With in-processing complete, the 466 students of Sergeants Major Course Class 65 received their final briefings Aug. 11 before starting the 10-month long program of instruction.
Sitting in the East auditorium of the Cooper Lecture Center, better known by the students as the master bedroom, the students were greeted by Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis Defreese, commandant of the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy.
“This won’t take very long and I will take whatever questions you want to ask, but really it’s about welcoming you and giving you a little bit of course expectations from my foxhole,” Defreese said. “I know you have already heard this, but this course is more challenging than (what) your battalion or brigade CSMs (told) you before you came here. That being said, it is not that hard that you shouldn’t be taking college courses (while you are here).”
He encourage all of the students that if they didn’t have a degree, or where close to completing one, to do it while they were at the academy, but balance that with taking time for the family and exploring El Paso and the surrounding area. He also cautioned the class to maintain the profession.
“The three key parts of the profession, our profession, are character, commitment and competence. You cannot mask character flaws with competence. I don’t care how good of a student you are if you have a character issue while you are here it is going to be a problem,” he said. “Look out for each other. … (Keep) each other out of trouble. … My goal here is to graduate 466 students from this academy.”
Defreese also touched on the height and weight, and Army Physical Fitness standards, stressing that as per Army directive it is a graduation requirement to meet those standards. He also talked briefly about current issues facing the force like sequestrations, force reductions and the Command Select List before turning his attention to the many guest speakers the students will hear from.
“There is no other venue in the world where you will get the level of speakers that comes in here to this course,” he said. “You are going to be hearing from some of the senior leaders in the Army. Pay attention to them, they are going to tell you what the latest is in the Army. They know what is going on.”
With his comments complete, Defreese took time to answer some questions from the students.
Later in the day the students received their in-brief from the Sergeants Major Course director, Command Sgt. Maj. Gary Coleman who introduced himself as a Class 56 graduate.
“Why do I say that? Because it is important that when you graduate from here that you are proud of this alumni,” he said. “Once you get out of here, the one thing you will do is when you see other sergeants major, what is common amongst you, is you come from here (and what class you are). So be proud of this.”
Coleman gave the students a complete overview of the mission of the Sergeants Major Course as well as introduced all of the cadre from the different departments – Force Management; Command Leadership; Army Operations; Joint Intergovernmental, Interagency and Multinational; and Training and Doctrine. Each department introduced their staff and gave an overview of the curriculum of that department.
Coleman also made note of the level of experience and education of the instructors, many with advanced degrees or higher as well as command sergeant major, combat and joint experience.
“We have a lot of experience here,” Coleman said. “So when we talk to you about being selected as being the best of the best to come here, you are going to have the best of the best teach you on all of these different aspects of the different roles of the sergeant major.”
Coleman and his staff also briefed the students on every aspect of the course concerning assessments, standards and expectations. He too cautioned the students about maintaining the standards, watching each other’s back and maintaining the profession with character, competence and commitment. He also dispelled a misconception of what the Sergeants Major Course was not.
“One of the perceptions about the Sergeants Major Course is that we are going to teach you how to be that sergeant major out there chewing butt, and all of those other things. That is not what this course is designed to do,” he said. “This course is designed to make you an adaptive and agile senior leader. To be able to go out there and be effective, be efficient, be part of the team, understand the same language that your officers are talking, and it brings credibility (to the rank).”
He said the goal was to have 466 students graduate from the course and told the students that the staff and cadre where there to help them in any way they can to make that happen.
The Army’s culminating enlisted Professional Military Education (PME) institution is the Sergeants Major Course. This course provides tools to develop critical reasoning, creative thinking and decision-making skills. Soldiers are provided an education that teaches them to enhance their character, self-expression, and strengthen teamwork abilities. The course assists in the development of logical, practical and original reasoning abilities necessary for problem solving. Students analyze problems based on available information, arrive at logical solutions and decisions with reasonable speed, communicate reasoning and decisions orally and in writing, and supervise to ensure proper execution. Intellectual honesty, integrity, and professional values and standards are highly stressed. The SMC contains a total of 1,484.7 instructional hours, and is also offered as a nonresident course which culminates with two weeks of resident instruction at the academy.
Noted American novelist Richard Bach said, “The mark of your ignorance is the depth of your belief in injustice and tragedy. What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the Master calls the butterfly.” In other words, there is good and bad in every situation or event, it just depends upon your point of view.
