As the Army struggles to comprehend the crisis at Fort Hood, Texas, one four-star general is wrestling with how to prevent those leadership failures from spreading to other combat units across the service.
Gen. Michael Garrett, head of Army Forces Command (FORSCOM), suspects that many young leaders across the service simply don't know how to take care of their soldiers, a discipline that's likely been neglected over the past several years as combat units remain on intense training cycles to prepare for the possibility of a major war with adversaries such as Russia and China.
An overarching theme running through the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee report is the stark divide between soldiers and leaders, particularly frontline supervisors at the small-unit level.
Many soldiers interviewed felt that the Fort Hood leadership "does not engage with their soldiers; and, thus do not know anything about them," the report states. Some who have been at other posts see this as an Army-wide issue, according to the committee's findings.
Garrett believes the NCO failures are also a symptom of forcing inexperienced soldiers to lead fireteams, squads and platoons across Forces Command before they are ready.
The review committee found that noncommissioned officers failed to keep track of their soldiers, a shortcoming that proved tragic for Spc. Vanessa Guillen and Pvt. Gregory Morales, two Hood soldiers whose remains turned up several months after they went missing. As a result, Army senior leaders created a new missing soldier policy as an alternative to automatically classifying a service member as absent without leave (AWOL).
"Things that I did as a young officer -- things that were expected of me as a young officer in terms of knowing and interacting with my soldiers -- certainly has changed over the 36 years that I have been in the Army, but the importance of real relationships and leaders really knowing their soldiers I think is more important than ever right now," Garrett told Military.com.
FORSCOM is the largest command in the active Army and directs the majority of the service's conventional combat units, including those at Hood. In October, Garrett ordered all FORSCOM units to devote five days each month to rebuilding relationships between soldiers and leaders.
"The point is we don't know our soldiers as well as we should, and I am trying to force the issue by not only providing time but also being very specific and more prescriptive than I normally am with what they are going to do with it," Garrett said.
He added that he believes the Army's recruiting crisis, which occurred after the service missed its 2018 recruiting goal by 6,500 soldiers, contributed to some of FORSCOM's NCO problems. The Army launched a sweeping new recruiting strategy that required FORSCOM to plus-up Army Recruiting Command (USAREC) with about 2,000 noncommissioned officers to serve as recruiters.
"We focused our NCOs on TRADOC as opposed to Forces Command," Garrett said, adding that the move resulted in squads, platoons and companies being run by NCOs a grade lower than they should be.
"So you think a fireteam leader, that is supposed to be an E-5, generally three or four soldiers that he is responsible for. The squad leader who is responsible for that nine-man squad is generally an E-6 and then E-7 platoon sergeant and E-8 first sergeant," he explained. "Well now, what if you look at a lot of our formations and what I see as I am moving around ... is very junior E-4 team leaders, E-5 squad leaders, E-6 platoon sergeants."
Approximately 21% of FORSCOM NCO positions are filled by personnel working one position above their paygrade.
"To break it down by rank, 21% of sergeant positions are filled by E-4s or E-4 [promotable], 15% of staff sergeant positions, 26% for sergeants first class, and 37% for master sergeants," according to Col. James Scott Rawlinson, a FORSCOM spokesman. "On average, soldiers working in sergeant positions are approximately 3 years younger and have 18 months less time in service, and personnel working in staff sergeant positions are approximately 2 years younger and have 26 months less time in service."
Recruiting Command is in the process of returning about 1,700 of those NCO personnel positions back to FORSCOM by September 2021, USAREC officials say.
Brig. Gen. Patrick Michaelis, deputy commanding general of USAREC, told Military.com in November that he agrees that FORSCOM needs those NCO personnel positions back so it has "squad leaders in squad leader positions and tank commanders in tank commander positions."
Garrett said that the decision to plus-up USAREC was necessary, but it did result in many soldiers filling small-unit leadership positions before they were ready.
"Think about going from a guy who is very experienced, has done those jobs at the rank you are supposed to do them, to putting someone who is younger, less experienced, less mature and the impact that has immediately and over time," he said. "That starts to impact a unit."
Compounding this problem at Hood was the reality that leaders from the command level down to the squad were "so mission oriented, so focused on being in a continuous mission first [operational tempo] status, that the health, safety and welfare of its soldiers was a secondary priority at best, and at worst an unwelcome distraction that detracts from its mission-critical priorities," the Fort Hood review committee report states.
"We have been at this for 20 years -- the last three or four years and the [operational tempo], we didn't reduce requirements, we increased them," Garrett said. "When you start looking at our focus, and that was [to] be prepared to fight tonight in a number of places around the world, a focus on strategic and operational readiness in ways that we hadn't done in the past -- those things were absolutely necessary but ... you can't sustain that pace."
The Army released the committee's findings Dec. 8, but Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville announced in October that the service was scaling back its heavy focus on intensive training and combat training center rotations to give "time back to sergeants at the lower level so they have chances to build cohesive teams."
Since then, Garrett has mandated "foundational training days" once a month and "leader training time" each week to allow leaders more time to reconnect with their soldiers. Unit commanders will have to use their judgment in deciding what types of readiness training will be sacrificed to make this happen, he added.
"I have taken up a day a week and one day a month; I have directed activity and I said, 'So what I am interested in is you all telling me what aren't you going to do, what can't you do based on the time I have taken from you," he said.
Going into 2021, Garrett and his staff will be working on how to assess the effectiveness of providing more time to leaders.
"We are looking at very specific metrics that can help us provide feedback not just to FORSCOM and to our commanders but to the Army on where we ought to be putting our efforts in regards to our people," Garrett said.
His plan to refocus NCOs on the basics of taking care of their soldiers is similar to an effort Maj. Gen. John Richardson IV launched in early October when he took over as the deputy commander of III Corps. Richardson conducted a pause in training to focus on basic leadership skills such as teaching counseling skills to young leaders. According to his plan, counseling sessions should be conversational and designed to mentor soldiers to help them set goals and address personal issues.
Richardson also directed every leader to make contact with their troops' families as a way of learning more about each soldier, where they come from and any problems they might be struggling to solve.
"I want a squad leader to know not just his soldiers, but I want him to know the soldiers' families," Garrett said. "The first time that a [leader] calls a parent should not be for a next-of-kin notification."
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.