- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Maj. Karl Reuter, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnist
Since September 11, 2001 the Forever War continues to affect service members and their families, but for the most part we have yet to adjust our leave and pass policies, our morale, welfare, and recreation (MWR) programs, or the ways we deploy despite known issues with reintegration back into society post-deployment as well as enhanced technology.
Unfortunately, many military members fail to receive the appropriate daily decompression during deployment and continue now to fail to readjust to society, having never come off a permanent heightened state in a war zone, examples of which have been documented in books such as Lethal Warriors, by David Philipps, Thank You for Your Service, by David Finkel, and Tribe, by Sebastian Junger.
Recognizing this need for decompression due to his own prior deployments, our 1SG a decade ago during “the surge” took the initiative to set up a gaming network of Xboxes to provide a means of unwinding for our soldiers as they come back from the streets of southern Baghdad. Undoubtedly, while our soldiers virtually shot at each other playing “Ghost Recon” at night, they got out some of the frustration of those trying to kill them during the day in the real world by bombs, snipers, mortars, or other means. We were lucky to have compassionate senior noncommissioned officers who understood the importance of daily and predictable decompression using existing technology combined with after action reviews after traumatic incidents. But even units who try their best to mitigate the daily impact of the war can only have so much impact in comparison to programs at the department and service level.
Having just come back from Iraq (again) last month and having lived and worked with our coalition partners and department of state colleagues over the past 12 months, I believe that it is time for Department of Defense and the military services within to reexamine our in-theater MWR and rest and relaxation (R&R) programs. It may additionally be worth looking at ways to economize troop footprints using existing technology in future deployments as well to give commanders flexibility beyond physical troop caps and provide the additional benefits to service members of increasing home station dwell time. I would propose the following few items be considered:
— Validate and modify R&R leave and pass programs. It may be best to consider the leave programs of our International Partners for a way ahead in modifying and revalidating our current R&R program, which allows 15 non-chargeable days leave, excluding travel time, for those serving a 270-day deployment in a combat zone, though currently this policy seems to be enforced by most services only for those serving year-long deployments. There are few countries out of the over 60 countries participating in the coalition against the Islamic State that don’t grant leave (or multiple leaves) to individuals on a six to 12-month rotation. The Australians, for example, get a two-week leave for six months of deployment. Our Canadian partners serving year-long tours had multiple leaves and were even offered compensation for their family members to travel to Europe to meet them for vacation while deployed. Among the different rules per country, the United States is arguably one of the most fiscally conservative in what we provide to our service members with regards to leave and pass entitlements. If we adjusted R&R leave for a six to nine-month rotation (even to as little as a 10-day R&R break) it would give service members something to look forward to during their long days of a deployment. Providing the option for a second leave that is chargeable for a year-long deployment, at a commanders’ discretion, would be another option as two weeks over a year is not much time at home to catch up with family members. It would also be worth considering bringing back the Qatar pass program that was cut in 2011 as a four-day respite from a combat zone. I would invite our senior enlisted advisors to take up this issue and advocate for revalidating and modifying, if necessary, the current leave and pass programs for our military service members.
— Reinvigorate MWR programs. This past year the United Service Organizations did an admirable job during the holidays with providing a traveling road show lead by Kelli Pickler and the chairmen of the joint chiefs of staff. Prior to this, Disney came over and showed the newly released Rogue One to Department of Defense and State Department employees. Both of these events were appreciated by those that were at locations that they visited due to the dearth of such events. A continuation of and more of these type of activities in the future go a long way to providing stress relief to those deployed, providing something that feels more normal in an environment that is often lacking in escapism. MWR programs that reinforce things that young soldiers like to do help relieve stress and provide an appropriate outlet to include sports, card games, watching movies, and playing video games. Unfortunately, we all too often rely on virtual MWR programs for service members in the form of a smart phone or tablet-like device as the primary means to provide decompression on a slow and often unreliable internet, for which they pay over $100 dollars a month while many countries in the coalition provide internet for free or reimburse their service members as a benefit of serving in harms way. The State Department does a much better job of providing their civilians and soldiers assigned to them decompression at the embassy in Iraq. The largest embassy in the world, it represents a virtual amusement park compared to what is offered to the majority of our military service members, including better living quarters, MWR programs, swimming pools, fitness programs, dining facility options, and other amenities.
— Conduct Virtual Deployments. Troop caps in recent years have proved to us we may be able to conduct mission command and staffing activities as effectively or almost as effectively with multi-star units from locations that are outside of where contingency operations are physically occurring. We can provide deployment cost savings to services and family saving measures by utilizing virtual deployments from major CONUS-based installations that can support Divisions and Corps’ by putting their members in a Virtual Deployment status. With current technology deploying a multi-star unit no longer needs to be a physical deployment but instead a virtual deployment in which SSG/CPT Joe shows up to work daily and has his hours synched with those units he is supporting in the Middle East or elsewhere. Set up tentage outside Mission Command facilities or assign barracks for temporary housing of virtually deployed service members, but allow individuals when they are off to have the option to go home to see their loved ones. Some members will still have to physically deploy, but this may be limited to those that truly need to be in the fight or commanders and their immediate staff that must engage key leaders at the highest ministerial and military levels face to face. Surely this would be a win for our more fiscally constrained NATO defense or partner countries who could essentially telecommute from their country. It would also provide the added benefit of increased dwell time to our service members and their families.
I know that the above is not inclusive to fixing all of the issues that service members deal with as they come back to society, but if we wait too long to revalidate and potentially modify our R&R, pass, and MWR programs, as well as the way we conduct physical deployments now, the next military generation will most likely continue to experience reintegration problems, suicides, and other such issues over the coming years of the Forever War.
The author is currently a staff officer assigned to Army North, San Antonio, Texas. He recently redeployed from Operation Inherent Resolve, and previously served in the Middle East during Operation Iraqi Freedom 1 and OIF 06-08. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of the United States Army, the Department of Defense, or the United States government.
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