Understanding those differing points of view and how individuals face and cope with “adversity, adapt to change, recover, and learn to grow from setbacks” has been an Army focus since the establishment of the Ready and Resilient Campaign and the Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness program in 2008. Through CSF2 the Army seeks to “increase the resilience and enhance the performance of Soldiers, their families and Army civilians.” Included in CSF2 is Master Resilience Training where individuals are trained to teach proven resilience skills to Soldiers in order to enhance their performance and increase resiliency, both individually and collectively – “being Army Strong is about much more than being physically fit; it is about mental and emotional strength, as well.”
At the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy, resiliency training began about three years ago when one of the cadre attended the MRT Course taught at the University of Pennsylvania and came back to USASMA and developed a program of instruction for students attending the Sergeants Major Course.
“Ramzy Noel (one of the senior instructors of the Sergeants Major Course) had heard of this and got involved in and he piloted a program here to teach [MRT] at the academy,” said Mike Hayes, senior instructor in the Department of Command Leadership. “He got it blessed off on by [the] director of the Sergeants Major Course, and he taught an abbreviated version of the class in the auditorium to the [sergeants major course students].
Hayes soon followed Noel’s footsteps and attended the University of Pennsylvania training and joined Noel in teaching the class. Last year the Sergeants Major Course reorganized into new departments and the responsibility for the course fell strictly on Hayes to manage. That is about the time, Hayes explained, when the leadership of the Army’s CFS2 program came to USASMA and gave a brief to sergeants major course students about the program. From there, an agreement was reached where individuals from the Fort Bliss Comprehensive Soldiers and Family Fitness Training Center would take on the duties of teaching the course and the students would graduate from it with the additional skill qualifier of 8R – they could now teach the course themselves instead of just knowing about the course.
“It enhanced the quality of training and all the sergeants major will be level ones (Level I) upon graduation, Hayes said. “The intent behind it was to get a lot more senior level, senior NCO, involvement in the program. Some units had programs in place but they weren’t really going after things. So leadership felt that if they had more believers at the senior level, more would get involved and then the programs would get better.”
With the agreement in place between USASMA and CSF2, instructors from the Fort Bliss center began teaching the 10-day course to the students of Sergeants Major Course Class 64. As the SMC is broken down into five departments and five semesters, the MRT course is taught at the beginning of each semester as each group rotates into the Command Leadership phase of the course. The course itself consists of lectures in the auditorium and small group instruction and interaction in the classroom.
“The overall mechanics of the program is typically they get information in the large group setting where they learn a skill or a component of a skill, a theory behind something that works, and then the real work is when they go to the small group room with an assistant primary instructor and some facilitators and we ask them to actually use the skill or theory they just learned,” said Dr. Erin Towner, Psy D, Master Resilience Trainer/Performance Expert and primary instructor for the course. “Here is this skill, now walk through it; this is how your MRT is trained to do it; try it for yourself. After they get their feet wet with the skill, all the skills are worked through with a partner, and then we work in the small group rooms debriefing the skill, talking about what we learned in doing the exercise and a lot about application – how do you use this or see this being used.”
Sgt. 1st Class David Parish, a Level IV MRT instructor and assistant primary instructor with the 5th Armored Brigade, 1st Armored Division, said the intent is to educate senior leaders as to what it is an MRT does so it can be better utilized in the field.
“The overarching goal of teaching sergeants major students the program and actually walking them through the entire program is designed to give them a deeper understanding of what an MRT is,” he said. “[It’s] also to show them how they can use their MRT as a force multiplier; how they can use their MRT more effectively in their units; and what their MRT’s left and right limits actually are.”
Parish said the latter part is significant because MRTs in the field have been asked to do things that actually aren’t in an MRT’s realm or scope. He added leadership has heard reports back from Soldiers who have been asked to be like a triage for their unit – to decide whether or not somebody needs to go to mental health.
“We are not training in a two-week period to be clinical psychologists. We are not giving anyone a PhD in clinical psychology,” he said. “So leaders need to understand things like you still have those outside resources that you need to reach for [that are outside an MRT’s scope].”
Parish said that MRT is based on science and is intended to give Soldiers skills to cope with things before they happen as well as give them life skills for everyday living.
