Few things can truly lift a deployed troop’s spirits like hearing the words, “Hey you, you got mail” before having a big ol’ box plopped on their lap. It doesn’t matter what’s inside — just the fact that someone remembered them while they were away makes things better. Some troops are lucky enough to have family members who send out weekly boxes of momma’s cookies, but even those without a constant support network get love from churches, schools, and youth groups.
In the earlier years of the Global War on Terrorism, everybody sent care packages. There was a time when you’d be hard pressed to find someone who wasn’t putting something together to send abroad, whether it was for a cousin, a friend, a friend’s cousin — whoever. That same war still lingers today and troops are still struck with the same homesickness.
Care packages are the classic cure to homesickness and, even today, they remain the best remedy.
Don’t get me wrong. They will still fight each other over a box of Girl Scout Cookies.
Some of the older items that were frequently put in care packages for troops, like socks, bars of soaps, and candies that (hopefully) won’t melt after being left in the desert sun for hours, are still appreciated today. Any time troops get sent handwritten notes and children’s drawings, they’ll feel obligated to write back — but things have changed since the beginning of the war.
Fewer troops are in direct combat roles and, thankfully, deployments have gotten shorter. Today, troops are less likely to be put directly in harm’s way for over twelve months at a time, but they’re still not home. What this means is that necessities that may have once helped forward-deployed troops remember what a shower feels like are now stockpiled in the chaplain’s office.
Everyone learns how to play spades while deployed. Why not give your loved one a nicer deck of cards to play with?
Living conditions while deployed have changed a lot since 2001. Today, it’s far less common to see grunts crammed in a hastily made hut. Showers are definitely more abundant and troops have access to places where they can buy their own hygiene goods. That’s not to say that every single American GI is living a life of luxury, but the general level of “suckiness” has been reduced.
In short, this means that troops aren’t hurting for baby wipes like they used to. They’re still helpful to troops who leave the wire, but they’ll more than likely just be used so a troop can skip showering for a day. What troops need now are things for the mind, not the body. Books, movies, and games help pass the time. Without electricity, troops will always pull out a deck of cards and get a game of Spades going.
The joys of having money and pretty much nothing to spend it on…
The leaps and bounds in technology have also changed the definition of hot-ticket care-package items. Troops no longer need to wait in long lines and hope that there’s still enough time on their pre-paid card to call home. Bases have been getting better and more expansive WiFi networks through the USO, which now allows troops to simply use their smartphone to call home while off-duty.
This boost in technology also does a lot of heavylifting on the part of AAFES, the service that sells regular goods to troops. Instead of hoping that they might have a new pair of running shoes or a fresh hard-drive for storing movies in this month’s package from home, they can just order stuff off Amazon.
Military cooks always try to shove the healthy options down our throats. What we really want is some junk food that reminds us of being back home.
Which brings us back to what troops of today actually want and need. Anything given by a family member with sentimental value is always going to hit home. As corny as it sounds, troops will still put photos of their family and loved ones up on display, just as they have since photography was invented.
Any comfy fleece blankets will be used instead of the Uncle Sam-issued sleeping systems. I’ve personally known troops to keep those cheapo blankets they give out on international flights and use them for twelve months instead of the issued gear.
Sweets are always going to be enjoyed and shared — especially the homemade goods. It doesn’t matter if it was their own momma who made the cookies or someone else’s momma, they’ll be devoured.
It’s kind of a taboo thing to say, but troops will always ask for it, so it’s worth mentioning. If you know that the deployed troop smokes or dips, they could really use some actual stuff instead of the maybe-poisonous, maybe-just-awful tobacco products the locals sell.
It might seem like ancient history to some, but troops are still deployed in the Global War on Terrorism. That war has drawn on long enough that the needs of deployed troops have changed, but homesickness (and its remedy) remains the same.
Women are capable of incredible things, including feats of physical strength, athleticism and tremendous bravery. I have always been a strong supporter of equality for women, and women in the military are no exception. With that in mind, the playing field between men and women in the military isn’t level. Equal doesn’t mean identical.
Often, they’re unaware of these potential hardships until they experience them firsthand. Women are assets to the military without a doubt, but they also deserve to know the details before they sign up. Here’s what any prospective female recruit should consider before they enlist.
Sexual assault is a real threat.
Of all the risks to women in the military, sexual assault is the most widely publicized. While male soldiers are also at risk, women have a heightened risk in comparison. The risk is highest for those stationed on ships; at some high-risk installations studied in 2014, 10% of women were assaulted – and that’s only what was reported. At the two most dangerous, 15% of women were assaulted. The risk is much lower for most military bases, but because studies are done after the fact, it’s impossible to know which bases are the most dangerous currently.
