Top Army Reserve NCO Cites Challenges Ahead in Transforming Force
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 14, 2007 For perspective about how much the Army Reserve has changed as it has evolved from a strategic reserve to an operational force that’s a key player in the war on terror, few could offer as much insight as its senior enlisted soldier.
Army Reserve Command Sgt. Maj. Leon Caffie talks with reservists performing sergeant's time training at the 7th Army Reserve Command in Schwetzingen, Germany, during a September 2006 visit. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Derrick Witherspoon, USA
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Command Sgt. Maj. Leon Caffie was drafted into the Army in 1970 and served as an infantryman in Vietnam. After returning home, he joined an Army Reserve far different from the one he helps to lead today.
The little equipment reserve units had at the time was cast off from active-duty units. The training “weekend warriors” got when they gathered in their reserve centers typically consisted of reading military training manuals. If they went to the range for weapons qualification, they borrowed weapons from an active unit. Annual training was all but devoid of training.
Caffie remembers his first reserve AT, at Fort Jackson, S.C. He and his fellow reservists had to cut through the weeds to get to the condemned buildings they’d been assigned to work in. Their biggest task, Caffie recalls, was to put together the unit’s annual AT party.
“They really didn’t expect us to do anything,” he said. “We were more of a nuisance to the active component than we were assets.”
Flash forward 33 years, and Caffie is happy to report: “That legacy force no longer exists.”
The Army Reserve has changed from a force of last resort to an integral part of the Army structure, he said. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, more than 102,000 of the Army Reserve’s 200,000 members have mobilized to support the war effort.
As the 10th senior enlisted advisor to the Army Reserve chief, Caffie is helping the Army Reserve continue to move beyond the legacy force he once served in. And a big part of that task, he said, is looking out for soldiers’ interests.
Army Reserve Chief Lt. Gen. Jack C. Stultz interviewed 16 people before selecting Caffie to the job last year. Impressed by Caffie’s ability to impose strict standards and his genuine concern for the troops, Stultz said, he knew he had his man to help move the Army Reserve transformation forward.
“He won’t tolerate substandard performance, and that’s what soldiers appreciate – the fact that he demands and lives up to that warrior ethos and doesn’t ask anything of a soldier that he’s not willing to do himself,” the general said at Caffie’s swearing-in ceremony.
Even Caffie’s job description represented a shift from the Army Reserve’s old way of doing business. In the past, the Army Reserve had two enlisted leaders: one for the U.S. Army Reserve Command at Fort McPherson, Ga., and another for the chief of the Army Reserve in Washington. Stultz merged the two jobs into one position.
“This is symbolic of not only bringing in new leadership, but also of the fact that we’re transforming the reserves into an operational force from an old, legacy force,” Stultz said.
As he supports that transformation, Caffie focuses on training soldiers, developing leaders and helping reservists balance their military and civilian careers and family responsibilities.
Caffie has a keen appreciation of the juggling act citizen-soldiers face. He spent 28 years in law enforcement before retiring from the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office in Florida, all while serving in increasingly responsible Army Reserve jobs.
Now that he’s in a position to make a difference, Caffie said, he’s committed to changing old-school ways to make it easier for citizen-soldiers to serve.
He’s convinced, for example, that fixed battle assemblies – “drill weekends” in Caffie’s earlier days – aren’t the best way to train Army Reservists. He said he’s encouraged to see more flexible schedules for reservists to enhance their skills.
When they train, Caffie wants reservists out in the field as much as possible, not in those “concrete cocoons that we call Army Reserve centers.” Soldiers appreciate knowing that their training is worthwhile, and get motivated developing their leadership skills, he said.
“The key is to get the soldiers into a field environment. Show them appreciation. Challenge them with leadership roles,” Caffie said. “And they will deliver.”
They’re delivering every day, he said, with some the vast majority of the 26,000 reservists currently mobilized serving in about 20 countries around the world, including Iraq. In addition to carrying out a broad range of critical missions overseas, about 6,000 reservists are training other troops about to deploy.
