The cover of this week’s Army Times boldly proclaims, “SMA Cracks Down.” Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler highlighted several areas that NCOs need to crack down on: hazing, sexual assault, tattoos, and suicide.
SMA Chandler is spot on. I’ve been disgusted at what has happened to the NCO Corps over the past few years. Because of my specialized missions I was on between 2004 and 2009, I didn’t get to see the “real Army” much. It wasn’t until I got to Fort Hood that I even interacted with many troops in uniform again. I was happy to wear the uniform again and be amongst a proud group of Soldiers. Unfortunately, I was about to experience a shock to the system.
For a long time, I was with a unit based out of West Fort Hood. I rarely went over to main post unless I had to go to the Corps HQ or military clothing sales store. Every single time I did, however, I found myself spending entirely too much time correcting Soldiers for what used to be no-brainer infractions.
Prior to doing away with the much-maligned beret, I would frequently see Soldiers walking around post with their soft cap (brimmed, camouflage hat) on. Per Corps policy, soft caps could only be worn in the field, while conducting area beautification, or in the motor pool. As soon as a Soldier stepped out of one of those areas, he/she was to immediately switch back to the beret. I didn’t matter if they were only coming out of the field to grab a bite or eat or pick up a Soldier; when you were walking around post conducting business, you did so in beret.
All too often, I would find myself making this correction even though there were usually junior NCOs in the area that walked right past these Soldiers without correcting them. Soldiers would have their pant legs unbloused or dropped all the down to their ankles. Some uniforms were just downright unserviceable. It got to where I hated going to main post because it was a nightmare. It was like swimming upstream during a flash flood.
Hazing is a no-brainer. Hazing has no place in the Army of today or yesterday. I’ve never understood the need for hazing that required beating troops to within an inch of their life. I realize that in some communities it builds camaraderie, but there are ways of making service in a particular unit meaningful with endangering the lives of Soldiers or belittling them. Believe me, I’ve been in units where you literally go through days of hell to become part of a unit. You come out the other side knowing that you survived and form that bond with others that went through the same hell. However, even in SERE school I was never treated the way some people treat new Soldiers to their units. I agree with SMA Chandler that it needs to stop. There are legal, safe, and moral ways of “initiating” troops into a new unit.
Another thing I’ll never understand is the epidemic that seems to have become sexual assault in the military. Personally, I think we need to bring back firing squads. Those convicted of sexual assault should be brought together in front of Corps or Division Headquarters each month and shot on site. I guarantee you if Soldiers realize they are going to be put to death by using fear, power and control to sexually assault another we’d have less of it. Obviously, that will never happen, but we need to come up with some form of extreme punishment to prevent this sort of aberrant behavior.
Up until the 90’s, many major posts had a brig on them. Soldiers were incarcerated there and performed hard labors around post. I think we should bring those back and put these Soldiers on chain gangs. They could pick up trash, trim the grass, pick the weeds, trim the trees, and other undesirable chores around post. I would issue them pink camouflage uniforms that they had to wear while incarcerated, similar to what Sheriff Joe Arpaio does in Arizona with his inmates.
There is NO PLACE for sexual assault in a professional military force. There is no place for it anywhere, but especially in a profession that enjoys the respect and admiration of the public the way we do. It’s unconscionable that the SMA even feels the need to have mention this. We as NCOs needs to get off our asses and put a stop to these actions. An NCO Corps that has its finger on the pulse of its troops does not allow these things to happen.
I have to admit that I was a bit bewildered that the SMA was going after tattoos. In today’s society, tattoos are no longer the domain of biker gangs, thugs, and criminals. Many people get their first tattoos as teenagers. I thought maybe the SMA was just out of touch with society in wanting to crack down on tattoos. That is, before I read his thinking on the subject.
In one example he cited, Chandler was visiting a division headquarters when he noticed an NCO with the words “F—- You” tattooed on his neck.
This, he said, is a two-pronged problem. In addition to a soldier openly and prominently displaying vulgarity, such tattoos illustrate a leadership issue.
“What troubles me is that no one pulled this sergeant aside and said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to get rid of that,’” he said.
This and other inappropriate tattoos indicate a desire to bring attention to self rather than the service — and tarnish the reputation of all, he said.
“Is that a reflection of you? It sure isn’t of me. And that’s not what we want the American people to see,” Chandler said.
SMA Chandler is not out of touch at all. He’s spot on. Do you think that an employer would want their customers to shop in their stores when their cashiers had “F– You” tattooed on their necks or other visible areas of the body? Absolutely not. I don’t understand why anyone would get that tattoo anywhere, but especially in a place that it can’t be concealed.
I don’t have a problem with tattoos and I’m sure that SMA Chandler doesn’t either. I see where he’s coming from with respect to tattoos that are visible in uniform. We aren’t talking about tattoos of dogtags of our lost friends or the American flag. We’re talking about vulgar, distasteful, and offensive markings that detract from a professional appearance.
That brings us to suicide. Obviously, this is something that hits home for me. I’ve written often about suicide prevention on this blog. Readers may have noticed that I don’t write much about PTS or suicide issues any more. That is what happens when no-talent ass clowns try to use PTS as leverage in their misguided efforts at attacking me. It silences those that would be able to help others by sharing their stories. In other words, it furthers an inaccurate stigma and prevents troops from seeking help. I hope those people feel good about their “troop support” activities and putting their own selfish agendas ahead of the welfare of our brave troops.
But, I digress.
“This issue of suicide is going to be with us a long time, until we decide we own this,” Chandler said. “Our profession requires — demands — that we look out for each other. We throw words like this around all the time, but our actions speak louder than words.” Emphasis mine.
