During deployments, Soldiers often develop tight bonds while living together and working as a team to execute their missions.
Army officials now want to bring that strong sense of camaraderie back to the garrison, where it can boost personal readiness and performance across the service.
“Those Soldiers eat, sleep and fight together. They get to know each other very closely,” said Sharyn Saunders, director of the Army Resiliency Directorate. “When Soldiers deploy, they have increased protective factors, and we think that’s due to their ability to form very tight unit cohesion.”
From healthy coping methods to a reliable support network, protective factors draw on a variety of skills and resources that Soldiers develop to manage stressful events.
With its recent shift in strategy for the Ready and Resilient campaign, known as R2, Army officials are hoping these factors can form a culture of trust within units through an engagement triangle of leaders, battle buddies and family members.
Established in 2012, the R2 campaign provides holistic and comprehensive capabilities to Army leaders to empower them to achieve and sustain personal readiness and optimize performance.
On Nov. 30, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Daniel B. Allyn signed an 85-page operation order that officially pivoted the R2 campaign’s strategy to a more proactive approach that supports the personal readiness and resilience of every Soldier.
Saunders said past resiliency efforts mainly looked at an individual’s risk factors, like substance abuse or self-harm. That narrow focus may have inadvertently led to some Soldiers being stigmatized by the rest of their unit.
“We’re focused on the opposite now,” the director said. “By switching to a strengthening of all Soldiers and elevating their personal readiness and resiliency, … it makes it as if everyone is working on this path together, and individuals aren’t singled out.”
The campaign is also rolling out a new professional skill, called “engage,” to teach all Soldiers how to hold conversations with fellow Soldiers who display behaviors that run counter to Army standards.
“Soldiers generally know what resources are available to them to get their battle buddies help,” Saunders said. “But what Soldiers weren’t prepared to do was … have what we call a professional confrontation.”
As part of engage, Soldiers must be prepared to open up a dialogue with another Soldier who exhibits warning signs and offer help before problems can escalate to self-destructive behavior or a crisis such as suicide.
“It’s really about getting ahead,” Saunders said, “so we can prevent stressors from culminating into crises or into adverse outcomes.”
Engage training has already taken place at Fort Campbell, Kentucky; Fort Hood, Texas; and Fort Sill, Oklahoma, with Soldiers at Fort Carson, Colorado, slated to receive the training in 2017.
“There are lots of benefits to this skill and we’re really excited about rolling it out,” she said. “We are looking forward to the impact [it will have] across the force.”
At the ready
Officials also hope the strategic shift will have a significant positive impact on personal readiness. Under the R2 strategy, personal readiness has five domains: physical, psychological, social, spiritual and family. When Soldiers thrive in these domains, their attrition and injury rates can decrease.
“We need every single Soldier to be able to get on the field and play their position at a home game and at an away game,” Saunders said.
After years of war strained Soldiers deploying in and out of combat, she said, a comprehensive approach toward personal readiness was required.
“We’re really getting at all of the facets of a person’s life,” she said. “That’s where we’re focusing our efforts because we see that as the way of the future.”
The future may also include pushing resiliency skills from the classroom to the field environment. Earlier this month, performance experts taught Soldiers going through basic combat training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, how to perform deliberate breathing, a technique that helps a person stay focused and calm.
While the green Soldiers qualified on their rifle, trainers found that they were able to hit more targets after doing the breathing exercise.
“This is a really interesting opportunity for us to take something that we had been doing in the classroom and actually move that skill into the firing range,” Saunders said. “We have learned that the more we operationalize [resiliency skills] into the Army, the more effective” they are.
Full gender integration in the Army is exceeding expectations, with more than 300 women successfully recruited or transferred into the service’s most physically demanding career fields in 2016, according to senior leaders.
Earlier this year, the Army opened about 138,000 positions once closed to women in the infantry, armor, field artillery and Special Forces.
