"Thoughts From the Running Trail" - At-Risk Soldiers

Recently, for the second time in four years, a tragic shooting occurred at Ft Hood, Texas. Four lives, including that of the shooter, were lost, and more than 15 people were injured. While it's too early to say what exactly caused the shooter to take this action, it does shine a light on an important issue in our Army -- that of the high-risk soldier. In this instance, we'll call them soldiers, but of course, they can be from any branch of our armed forces.

This isn't the first time we've seen tragic events like these. In the past 12 months, active shooter incidents occurred at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia; the US Navy Yard in Washington DC; and in Naval Base Norfolk, VA. Sadly, these high-visibility shootings are only the tip of the iceberg. More than a dozen, smaller-scale shootings on bases throughout the U.S. have happened since 2009.

So, then, who exactly is an "at risk soldier," and why are they different from any other person? The simple answer is: they're NOT different. It could be a new service member, just returned from their first deployment. It could be a seasoned Veteran. It could be the soldier who deployed as an individual augmentee, instead of as part of his or her normal unit. It could be the newly-assigned soldier who lacks a solid support structure of friends – the one who stays in all the time and doesn't socialize much. Or it could be the one that you notice is struggling with day-to-day activities.

Predicting with certainty which soldiers are "at risk" is difficult. But while each specific case is different, there are some general commonalities that most at risk soldiers share.

First, in many cases, indications were there that the SHOOTERS WERE FACING SUBSTANTIAL LIFE CHALLENGES. Many people are quick to assume that Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) is the overriding factor, and it certainly plays a role in some incidents. But that may be telling only part of the story. Marital issues, financial stresses, professional difficulties, alcohol dependency, and clinical depression could all play a role in triggering events like these.

Second, in many of these cases, the at-risk soldiers were TRANSITIONING in some form. Perhaps they were transitioning from active service (either active-duty, Guard or Reserve) back to civilian life or from deployment in an active combat zone to re-integration into their garrison unit. In each case, it's clear from the result that these particular soldiers fell through the cracks of the system, despite the excellent intentions of those of us entrusted to care for our teammates.

Third, as with any accident or incident, the TIMELY INTERVENTION OF AN ENGAGED LEADER -- a friend, family member, immediate supervisor, chaplain, or commander -- can make all the difference. Of course, it's easy to be a "Monday Morning Quarterback," when in fact knowing the specific breaking point of any person is nearly impossible. But a timely intervention at any point along the chain of events can make a substantial difference in preventing events like these. We have to keenly observe each other, know what "normal" is for our friends and fellow soldiers, and take action when our instincts tell us something seems to be bothering that person.

For these reasons, we were inspired to create the CARE team here in Djibouti, which you've heard us talk about in previous columns. That team of expert caregivers, led by our Command Chaplain, was created here to provide help to our people before events like this happen. In essence, we want them to conduct the "After Action Review" on an incident BEFORE a tragic event occurs, not AFTER. 

But you don't have to be member of the CARE team to take action. You can help by not walking past the problem. In fact, the person most likely to help are those closest to the individual themselves - their friends and fellow soldiers. Be an involved, engaged leader. Don't worry about walking the fine line between being intrusive, or helping them out. What's important is that if you see someone struggling, be there for them. Listen to them. Encourage them to get help. Let them know that asking for help is a sign of COURAGE and STRENGTH, not weakness. And if they still won't seek help, talk to their supervisor.

In the meantime, here's what we WON'T do. We are NOT going to suffer in silence. We will NOT walk past the problem. And we will NOT leave our fellow Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen to suffer alone, without help.

We will raise awareness to help at risk soldiers in our midst. We need to ensure that all of us know and understand the signs and symptoms of at risk soldiers. And we will provide a comprehensive NCO education program within our units where we identify specific NCOs and Petty Officers who we can turn to for help in times of stress or need.

The time to be an engaged leader is NOW. Look out for each other. Check in on your troops, where they work, live, and play. And be on the lookout for the troop who seems withdrawn - the one who may be "falling between the cracks." Your simple act of concern -- a single "How's it going?" – could make a huge impact on that person, and your unit.

Have a great, safe week. We'll see you on the Running Trail. Ubuntu!

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Leadership Commander Senior Enlisted Leader

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