All branches of the military have been working to improve these sobering stats, but between 2016 and 2018, the number of assaults actually increased. Some of the pinpointed factors included alcohol use and off-base parties. Victims also had certain common qualities, like joining the military at a younger age and having a prior history of sexual abuse. On average, one in 17 civilian women will be sexually assaulted in the US. For military women ages 17 to 20, the risk is one in 8, and around 25% of women report sexual harassment at some point during their time of service.
Experiences like these have an impact on mental health.
Many women choose not to report their assaults for fear that their case won’t be taken seriously, or that it will impact their career potential. Either way, victims are more likely to experience PTSD, depression and anxiety that can last for years.
More women in service will serve safely than not, but it’s important to be aware that fending off male attention can be part of the job…even though it shouldn’t be.
Women have a much higher risk of injury in certain military roles.
In close-combat positions and others that require ongoing heavy lifting and extreme physical exertion, women are more likely to experience injuries like stress fractures and torn muscles. Women are more than capable of holding their own in combat, but the particularly physical roles don’t come without risks. Pelvic floor injuries are a particular problem related to carrying heavy weights, potentially leading to urinary incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse.
Irregular meals have a more pronounced effect.
Eating inconsistently impacts women more heavily than it does men. Many women experience irregular menstruation, or none at all, with potential impacts on future fertility. Since periods can be irritating to deal with when you’re taking on a role that’s heavily physical and allows very little downtime, some opt to take birth control that eliminates periods completely. The hormones they include can have substantial side effects when taken long term, including low bone density and metabolic issues.
Women are more likely to receive a physical disability discharge.
According to one study published by the Army surgeon general’s office, women are 67% more likely to leave on a physical disability discharge due to a musculoskeletal disorder. That statistic was also from 2011, before the most intense combat jobs allowed women to apply.
Side effects can take years to show up.
It’s possible that even women who leave the military feeling healthy will feel the consequences of hard, physical labor later in life. Some female veterans have reported issues like osteoporosis, muscle atrophy, low endurance and infertility, which they believe to be the result of their time in the military.
Military careers can be rewarding for women, too. As long as they know what to expect.
The point of this piece isn’t to tell women they should stay out of combat or avoid the military. That said, since there are risks unique to female members of service, it would be unfair to encourage them to enlist without offering full transparency.
Some military roles can increase the risk of pelvic floor and musculoskeletal injuries, and sexual harassment and assault is an issue that is far from solved, but many women also climb the ranks proudly without a hitch. Now you know the risks. If you still feel a combat role is where you belong, don’t let any statistic hold you back.
Spc. Mohamed Sullaiman joined the U.S. Army from Freetown, Sierra Leone, in 2015. He cites that he was, “inspired as an old man,” but Sullaiman chose to serve not just for himself, he also knew it could give his family a better life.
“I am here working for my family,” said Sullaiman, who deployed to Afghanistan with the Rock Battalion in early spring 2018 to fight for the country he now calls his own.
Three years ago, Sullaiman graduated from basic training with more than just a rank, he earned the right to become a U.S. citizen. Since then, he has excelled as a soldier and a leader.
“Spc. Sullaiman is a fit, inspired, disciplined train and truly inspirational soldier,” said 1st Lt. Gerald Prater, Sullaiman’s platoon leader, “He is an outstanding contributor to the organization.”
A large part of his motivation to be a standout soldier is the hope to one day bring his whole family to the United States. While Sullaiman has served on active duty for the last three years, his wife and two children still live in Freetown. His wife is raising their two children since Sullaiman joined the Army in 2015.
Sullaiman hopes the opportunities available to Americans will open new doors for his wife and children — opportunities to escape poverty and tribal rivalry and exchange them for security and freedom.
Spc. Mohamed Sullaiman, an infantryman, from 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division returns from conducting combat operations in Kabul Province, Afghanistan.
(U.S. Army courtesy photo by 1st. Stryker Brigade Combat Team)
Having been away from his family for three years, most recently in Afghanistan, Sullaiman understands the importance of constant communication, “I try hard to talk to them every night so they know that everything is okay. That I’m alright.” He also contacts the State Department regularly to keep in step with the process for his family’s permanent resident visa.
Sullaiman has kept his spirits high despite the separation, “I have a special prayer every night at midnight for an hour to ask help from Allah to guide me in the right way. He’s helping me not lose faith. It’s just a matter of time. I’m still going to keep praying until it finally happens.”
A devout Muslim, Sullaiman fasted during Ramadan despite patrolling daily in the July heat. “It wasn’t really easy. There were a lot of challenges but I overcame them.”
