By Donna Miles
WASHINGTON, Aug. 17, 2006 – The most important thing military leaders can offer their people is an up-front assessment of what they're facing, as exemplified by the way the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team's leaders informed the troops about their extension in Iraq, DoD's top enlisted adviser told American Forces Press Service. Army Command Sergeant. Major William J. Gainey, senior enlisted adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, shared his thoughts after returning from Alaska, home of the "Arctic Wolves."
The Defense Department announced July 27 that the brigade, which was in the midst of wrapping up its 12-month deployment in Iraq, would remain up to four additional months. The announcement came two days after President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki agreed to send more U.S. and Iraqi troops to Baghdad to curb sectarian violence.
Earlier this week, Army officials announced that 301 of the 378 brigade soldiers who had already returned to Alaska in June and July would return to Iraq this week. The affected soldiers knew what was ahead for them before the official announcement thanks to the open communication from their leaders, Gainey said. "They already knew the announcement was coming that they would go back," he said of troops he met with during his visit to Fort Wainwright.
Gainey said that's a sea change from the military he joined 31 years ago, when leaders kept information to themselves. "I remember when you didn't get news," he said. "News wasn't for you to have." But, Gainey said, sharing information -- the bad as well as the good -- is critical and enables troops to build trust in their leaders.
Gainey said he was amazed at how well the Stryker Brigade troops digested the news their leaders delivered. He said he told the soldiers that their unit would be hard to replace because their training level was so high after a year in Iraq "I told them, 'I'm sorry you got extended, but it's bad being the best," he said. "It's really bad being the top dog.'"
"And I was shocked when they said, 'Sergeant Major, we will go back tomorrow. We are ready to go back because our buddies are over there,'" Gainey said. "And that really set well in my heart that they were ready to go. If we had a bus and a plane that day, they would have flown that day."
Gainey emphasized that despite their commitment, it was evident that the soldiers felt torn between their families at home and their comrades in Iraq. "That's human nature," he said, recalling similar personal conflicts during his own career. "I experienced the same thing when I left my family, but I also experienced (knowing that) my buddy is over there," he said. "And where our buddies are, we need to be."
As Gainey prepared to leave Alaska, he got the opportunity to meet two of the soldiers' wives, along with their children, to explain why their husbands were needed in Iraq. "And again, I was very pleased when they said, 'Sergeant Major, we understand. We don't like it, but we understand. We are Army wives,'" Gainey said.
He praised the "outstanding" work of the Army "tiger team" helping the families and redeployed soldiers cope with the extension and the myriad other issues it created, from housing and finance problems to emotional distress. A tiger team is put together to deal with specific issues. In this case, a team from Army headquarters immediately went to Alaska to help local leaders deal with issues outside their purview.
Local support staffs have been augmented with child psychologists, adolescent counselors and specially trained chaplains with advanced degrees in family counseling. "What they do is bring answers to (families') questions," Gainey said. "It's really good." Major General Charles H. Jacoby Jr., commander of U.S. Army Alaska, requested the support shortly after getting word of the brigade's extension in Iraq.
Gainey said this level of support and the straightforward way the command dealt with the extension led him to report to his boss, Marine General Peter Pace, that "it's okay" within the 172nd Stryker Brigade. "They really get it," Gainey said he told the chairman. The way the brigade's extension played out offers important lessons to all military leaders, he said. Gainey urged them to be up front with their people, get news out as quickly as they can and avoid making promises they might not be able to keep.
"It's about getting the information out as quickly as we get it," he said. "Bad news does not get better with time." Gainey offered an analogy about a car tire that's losing air. "If I know that your tire is going to go flat, I don't not tell you because I think you're going to be upset," he said. "I tell you your tire is kind of low and that you've got to get it checked."
As they keep their troops in the loop, leaders should never make promises they might have to retract down the road, Gainey warned. "What I tell young leaders is, 'You should promise very little,'" he said. "'You should give a lot.'" And much of that giving has to do with information, he said. Gainey urged commanders in a position like Army Colonel Michael Shields, who heads the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, to follow his example and keep their people informed about what potentially lies ahead for them.
Shields personally delivered news of the extension to family members through a 90-minute videoconference from Iraq before the official announcement. During the session, he told them he understands their disappointment and acknowledges the hardship the extension will cause. "He committed to them whatever resources he could to help with any hardships they face," said Maj. Kirk Gohlke, public affairs officer for U.S. Army, Alaska.
Similarly, Shields ensured that his troops on the ground, as well as those who had already redeployed, knew of changing plans as quickly as decisions were made, officials said. That's all servicemembers really want from their leaders, Gainey said. "In my 12 years as a command sergeant major, 30 years as (a noncommissioned officer), that's all they've ever asked and that I asked when I was a young soldier," he said. "Tell me up front what's going on, ... and I think leaders are doing that more and more readily now."