“This is about identifying a Soldier or applicant who is capable of doing a job to standard regardless of gender,” said Maj. Gen. Hugh Van Roosen II, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for G-1, or personnel. “For us, this means opening up some of the hardest jobs in the Army to all the talent pool that’s out there and not cutting ourselves off from 50 percent of the population.”
The influx of women interested in combat arms has surprised Van Roosen and others who expected to see half that number of women by this time after the defense secretary approved the Army’s implementation plan in March.
“This is a real success story,” he told representatives of military and veteran service organizations who visited the Pentagon recently. “This has gone far better than we anticipated.”
Now in its third phase, the integration plan, also known as Soldier 2020, is placing female infantry and armor officers in operational units at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and Fort Hood, Texas. The fourth and final phase will sustain and optimize integration efforts once the Army reaches full operational capability and re-validates screening requirements for jobs in combat arms.
Small cohorts of female and male officers are currently being trained together and assigned to the same company as a way of gradually adjusting the culture in male-dominated units before female enlisted Soldiers begin to graduate this summer.
“We’re going to break stereotypes,” Van Roosen said. “We keep that up … until we determine the climate and culture have sufficiently changed to normalize processes and get back to business as usual.”
A majority of the women within the program — more than 260 — are part of the infantry and armor fields. Of them, fewer than 30 are serving in the reserve component.
Unlike the regular Army, which can place active-duty troops in positions at any base, the Army National Guard must figure out how to place its members in positions based on vacancies. One way the Guard hopes to offer guidance to women enlisted in combat arms is by having female officers who are serving nearby in other career fields act as leaders for them, Van Roosen said.
Initial data of fully integrated training at Fort Benning, Georgia — where infantry and armor courses are held — have shown no significant difference between male and female student performance.
“The female attrition rate is lower or the same as men,” Van Roosen said. “These are women who are physically fit and absolutely prepared for this.”
The Army has also conducted several studies to decrease injury and attrition rates among all trainees. The Occupational Physical Assessment Test, which rolls out to the entire service Jan. 3, was developed as a result of the findings.
The new test features gender-neutral tasks, including a standing long jump, a dead lift, an interval run and a seated power throw to measure strength needed for tasks such as loading ammunition. Those who score in the highest physical category, among other qualifications, will be allowed to work any job in combat arms, Van Roosen said.
As of now, no cap has been placed on the number of women who can serve in combat arms, and Van Roosen doesn’t believe there should be one. “This isn’t about gender, this is about capability,” he said. “We don’t really care what the gender is.”
The general does believe the U.S. Army could have a larger percentage of women in combat arms compared to the Canadian army, which served as a model for the gender integration plan. Canadian women have served in combat arms for 30 years, but commissioned and enlisted females make up only about 2 percent and 0.5 percent, respectively, of that army’s infantry, Van Roosen said.
“We will probably do better than the Canadian model,” he said. “Time will tell what the long-term propensities will look like.”
Having women in the Army’s toughest jobs will greatly benefit readiness, the general believes.
“We’re getting after the best Soldiers we can,” he said. “This will give our Army capability that we’ve not had before on several levels, and it will make us a better Army.
Established in 1893 as the Army Medical School, the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research has a long and respected history of serving America’s military. With more than 120 years of advances in military and public health, the goal at WRAIR remains to supply life-saving products to sustain the readiness of the warfighter.
Because infectious diseases threaten national and global security, WRAIR is able to shift focus quickly when illnesses, such as Ebola, emerge.
“Army medical research plays a foundational role in the success of our all-volunteer force,” said Gen. Daniel B. Allyn, vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, during a visit last year to WRAIR. “The success of our Army relies on trust – trust between Soldiers and the military institution, and trust between the military and the American public.”
The emergence and swift spread of Zika in the outbreak zones of North and South America and Southeast Asia, where service members are located, forced WRAIR’s scientists to channel their expertise toward developing a successful vaccine earlier this year. Human testing is underway at WRAIR in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Col. Nelson Michael, director of WRAIR’s Military HIV Research Program and Zika program co-lead, recently briefed Gen. Mark A. Milley, chief of staff of the U.S. Army, on WRAIR’s Zika vaccine progress.