His determination is evident whether he’s serving overseas or in the United States. While it’s easy to save money for his family while deployed, Sullaiman, who turned 36 in June 2018, lives in the barracks and stays within his paycheck so he can send money to his family every month. He doesn’t own a car and visits his family once a year, “Depending on how much money I save,” he says.
Sullaiman exudes optimism, and plans on taking three weeks off after deployment to visit his family. His goal, with full support from his leadership, is to return with his family after his much deserved leave. When asked about what it will be like when his family joins him in the United States, “I’ll be one of the happiest men. I will say thanks to Allah for everything.”
Sullaiman continues to work alongside his chain of command to bring his family to the United States.
Gen. David Berger, the US Marine Corps commandant, suggested the concerns surrounding a service members’ use of questionable Chinese-owned apps like TikTok should be directed against the military’s leadership, rather than the individual troops.
Speaking at the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California, on Saturday morning, Berger said the younger generation of troops had a “clearer view” of the technology “than most people give them credit for.”
“That said, I’d give us a ‘C-minus’ or a ‘D’ in educating the force on the threat of even technology,” Berger said. “Because they view it as two pieces of gear, ‘I don’t see what the big deal is.'”
“That’s not their fault. That’s on us,” Berger added. “Once they begin to understand the risks, what the impact to them is tactically … then it becomes clear. I don’t blame them for that. This is a training and education that we have to do.”
Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps Gen. David Berger speaks with Marines during a town hall gathering at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, July 31, 2019.
“National security experts have raised concerns about TikTok’s collection and handling of user data, including user content and communications, IP addresses, location-related data, metadata, and other sensitive personal information,” Schumer added in the letter.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
To “err on the side of caution,” US Army cadets throughout high school and university were banned from using TikTok while in uniform to represent the military, a spokeswoman said in November. The act does not ban them from using it for personal use.
The app, which was formerly Musical.ly, exploded in popularity and boasted 1 billion monthly active users earlier this year. TikTok and its owner, Beijing ByteDance Technology, claims that American user data is not stored in China, nor is it politically influenced by the country.
“Let us be very clear: TikTok does not remove content based on sensitivities related to China,” the company said in a statement in October. “We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked. Period.”
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
In a move that almost seems suspiciously logical, Secretary of the Army, Mark Esper, has declared safety briefs no longer mandatory. That means no more long, drawn-out discussions led by the first sergeant about oddly specific incidents. No more sh*tbag “leaders” talking down to warfighters about crimes that they themselves committed. No more checking the box by reminding troops to not drink and drive, beat your spouse, or beat your kids in a monotone, apathetic voice that diminishes the gravity of those serious crimes.
Soldiers are about to get told that this weekend to “be safe” and then to fall out. Some units may try out this thing called, “assuming adults are responsible for their own actions” while others will be stuck in their old ways, discussing a few safety issues out of sheer habit.
For the love of all that is awesome in the Army – do not f*ck this up, troops. If even a single private gets a speeding ticket this weekend, the chain of command will put that incident on a pedestal in order to keep safety briefs. If a single douchebag gets arrested for a DUI and jokes that they weren’t told not to this week, that one asshat will Blue Falcon the entire United States Army.
So, enjoy some memes if it means you’re not out trying to appear on the blotter.
Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, Ronald L. Green, shared his second video message to Marines as part of the Own It! campaign. In the video, he calls for Marines to “look around you and see who might be struggling and ask them, how can I help?” Own It! is a Marine Corps awareness campaign designed to provide tips to Marines on how to start tough conversations with fellow Marines.
“We all need to support each other in protecting what we’ve earned. So, if you see something, do something, and help our Marine Corps family be safe and ready for the next fight,” said Sgt. Maj. Green.
Marines and their families can join the conversation by texting OWNIT to 555-888.
By texting OWNIT, participants will receive links to resources that will guide them on how to have a tough conversation with a Marine Corps family member about difficult situations like suicide, consent, rejection, bullying, substance abuse, as well as family issues including relationship red flags, divorce, child abuse, or the unexpected death of a loved one. These tip sheets are available at www.usmc-mccs.org/ownit.
This article originally appeared on Marines. Follow @USMC on Twitter.
Kim Jong Un visits the Yangdok County Hot Spring Resort, North Korea, released by North Korea’s Central News Agency (KCNA) on Oct. 23, 2019.
Kim Jong Un boiling eggs at North Korea’s new Yangdok County Hot Spring Resort.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Yangdok County Hot Spring Resort, North Korea, in this undated picture released by North Korea’s Central News Agency (KCNA) on Oct. 23, 2019.
