Defense Media Network

Interview With U.S. Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli

Caring for soldiers

And you are not just talking physically, but you are talking mentally as well?

We are talking mentally; that is the key and critical piece here. We have always had a good physical training program for our soldiers. Now we are talking a mental training program for our soldiers, so they can be more resilient throughout their career in the United States Army.

The Army has long been credited with a culture of personal responsibility. I know more soldiers than not who came to the Army looking for the structure that would let them become personally responsible for their lives. And yet, from that comes in the minds of some soldiers the idea that asking their fellow soldiers, their units, to support them in times of crisis is a sign of weakness. Is that a culture that you have encountered, that you now feel like you have to fight today?

Well that, in its purest form, which you just described, leads to stigma – the idea that somehow I am not as worthwhile a human being if I have to seek, ask for help for something that is not physical. We all understand that when someone cuts himself or breaks an arm, that we need to get them to the doctor, and there’s not a person who would pass a buddy in that kind of distress that wouldn’t stop and get him to a hospital. There’s not a soldier in the world who wouldn’t do that. But we’ve got to teach the forces that after eight years of war and the experiences that our soldiers have been going through, that there is mental distress as serious as a broken leg or cut arm, that needs to be taken care of. And from that reality, there should be absolutely no stigma attached to those seeking that help.

Sometimes, buddies have to help their buddies realize they are suffering from that, because it’s not something you can see. You can see it if you understand what signs to look for in them, and get the help they need. Now the key to this is commanders: commanders who set the tone in their units and tell their subordinate leaders at all levels that the elimination of stigma is absolutely critical in their command. And from that, those leaders counsel subordinates and make sure their subordinates understand that soldiers who need help, need to get help, and we need to support that effort.

So you are trying to mitigate the fears of soldiers, show them that admitting “I need help” not only is not going to hurt their careers, but in fact, it’s a positive thing.


Well, that’s pretty simple. I know that probably is more than a minor cultural change.

I can’t say it any better than you did.

This is not something that you just go out and do. You’ve obviously got a team. Who are your warriors in this mental fitness effort?

Well, leading the effort is Brig. Gen. Colleen McGuire. She is running our task force and is doing an absolutely magnificent job. She has representation from throughout the Department of the Army staff that sits on the Board that is looking through these programs and trying to make sense of what we’ve got out there and improve what is available for commanders. By doing this, we can winnow down the number of support programs out there and show commanders the ones that really, really have payback in the limited time that they have.

But the real key to this whole [effort] is getting the message out to the force, because this is not a problem that is going to be fixed from Washington, DC with a process. How this is going to be fixed is that we make the impression on individual soldiers and leaders at the lowest levels, to watch out for their buddies, to watch out for themselves, and to recognize the signs that are apparent. And that when they realize someone needs help, they don’t just tell them to go get help, they take them to get that help and make sure the soldier is seen.

Can I assume that you are using some of the more traditional Morale/Welfare/Recreation sets like chaplains and such as resources in your effort?

Yes, but we are changing all that, and our Army chaplains have a critical role in this. Now, the Army doesn’t have behavioral health specialists down at the battalion level, but we do have in our tables of organization and equipment a chaplain assigned to each battalion. That chaplain is the front-line individual who’s working many of these issues, and what we are having to do is better prepare our chaplains so they can handle these things. They are treating a totally different force than they were eight years ago.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...