“Resilience is a skill. Resilience skills are really designed for before an event occurs in your life. So before a traumatic event happens, before life just slaps you in the face,” Parish said. “These are the skills we want you to know beforehand.”
He added, MRT is not trying to teach anybody a set of skills for after an event has already occurred.
“Say you are suffering from a disorder like PTSD,” he said. “We are not teaching you these skills to treat your PTSD, we are teaching you these skills to treat your life and how you would use these skills for long term and hopefully reduce or eliminate the PTSD before it happens.”
MRT training is broken down into four modules of instruction, Dr. Towner said.
“The first module is foundations. It contains foundational components about resilience, performance enhancement and the six competencies that build resilience and performance,” she said. “We also teach them the skills of energy management and goal setting”
Module two she said is the longest module and is focused on building mental toughness.
“That is a lot of cognitive behavioral skills, the basic skills like the Army saying, ‘Suck it up and drive on,’” she said. “Knowing these skills; this is how you do that; telling somebody to get over something, or how do they get over something? This is the way, and there are very specific set of skills to use in certain types of situations to develop those competencies we talk about.”
In Module three the students learn about strength of character.
“The students take an assessment and they get a rank order of their strengths,” Dr. Towner said. “Then we have a lot of conversations about how have you used these strengths, where has this gotten you, how do you find this in your Soldiers, and how are you going to leverage this in your Soldiers? That module is an entire day.”
Module four is all about communication, she said. From there they move on to looking at scenarios.
“They have learned all these skills and then we give them a scenario and then ask them what skills make sense to work this scenario,” she said. “We ask them how should they be working with this Soldier and the scenario gets progressively more complicated and [it forces them] to see what other assets and resources you can use on post to help this Soldier – what other assets are available.”
Towner said it is all aimed at setting them up for success before the “stuff” happens.
The students of Class 64 who took the course in the first semester agree.
“Up until I came here and I took the MRT course, I knew very little of it,” said Master Sgt. Juan Pena who was a brigade operations sergeant major with the 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y. before attending the Sergeants Major Course. “When you are talking resiliency it’s about people’s feelings and emotions and how they are able to handle and cope with different situations. It has just been through my experience that I have been able to help soldiers out with their situations, shortcomings and shortfalls. However, the MRT course gave me a whole different insight on how to problem solve, look at better ways of doing things and also how to be more positive each and every day. This is probably one of the most beneficial training exercises or training event that I have ever been involved in.”
Master Sgt. Clay Usie who was a senior military instructor at Louisiana State University and a 1st Sgt. with the 75th Ranger Regiment, before coming to USASMA, said that he had used and taught resiliency as soon as the Army stood up the CSF2 program on Fort Benning, Ga.
“My battalion commander became a big fan of it and we started sending all of our senior instructors for the ranger assessment and selection program and we started teaching resiliency training within the program,” he said. “I think it complemented what we were doing. I don’t have the statistics right off hand but we have shown an increased accession rate since we implemented MRT.”
Throughout the course students are taught about MRT competencies of self awareness, self regulation, optimism, mental agility, strengths of character and connection. They learn about thinking traps, activating events, icebergs (personal beliefs and values), problem solving, and putting things in perspective, mental games, real time resilience, communication tools, and how to hunt for the good stuff. The course also shows the students how to conduct pre-deployment training, post-deployment training, teach energy management and goal setting.
The expectation from the Sergeants Major Course students going forward, Hayes explained, is not to go out and teach the course, but to use the knowledge they have gained to ensure the program is working out in the field.
“Now you know what right looks like, you know what the program consists of. You know what the skills are and you know what the requirements are. So when you get to your unit as an S3 sergeant major and your commander says ‘what is the status of my MRT program?’ You can go down and see how they are doing it [with the knowledge of how it is supposed to be done],” Hayes said. “We tell the students to make sure that it is alive and vibrant in your organizations, that you are meeting Army requirements for pre-deployment and post-deployment and that the quarterly training requirements are being met. The second thing is make sure it is good quality. Make sure your programs are teaching quality. If you have good quality and you get involved in the training it is going to stick more.”
Although the Academy is the only place where students are taught the entire Level I course and receive certification, Parish said that parts of MRT is taught at all levels of Army training from basic training to the Advanced Leaders Course.