Kim said Yangdok is “perfect match for the geographic characteristics and natural environment of the area,” KCNA reported.
Kim also used his visit to slam South Korean facilities at resort on Mount Kumgang as “backward” and “hotchpotch,” saying they should tear it down, Reuters reported.
Kim said North Korea’s new spa contrasts starkly with that of South Korea’s “architecture of capitalist businesses targeting profit-making from roughly built buildings.”
Kim Jong Un posing on the side of a hot tub at North Korea’s new Yangdok County Hot Spring Resort.
Kim added the spa’s purpose will be to serve “as a curative and recuperative complex.”
Kim’s sister and advisor Kim Yo Jong was also on the visit.
Kim Jong Un at North Korea’s new Yangdok County Hot Spring Resort.
Kim at the Yangdok resort.
The Yangdok County Hot Spring Resort.
Here’s an aerial photo of the resort.
NK News reported that Kim was previously unhappy with, and criticized, the status of work on the project, “lamenting during an August 2018 visit that it had ‘no excellent health complex that has been built properly in terms of sanitation and cultured practice as befitting recreational and recuperative facilities’.”
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
The Army’s Green Berets need mountain warfare training — and what better place to do it than on the so-called roof of the world?
About the size of the US state of Georgia, Nepal is wedged between India and China along the length of the Himalayan mountain range. The mountain kingdom is home to eight of the world’s 14 highest mountains, including 29,029-foot Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak. For two 1st Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) Green Berets, this was the perfect turf on which to hone their mountain warfare prowess.
In September and October, the pair of Special Forces soldiers spent six weeks with the Nepali Army High Altitude and Mountain Warfare School (HAMWS), training on all sorts of hard-charging mountain warfare skills, including ascending and descending techniques, survival and rescue techniques, the use of special equipment, and cliff assault tactics.
And for the pièce de résistance, the Green Berets put their new skills and equipment to the test scaling Thorang Peak, a 20,200-foot mountain. At that altitude, there’s roughly half as much air pressure — and half as much oxygen — as at sea level.
“Marrying a deep expertise in mountain warfare tactics and mountaineering techniques with breathtaking terrain, the program succeeded in not only sharpening our capabilities but in forging strong bonds between new friends,” a detachment commander from the 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) said, according to a Department of Defense release.
Nepal has more than 13,000 peaks higher than 6,000 meters, or about 19,700 feet. (Alaska’s Denali, the highest mountain in North America, is 20,310 feet high.) For the past 30 years, the Nepali Army’s HAMWS has hosted some 16 foreign students from 23 participating countries. This year, four total students from the US, Pakistan, and Bangladesh participated.
US Special Operations forces have trained in Nepal for years — including parachute jumps in the shadow of Mount Everest in the country’s Khumbu region.
On April 25, 2015, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake devastated much of Nepal’s Himalayan landscape, killing about 9,000 people. Ancient monuments in the capital city of Kathmandu were turned to rubble. A massive avalanche at Mount Everest base camp killed 24 people, National Geographicreported.
After the 2015 earthquake, the deployed Army Green Berets ditched their training and went into real-world search and rescue mode. Among other efforts, they performed a helicopter rescue mission in the Himalayas, saving 30 stranded trekkers, including an American named Corey Ascolani.
US military personnel traveled to Nepal in 2017 for a humanitarian aid mission called Pacific Angel 17-4.
The US has another, more clandestine military connection to Nepal, dating back to the Cold War when the CIA supported Tibetan guerrillas based in Nepal’s Mustang region. Known as the Chushi Gangdruk, the CIA-backed irregular Tibetan force conducted cross-border raids against Chinese forces inside Tibet — a lingering point of contention between Beijing and Washington.
After the laughter died down, many of us wondered what the hell the pilots who drew the Navy’s penis in the sky – now known everywhere as the “sky penis” – were thinking. We may never know exactly what was going through their minds, but now at least we know what they were saying when they drew the now-famous celestial phallus.
“You should totally try to draw a penis.”
It was a clear day over Washington state in 2017, when suddenly the skies were marred by what appeared to be a huge dong in the wild blue yonder. Thousands of feet above the earth, U.S. Navy pilots behind the sticks of an EA-18G Growler were giggling up a storm after noticing their contrails looked particularly white against the vivid blue backdrop of the sky.
They didn’t notice the contrails weren’t dissipating quite as fast as they hoped they would. At least, that’s what the official cockpit audio recording says.
“My initial reaction was no, bad,” the pilot wrote in a statement. “But for some reason still unknown to me, I eventually decided to do it.”
