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Fort Leonard Wood hosts conference on helping soldiers, family members
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. (Aug. 7, 2009) — Suicides, divorces, drunk driving crashes, financial problems and domestic violence aren’t supposed to be a part of military life, but they’ve become a major problem for the military after nearly eight years of the War on Terror since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

In response, Fort Leonard Wood is hosting a “Human Dimension Forum” today in which top military officials, including former Gulf War prisoner of war Rhonda Comum, now a one-star general in charge of mental health-related issues for the Army at the Pentagon, are meeting with local installation leaders and civilian officials in an effort to train military personnel on better ways to help soldiers.

Col. Charles Williams, the garrison commander at Fort Leonard Wood who has been put in charge of the local aspect of the project, said today’s conference is part of an Army-wide project, not a response to recent local problems. Those local issues include an assault by a sergeant first class on a civilian mess hall employee who reports indicate he believed was involved with a military wife, many drunk driving crashes of soldiers, and the upcoming court martial of an Army Reserve medical specialist accused of killing another soldier’s wife with whom he was having an affair while the husband was deployed to Iraq.

“We all watch the media; the Army has huge problems,” Williams said. “The worry I have with this event is people will see this as the culmination when it is really our kick-off event. We started this event to get everybody on Fort Leonard Wood, our community folks, you (in the media) included, familiar with what some of the problems are if they aren’t already.”

The new programs known as “comprehensive soldier fitness” are coming down from the Pentagon, Williams said, and officials at the upper levels want to understand how best to help soldiers at local levels. While fitness is usually interpreted as physical fitness, senior officials are trying to make other aspects of soldiers’ personal lives part of what they call “comprehensive soldier fitness.”

“The Army is basically going to direct everybody to do it, and if you hear it from the horse’s mouth, (from) the woman who is running it for the Army, you probably are going to pay more attention than if you or I tell everybody comprehensive soldier fitness is important,” Williams said. “This is the Army’s reaction to problems that have accumulated over the last few years for a variety of reasons, and we experience all of those problems here at Fort Leonard Wood.”

The problems involve soldiers in training, military instructors, deploying soldiers and those returning from deployments, and military families, Williams said.

“We know we have a lot of problems … the Army wasn’t always good at admitting that we have problems,” Williams said. “The goodness of the military is we probably have a better ability to get our arms around our population, because we control our population, than probably a county or a city or a state.”

Williams said he expects he’ll be working on “human dimension” issues of helping servicemembers and their families for the remainder of his time at Fort Leonard Wood as garrison commander. That’s typically a two-year assignment.

“(Getting help) is difficult for soldiers especially, because we’re all supposed to be tough and be trained killers so to have that ethos but also have the softer side is difficult,” Williams said. “If a soldier asks for help or a family member or a civilian and we don’t put our arms around them and push them away, what happens if they don’t come back again? They might get frustrated and say, ‘I had a problem, I tried to get help, the Army is a big bureaucracy, this is a waste of my time, I’ll deal with it.’”

One problem has taken precedence over many others.

“Obviously suicide is the biggest thing,” Williams said. “It keeps going up and up and up, so how do we stop that?”

While Williams said military authorities will continue to focus on suicides, they’ll be giving more attention to other matters as well.

“We didn’t include sexual assaults or substance abuse or some of these other problems,” Williams said. “Late in the day today we’ll talk about what our local stats are for substance abuse and sexual assaults, both of them other huge problems that we’re trying to get our arms around.”

Williams said he knows “we probably missed some things” but is trying to get people who have other training or pre-deployment duties to focus on soldier’s personal readiness as well.

“People hear stuff all the time, but the tendency in the Army is for people to worry about what you are responsible for, so all those commanders that are in the 4th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade who are worried about going to war, this is like white noise to them; same for the training brigades, they have a very specific mission to do,” Williams said. “This will become like the Army Physical Fitness Test, a lot of this stuff. These won’t be like, ‘Do it if you feel like it,’ we’re going to have to figure out how to do this.”

Part of the problem, Williams said, is that often there isn’t a good place for soldiers to find help even if they’re looking for help.

“We’ve got a couple of hundred people who do counseling and they don’t even know the other folks exist, and I’m not exaggerating,” Williams said. “I’m the garrison commander and I’m responsible for a lot of this stuff and I meet people every day that, having been in the Army 29 years, I didn’t know we had people that do this. We don’t do a good job of sharing information — a lot of this will be sharing information so when somebody needs something they know where to go.”

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