The Best Defense

The answers to sexual assault and suicide may be the same: Dynamic leadership that makes soldiers feel like family

By Capt. Nick Nethery

Best Defense guest columnist

I'm wondering if the massive increase in sexual assaults over the last few years is similar to the massive increase in suicides in the same period. And I'm wondering if the response to this problem might be similarly ineffective.

Suicides go up for a number of reasons, but rather than address those reasons, we stick a band-aid on a sucking chest wound by reducing it to a powerpoint slideshow and a video introduced by a sergeant major or general. In light of hard data showing increased suicides at the exact same time as requirements on commanders to administer these prevention classes have surged, is it possible that the classes are exacerbating the problem?

I don't mean to imply that the classes themselves cause suicides, but are leaders falling into the trap of thinking that the problem is solved because the brief has been given? That if you force your soldiers to sit through the brief, then you've "done your part" and no further action is required?

Might it be the same with sexual harassment and assault? Are leaders "checking the block" by administering these classes, choosing to believe their command is safe afterward, rather than addressing the underlying issues behind a rise in harassment and assault? I am no psychologist or sex abuse counselor, but I am a leader who tried to care about my soldiers when I had the fortune to lead them. During my time in command, I was skeptical of the Army's solution to this problem. I took a more dynamic approach. I knew all my soldiers, their families, their birthdays, their kids' names, what their goals and aspirations were, what kind of music and beer and cars they liked. I had male and female soldiers, of all ages and backgrounds. Not to be too sappy, but we were family. And you know what? We never had any of these problems.

Again, I just see my little lane. I'm no general. But I realized the limitations of the Army's answer to suicide prevention and sexual assault, and took a more active approach, one where I knew my soldiers down to the tiniest detail. I trusted them -- and showed them I did -- and they trusted me. I don't flatter myself that all my soldiers liked me. I didn't have perfect commands, and we had some other minor discipline issues, but in four years leading soldiers I never had a single incident of suicide, suicidal ideation, or sexual harassment/assault. It worked for me. My own bosses saw that my method worked, and were supportive as long as I was meeting the Army's required training guidelines.

Capt. Nick Nethery commanded the 737th and 722d EOD Companies, both at Ft. Bragg, and took 722d to Iraq from May 2011 to June 2012. This article represents his own views and are not necessarily those of the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.


The Best Defense

JOs, I was sympathetic, but now I'm not. Just take care of your people and move on.

By Capt. Amir Abu-Akeel, U.S. Army

Best Defense guest columnist

I've read the JO retention debate with quite a bit of interest. Initially, I found myself nodding in agreement with the disgruntled officers, but have since come to re-evaluate my stance.

Many company grade officers approach the issue of the military through a narrowly focused, emotionally tinged lens: "It's too big for me to fix, so why should I stay," or "my civilian friends don't put up with this, why should I, and more importantly, my wife." In most cases their observations are correct. The military is indeed too big to fix singlehandedly, and it asks a lot more of people than civilian jobs, but this view lacks nuance and context.

Junior officers need to understand that they aren't going to singlehandedly right American foreign policy. Even senior officers have little individual sway over issues. It's not because the system is broken. Nowadays, most policy decisions are made on a consensus basis. Contrary to what people think, the team-first mantra of the military encourages agreement between ranks even in the presence of a clear chain of command. Leaders don't make decisions in a vacuum; they listen to the arguments made by their subordinates and peers. Commanders render judgment only after their staffs have beaten the courses of action to death. At the company level, if my first sergeant and I needed to hash something out, we closed the door and talked to each other (often yelled), until someone's opinion made more sense. Tom's book Fiasco makes the same case: President Bush didn't declare war on Iraq; the American security establishment did. JOs have not been in long enough to see this team dynamic play out frequently, and therefore tend to individualize their problems. If you try to take on the big green machine alone, it will beat you down every time.

JOs also need to stop fixating on how they alone will finish the Syrian war, or end government corruption, and instead focus on the responsibilities that really matter: the care of their soldiers. It can be as simple as giving subordinates time off on a Friday afternoon to be with loved ones, or it can be as difficult as serving as a Casualty Assistance Officer. My personal favorite has always been to fend off a random tasker from higher (usually some CSM or division staff officer with a "bright" idea). Strategy is important, and a JO will go far to comprehend the bigger picture, but the soldiers in their immediate care are the priority, and that alone will consume the majority of their time. Aesop's fable about the astronomer rings true here: "Hark ye, old fellow, why, in striving to pry into what is in heaven, do you not manage to see what is on earth?" Child's tale, but hey, it's still poignant, and relevant.

As for considering the career goals of a spouse, I have heard more gripes than solutions. HRC has always been a problem. The organization has close to a hundred-thousand officers to manage. Throw in the excessive branch parochialism and the congressional regulations that restrict officer management, and it's surprising the command hasn't suffered a meltdown. Adding the requirement to manage the careers of spouses would probably force the AG Corps to jump off a cliff en masse. That's not to say we can't improve the lot of spouses. Creating comprehensive geo-bachelor BAH schemes and offsetting professional certification costs is a good start, but the pie-in-the-sky ideas people have been bandying about are unworkable, especially in the face of a giant RIF.

I don't write this to belittle anyone's issues with the armed forces or the security establishment at large, because there are many, and they are serious. But at the end of the day, the military, for all its awesome might, is an organization run by people, and therefore subject to all their human strengths and weaknesses. Show some patience and enjoy the simple pleasures that come from caring for your Joes. You won't get that direct satisfaction in many other places.

Captain Amir Abu-Akeel is currently an operations officer with the 52d Ordnance Group (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) in Fort Campbell, KY. CPT Abu-Akeel previously commanded the 788th OD CO (EOD) and the 202d OD CO (EOD). His bachelorhood has been ensured by two combat deployments and four PCS moves in the past six years. The views here are his own and don't represent any government agency, yet.