While the above recording isn’t the official audio – the Navy didn’t release the audio, just the transcripts – it’s a pretty good replica done by the guys from the Aviation Lo Down podcast. It includes such gems as:
“You should totally try to draw a penis.”
“Which way is the shaft going?”
“It’s gonna be a wide shaft.”
“I don’t wanna make it just like 3 balls.”
While everyone involved seemed pleased with their great work, including the commander of the training mission in another Growler, they soon realized the contrails were still there, their magnum opus firmly painted on the sky for all the world to see – and see they did. Residents of Okanogan soon called into their local news station to complain about the large drawing in the sky.
The Navy has not released the identities of those involved in creating the most memorable public achievement made by the Navy since Top Gun, it has only ever mentioned the two junior-ranking pilots were highly skilled and good leaders who one might think would know better.
More importantly, no one knows what became of them. Here’s to hoping they got tickets to the Army-Navy Game.
Kathleen Bourque’s life with her fiancée Marine 1st Lt. Conor McDowell, was cut tragically short following a vehicle rollover accident that killed McDowell. Now, Bourque is channeling her grief into awareness about military vehicle rollovers.
In May 2019, Bourque’s fiancée was killed in a military training accident, days after being promoted, and just three months before their planned September wedding. Her life with her intended was cut tragically short after the accident that happened at Camp Pendleton.
McDowell and his crew set out on a route reconnaissance exercise with an order to recon Canyon Road at Camp Pendleton in preparation for a division-sized movement. Then McDowell made the decision to move the LAV off-road and drive it into tall vegetation, which isn’t unusual for cover and concealment. Light armored recon Marines are routinely taught that roads are dangerous and should be avoided to eliminate dust signatures.
The LAV that McDowell and his crew were operating crept slowly into six-foot-tall vegetation, which obstructed the driver’s vision. A corporal stood up and yelled for the driver to halt, but it was too late. The Marines inside never saw the ditch. The LAV plummeted down a 15-foot washout and rolled upside down. A command investigation obtained by the Marine Corps Times detailed that McDowell used his last moments alive to alert his crew that the vehicle was about to roll, actions that might’ve spared others more serious injury. Several of McDowell’s crew were injured.
The couple met in 2018 after connecting on a dating app, Hinge. McDowell had just graduated from the Marine Corps Infantry Officer Course in Virginia and was headed to Camp Pendleton for his next assignment. But before heading out west, McDowell took an 800-mile detour and went to visit Bourque in her North Carolina home. They spent just four days together before making the decision that Bourque would move with McDowell to California. Friends and family balked at the choice, but the couple was steadfast that it was the right thing to do.
The couple settled into life as much as they could. As a military girlfriend, Bourque had limited access to on-base resources. She couldn’t shop at the commissary, access fitness facilities, go to the MCX or check out books in the library. In the military, you’re either married or you’re single – there is no in-between. So when McDowell died, Bourque found herself and her status in limbo. She had to fight with McDowell’s chain of command to have her dead fiancé’s things shipped back across the country because she wasn’t listed as the next of kin on McDowell’s paperwork. At his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, Bourque was told to “stand back” because she wasn’t considered, in the eyes of the military, “immediate family.”
Now she’s banded together with six other military fiancés who have lost their partners to military accidents, and she’s lobbying for change. As a group, they fight for their relationships to be considered valid in the eyes of the military. Because none of the Wild Gang was married, they don’t receive any Gold Star benefits and are largely forgotten by the larger military community.
Bourque thinks the accident should never have happened and has been reaching out to lawmakers on Capitol Hill to act on military vehicle rollover accidents. McDowell was one of four marines who died in a military vehicle rollover during training exercises in 2019. His death represents a slight uptick in non-combat-related tactical vehicle deaths for the Marine Corps. However, data from the Naval Safety Center shows that Marine tactical vehicle mishaps are at a ten-year low.
That disconnect is part of what Bourque is fighting for. Recognition as a military widow and the fact that some vehicle deaths might go unreported keeps her fighting for McDowell’s memory. She maintains that widows, no matter their official marriage status, should be treated unequivocally with the same level of respect across all branches of the military.
On May 2, 2011, a Seattle-based school teacher shaved his face for the first time in a decade. It was one of those beard-growing events you hear about athletes doing or when people grow facial hair for a good cause. But the only thing special about Gary Weddle’s beard was when he started growing it, and the day he cut it, which all began on Sept. 11, 2001.
The 9/11 attacks were the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil – and the whole country watched.
Gary Weddle was a 40-year-old middle school science teacher during the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. Though the teacher, based in Ephrata, Wash., was far from the tragic devastation of the attacks, he was still devastated by the loss of life and the destruction of some of America’s most iconic structures. He told the Seattle Times that he couldn’t eat, shower, or shave in the days that followed. So to work through his grief, he vowed that he wouldn’t – shave that is – until the architect of the attacks was killed or captured.
