Command Sgt. Maj. Jimmie W. Spencer, USA, Ret.
Director, Noncommissioned Officer and Enlisted Programs
During a visit to the White House earlier this year, Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth O. Preston told President Obama that stress on soldiers and their families was his primary concern, and the size of the force had a direct impact.
But, he also used the opportunity to laud the Army’s recruiting and retention rates that have shaped today’s Army.
Speaking with senior NCOs Oct. 6 at the Association of the United States Army’s Annual Meeting and Exposition, Preston recalled how after the new administration took office, he and the other senior enlisted advisers from the armed services were called for a special meeting with the president, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates.
Preston called the meeting a "very open, candid discussion," and he reiterated that the deployment cycle, with 15 months deployed for active duty soldiers followed by 12 months down time, is very stressful considering the size of the force right now.
"I said, ‘Mr. President, what I worry about right now is stress on the force,’" Preston recalled. "I worry about it not only from a perspective of the operational Army but the Army."
Not only does that mean the operational forces that deploy, but it’s the institutional Army as well as soldiers’ families, Preston said.
"Right now we have over 265,000 soldiers currently deployed to 80 countries around the world," Preston told the audience. "It’s no secret that we’re a little bit busy, and there are a lot of little pieces out there right now. In fact, we have more soldiers deployed right now than we did at the height of the surge in 2007."
The active duty force shrunk from a Cold War high of 780,000 soldiers down to 480,000 after Operation Desert Storm, and only another 2,000 soldiers were added on active duty by the time of 9/11.
But little by little, more soldiers are being authorized to bolster the force.
Five thousand more will be added this year, 10,000 more will be added next year, and another 7,000 more will be added in 2011 if needed.
The cycle is for soldiers to deploy for 15 months and have 12 months at home before deploying again.
Preston said the schedule for the 12 months of downtime is critical – soldiers should spend the first 90 days being with their families, then the next 90 days should be spent on duty with a strict five-day workweek with minimal overtime.
He said he had visited units who have returned from deployment and seen soldiers working sometimes until 10 p.m., and he told the senior NCOs in the room that that was not acceptable.
After the second 90-day period, units start gearing up for deployment again. They practice warrior tasks and battle drills, conduct exercises at places such as the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif., and the Joint Readiness Training Center, Fort Polk, La., and they get equipment ready and packed for deployment.
Preston said the Army has tried to schedule changes of station within the summer months to ease the transition for families, but now the pace and tempo means soldiers and families are moving at all different times of the year.
"If you have children who are enrolled in school and have to pull them out in the middle of the school year" and enroll them in a new school, "that creates stress on the force," Preston said.
He has been pushing for all the U.S. states and territories to sign the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children, which would ease the transfer and acceptance of school records from state to state. Only 11 states have signed the agreement so far, but a lot more have it up as a proposal.
"As I told the president that for decades we have disadvantaged our military children by moving them from one duty station to another," Preston said. "Of course when they get to that new school district, they are disadvantaged because that state doesn’t recognize the education credentials or credits that that child received in another state."
The president questioned if the rate of suicides in the Army was related to combat stress, and Preston told him that it had a minimal impact – about one-third of the soldiers who committed suicide had never deployed. Analysis showed that failed relationships factored into 75 percent of the suicides.
"Every case is a bizarre set of circumstances, and it’s multiple stressors in most cases," Preston said. "For all of us that are first-line supervisors, you may not know about all those stressors that are in a person’s life."
But despite the issues with stress and suicides, Preston told the president there was still good news in the cases of retention and recruiting.
"Soldiers wouldn’t continue to re-enlist and stay with the team if they didn’t believe in all the missions they were doing or they didn’t want to continue to be part of that band of brothers and sisters," he said.
He also noted the efforts "all of you out there who create a command climate where soldiers continue to want to re-enlist," and that contributed to the Army reaching its retention goal two years ahead of schedule.
The U.S. Army Recruiting Command has also "kept the pipeline full" of new recruits.
Preston emphasized to the senior NCOs that a significant portion of a soldier’s growth and development – about 70 percent – happens in operational units.
"It’s what we learn on the job," he said. "It’s what we gain from mentors every day. We learn not only from the commanders and superiors that we work for, but we also learn from our peers, and we also learn from our subordinates."
Self development and self study, such as monthly and quarterly boards, contribute to the process, and Preston has encouraged battalion commanders to sit on their own boards to look at the questions and overall focus.
Life in the barracks is also an ideal opportunity for senior NCOs to teach and shape soldiers, Preston said. For many of those young troops, it’s their first time away from home, and a visit to the barracks can help soldiers with everyday things like laundry and trash.
Soldiers on average spend about two years living in the barracks, so the education process shouldn’t be forgotten once they move into post housing on or off post. Preston said a simple visit on a weekend would help NCOs and senior NCOs get a feel for how their soldiers are living at home – if post housing is adequate or if they are living in a bad section of town.
This part of the education process is something that can’t really be taught at the schoolhouse, Preston said. No unit has the same demographics, and the lives of soldiers vary across the Army.
It all starts with the battalion command sergeants major and first sergeants who mentor and lead, he said. It’s important for them to teach, and that example trickles down to senior NCOs, NCOs and finally younger soldiers.