“One of the things I am going to tell the general is of one [new concern] we have got to think about when we send our troops overseas and they come back home,” Michael said before his meeting with Milley. “We’re obviously very obligated toward military families, and there has been one case that is not as well documented where a woman transmitted it to a man sexually. The problem with Zika is that even though it’s been around a long time we didn’t know much about it until very recently.”
Soldiers help make successful medical technologies possible at WRAIR because they are accustomed to tackling problems quickly, Michael said. Sgt. Christopher A. Springer, a lab technician, is part of the team that developed the Zika vaccine at WRAIR.
“I am hoping someone like Sgt. Springer looks at this and at some point in his Army career says, ‘I want to be like those guys,’ and then continues to be involved at some level either as a noncommissioned officer or in some other capacity as a civilian scientist,” Michael said. “At either rate, he is exposed to something that he would never see anywhere else in the U.S. Army.”
Springer, as a young NCO, has found many opportunities to hone his leadership skills at WRAIR.
“I definitely like the new responsibilities as an NCO,” Springer said. “I feel like I am more involved with WRAIR. Recently I was afforded the opportunity to become the NCO in charge here for the German Armed Forces Proficiency Badge. We get them trained up.”
Named in 1953 after Maj. Walter Reed who was a military research physician best known for discovering yellow fever, WRAIR developed treatments for dysentery and malaria as well as vaccines for typhoid fever, dengue, Japanese encephalitis and meningitis. Among its many medical victories, WRAIR’s Military HIV Research Program spearheaded the first clinical trial in humans showing vaccine protection from the AIDS virus.
“We are the largest biomedical research laboratory in the DOD [Department of Defense] and the largest laboratory in the Army,” Michael said. “We work on diseases that are either infectious or that cause Soldiers to not be able to do their jobs.
“We have focused on things such as malaria and HIV infections since 1986,” Michael said. “We focus on the flaviviruses. Dengue has been the one that we have been banging away on for a very long time. We are very instrumental in the current leading candidates for vaccines for HIV, malaria and dengue, which is something we are very proud of. The institute also has a very strong program in bacterial infection diseases, especially with the growing problem of resistant bacteria.”
WRAIR is recognized as the oldest school of public health and preventive medicine in the United States. The institute has been home to Michael for much of his military career, and he is proud to be a part of it.
“[The challenges] make me want to continue to stay in the Army even though I am 59 [years old],” Michael said. “I could go anywhere I want. I trained at Stanford University and Harvard University. With my degrees I could be anywhere I wanted to, but I choose to remain in the Army because I adore what I do.”
When Sgt. Christopher A. Springer received orders to report to the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Maryland, all he knew of his impending assignment was that he would be working in a medical laboratory. Because of the rapid spread of Zika, Springer soon would be among the first military personnel in the country taking part in the U.S. Army’s efforts to control the mosquito-borne virus.
Recognizing the threat of Zika to its service members who are located in the outbreak zones of North and South America and Southeast Asia, the Army quickly moved to develop a vaccine at the U.S. Department of Defense’s largest biomedical research laboratory. Zika, which is primarily transmitted through mosquitoes, is a flavivirus similar to yellow fever, dengue and Japanese encephalitis.
The Zika Purified Inactivated Vaccine was successfully created within a few months at WRAIR. Flaviviruses are the field of expertise at the institute, which dates back to 1893. Springer, a lab technician, played a contributing role in the team that helped in the vaccine’s development.
“I had my suspicions when I got here and saw I would be working in vaccine development that there was a good chance I would get to work on something that comes out and ends up being used on a larger scale,” Springer said. “I definitely felt like there would be some good opportunities here, but I had no idea that something like this could ever happen.”
