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SMA testifies to Congress on force stress, resilience

Apr 16, 2010

By J.D. Leipold

WASHINGTON (Army News Service, April 15, 2010) -- The Army's senior enlisted advisor told members of Congress Wednesday that what keeps him awake at night is stress on the force.

Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth O. Preston testified to the House Appropriations Committee military construction subcommittee alongside his service counterparts from the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. He said that stress across the force affects Soldiers and their families in all three Army components in different ways, depending on whether a Soldier serves in the operational force or the generating force.

"Indicators of stress on the force can be seen in the increase of suicide rates again this past year, post-traumatic stress cases also increasing and divorce rates ticking up a little," Preston said. "I believe the training and the programs we began executing this past year have -- and will continue to make -- a positive impact on these disturbing trends."

Preston added that the committee's support in past years for family housing, barracks, pay, child care and youth services along with their help in modernizing hospital infrastructure had made a significant impact on retaining "our very best Soldiers and their families."

When asked about deployment cycles, Preston said units were averaging between 15 and 18 months between deployments, depending on unit type, adding that he and Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. had seen a marked difference to the positive with dwell times more than 12 months.

"We expect the dwell time to continue to increase... that by the end of 2011 the active component to be at a one- to-two-year ratio and for the reserve component to be at a one-to-four ratio as a minimum requirement," Preston said. "Right now we have some Guard and Reserve units that are a little bit less than one in four... that's the goal by the end of 2011."

With the growth in Soldiers, growth in additional units and organizations, the Army will be able to provide more predictability and stability to the active force, Reserve and National Guard, he said.

Committee members expressed concern over the increase in suicides across the services for the fifth consecutive year, asking Preston about the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program and what resources and initiatives the Army was going to use to combat suicide.

Citing his written statement to the committee, Preston said the programs the Army had implemented beginning in February 2009 were making a difference. He noted the Army had 40 suicides in the first two months of 2009 and based on those figures had estimated the service would exceed 220 suicides by the end of that year. Preston said the Army finished 2009 with 160 suicides, an increase of 20 suicides over 2008.

"The immediate response was a stand-down day, a chain-teach and that went into a number of interactive videos we put out that's interactive and based on real-life scenarios to teach first-line supervisors -- leaders at the lowest level -- what the indicators of suicide are and how to deal with those challenges and how to seek help," he said.

According to Preston's statement, the Army Suicide Prevention Task Force identified more than 250 different tasks related to suicide-prevention doctrine, organization, training, material, leadership, personnel and facilities. The written testimony stated the Army had implemented more than 90 percent of those tasks to date and would continue to review and assess the effectiveness of Army health promotion, risk reduction and suicide prevention programs at all levels.

Preston also elaborated on the role of the Master Resilience Trainer, the latest inclusion into the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program. He said the Army had partnered with the University of Pennsylvania to develop trainers who would then teach Soldiers how to increase their strength, resilience and performance.

He told the committee the four-pillared program included an online assessment tool to determine strengths and weaknesses which would then be followed by confidential self-help modules. The objective of the CSF program is to focus on prevention and building strength along with resiliency versus providing treatment after a problem occurs.

"We now have approximately 800 Master Resilience Trainers that have been trained in the 10-day course, and we've just opened our own school Fort Jackson, S.C., to begin training a total of 5,400 MRTs for the Army," Preston said.

The Army's immediate goal is to have one MRT per battalion across the Army, he said, adding that the long-term goal was for leaders to look at spreading MRTs out to all companies, troops and batteries. He said MRTs would also be placed in all professional military education courses from recruit training through the Sergeants Major Academy to the War College.

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