The day he got to shave his beard came nearly a full ten years later, on May 1, 2011, when President Obama announced to the world that U.S. intelligence had found his hiding place in Pakistan and that U.S. Navy SEALs attacked it and killed the terrorist mastermind in a daring nighttime raid.
President Obama announced that U.S. Special Operators killed Osama bin Laden on May 1, 2011.
After nearly ten years of nothing about Bin Laden, Weddle thought he might be buried with the beard. And he hated it. The facial hair only served as a reminder of the destruction of that day, and the justice left unserved to the man who planned the whole thing. So when he heard about the SEAL Team Six raid on Bin Laden’s hideout, he went straight for a pair of scissors.
The then-50-year-old had begun to look homeless in his long beard. Some even remarked that the graying beard resembled the one sported by Osama bin Laden himself. But after 3,454 days with the beard, having taught some 2,000 students, it took Gary Weddle 40 minutes to emerge from the bathroom clean-shaven. The students he currently taught at Ephrata Middle School were only two years old during the 9/11 attacks, and no one who worked with Weddle ever knew him without the beard.
When he walked into work the next day with his new look, few recognized him – and those who did say he looked ten years younger.
Army Gen. Robert B. Abrams, commanding general of U.S. Army Forces Command, and Army Command Sgt. Maj. Michael A. Grinston, FORSCOM’s command sergeant major, survey the work of soldiers deployed in support of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve and assigned to the 458th Engineer Battalion at Camp Taji, Iraq, Nov. 16, 2017.
Across the military, service members and their families are working through the new normal brought about by COVID-19. Everyone is dealing with a fair amount of stress and we understand how important great leadership is right now. So, we reached out to the Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston (socially distanced, of course) to get his advice for leaders while we work through this pandemic.
He opened up his green notebook and provided the following insights.
Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Grinston, senior enlisted leader for Army Forces Command, presents the FORSCOM Eagle Award during a ceremony Jan. 9, 2019.
Leadership matters right now. This isn’t harder than what is required of leaders in combat, but it is a very difficult time. In combat, you can physically bring everyone together. Now, how do you lead during this time of uncertainty? How do you get the information out? How do you make sure they stay the course? How do you make sure your soldiers are following orders –- which in some cases may be to stay at home and keep everyone healthy?
Everyone agrees that face-to-face leadership is the best and leaders can tell a lot about someone’s emotional condition by looking them in the eyes. We still have to do it. Don’t fall in the trap of relying on text messages to communicate. I recommend leaders develop a communications PACE plan. Make video chats your primary means of communication. If that isn’t available, make a phone call so you can hear their voice. Finally, leaders can use text and email to keep the lines of communication open.
Remember, these are difficult times and leadership is what is going to make the difference for the people in your formation.
2. Get innovative
There are so many opportunities right now for leaders to get innovative with how they maintain readiness and keep their soldiers motivated.
For example, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, a battalion conducted an individual 6-mile foot march competition. Everyone used either cell phone apps or GPS watches to track their progress and then posted their times online. The winner with the fastest time received an Army Achievement Medal.
Another unit in Poland conducted EIB training, but included hand-washing and social distancing enforcement during the event.
At the Department of Army level, we are looking for ways to maintain readiness. We started running the Basic Army Leader Course via distance learning. I expect the same of our leaders down at the unit level — look for innovative ways to accomplish the mission.
Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston visited the U.S. Army Medical Center of Excellence at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston Jan. 15.
We all have a responsibility to maintain our fitness and stay focused on personal readiness during this period.
We also have a responsibility and a great opportunity to focus on the operational readiness rate of our equipment so that when we come back to train, our vehicles and weapons are ready to go. Leaders can take advantage of this pause in training to bring mechanics and crews in to bring equipment up to 10/20 standard.
4. Stay informed
Besides company-level leadership keeping soldiers and their families informed, there are also plenty of opportunities to stay up-to-date on the latest news by Department of the Army and Garrison Commands.
I know that unit-level leaders are doing weekly virtual town halls, most garrisons are doing them several times a week and we have done a few at the Army level. Don’t rely on hearsay to get your information; tune-in and stay informed with facts.
5. Set goals
Treat this period like a deployment. We not only want to survive it, we also want to thrive in it. A great way to do this is to set personal and professional goals.
Gyms are closed and many of the conditions we had pre-coronavirus have changed. So, we need to reassess our goals. While we can’t go to gyms, there are workouts we can do in our living rooms to stay fit. Look for opportunities; there might be online courses or credentialing classes that you can take advantage of to achieve professional goals.