Springer soon was immersed in lab work with other colleagues at WRAIR. He and another colleague routinely handled the bulk majority of lab work on the Zika virus, running tests, producing paperwork and sharing the results, along with other essential lab duties. Springer has a bachelor of science in criminal justice from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, and an associate’s degree in health science laboratory technology from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
WRAIR leads the way
Earlier this fall, human trials began at WRAIR, where 75 healthy adults were vaccinated with the Zika Purified Inactivated Vaccine. The technology used to create the vaccine mirrors the process WRAIR undertook to produce its Japanese encephalitis vaccine, which was licensed in 2009.
“A lot of what we do here affects Soldier health every single day, so folks like Sgt. Springer are able to get an insight,” said Col. Nelson Michael, director of WRAIR’s Military HIV Research Program and Zika program co-lead. “Regardless of where they are put in this institute, they are going to be working on something that is not obscure.
“We have a lot of really young Soldiers here at WRAIR, and this will be the most unusual assignment they will ever have in the Army because we are not a troop unit,” Michael said. “We’re not a hospital unit, either. We’re something else, and we are not an administrative unit. They come here, and they are exposed to science.”
Both Michael’s and Springer’s laboratories are just a small sliver of an institute comprising 2,000 personnel who also work in far-flung locations in Africa and Asia, Michael said.
“[For the Soldiers,] WRAIR is basically a combination between being at the Army University and an Army company, which is making products,” Michael said. “We don’t do basic science for its own sake. We do a lot of very good basic science, but we do it always so we can eventually propel a scientific discovery into the field, something that protects Soldiers.”
WRAIR’s in-house capabilities are credited with enabling scientists to quickly develop a vaccine. The Pilot Bioproduction Facility, led by Dr. Kenneth Eckels, manufactures small doses of the vaccine to be used in clinical studies.
Zika was first identified in Uganda in 1947. Researchers, who in recent years tracked the Zika infection through WRAIR laboratories in Thailand, realized the infectious disease was beginning to emerge, Michael said.
“Much like Ebola was an epidemic of disease as well as an epidemic of fear, Zika is an epidemic of disease as well as an epidemic of fear,” Michael said. “Zika is new and frightening [to the public], especially if you are about to become pregnant or you are pregnant.”
As of Nov. 30, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 156 cases of Zika infection were confirmed in the military health system, including four pregnant service members and one pregnant family member. The CDC recommends that women and men who are returning from Zika-affected areas abstain or use condoms for six months, which is an increase from the previously recommended eight weeks.
“There has been at least one documented case of a Soldier who was infected with Zika overseas, came home, had sex with his wife and transmitted it,” Michael said. “Zika has some twists to it ─ [such as] the fact that it can be transmitted sexually, because usually when you think of a disease that was borne by mosquitoes you think, ‘Make sure you don’t get bitten by a mosquito.’ Now, you have got to be thinking about something else.”
Though the disease has been around a long time, scientists did not know much about it until very recently because no one studied it, Michael said. Infection during pregnancy was found to cause birth defects.
“Zika has hit the map big time because it causes neurological disease in developing fetuses,” Michael said. “One person in 4,000 actually develops a very serious complication called Transverse Myelitis or Guillain-Barré Syndrome. Basically what it means is your muscles stop working, your sensations stop working, and it comes up in your lower extremities. If it goes high enough, you stop breathing. For all these reasons ─ sexual transmission, the rare but finite chance of developing neurological disease if you are an adult, and the fact that we don’t have a vaccine for it ─ this is why we all jumped on it.”
Progress on a vaccine came quickly once Michael and his WRAIR colleagues ─ now-retired Col. Stephen Thomas, an infectious disease physician and a vaccinologist specializing in flaviviruses, and Dr. Kenneth Eckels, who runs the Pilot Bioproduction Facility ─ banded together. Thomas is the former deputy commander for operations at WRAIR and the former Zika program lead.
In March, Michael received a phone call from Dr. Dan Barouch, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Barouch, who is also director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts, was seeking to collaborate with Michael and his colleagues at WRAIR. Barouch’s center was developing mouse and monkey models to test the Zika vaccine, but did not have a vaccine. Michael’s team had made a vaccine, but did not have the mouse and monkey models to test it.
