how Soldiers talk.

“They captured that very, very well,” Conners said.

Then in January of this year, officials decided that perhaps SHARP-related scenarios ought to be developed. Conners contacted G-1 staffers at the Pentagon for ideas.

Two scenarios were developed with help from the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention, known as SHARP, office at the Pentagon.

In the first scenario, a Soldier gets into a physical altercation with his squad leader. When the lieutenant interviews the Soldier, he finds the squad leader was making inappropriate comments about women in the squad. The Soldier couldn’t take any more, Conners said, so he took a swing at his NCO.

Orli Belman, public relations and programs manager for the Institute for Creative Technologies, holds a mirror ball in the institute’s Light Stage dome. The dome is used for facial scans to help create realistic virtual humans for Hollywood, as well as ICT’s Army projects like ELITE and SimCoach.
Orli Belman, public relations and programs manager for the
Institute for Creative Technologies, holds a mirror ball in the
institute’s Light Stage dome. The dome is used for facial scans
to help create realistic virtual humans for Hollywood, as well as ICT’s Army projects like ELITE and SimCoach.

“That’s a pretty difficult dynamic for a young lieutenant to look at,” Conners said.

In the second scenario, a young female Soldier wants a transfer because some Soldiers in the unit are making inappropriate comments about her. The lieutenant needs to figure out that a transfer is not what is really needed — what’s needed is to get a handle on the situation and stop the comments.

“Through the scenarios, ELITE teaches new leaders interpersonal communication, critical thinking and problem solving skills integral to nurturing a climate of dignity, respect and mutual trust that result in lasting cultural change where sexual harassment and sexual assault cease to exist,” said Dr. Christine T. Altendorf, director of the Army SHARP Office.

Conners said ELITE software can become a platform for other training needs.

“The beauty of ELITE Lite is not just that it will teach counseling, but you can use it for a multitude of different things,” Conners said. ELITE is a platform that can be tailored to provide training for different professionals, he said. “You can use it for doctors to inform patients that they have a terminal disease.”

ELITE Executive will eventually be developed to train specialty branches such as chaplains, doctors and lawyers, Conners said. More immediate, however, ELITE Professional will be aimed at the company level.

“We want the counseling to be at the next-higher level,” Conners said. ELITE Lite is for platoon and below. ELITE Professional will be for company-level leadership: commanders, first sergeants and platoon sergeants.

ELITE provides consistency and standardizes the counseling process, Conners said.

“When you do peer to peer (training), it’s really catch as catch can … some people take it seriously and some don’t,” he said.

ELITE, he explained, “allows Soldiers to see how counseling should be properly done.”

The ELITE content incorporates Army-approved leadership doctrine, according to the MilGaming portal. It goes on to say the software incorporates evidence-based instructional design methodologies and ICT research technologies such as virtual humans and intelligent tutoring.

The Institute for Creative Technologies, however, did not design the software alone.

Help was provided by the Army Research Lab’s Human Research and Engineering Directorate, Simulation and Training Technology Center.

Another organization in Orlando, the Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation, helped develop long-term logistics support for sustaining the software, Conners said.

Then the National Simulation Center team at Fort Leavenworth oversaw verification, validation and accreditation.

Verification ensures the software is stable, Conners said. Validation makes sure it can achieve the training objectives and tasks that it is trying to achieve. Accreditation is when a general officer reviews the training tool and certifies it. That was done in August by Brig. Gen. Joseph Martin, deputy commanding general of the Combined Arms Center–Training, Fort Leavenworth.

Validation of ELITE Lite involved students from both the Warrior Leader Course and Basic Officer Leader Course at Fort Benning. Students found the virtual training helped boost their confidence and self-esteem, Conners said.

 

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Technology + Stories = Advanced Leadership Training: Combining technology with Hollywood-style storytelling is helping the Army lead the way in the training of the next generation of leaders

This Month in NCO History: Sept. 2, 2006 — Soldier goes from tragedy to triumph

For Mark Dodge, a former Army sergeant, the ninth month of the year brings forth a gamut of emotions. He has experienced tragedy in September. He has also felt the elation of a dream lived.

Dodge was in the Army from April 2000 to January 2004, assigned to the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, at Fort Myer, Va. As part of “The Old Guard,” Dodge took part in military funerals at Arlington National Cemetery and other notable ceremonies nationwide.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Dodge was at the Pentagon filing documents for a security clearance to the White House when news of the terrorist attacks unfolding in New York flashed across TV screens in the facility. But no one knew another hijacked plane, American Airlines Flight 77, was headed for the headquarters of the Department of Defense.

At 9:37 a.m., the jetliner struck the western side of the Pentagon, killing all 64 of the plane’s occupants and 125 people in the building. Dodge and the rest of The Old Guard stationed nearby at what is now Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall immediately leaped into action. Initially, Dodge helped move survivors to triage tents. After the fires in the building were extinguished, the unit was tasked with sifting through the rubble to find survivors and recover victims’ remains.

“You’d come across stuff you wish you wouldn’t, stuff you couldn’t imagine seeing,” Dodge said in 2006 of the experience.

The experience left Dodge suffering with post-traumatic stress. He eventually decided to halt his Army career and focus on goals he had previously abandoned. The first was reconciling with his estranged father, Howard Dodge, who divorced the younger Dodge’s mother, Toni Inserra, and was largely absent from his son’s life since he was an infant. Dodge did just that, beginning to build a relationship with this father before leaving the Army as an NCO in 2004.

Dodge next set his sights on college, but he didn’t want to enroll at a university simply to be a student. He wanted to play football for a top-tier school.

In high school, Dodge had been an all-state wide receiver in Nevada. He joined the Army after he didn’t receive an offer to play college football. But even though six years had passed since he last set foot on a field in competition, Dodge was not discouraged. He added 20 pounds to his 6-foot-2-inch frame that tipped the scales at 200 during his Army career, and he went on a strict diet. He wrote several schools, but did not hear back from any of them.

Undeterred, Dodge enrolled at Feather River Community College in Quincy, Calif. The Golden Eagles play in the Golden Valley Conference of the California Community College Athletic Association. In the fall of 2004, at the age of 23, Dodge started at inside linebacker. His ability to chase down ball carriers received the attention of several Division I programs. In 2006, Dodge accepted a scholarship offer from Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, citing the school’s rich military traditions as a big reason for his decision.

On Sept. 2, 2006, nearly five years since the attacks that left an indelible mark on his psyche, Dodge had something of a cathartic moment.

In front of more than 70,000 fans at the Aggies’ Kyle Field against The Citadel, Dodge saw his first action as a Division I college football player with 2:57 left in the 1st quarter. On his first play, Dodge displayed the same strength and fortitude that helped him succeed in the Army. From his inside linebacker position, Dodge followed a sweep play to his right, blew past a blocker and tackled a Citadel running back for a loss. One play later, Dodge forced a fumble that his Aggies recovered to spur a 35-3 blowout win.

“This is more fun than I can ever dream of,” Dodge said after the game. “One bad day here is a lot better than a very good day overseas.”

Dodge won the starting position the following week. He played linebacker for two seasons for Texas A&M and finished his Aggie career with 168 tackles, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. In 2007, he received honorable mention on the All-Big 12 team.

Today, Dodge lives in San Antonio with his wife and son.

— Compiled by Pablo Villa