I recommend everyone try to figure out some kind of routine to work toward your goals. Don’t wake up everyday and muddle through it — keep moving forward.
It’s pouring rain as the photographer and I run through the cobbled streets of Philadelphia. You can see it in the locals’ faces and the Colonial buildings still standing strong just blocks from the Liberty Bell that this city is tough. For over 300 years, Philly has been the home of patriots, presidents and even movie characters such as Rocky Balboa. Yet, there is one theme that continues to define Philadelphians. No matter how much they struggle, get kicked around or scarred, there will be a moment when they rise, gritty and determined, and GO on with their mission.
We arrive at the Union League, a brick and brownstone club, which has supported the military and veterans since 1862. As we pass two statues of soldiers marching off to war, I receive a text, “Finishing a board meeting. Use the side entrance. You won’t be allowed in unless you are in a jacket. Which I assume you are not.” The subject of our next interview is 100% correct and I instantly know we are in the place where Ryan Manion and her team hold court each December.
Ryan is the President of the Travis Manion Foundation, co-author of the Knock at the Door, mother, Gold Star sister and marathon runner. She’s busy. Always on the go, and the second week of December is her Super Bowl.
The night before our interview, she led the annual If Not Me, Then Who gala, which honors fallen heroes, veterans, active-duty troops and military families. Today, she’s leading the TMF board meeting, which includes current CEOs and former generals. Tomorrow, she’ll go on Fox Sports to represent TMF at the Army-Navy game where Navy will take home the win (but we don’t know that yet). Ryan has thankfully given us thirty minutes of her downtime for a one-on-one interview which she tells me is “no big deal” after I thank her again.
The Travis Manion Foundation is a big deal. The non-profit, which started as a small family effort, is now an organization that coordinates thousands of community volunteers across the nation. Ryan, who lost her brother, 1st Lieutenant Travis Manion, and her team are driven by the mission to “empower veterans and families of fallen heroes to develop character in future generations.”
The most amazing thing about Ryan Manion is not only all that she and her team have accomplished since 2007 but the fact that she is still going, and going strong. Ryan, who grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, is a former smoker who now runs marathons and does ruck marches. She talks fast and moves faster. “Come on, let’s GO,” she tells us when we see her. I follow, knowing without a doubt that Ryan is the next generation of tough as nails leader that Philly is known for.
WATM: How’s your Army-Navy week going?
Ryan’s phone rings. It’s a family call. She answers while we start taking photos. Then she’s back.
Ryan Manion: It’s been a little heavy this week. We started off Tuesday with a meeting for all our senior TMF leadership, which we did for the first time. They flew in from all over the country. Then Tuesday night, we had a huge book event here in Philly, and my son has pneumonia.
WATM: OMG, that is a lot.
Ryan: He’s fine. Home with the family. He had a cold for three days. It didn’t even seem like a big cold. You know, it’s been kind of crazy.
WATM: How do you manage everything on your plate?
Ryan: I love what I do, and I get to work on wonderful things. We’ve been working on a project for tomorrow’s Army-Navy Game. We’re bringing 30 wounded warriors and their families to meet the President during the third quarter.
WATM: Wow, that is amazing. Did you ever see yourself doing this kind of work? Especially leading an organization such as the Travis Manion Foundation?
Ryan: Today, one of our board members said it best, “It all just gets back to Travis, saying, if not me, then who?” And that kind of simplified the journey for me. I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God. I’m sitting here with all these people because of my brother.’
WATM: You and your family established the organization as a way to carry on Travis’s legacy. Does it still feel that way a decade later?
Ryan and her brother Travis at the Army-Navy Game.
Ryan: Last night, somebody at the gala who was a Marine that served with Travis came up to me and said, “You know, I’ve been at this gala for eight years now, and every year gets better and better. It’s unbelievable. But I got to tell you, I was sitting there thinking, these people don’t know who Travis Manion was.”
WATM: How did that make you feel?
Ryan: Travis is my personal driver, but this organization is bigger than one person. I am excited for so many to see the fruits of what he stood for through this organization.
WATM: If Not Me, Then Who?
Ryan: Exactly. My brother wrote those words before he deployed to Iraq, and they represent the character, leadership and selfless service that is the backbone of all our programs. Whether it is our strength-building seminars, expeditions, fitness events or service projects, we unite our volunteers, both civilian and veteran, in the common cause to better their communities by living the mantra of “If Not Me, Then Who…”
WATM: What do you think draws people to the foundation and your work?
Ryan: It’s funny because our board was just asking me the same thing.