A deal was struck, and a couple of weeks later WRAIR shipped Barouch the vaccine. In quick succession, it was proved that the vaccine protected mice and monkeys when they were exposed, Michael said.
The usual timeframe from making a vaccine to human studies is about four years, Michael said. They did it all in 200 days.
“We all put it together, and everyone shared,” Michael said. “No one tried to compete with each other.”
WRAIR has deep and durable connections with the best and brightest in Health and Human Services, including the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, CDC, and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, Michael said. WRAIR is also working in collaboration with Sanofi Pasteur, one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world.
“We have weekly calls where everybody ─ academia, government ─ is on the same call, talking about their own data at the same time,” he said.
“The secret for why we work quickly is that people put their egos away, which wasn’t easy because we are all competitive,” he said. “We decided to work toward a common problem. The Army has an interest in this. It’s a readiness issue. It’s affecting Soldiers. It’s affecting their families. We know that the best chance of making a vaccine is the way the Army did it ─ by growing up the virus and killing it.”
Another candidate ─ a DNA vaccine ─ is undergoing separate testing by the NIH in clinical trials.
“The vaccine that the NIH is making is more of a riskier vaccine,” Michael said. “It’s based on a newer technology that has never been shown to work for humans.”
In the spotlight
With the advent of WRAIR’s vaccine came the national spotlight, which has highlighted the research institute and its scientists’ work on Zika. Two of their reports on the Zika Vaccine Program were published in Science and Nature journals. An article in New Yorker magazine followed, as well as many others.
“If you’re a young sergeant [such as Springer] and you’re watching this happen, this is pretty amazing,” Michael said. “Zika is probably the most topical infectious disease of 2016. People are talking about it all the time, and here he is: sitting in this environment, watching it happen. He is the tip of the spear. That’s what we do here.”
Because of his work in the lab, Springer has participated in media interviews that most young NCOs usually don’t handle. Though he has thrived on the intensity of working on a critical project such as Zika and has enjoyed seeing his name in print, Springer is ready to move on to other projects at the institute.
“I hope everything goes well in human trials and the vaccine successfully gets distributed,” Springer said. “I hope I don’t have to do anymore work on Zika ─ that’s what I hope more than anything. I’m overworked from Zika. I am ready to be done with it. I want that virus to be extinct.”
Though the World Health Organization announced recently that Zika is no longer a world health emergency, WRAIR officials say the fight will continue to limit its spread and prevent a future outbreak.
“The military has lots of reasons why people may not want to join us [the Army],” Michael said. “Part of what we need to be able to do is make a pact with a Soldier and his family. If we are going to send him in harm’s way ─ damage doesn’t just come from bullets and bombs, it comes from other sources ─ we want to keep him healthy. We protect them from frostbite, we protect them from heatstroke, and we protect them from diseases such as malaria, HIV, Zika and everything else. This is part of what we do.”
It’s all about readiness, and WRAIR is focused on supporting the readiness of the force whose service members are deployed around the world, Michael said. Licensing the Army’s vaccine for commercial use would probably take about two years if human testing proves to be successful, he said.
“If the DNA vaccine were to work and it were licensed, then that would be the one the Army would buy and use,” Michael said. “If our vaccine works, it’s the one the Army would buy and use. Even though I have a dog in the fight, I really don’t care which dog wins. I just want to have a tool that protects Soldiers.”
Is it true that assignment officers at U.S. Army Human Resources Command save the great jobs for their friends? Or, that assignment officers sit on the promotion boards?
HRC’s Command Sgt. Maj. Wardell Jefferson has heard many of the fallacies about HRC and urges Soldiers to reject the myths.