During his regular visits to check on these mobilized reservists, Caffie said, he’s struck by the contrast to his early Army Reserve days. “You can walk into the theater today in Afghanistan and Iraq and I would wager that you could not distinguish the active-duty soldier from the reserve-component soldier,” he said.
This, he said, shows that new approaches to training soldiers are paying off. “We’ve changed the paradigm and the old, mundane way of leadership. We’re able to maintain the same high standards, but have torn down the boxes that we have built around ourselves,” he said.
One big change is the way the Army Reserve looks at its members’ civilian job responsibilities. Caffie said there’s a growing recognition of the value of the vast civilian skills reservists bring to the military force beyond they military occupational specialties.
“It’s important that we understand the force we have and the diversity that reservists bring to the fight,” he said. “For too long, people have overlooked the wealth of experience reservists bring in terms of their education and civilian-acquired skills.”
Caffie rattled off examples of the unique professional skills. Among them was the story of a young Army Reserve specialist the sergeant major met when visiting a medical unit deployed to Sarajevo. The soldier was working in a corner of the medical facility, hunched over a malfunctioning MRI machine he had torn apart.
“He told me he works for the company that makes the machines,” Caffie said. “He said he knew what the problem was, that he’d called back to his company to get them to send the parts it needed, and that he’d put it back together and get it working.
“That’s the kind of expertise you have in the Army Reserve, so it’s important that you understand what you’ve got,” he continued. “We have people with two unique professional skills – the one they train on as an MOS and the one they bring from their civilian careers.”
These civilian-acquired skills make Army Reservists particularly value to the military, Caffie said.
With Stultz, he’s working to remove some of the roadblocks that interfere with their ability to continue serving. They promote employer support programs and praise efforts being advanced through the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve.
They’re also focusing on programs for families, particularly during reserve call-ups. “We recruit soldiers, but we sustain families,” Caffie said. “We still have a ways to go, but I think we have made significant improvements in that arena.”
Some of Caffie’s focus boils down to issues as basic as clearing the way to pay reservists for out-of-pocket expenses associated with their military training. Caffie relayed the story of an Army Reserve specialist who regularly drives more than 250 miles to his battle assemblies, pays two nights’ hotel costs to attend them and has to pick up the tab for two meals a day while he’s away from home for training. At the end of a drill weekend, the soldier ends up in the red.
“It’s not fair, but that is the legacy way that we have done business,” Caffie said. “We need to move away from that into an operational mindset. An operational mindset says that I have talented soldiers out there, and I will do anything within my power to ensure they are treated fairly and get what they are entitled to.”
Fixing this problem is one of the “rocks” Caffie said his boss has “put into my rucksack.”
“I got rid of some of them, but some are still there,” he said. “I still have some I continue to work on.”
As he picks away at these rocks, Caffie said he gets personal gratification knowing he’s serving his soldiers and helping the Army Reserve move beyond that legacy force he joined back in 1974.
One indication of how far that force has come is reflected in Army Reserve retention rates. Attrition – at chronic levels during Caffie’s early Army Reserve days – is at its lowest point in seven years as the Army Reserve exceeds all retention goals.
Caffie called these retention successes “remarkable,” particularly among troops who have deployed to combat. “If you look at the stats for soldiers who have been deployed in the Army Reserve, those retention rates are astronomical as well,” he said. “We have done a remarkable job of retaining soldiers with combat experience, who have deployed into either Afghanistan or Iraq.”
These retention rates are no accident, he said, particularly when some Army Reserve troops already have served two deployments, and some are preparing for their third deployment.
“When you throw all those angles into the mix, and you are still able to retain them, we are doing something correct,” he said. “I think that’s about leadership. It starts at the top.”
Ultimately, Caffie attributes the success of the Army Reserve and the fact that its members continue to serve to old-fashioned patriotism. Many reservists serve because they believe they’re making a contribution to their country and helping preserve its freedoms, he said.
“That’s the reason a lot of these soldiers continue to serve today -- because they figure that one must be willing to pay to be free,” he said. “They’re great American patriots.”