New Army Guard Division Focuses on Soldiers’ Well-Being
By Army Spc. John Higgins
Special to American Forces Press Service
ARLINGTON, Va., Sept. 17, 2008 Soldiers and their families are the focus of a new division at the Army National Guard Readiness Center here.
(Left to right) Army Master Sgt. Marshall Bradshaw, Suicide Prevention Program manager; Army Chaplain (Maj.) Quentin Collins; Army Lt. Col. Ashleah Bechtel, Soldier Support Branch chief; and Army Maj. Andrew Bishop, Warrior Transition Program chief, are members of Soldier/Family Support and Services for the Army National Guard Readiness Center in Arlington, Va. U.S. Army photo by Spc. John Higgins, National Guard Bureau
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
In May, the center’s Soldier/Family Support Service Division began providing services that include suicide prevention, family support and transition back from active duty.
“There has never been a time in history when we have made so many resources available to care for all aspects of well-being,” said Erin Thede, chief of the Soldier/Family Support Service Division. “We are dedicated to pursuing policy and resources that improve our care and services so that no soldier or family is left behind.”
Army Lt. Col. Ashleah Betchel, chief of the Soldier Support Branch at the Army National Guard Readiness Center, added that soldiers’ care is everyone’s responsibility.
“This is a commander’s issue, a leader’s issue, a soldier’s issue, a family issue, and a community issue,” she said. “There is ownership across the board for everybody to make sure that we’re taking care of the soldiers in the right way. That’s one of the reasons our division was formed -- to get the word out there.”
Getting that word out is the responsibility of officers and noncommissioned officers starting at the division level, including Army Master Sgt. Marshall Bradshaw, the Army National Guard Readiness Center’s Suicide Prevention Program manager, because soldiers who need help won’t always seek it.
“If we were to hire a professional counselor at the state level, … you still couldn’t get all the soldiers in to see that counselor,” Bradshaw said. Another challenge for Bradshaw, the units, and the Guard is how to disseminate information and take care of troops who generally check in with their units only two days a month.
The solution for both problems comes from the communities Guard soldiers live and work in, Bradshaw said. Nonprofit groups such as the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, religious organizations and even police and firefighter chaplains are prepared to assist the Guard.
Bradshaw devotes much of his time to giving enthusiastic groups outside the Guard and the servicemembers’ immediate families the tools they need to help.
“The organizations I’ve found want to help us,” he said. They just don’t know how.”
Help from the communities helps Guard members at home, but a different method must be used during deployments, and a unit behavioral advocate adds to the military’s capacity to be mindful of soldiers’ mental health.
“This is a cultural shift from the highest levels,” said Maj. Quentin Collins, a special operations soldier who is now a chaplain at the readiness center. “From the chief of staff all the way down to the regular soldier, we must understand that we are not just machines. ‘Soldier first’ is not just a concept, it’s a reality.”
The unit behavioral advocate not only keeps an eye on mental health issues, but also assists with squad- and platoon-level training, which is performed in small groups on a regular basis rather than once or twice in a large group with one instructor for a whole company.
“The only way you can really encourage that kind of care is with that team concept. The idea is that you are a family, and families do hurt,” Collins said. “It’s the battle buddy concept taken a step forward.”
Those changes cover soldiers during pre- and post-deployment in most cases. However, some soldiers may require even more care should they be injured during a mission. For them, the Guard has created a warrior transition unit with the sole focus of helping soldiers transition back to a unit, a civilian job or both.
Before the WTU, soldiers were assigned to a medical hold company, which fell under the medical treatment facility, wherever it was. The WTU changes this by placing recovering soldiers under the command and control section and allows them to receive more specific care with assistance from a case worker who monitors their progress more closely and a doctor who sees that they receive more individual care.
“Together, it all lines up, and the soldiers are actually finding that they’re not at the medical facility as long,” said Army Staff Sgt. Sylvia Bastion, NCO in charge of the warrior transition section, which assists the WTUs. “It’s more directed at their injuries or illness.”
That emphasis is not merely on healing, but also on transition, with physical therapy augmented by occupational therapy or counseling sessions with professionals.
“Whether they’re an active Army soldier … going back to [their unit], or a Guard soldier who has a job back in their hometown, the WTU can help,” said Maj. Andrew Bishop, chief of the Warrior Transition Program. “It really focuses not just on the day-to-day accountability of where they are and what they’re doing, but also on the transition services -- getting them to what’s next in their lives.”
(Army Spc. John Higgins serves at the National Guard Bureau.)