“A lot of [the negativity] is [because of a] lack of education,” Jefferson said before a town hall for senior noncommissioned officers in December at Fort Bliss, Texas. “What we try to do is inform the field of what we are doing and why we do it …
If a Soldier doesn’t get a promotion or assignment he or she wants, “it’s not because the assignment manager doesn’t like you or doesn’t want to send you to those locations,” he said. “It’s because you have to meet certain criteria. The way we dispel those myths is to talk Soldiers through it and educate the leaders. The leaders can help us to educate the Soldier on how the assignment process works.”
Jefferson and Maj. Gen. Thomas Seamands, HRC commander, visited Fort Bliss on Dec. 14 to reach out to both noncommissioned and commissioned service members. For Jefferson and Seamands, the advantages of doing these HRC road shows are twofold.
“There’s a benefit for us at HRC because we get to come out here and listen to the Soldiers in the field, to find out what’s on their minds and how we can make things better for them and their organizations,” Jefferson said. “The other part is for us to show transparency. We inform the Soldiers of what’s going on and what kinds of changes are taking place within their career management fields. That way, they are aware of what’s taking place and how it affects them and their families.”
As the Army downsizes, Jefferson said talent management is not just HRC’s responsibility.
“We [at HRC] identify the Soldiers that need to move to these different positions in our Army, but once we place Soldiers on assignment, then the unit has the responsibility in managing that talent,” Jefferson said. “The leaders on the ground ensure that Soldiers get to the right schools they need in order to develop the talent and go forward.”
He also recently spoke about the issue during Army Training and Doctrine Command’s third town hall in November at Fort Eustis, Virginia.
Many questions and complaints heard during HRC’s road shows are linked to recent revisions in Army policy.
“It’s just the fear of change,” Jefferson said. “When we decided to make the change to a new noncommissioned officer evaluation report, a lot of people were in an uproar about it. But now that we have been doing this NCOER for almost 12 months, not a lot of people are arguing about it. Now, it’s just learning how to write those evaluations. Same thing with STEP,” the Select, Train, Educate, Promote policy for promotion.
Jefferson often offers his assistance to Soldiers at the road shows. If, for example, a Soldier has an issue with his or her assignment and is not connecting with the assignment officer to discuss it, Jefferson will take the Soldier’s information and meet with the assignment officer in an effort to get both parties in touch. Also, if Soldiers continue to take issue with a certain policy or question its relevance, they may count on Jefferson to take up the debate with the deputy chief of staff, G-1.
“If it’s something we think we should look at, we’ll take that back to the Army G-1 and say, ‘We have got this feedback from the Soldiers out in the field. Maybe we could look at this policy, and see if it’s still relevant or if we need to adjust it,’” Jefferson said.
As for those NCOs looking for advice on how to get ahead in the Army, Jefferson said it’s all about self-improvement.
“The way you do that is by going to military schools, by taking the hard jobs and developing yourself and making sure that you are technically and tactically proficient in your career management field,” he said. “Also, reach out to your mentors and find out what else you need to be doing. But the most important thing to prepare yourself for promotion, regardless of what job you are in, is do the best you can and ensure that your evaluation says exactly how you did in that position. Along with going to the schools, that’s the major way to develop ourselves.”
The command sergeant major said he has grown a lot in his 18 months on the job and learns something new every day, especially in his interactions with Soldiers.
“I want to make an impact on the Soldiers and families because that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “Our job is to ensure that Soldiers and our families are taken care of, and I am very passionate about that. There are going to be some Soldiers saying, ‘It’s just HRC again,’ but there is another Soldier out here who I am going to have an impact on ─ something that I am going to say today is going to impact him and his family, or I am going to be able to assist them with something and they are going to put that trust back in HRC and think, ‘Well, maybe they are not the bad guys.’”
Jefferson often leaves NCOs with the same bit of advice ─ develop a passion for what they do, and success will come.
“If you are passionate about something, you are going to be successful in doing that,” he said. “Remain competent and relevant. If you are a leader, all these changes affect all of our Soldiers and their families. You have to know what’s going on in our Army today in order for you to be an effective leader.”
The official magazine of noncommissioned officer professional development