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Military & Veterans' Issues

A New Army Program Is Teaching Leaders To Be More Compassionate And Less 'Toxic'

 Staff Sgt. Ebony Rice (right) briefs a group of soldiers about how they performed during a training exercise at Fort Hood, Texas.
Carson Frame / American Homefront
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Staff Sgt. Ebony Rice (right) briefs a group of soldiers about how they performed during a training exercise at Fort Hood, Texas.

The program has debuted at Fort Hood, Texas, where Spc. Vanessa Guillen's killing last year led to criticism of the base's culture and command climate.

When 28-year-old Ebony Rice became an Army drill sergeant in 2018, she adopted the leadership style that's often associated with the job: loud, demanding and hyper-focused on making sure recruits followed the rules and worked as a team.

“The environment that we’re in, we have to have that demeanor where we're tough and we're hard on them,” Rice said.

But during one basic training cycle, Rice got a wakeup call. One of her recruits was being sexually preyed upon by another soldier but didn’t feel safe telling Rice about it.

“The offender at the time was close to me,” Rice said. “They felt like they could not come to me because they felt like I would have taken that person’s side.”

Rice took a hard look at her own behavior and the kind of relationships she had with her soldiers. She concluded that she needed to strike a better balance between toughness and approachability.

“Going forward, I had to make sure I made it clear, ‘Hey, I care more about making sure that you all are in a safe environment," she said. "I'm not going to defend my battle buddy when they're doing something wrong to you.’”

Now Rice is taking part in an Army squad leader development program called Strong Sergeants. It brings junior and mid-level non-commissioned officers together in a non-threatening atmosphere to solve common leadership problems. The training covers basic technical and tactical skills and aims to help young leaders develop a hands-on approach and a positive communication style.

It also tries to give junior enlisted soldiers a baseline for what good leadership looks like in the Army.

“It's all about empowering and making sure that people have a voice at every level of this formation, whether they see something wrong morally, ethically, or doctrinally,” said Capt. Tyson Friar, a spokesman for the 13th Expeditionary Sustainment Command at Fort Hood, Texas.

The Command came up with the program as COVID-19 upended training throughout the Army. But its creator, Brigadier General Ronald Ragin, said he wanted to do more than just fill gaps. He wanted to re-invest in soldiers.

“Our Army over the last 20 years was busy," Ragin said. "We were busy fighting multiple wars in multiple locations. And I think that led us to take our eye off of the most important thing to us, which is our people."

Since Specialist Vanessa Guillen was killed by a fellow Fort Hood soldier last year, a key to the Army’s internal reform efforts has been eliminating what it calls toxic leadership.

Guillen's family said there was a breakdown of communication and trust on the base, and they said Guillen was afraid to report that she was being sexually harassed. An independent review found that the base fostered a leadership environment that allowed sexual harassment, assault, and violence to go unchecked.

That was a big motivator for Ragin. His program includes a crash course on how to respond to sexual misconduct and identify red flags.

“The problem is, a lot of the time, that leaders might not know that there’s an issue,” Ragin said. “But to me, it's really about leaders being engaged, leaders taking action, and holding each other accountable to what our baseline and our standards are.”

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Carson Frame / American Homefront
Staff Sgt. Ebony Rice (second from right) unfurls a map and explains to a group of young soldiers that they need to work together in order to succeed in a mock mission.

Engagement can take many forms. According to the program’s rationale, leaders should make themselves aware of their soldiers’ living situations and general welfare—and not focus exclusively on work. It encourages young sergeants to open lines of communication with troops’ family and friends, especially in case of emergency.

As part of the program, a group of soon-to-be sergeants has been doing exercises to foster open communication and maintain a respectful environment even under stress. Army leaders say that can not only lessen the risk of harassment and abuse, but also pay dividends on the battlefield.

In one exercise, the group had to root out a terrorist in a make-believe city. But during the exercise, one leader forgot to tell his squad about the number of enemy troops and their position. Staff Sgt. Rice, their mentor, stepped in to urge the others to help.

“If you see him forgetting, what could you do?” she asked.

“I could’ve called it out,” said one young private in the group.

“Especially if it’s going to help save you, right?” Rice pressed.

18 year-old Pvt. Jeremiah Harvey took part in the training and hopes to move up in the Army. He said programs like this have improved the environment at Fort Hood.

“I think the soldiers have more of a voice now. I feel like the training is definitely helping,” said Harvey.

Rice noted a change in herself and other leaders— especially as skills have translated to more cohesive teams.

“You see more of those good leaders calling out the so-called toxic leaders," Rice said. "Like ‘Hey, Maybe we shouldn't talk to the soldiers like this. Maybe we should ask them how they feel.’”

“A lot of times, we become toxic simply because we're so stuck in this mindset of ‘Army, Army, Army’ and we forget that they're human.”

An Army task force is studying the Strong Sergeants program. But military leaders haven’t yet decided if it will expand to other bases.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.