Ryan: I have to tell you, the thing about our organization is that it’s like the feeling you get when you’re around your family. It started out as a family affair. It was a small family that was grieving the loss of their loved one. But even as we’ve grown, it doesn’t matter what event you’re at or how many show up. You know, tomorrow there will be a thousand people at our tailgate, everyone’s going to feel like they’re part of a team, a family.
WATM: Was that the plan from the beginning?
Ryan laughs. I’ve been to a few TMF tailgates, and we both know the answer.
Ryan: I can’t articulate in words why that is. But you’ve been around it, you see it, and I don’t know what drives that. We come from a very different place from a lot of other traditional veterans service organizations, especially those in the post 9/11 world. I think they’re all doing great work. They came with an idea, “Ok, this is the problem, and this is how we’re going to solve it.”
We came with, “I just lost my brother, my mom and dad just lost their son. And we want to make sure that we continue his legacy.” So when you come at it from that place, there’s no chance that it’s gonna be anything but super authentic in what you’re doing. Since then, it’s been, “Ok, we’re going to do this. Oh, people are into it. Ok? Let’s keep doing it. Oh, wow. We’re really doing something here now.” That’s the plan.
Ryan Manion with a copy of her book, The Knock at the Door.
WATM: So let’s talk about the book. First of all, congratulations.
Ryan: Thank you. Yes, it’s pretty awesome.
WATM: What’s the feedback you’re getting so far?
Ryan: The feedback has been tremendous. We’ve found that this book, to some degree, breaks down the wedge between the civilian and military worlds because everyone receives some type of knock at the door. We all have challenges that we weren’t expecting to appear in our lives.
The Knock At the Door shows what a military family goes through when they lose someone. But this story doesn’t end there. Our story just begins there. So it’s set in a much different context. The Knock At the Door empowered me and my co-authors into another chapter of our lives. We all had different journeys from shock to finding purpose.
WATM: In the book, you describe how physical fitness helped you find focus. Specifically moving from smoking to running the Marine Corps Marathon?
Ryan: I totally recognize the extreme of it all. Physical fitness is huge both in general and in times of grief. It was truly eye-opening when I discovered the effect it had on my daily psyche. I mean, people say, exercise is a little bit of a drug and they’re right. That’s why I had to write about my physical journey alongside my emotional one. I went through some dark times after I lost my brother. I struggled with anxiety and depression and was ultimately diagnosed with PTSD. It was realization that I was not ok that helped me to pick up the pieces.
WATM: Is there anything that people are really responding to or the people are coming to you afterwards and saying, I love this. That you’re finding people are really resonating with?
Ryan: I think for me, people were surprised about how vulnerable I was in the book. You know, I’ve been given the opportunity to run a veteran serving organization that requires a lot of professional appearances and public speaking. People get to meet me as the President of the Travis Manion Foundation, but this book showed a whole different side of me.
WATM: Was it scary to be that vulnerable and open?
Ryan: Yes. You know, the other thing that’s been really great about the book is the response from the Gold Star community. If you would have asked me before I wrote, what’s your biggest fear? It would be that like the Gold Star community doesn’t connect with this. And they have.
Ryan with her TMF GORUCK.
WATM: What do you think Travis would say about all of this?
Ryan: I don’t know what Travis would be doing now. I don’t know if he’d still be in the Marine Corps, if he’d be out and working in corporate America or doing something less traditional. I have no idea. But I know that he would be involved in this world. He would not be the veteran that takes off the uniform, goes away and is unconnected to what’s happening in their community. But would I be connected to this world? Probably not, because my brother would have been. I think he would be proud that I am involved and active with the Travis Manion Foundation, but he would have hated that it’s named after him.
WATM: I think I can understand that.
Ryan: We were years into this thing, and my dad’s like, “I just feel like I don’t think Travis would like that his name is everywhere. It’s nameless, maybe we should change the name?” And my response was something like, “Dad, you’re kidding. We’re in too deep. Travis’s name represents this generation.” And so, that’s my rebuttal. I think Travis would be super proud of what’s happening in his name.
WATM: Is there anything that you’re looking forward to in 2020? Maybe something you’re scared about or something we should keep on our radar?
Ryan: The next big thing I’m doing is going to Puerto Rico at the end of January for one of our service expeditions. We have eight or nine of these service expeditions a year, but this one is special. I will be traveling with a Marine who was with Travis when he was killed. We will be doing rehab projects for veterans’ homes effected by the hurricane a couple of years ago. I am looking forward to that.
WATM: Will you keep us updated on the trip?
Ryan: Of course.
WATM: Last question. Who do you think will win the Army-Navy Game tomorrow?