Division Commander Blogs for Troop Feedback
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 15, 2009 When Army Maj. Gen. Michael L. Oates poses a question to his 10th Mountain Division soldiers and their families on his personal blog, the floodgates open in a dialogue once considered unimaginable between junior troops and their commander.
About twice a month, Oates goes straight to the source to get the troops’ views on everything from the quality of the post’s annual Mountainfest festival to a possible revision to the military’s ban on homosexuality in the ranks.
A visit to the blog, posted at http://www.taskforcemountain.com/mountain-sound-off, reveals that troops are giving Oates exactly what he’s looking for: direct, honest communication. It’s so honest, in fact, that many responders opt to use just a first name or nickname rather than identifying themselves outright.
Oates is the first, or among the first, division commanders to embrace social media as a way to interact with his soldiers.
It’s an effort he started in Iraq when he commanded Multinational Division Center, where he launched an online chat room to improve communication.
Participants logged on anonymously or used their real names and peppered Oates with questions about far-ranging issues. They complained about the Army’s stop-loss policy and asked about talk they’d heard of a division headquarters move to southern Iraq, Army promotion and awards policies, and quality-of-life issues such as housing and housing allowances and cost-of-living adjustments at their home station at Fort Drum, N.Y.
Oates “took the time to answer each question carefully and connect with his troops,” Army Maj. Daniel Elliott, division deputy public affairs officer said during the deployment.
“To our knowledge, this is the only division where the commanding general manages an active blog and has done an online chat with soldiers,” Elliott added.
Oates has taken pains to continue that connection when he and his soldiers redeployed to Fort Drum.
Oates is “always stunned” to hear himself singled out for his innovative approach, he told American Forces Press Service. “I’m just doing what every leader in the Army does, just using a different, new venue.”
“The reason I use a blog is because that’s where the soldiers are,” Oates said. “So you have to fish in that water.” He recalled the old adage about asking a robber why he steals from banks, and the tongue-in-cheek retort: “Because that’s where the money is.”
Social media isn’t a silver bullet, but it supports open and honest communication in ways most other venues can’t, Oates said. Soldiers, their families and civilian employees feel comfortable responding to a blog, and it generates “a degree of candor you can’t get face to face,” he said.
“Soldiers aren’t intimidated typing onto a screen,” he said. “So if you want soldiers to be honest with you, you have to set the conditions for them to be honest.”
Oates said he reads every entry on the blog. The most enlightening aren’t necessarily what his troops tell him, he said, but what they tell each other.
“It’s the cross-talk that’s the most useful,” he said. “People take ideas, refine them and wire brush them. And through that process, I pick up a lot of useful concepts.”
Oates interjects questions and comments on his commander’s blog to keep the conversation going.
In late April, shortly after redeploying from Iraq, he asked his troops directly what topics they wanted him to open up for discussion.
Two weeks later, he asked, “Now that we're back and have had time to relax and look back, what is the biggest lesson you took away from this last deployment? (Spouses, too.)”
That question elicited the fewest responses -- six rather than the typical 45 to 100. But the responders provided insights Oates might not have gotten in more traditional forums.
One complained of an unfair awards policy, others of promotions that came too quickly or too easily for those they perceived as unready or unworthy. One spouse urged Oates to ensure that “dwell time” between deployments focuses more on family time. Another expressed gratitude that her spouse was coming home safely.
But perhaps the most insightful came from a responder who identified himself only as “Army Dude.”
“From the perspective of someone about to deploy again, I think a few lessons the division learned are at risk of dying on the vine or getting re-learned the hard way,” he warned Oates.
The responder offered an assessment of which development projects in Iraq are worthy of funding and which aren’t, of problems to be overcome in generating interagency cooperation, and the disconnect between the Army’s “quick victory” mind-set and provincial reconstruction teams’ long-term development strategy.
But the responder also alerted Oates to “one lesson not learned:” the need to take better care of families.
“The ‘train’ during our final months is going about as fast as it can possibly run,’” Army Dude wrote.
“Good commanders are able to make the call when enough is enough and pull in the reigns,” he continued. “If not, [or if not supported by the higher commander], ultimately it is our families who pay the price. Then we pay when our families have had enough and/or we grow apart to where we no longer know who they are.”
Oates said he wants more of this kind of direct communication from his troops, and recognizes his blog as the best way to get it.
“I hate to think of myself being referred to as ‘the blogging general,’” he said. “But there’s tremendous value in this forum. It’s a great way for me to communicate with my soldiers.”