Warrior Adventure Quest Helps Soldiers Return to Normalcy
By Rob McIlvaine
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 1, 2008 Through a high-adventure recreation program the Army calls Warrior Adventure Quest, soldiers have a new way of transitioning from combat to a “new normal,” reducing the potential for high-risk behaviors that are counterproductive to unit training requirements.
Soldiers from the 503rd Infantry in Vicenza, Italy, navigate through nearly 30 miles of mountain trails during a Warrior Adventure Quest activity that also included paintball and whitewater rafting. U.S. Army photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
“In the past,” said John O’Sullivan, Outdoor Recreation Program Manager at the Army’s Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command, “soldiers did not talk about their experiences during war. Consequently, the new guys didn’t gain much knowledge about what to expect because of this stoicism. The idea behind WAQ is to break down these communication barriers.”
The Army, through a partnership between the Family and MWR Command and the Office of the Surgeon General, tested WAQ with three pilot programs last month. Units participating in the pilot include the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry, in Vicenza, Italy; Virginia National Guard soldiers of C Company, 3rd Battalion, 11th Brigade Combat Team from Manassas and Leesburg, Va; and soldiers of the 4th Battalion, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, at Fort Lewis, Wash.
“Ultimately, the Army will be offering this one-day program for all returning soldiers,” O’Sullivan said. “The target group is soldiers in ‘reset’ – a period from 40 to 90 days after returning.” Normally, soldiers returning from combat reunite with their platoon of about 30 soldiers after seven to 10 days of decompression time and 30 days of block leave.
In Vicenza, paratroopers from the 173rd ABCT recently returned from block leave following a 15-month tour in Afghanistan.
“Instead of hearing the same briefs over and over again, falling asleep and getting in trouble, this was perfect,” said Spc. Mathew Cannon, a 20-year-old 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company soldier from Sapulpa, Okla. “Some people might learn from a class, but everyone learns from getting out of the classroom and doing it.”
Activities held during the first day centered on white-water rafting in the Noce River, as “First Rock” soldiers navigated extreme waves, experienced defensive and aggressive swimming and completed group river crossings.
On the second day, Cannon and his platoon mates enjoyed a paintball outing on Woodsball Field near Padova, Italy. Small teams competed on a course designed with trees and plywood obstacles. Activities included instruction on state-of-the-art paintball equipment, playing techniques, team communication, cover-and-fire and team movement.
“This was a well-planned, well-organized event that really motivated the soldiers,” said Sgt. 1st Class James Knight, platoon sergeant for Bravo Company’s 2nd Platoon. “A lot of soldiers got on the bus not knowing what to expect, but they came away with a new perspective. The soldiers really enjoyed themselves, and I had a blast,” said Knight, 26, from Monroeville, Ala.
On the final day, they began their morning with roughly 30 miles of mountain biking on nearby hills and roads.
“We got a chance to do something fun together as a platoon – vs. other deployments, when there was nothing out there for us when we returned,” said Staff Sgt. Dabian E. Harris, 29, from Bravo Company’s 1st Platoon. “Mountain biking is a great way to see Vicenza, and I am definitely going to do it again,” added the native of La Quinta, Calif.
Ultimately, this is the point of WAQ: for the soldiers to incorporate team-building with skills learned or reinforced and come away with an enhanced lifetime of leisure activities for a better quality of life.
“After the soldiers learn these high-adrenalin-producing skills with their platoon buddies in a safe environment,” noted O’Sullivan, “they’ll want to continue doing them whenever they get the chance. This should reduce the amount of high-risk behavior activities soldiers are currently using to get an ‘adrenalin fix.’ ”
The second WAQ pilot began when a company of Virginia National Guard soldiers rode buses to Pennsylvania’s Youghiogheny River and changed out of their Army combat uniforms and into their physical fitness uniforms. They stepped into their rafts after a safety briefing, and moments later, thanks to the raging whitewaters of the Yough, many were tossed from the rafts into the rapids.
Teamwork immediately took over, as soldiers paddled their way over to the ejected crewmembers and recovered them from the rough waters with ease.
“The teamwork was so strong,” said Spc. James Anderson, 1st Platoon, “that soldiers from other boats were recovering capsized buddies from other teams.”
After many adrenaline-boosting hours of fun, the soldiers returned to their base of operations for an after-action review developed by behavioral health professionals in the Army’s Battlemind program based on recommendations from a team that included health professionals in the Office of the Surgeon General and officials from the Combat Readiness and Safety Center, the Army National Guard, the Family and MWR Command, the Installation Management Command and the Army Reserve.
