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Warrior Transition Unit Cadre Training course prepares NCOs for the stresses ahead

By Meghan Portillo, NCO Journal

April 6, 2017

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Non-Commissioned Officers of all military occupational specialties may volunteer for a broadening assignment as a Warrior Transition Unit Cadre member, but only the best of the best are chosen by their commands for the job.

Warrior Transition Units located across the Army support wounded, ill and injured Soldiers as they transition back into the force or civilian life. The WTU is a place where Soldiers' health is the primary mission. Every day, a Soldier's job is to go to appointments, to complete physical therapy, to participate in adaptive reconditioning programs or any other activities that may aid in his or her recovery.1

The squad leaders and platoon sergeants assigned as cadre to the WTUs play a vital role in the recovery process, and their responsibilities come with unique challenges. They must learn to take an empathetic approach as they guide fellow service members through what may be some of the darkest days of their lives. The NCOs must adapt their leadership styles to their Soldiers' needs and learn to work in close collaboration with a team of medical professionals.2

To set the cadre up for success, each NCO assigned to a WTU must attend the 3-week WTU Resident Cadre Training course offered through the Army Medical Department Center and School (AMEDDC&S) at Joint Base San Antonio–Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

“Within AMEDDC&S, we are the only course that teaches nonmedical personnel,” said Master Sgt. Melvin Bautista, NCO in charge of the Department of Warrior Transition at AMEDDC&S. “Anyone who is selected to be a WTU NCO comes to our course. These NCOs are coming into a medical atmosphere, and it is their challenge and the course cadre’s challenge to help them adjust, learn the jargon – prepare them for success in a medical environment. We seek to prepare them to work closely with social workers, nurses and other medical personnel every day. We are taking Infantrymen, Rangers, Paratroopers and putting them in group training with all of these medical professionals to help them learn to converse with them comfortably, to work together to take care of that Soldier in transition."

Training as a team

AMEDDC&S simultaneously runs three WTU courses. One is for the NCO cadre – the squad leaders and platoon sergeants. Another is for the leadership – the commanders, the first sergeants, the social workers and other staff. The third course is for the nurses.3

The programs are taught simultaneously to allow for group training, where participants of all three courses come together to collaborate on a case, as they will need to do once they return to their WTUs.4

For example, a Soldier may act out a scenario as a sergeant major who has chronic depression and an early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. The squad leaders and platoon leaders, along with the nurses and other members of the interdisciplinary team, must walk that sergeant major through the in-processing procedures, then help him set and evaluate realistic and healthy goals.5

Members of the WTU cadre are required to work with nurse case managers, primary care managers, social workers, physical and occupational therapists, ombudsmen and chaplains. As the NCOs most likely have never needed to collaborate with medical professionals before, the course seeks to give them a taste of that environment.6

"Leadership cohesion is important," said Staff Sgt. Joshua Austin, course instructor. “Often, a Soldier in transition is more comfortable with one member of his interdisciplinary team. He may tell more to his social worker than he does to his nurse case manager or his squad leader because they have a better rapport. He will give up this information to this person, different information to this person, more details to this person and a little information to this person. We have to emphasize that leadership cohesion so we can all pull together, get the full story and help that Soldier to the best of our ability.”

Course content

To help the NCOs deal with the unique stresses they will face, the course begins with resiliency training.

“I do think that this quite possibly is one of the most challenging positions in the entire Army,” said Staff Sgt. Thaddeus McCall, course instructor. "You have 10 or sometimes, even more, Soldiers, and you take on all of their issues, you take on their families' issues, in addition to whatever you as a leader have going on in your personal life."

