On Tuesday at the Association of the U.S. Army's annual conference, Army families had the opportunity to tell senior leaders exactly what was going on in their worlds — an opportunity that is, unfortunately, all too rare.
There's something about airing your grievances to Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy, Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville, and Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston that gives new meaning to the idea of raising an issue up the chain of command. And while McCarthy and Grinston offered insight and assistance, it became clear this was McConville's show.
But the entire forum can perhaps be boiled down to a point made by an active-duty mom and spouse: “In the big picture, it's not happening.”
She was referring to the processing for employment through the Army's Civilian Personnel Advisory Centers, which can help spouses find job opportunities after relocating due to a service-related move. She said that the time it takes to process offers leaves spouses sitting in the queue for weeks at a time.
“I sat in there for several weeks until I called and had to push it through the system. Is there a way to make that a little bit faster?” she said. “It's translating to our families' financial readiness, And we need to be able to give them that stability.”
But the sentiment stands for a lot of things the Army is working on. While the top may be demanding change, the bureaucratic wheels of an organization as large as the Army often turn at a glacial pace, and that change may not trickle down to the people who need it the most.
The issues brought up ran the gamut — childcare for terminally-ill soldiers; family readiness; licensure reimbursements; background checks for PCS moving companies; and even the possibility of longer tours for families.
A couple on Facebook asked if leadership would consider four-year minimums at duty stations to lessen the number of PCS moves soldiers and their families take, and to have “stability for families.” Both McCarthy and McConville said they were on board.
“If we can accommodate that, why shouldn't we?” McConville said. “It's getting out of the industrial age personnel management system where everyone moves at three years — that's just the way we do it because that's the way we've always done it.”
One woman said her family has been “caught in the middle” of the opioid epidemic, as he's unable to get the pain medication he needs for a “debilitating blood condition that causes severe pain.
“Is there a way that they can be flagged in the system so that we are not feeling like we're dehumanized, being ostracized, feeling like we're abusers because they need this pain medication?” she asked.
Maj. Gen. Scott Dingle, the Army Surgeon General and Commanding General of U.S. Army Medical Command, responded that her comment was heard, and that he would “get your specific information to make sure not just yours, but other families in the same conditions are also addressed and we'll jump on it.”
McConville hasn't been shy about making soldiers and their families his priority as Chief, and on Tuesday hours before the family forum, he released the Army People Strategy, honing in on five priorities: Housing, health care, child development centers and child youth services, spouse employment, and PCS moves.
We are publishing the very first Army People Strategy. It will address how we take care of people by recognizing and managing their unique skills. People don't want to be treated like interchangeable parts in an industrial age process.
— GEN James C. McConville (@ArmyChiefStaff) October 15, 2019
One of the hottest topics in the Army — and across the Defense Department as a whole — is military housing, so it wasn't surprising when it came up more than once. One Army retiree spouse asked senior leaders what lessons they learned with privatized housing, and how they would apply those to the privatization in other areas of the service.
One of the biggest lessons that McConville mentioned was keeping the chain of command involved. Grinston echoed that, saying that sergeants need to be empowered to help people — not just on housing, but any issue that comes up — and to not give up until the person with the problem has gotten the right answer.
“You actually have to take some action. Maybe you've got to put down the cell phone, look people in the eye and actually talk to them. And then, you don't just hand them off to somebody else,” Grinston said. “You need to actually do something and say something and go, 'Well that's not right. I don't know the solution, but I'm going to take you over to the platoon sergeant and if he doesn't know, I'm going to take you to the company commander, the battalion commander, and if I have to I'm going to go to the division commander because we're going to fix this.'
“Sometimes it doesn't take a general officer to do it, it just takes a sergeant who's willing to say this isn't right, and we need to fix it.”