I highlighted what I see as the greatest obstacle to making headway against the suicide problem in the Army. Too often, our leaders – both NCOs and officers – look at Soldiers that are having difficulty processing their combat experiences as problem Soldiers and not Soldiers with problems.
I’ve seen firsthand what happens when you open up to your leadership about issues that weighing heavily on my mind. You become a pariah. You are treated at times like less of a person. They don’t take your issues seriously and instead think you’re trying to get over on something so they heap more crap on top of you. Because you ARE a good Soldier, you take on the added responsibility and workload which increases your stress. You hang on as long as possible until you’re ready to break again, so you go to your leaders. And the cycle repeats itself.
I’ve seen Soldiers go to their leaders for help and literally be told, “you need to pull your head out of your ass and get back to work.”
There is a lot of talk in the Army about preventing suicide, but as SMA Chandler inferred not a lot of action. The day after my suicide attempt, I went to my chaplain. We have a program called ACE Suicide Intervention Training. It’s an acronym that stands for Ask, Care, Escort. It encourages Soldiers to directly and honestly question any battle buddy who exhibits suicidal behavior.
Ask: Be blunt with someone you think is suicidal. Ask them if they are contemplating suicide.
Care: When you ask, you have to actually care. If the person you ask feels like you’re just asking because you want to absolve yourself of any guilt or responsibility, the most likely answer you’ll get is “no.” If you ask in a joking manner to lighten the mood, you’re nullifying their ability to reach out.
Escort: If you feel like someone is suicidal or they tell you they are suicidal, don’t just tell them to get help; go with them to get help. Stay with that Soldier until you are confident they are in the right hands.
Does it really take the Sergeant Major of the Army making this an issue for leaders to wake up and start taking notice. I understand we’ve been an Army at war and we’re all tired, but leadership doesn’t happen by resting on laurels. We need to be actively engaged in the lives of our Soldiers.
I can’t tell you how many NCOs I’ve spoken that even know the names of their Soldiers’ kids or spouse. They don’t know when an anniversary is coming up or a birthday. They never check on those Soldiers outside the formations and training events. We’ve lost the art of 360 degree leadership – leadership in all aspects of our lives. I feel blessed that many of my former Soldiers still reach out to me. There’s a saying that the day your Soldiers stop coming to you with your problems is the day you cease being their leader.
There have been 158 confirmed and 89 potential Army suicides through September, according to Pentagon data. In comparison, 159 soldiers and a combined 214 U.S. service members were killed in Afghanistan during the same period. We have lost just as many Soldiers in combat as we have to suicide. We are surviving physical combat only to succumb to the war in our heads. We have to stop this.
As leaders, we must ALWAYS be tuned to the frequency of our Soldiers’ mentality. We must be able to identify when something just isn’t right. They have to know that they can come to use with their problems and not fear reprisals. I recently got the following email from the spouse of a troop. If you want to know where we’re failing, keep reading:
[Identifying information deleted] had a bit of an episode at a recent training operation (crying in front of a bunch of [troops] while trying to write a 5 paragraph order) and was directed by his 1st Sgt to go to deployment health as soon as they returned home. He did so, and has now met with a counselor and a psychiatrist and has been put on Zoloft. He was told by his XO that the prescription means he’s not allowed to carry a weapon (a bit of a major issue, being that he’s infantry) and no longer allowed to stand duty. He had been previously scheduled for duty today, but when he talked to the 1st Sgt about it this morning, he pretty much got his butt chewed about not being able to carry out the schedule.
Essentially, they’re throwing everything at him, and it feels like it’s an effort to break him and charge him, rather than help him at all. They are still sending him to the field this week for combat simulated exercises, though he will be the only [troop] not carrying a weapon. Putting him in that environment is (I would assume this is obvious) not a great idea, but they don’t seem to want to let him out of it.
Is this typical? To be so shunned by your unit? To be told to get help, but then the moment one gets help, to be ridiculed for it? They’re actually angry with him because he has two appointments (one counseling, one psychiatrist) next week, and didn’t seem at all grateful that he actually isn’t going this week so that he didn’t interfere with the training schedule. Is there a way to deal with this appropriately? The chain of command obviously isn’t working here, because he’s got everyone from the 1st Sgt on up in his battalion acting horribly towards him. I’m not usually THAT kind of wife that gets involved, but it’s starting to bother me so much that I’m tempted to march into the battalion commander’s office myself and teach him a few things about PTSD.
He attempted to put in for early retirement, but found out today the battalion is negatively endorsing his request for it, which (I’m guessing) most likely means it will be denied.
I’m just SO lost as to how a man who has finally admitted he can no longer handle war (we’re talking 8 combat deployments here, over the course of 15 years – the man is flashing back to KOSOVO, for crying out loud) can be treated so horribly for trying to get help and get out before it gets worse.
THIS is what SMA Chandler is talking about that we need to fix. He is trying to change change Army culture to one in which soldiers are encouraged and expected to seek help when in distress without being treated like dirtbags. This is a man who has been serving his country for 15 years and suddenly we’re treating him as if he were a leper because it’s inconvenient.
Do you think that this NCO is going to encourage other troops to get the help they need? Do you think he will continue trying to get help as long as he’s treated this way?
Now, before anyone gets worried, I’ve been working closely with this person and he is in good hands now. The issue has been brought up to the right people and he is getting the help he needs. But, should he really be reaching out to someone he doesn’t even know for help? I’m always ready and willing to help and will always bend over backwards to help anyone that comes to me like this. As a senior NCO, I look at all Soldiers as my Soldiers. I care deeply about every man and woman wearing the uniform of this country, so it’s not an inconvenience when I get these emails or phone calls. But, we need to do better so that no one feels like I am the last resort.
“All soldiers are entitled to outstanding leadership; I will provide that leadership. I know my soldiers and I will always place their needs above my own.” – NCO Creed