The stresses of the job are such that if an NCO should seek an extension to stay at the WTU for the third year, that NCO must undergo a psychological evaluation to determine if he or she is still dealing with the stress well, has sound judgment and can handle the job.7

“The reason for wanting the best squad leaders and the best platoon sergeants in the Army to fill the positions of WTU cadre is because it is not a normal unit,” Austin said. “In an infantry unit, statistically, you are going to have one or two Soldiers who are going to have issues, who will require command or NCO intervention. One or two, otherwise the platoon pretty much runs itself with your direction. In a WTU, every Soldier has issues. Every Soldier’s family members have issues. And you have to be good enough to take on all of those issues at once without burning out. It takes a special mentality and a special motivation to be able to handle and deal with that kind of stress. You need the best, because the average middle-of-the-road performer is not going to have the endurance or motivation needed to take care of that kind of stuff.”

NCOs finish the first week of the course with a range of coping skills in their toolkit, as well as a better idea of how to be an empathetic leader. Because both the Soldiers in transition and their NCOs are under stress, the skills taught in the course aim to give NCOs the resiliency tools they need to help themselves and their Soldiers through difficult times.8

In the following weeks, NCOs delve into the comprehensive transition plan process. Whether Soldiers are headed back to military service or to life as veterans, each will complete six steps in the CTP process: in-processing, goal setting, transition review, rehabilitation, reintegration and post-transition. In the course, NCOs learn their responsibilities and how to guide a Soldier through each phase and through the medical evaluation board process.9

"We go through the six phases of the CTP and teach NCOs how to help an individual through the MEB and each stage of the process,” Austin said. “The <p

CTP is Soldier-owned but cadre-reinforced. NCOs are there to help Soldiers reach their goals and eliminate roadblocks."</p

The course also provides an overview of Veteran Affairs and U.S. Army Medical Command. NCOs study topics such as ethics, suicide prevention, risk communication, organization development, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as learn about the many programs and resources available to help their Soldiers.10

“There is a saying that when you leave a Warrior Transition Unit, you are going to know everything there is to know about a Soldier’s transition process,” McCall said. “With this course and in this job field, NCOs have to know what resources are available. Once they leave this assignment, they can take that information and pass it on at their next duty station.”

Leaving better leaders

The squad leaders and platoon leaders leave the WTU Cadre Resident Training Course with much more than the Y9 skill identifier. They leave with knowledge that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.11

“Any NCO who goes through this course and becomes a WTB NCO will be a better NCO for the rest of their careers in the sense that they will have more resources at their fingertips and have more confidence,” Bautista said. “Everything NCOs pick up and learn in a WTU is ultra-valuable. When an NCO becomes a first sergeant for the first time, they usually know nothing of the medical evaluation board process. These NCOs will be ahead of the game. And all of the resources available to the Soldiers and family members – they learn so much. I honestly think they are better equipped to be senior NCOs and first sergeants because they will know more than their peers about how to take care of Soldiers and their families.”

This may be the toughest assignment these NCOs will ever take on, but they will see the rewards in the long run.12

“This is going to be two years where it’s not about them,” McCall said. “They won’t be out there chasing awards or degrees. Their No. 1 priority will be helping their Soldiers heal and making sure those families are taken care of. They won’t be thinking, ‘Maybe I can get to Airborne this quarter and Air Assault next…’ No. It’s not about you. It really is a selfless job position.

“But I believe the experience they gain will enhance their leadership in the future,” McCall said. “They will have the skills to tackle any issue presented to them. I think their experience here will do nothing but enhance their future careers.”

Notes

  1. U.S. Army WTC Comprehensive Transition Plan: Guide for Leaders. Canada: Quick Series Publishing, 2012, 1-3.
  2. Staff Sgt. Joshua Austin in discussion with the author, September 2016.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid
  6. U.S. Army WTC, 2012, 54.
  7. Staff Sgt. Thaddeus McCall in discussion with the author, September 2016.
  8. Ibid
  9. U.S. Army WTC, 2012, 13-47.
  10. Austin, Joshua, September 2016.
  11. Master Sgt. Melvin Bautista in discussion with the author, September 2016.
  12. McCall, Thaddeus, September 2016.