HARKER HEIGHTS — The soldiers of Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, participated in activities offered by the Fort Hood Warrior Adventure Quest — one of many programs the Army introduced in recent years now that it takes the mental health of soldiers just as seriously as the conflicts it calls on them to fight.
“(The events) are designed for platoon-sized elements,” said Staff Sgt. Bradley Jones, one of the quest instructors. “Most of what we do is for post-deployment. A lot of units coming back are in recess, so you have soldiers leaving the unit, and all these new soldiers coming in while everyone else just got back from a deployment. You can feel a little out of place in that situation. We show them that there are fun activities to do with their time, rather than sitting around drinking beer in the barracks.”
The program is designed as a training tool to introduce soldiers to activities that serve as alternatives to aberrant behaviors often associated with accidents involving recently re-deployed soldiers. It presents coping outlets to help soldiers realize their new level of normal and move on with their lives.
These “outlets” are all high adventure recreation activities, like mountain biking, rock climbing and paintball.
While the program is tailored to build resiliency in individual soldiers, esprit de corps and strengthening pride in the unit is its cornerstone, said Arlinda Ybanez, program coordinator.
“We average about 10,000 soldiers a year, depending on the deployment rate,” she said. “The focus is on team-building and unit cohesion, to help those feeling isolated bond with the team.”
The statistics show the program is having a remarkable effect on the force. A two-year study in 2010 and 2011, the first two years of the program, showed that participants were involved in an average of 14 percent fewer off-duty accidents, and 44 percent fewer injuries resulting in a fatality or permanent disability.
The numbers involved with behavioral incidents are even more dramatic. The 2010-2011 report indicated an average of 52 percent fewer behavioral incidents resulting in deduction of pay. The average annual participation during those years was more than 24,000 soldiers.
“The main thing it does is release stress after you’ve come back and reintegrated with your families,” said Staff Sgt. Jonathan McRae, 8th Engineer Battalion, 36th Engineer Brigade operations noncommissioned officer, who spent a day with his unit learning how to rock climb at Boulders Sport Climbing Club in Harker Heights, a month after they returned from Afghanistan. “It’s important for units to do this kind of stuff to reconnect.”
First Sgt. Thomas Thornhill, of 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, echoed those sentiments after a morning of mountain biking.
“The change in the routine is really helpful because of the morale boost these soldiers get from it,” he said. “They will actually exert themselves more in these situations because it’s a playful camaraderie that they have among each other — it kind of buys into the inner caveman in all of us.”
Soldiers always enjoy the chance to have some fun during the work day, but Ybanez noted the program is good for a lot more than that.
“We teach them positive ways to deal with the stress of coming back from deployment, and then we introduce them to outlets for positive activities. Hopefully they’ll enjoy mountain biking or paintball and keep doing it. The goal is to mitigate negative behaviors.”
Units across the Army need to become aware of programs like this, and take the opportunity to improve cohesion while having some fun on the government’s dime, Ybanez said.
“This program is out there. It’s completely free — we take care of everything. This is for soldiers, so I hope they take advantage of it.”