The Army is big on mandatory briefings. Generals want briefings of everything under the sun, demanding more information than he and his entire staff can even process. Some briefs are somewhat useful for new soldiers such as annual briefings on the Geneva Convention and Laws of Land Warfare. Others such as the Equal Opportunity brief are worthy of an eye roll but relatively painless.

With the Army developing AKO and pushing it out Army wide on the internet in the early 2000’s, these briefings have not been replaced with, but rather supplemented with, dozens of redundant safety certification forms and surveys.

There is the information awareness certification, the motor vehicle safety certification, various safety surveys, anti-terrorism awareness certification, sexual harassment certificates, and many others.  I was even recently told about an online SERE re-qualification course in which students roam around a virtual forest looking for sticks to rub together in order to start a virtual fire with computer pixels.  The internet is a great tool but also allows busybody staff officers up and down the entire Army chain of command to reach all the way through the command structure and burden soldiers with their “great” ideas.

Army Wrong.

It gets even more ridicules when you realize that it is all about making quotas. Each unit has to get a certain percentage of their soldiers “qualified” through this type of online training. Each survey is considered to be critical mandatory training until you get to 70% of the company through it, then you won’t hear about it again for a couple months when it becomes time to re-qualify.

Even the best Sergeant Majors run around the company harassing their boys to get them to complete the surveys. Whether they are great leaders or not, the metric used to judge whether Senior NCO’s have been successful is not how combat effective their unit is, but whether or not they met their quotas on spread sheets and internet safety surveys. No one cares how many High Value Targets you captured and killed if MEDPROS is out of date.

Combined with Risk Mitigation worksheets and other risk adverse safety measures, these briefings and online workshops represent the Army’s pathetic attempt to replace real leadership with a bureaucratic Cover Your Ass technique that ensures that Officers don’t lose their jobs even as their units fall apart under the weight of suicides, drug abuse, vehicle accidents, and even losses in combat.

If something goes wrong, if a soldier kills himself for instance, his commanding officer can simply throw his hands in the air and say, “well, he was qualified and completed the mandatory safety training” thereby absolving the unit leadership from responsibility.  Some units go as far as to have an Orwellian sounding regularly scheduled safety stand down to hash out all these briefs and online courses.

It you would like to get started on your online safety courses just download this 6.2MB MBA-style PowerPoint and see what I’m talking about.  If you were not suicidal prior to starting this online training, you sure will be by the time you finish.  Combine that with the silly AFN public service announcement commercials about suicide and it will be enough to push any sane man right over the edge.

This is especially true in regards to the Army’s callously cynical approach to combating the shockingly high suicide rates that they are facing. Instead of strong leaders, today we have multiple choice, check-the-block training. In the past a First Sergeant or Platoon Sergeant would have to address a troop who they felt was in some trouble. Maybe buy him a beer and offer to hear him out. Today we throw some safety surveys at the troop and give him a mandatory suicide brief.

The Army Safety Center appears to be big on statistical analysis. It would be interesting to see some objective statistical analysis showing that “don’t kill yourself” briefs are actually helping to lower suicide rates. But of course, those briefs have never been about saving soldier’s lives but rather about saving careers.

Since the number of soldiers committing suicide has spiked over the last decade, one would think that this is an indicator that what they are doing isn’t working and it is a time for a change. I’m not talking about swapping out power point slides, I’m talking about a full blown shift in Army culture.

From suicides to scandals like Abu Ghraib, these were ultimately failures of the the Sergeants who failed to supervise their soldiers and failed to coach, teach, and mentor them properly.  Everyone likes to think of Officers as leaders, but the reality is that they are just summer help who will move on before getting to know their Soldiers very well.

Sergeants are leaders, Officers are more like administrative managers and most are more interested in checking off OER bullets than taking responsibility for unit morale.  It is the first line supervisors who need to step up and address troubled Soldiers on a man to man basis and talk them them like they are human beings.  No bullshit online suicide prevention course or hilarious AFN television spot played ad infinitum in the chow hall is going to prevent suicide.

We need real Sergeants and real leaders, not a plastic dog tag with the Army Values written on them.