Tuesday, March 03, 2009

I think Army got it right this time...

A couple of days ago, we were all forced to watch a multi-media, choose-your-own-adventure production made by the Army called "Beyond the Front." It details the (mis)adventures of either a Soldier or his NCO, and you make choices based on how you feel and what you want the person to do. At the end, either they kill themselves, or they don't, and we all learn a valuable lesson. It's a Very Special Afternoon of Training.

This video and associated mandatory training are part of the Army's response to record-high suicide rates. 2008 saw at least 128 Soldiers take their own lives, with more possible as investigations conclude. This is the highest rate of suicide since the Army began keeping records in 1980.

What surprises me is not the Army's predictable response (the pattern is usually Action --> reaction by Dept of the Army (DA) --> Overreaction by subordinate commands --> mandatory training in which we are yelled at for thinking about whatever the "action" was) but rather the fact that the training and video were... good.

Actually good.

And here's the litmus test for that: when, among the jokes and derision, you can hear more than one person say "No, man, I remember this one kid in my unit..."

Yeah, it was corny in the way that only choose-your-own-adventure stories are. But it actually used relevant scenarios with halfway decent performances, contemporary language (by which I mean the actor cursed when in a firefight or when his fiancee left him), and presented decisions that any of us would make under the circumstances. It was good enough that Soldiers participated and only one problem child fell asleep, and the tools that the video presented to deal with stressful/painful situations were appropriate to Soldiers and the culture of the Army. There was no "make a relaxing collage;" rather, they talked about talking to the Chaplain or the chain of command. All in all, not bad.

All of this dovetails with some other thoughts I've been having lately, regarding stress and stress management. Maybe you follow La Yen's blog where she has been talking about her "issues" (and by "issues" I mean "Shaking like Don Knotts"). Well, that's a stressor to me. There are other things- having to move out of comfy billets and into dusty tents, dealing with the sheer exhaustion of having been here more than a year, the stress of having to train someone else to do your job before you leave... All these things serve to make life difficult. And I've been wondering what tools we have available to deal with that. So here are my thoughts.

- Spirituality. This is a non-denominational post here. Whatever your religious persuasion is, whether you're Catholic, Lutheran, Mormon (word!), Baptist, Wiccan, Zoroastrian, Olmec Sun-Worshipper, or part of the Dalek Cult of Skaro, your faith can be a great comfort to you. So one of the tools I recommend, as I have been using it lately, is to do what you can to draw closer to the Higher Power of your choice. It helps.

(A note here about Army Chaplains. I gotta say, I'm not a big fan. I have had some bad experiences with chaplains before - one told me I was going to Hell for being Mormon. No lie. I've had good chaplains too, don't get me wrong. But I always feel like they're overwhelmed and don't have the time to devote to helping ME out. And that whatever time I spend with a chaplain is time that he/she should be spending with Soldiers instead. So see a chaplain if you need to- I won't be in line with you, so you can take my spot).

- Your peers. Everyone needs someone to whine at. Professionally speaking, it's terribly bad form to whine at your Soldiers. After all, they're doing the same things you're doing, because you told them to. So if you whine about your mission, then the Soldiers inevitably start wondering why they're doing what they're doing, and it's a downward spiral from there. But you should have some peers somewhere, who are a little bit removed from your exact circumstance and to whom you can moan and complain and get things off your chest. It's a good catharsis, which I recommend.

- Friends and family with military experience. Face it, there are a lot of things we're asked to do in the military that don't make a lick of sense. When we complain about those things to our civilian support system, we (or at least I) often get a lot of confused looks. So it helps to have someone you can complain to who has at least experienced your angst before, and knows whereof you speak. Now, this can sometimes bite you in the butt, because you have to consider why the ex-military people in your life left the service. You might not get a lot of sympathy from someone who left because of the stupidity inherent in the system (help! I'm being repressed)- they might just tell you to leave or stop complaining. So you have to be careful.

- Supervisors. This is a tricky one. Obviously, it's not politic to complain to your boss about your boss. But you can (carefully) complain about circumstances or poor decisions that affect both of you. It's always hard, though, because you have to temper your complaints. You don't want to be perceived as a whiner, and you don't want to be seen as an incompetent who needs help to solve problems. On the plus side, these guys have a lot of experience (usually) so they may have experienced the problems that you're going through and might be able to help you.

- Trusted subordinates. This is a tricky one too, since as we've already established, it's unprofessional to whine to your Soldiers. But if you and a subordinate work well and often together, you often develop a closeness that provides a certain amount of latitude in the professional relationship. Sometimes you have to be careful with this one, too, because your subordinates have peers who they complain to, and your business might be on the agenda. It's a calculated risk.

These are all things I've tried in attempts to clear my mind or sound things out. I generally use other outlets, like talking to my family or writing (duh), but if I absolutely have to vent, I use one of these. They help me deal with the stresses that I have accumulated over the past 14 months, and keep me from either killing someone or locking myself in my wall locker.

Or you could take my Tio Manny's approach: "My advice to you? Drink heavily."


So after talking to SPC Film School about this, he mentioned that he liked what I was saying, but the whole thing kind of fell apart at the end. Then he started talking about what he wanted, and I was stricken with a couple of other thoughts. So here goes.

As leaders, we are responsible for the morale of our subordinates. Telling someone to "get over it" or "suck it up," although sometimes valid and useful, is not always the answer. We as leaders need to PROVIDE outlets (like those above) for our Soldiers to use. They are the ones who are making the mission happen- they're the ones we owe our successes to, so we owe them an opportunity to vent.

More than that, though, Soldiers want to see involved leadership. They want to be asked "what's wrong" or "are you ok?" They also [gasp] might benefit from knowing that their leaderhsip is having troubles, or is suffering through the same suckfest they are, but haven't quit and are continuing on with the mission. That's inspirational. That's motivating.

Let's face it, sometimes, things just suck, for everyone. It's how we as leaders react to that determines the morale of the unit. And you know what? Helping a subordinate talk over their issues, even if I don't discuss what's bothering me at all, helps me. There is peace in service, and in knowing that you've helped someone out, even for five minutes. So be involved, be sympathetic, be caring, but above all, be there for your troops.

That's all I've got. Thanks.


dalene said...

Timely post as I am starting to crack around the edges from the current stress in my life and having to deal w/ it alone. My only suggestion is breathing.

And I'm not kidding about that.

La Yen said...

I wish you wouldn't let me stress you out.

What about eating schwarma? That seems to help you a lot...

Nigel said...

This video/mandatory training sounds pretty good, especially by army standards.

It's definitely an improvement. I'm reminded of two or three years ago when the army noticed a spike in divorce and domestic abuse in families with recently deployed soldiers. The answer? $1.2 million dollars extra spent on counseling in the following year. I gotta wonder how far that stretched.

But it's still an improvement, in my day, my superiors recommended:
A. women
B. alcohol
C. more P.T.