The Battlemind AAR is a debriefing session designed to assist in mitigating the cumulative effects of sustained operations while mentally preparing the team to reintegrate and begin focused training for the next requirement.
During the Battlemind AAR after the rafting activity, facilitators asked the soldiers to discuss the day’s events and point out the connections between the activities and the everyday missions of being deployed in a combat environment.
All agreed that the main thing they observed during the trip was the amount of teamwork involved, just as it would be in combat.
“There were numerous times I almost fell out of the raft,” said Staff Sgt. Bennie Jost, platoon sergeant of 1st Platoon, “but my buddy reached out and grabbed me. Not only was he focused on the mission, but he was focused on my well-being.”
Pfc. James Self noted the unit’s strong sense of teamwork. “We flipped our boat in the first five minutes,” he said, “but we never flipped it again, because we built a good team quickly and learned from our mistakes.”
This event gave the soldiers a chance to identify strengths on which they could capitalize and shortcomings they could minimize -- not only themselves, but also in each other. Recognizing that those skills were useful outside of combat will enhance their team-building in a calmer, safer garrison environment.
“We want our soldiers looking out for each other, on and off the battlefield,” O’Sullivan said.
The final pilot took place at Fort Lewis, where Brig. Gen. John Johnson, who provided initial leadership with WAQ as the deputy commander of Family and MWR Command, is now the deputy commanding general of 1st Corps and Fort Lewis.
The day began at 6 a.m. on Sept. 22 with Sgt. Maj. Tammy Coon, senior enlisted advisor of FMWRC’s Soldier Programs and Community Recreation introducing the WAQ program to the Soldiers. Maj. Ed Brusher from the Office of the Surgeon General, who recently returned from a 15-month deployment to Iraq, also briefed the soldiers of the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division Stryker Brigade Combat Team, who recently returned from 14 months in Iraq. Brusher described how Battlemind ties into Warrior Adventure Quest.
While WAQ provides the “hook” to capture the soldiers’ interest, he said, Battlemind AAR is the Army’s newly developed “armor for the mind.” It helps soldiers recognize and respond to fear during combat, mitigates the cumulative effects of a sustained combat environment, and helps them to become mentally prepared to reintegrate during the redeployment, post-deployment and reset portions of the deployment cycle.
One of the main activities for the first morning at Fort Lewis was Battlemind training for staff sergeants and above. After learning how to lead an after-action review, two soldiers were selected from each platoon to perform the AAR after the group activities.
As 8 a.m. approached and the anticipation level rose, it was up in the air for 27 soldiers who had the opportunity to tandem skydive into a perfect blue sky near Seattle, while another group went down to the river for whitewater rafting in the majestic, sparkling waters.
On the next two days, both groups travelled out through the emerald-green forest at the base of Mount St. Helens for more whitewater rafting and bungee jumping from a 20-story-high bridge, the highest bungee jumping bridge in the country.
All involved with the three pilot programs agreed it was a resounding success, both from the perspectives of those who helped develop WAQ and from the soldiers who were the first to give their feedback on the program.
Officials will use survey and assessment tools to evaluate the program's effectiveness, including statistics from the Combat Readiness/Safety Center, the Reintegration Unit Risk Inventory, the Unit Behavioral Health Needs Assessment, and a new online survey, the Warrior Adventure Quest User Survey.
WAQ is centrally funded through the Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command, with oversight from the Installation Management Command and regional MWR recreation managers.
Planning is under way to bring WAQ to an additional 24 Army garrisons over the next year, and the long-term goal is to have every brigade combat team participate in WAQ within 90 days of their redeployment from a combat environment.
Training and Doctrine Command officials said it costs the Army $54,700 to train a basic combat arms soldier, and as much as $67,000 for other military occupational specialties, depending on the length of their advanced individual training. Since there's no way to put a dollar value on a soldier's life, determining a return on investment for this project is difficult. However, the average cost per person to participate in WAQ is only $86 – less than it costs to fill the fuel tank of a Humvee.
The Army plans to cycle nearly 80,000 soldiers through WAQ over the next year, at a cost of just under $7 million. If it cuts the fatality rate from high-risk off-duty activities in half, it will have paid for itself, officials said, and if it saves just one soldier's life, it will be worth the effort.
(Rob McIlvaine works at the U.S. Army Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command Public Affairs Office.)