Ah, the lament of the joes: This place sucks, my chain of command sucks, this food sucks, my job sucks.

A study published in July by the RAND Corp., “Assessing the Needs of Soldiers and Their Families at the Garrison Level," aims to cut through that noise and break down the issues affecting morale and welfare in the Army, pinpointing them by location and including soldiers of all ages, family make-up and experience.

And while researchers set out to evaluate a range of “needs,” from child care to mental health support, what they found was a plea from noncommissioned officers for more time and staff to be able to accomplish the range of duties placed on their units, and a question floating over the heads of many ― what is my future in the Army?

“Performance expectations were felt more keenly because of the broader context of a shrinking Army,” the report found.

The dark cloud of a drawdown is still looming over the Army, according to RAND’s research, despite the Army’s efforts in the past two years to grow the force through both recruiting and retention.

Soldiers felt that “zero-defect” policies around conduct, leadership and promotion requirements could end their careers if they weren’t careful.

“One respondent described how it is now harder for people to make mistakes without feeling as though their careers will be over, and there was a sense among several respondents that rules or requirements for promotion or expectations for their performance are continually changing, which decreases their sense of control over their career and increases feelings of uncertainty,” according to the report."

Earlier this year, the Defense Department announced it would begin forcibly separating service members who are not able to deploy, for instance.

“Respondents felt that these changes in Army retention policies had fostered a climate in which soldiers felt that they needed to be looking out for their own interests, because the Army would not necessarily be taking care of them as they had been told or believed it would in years past,” according to the report.

A table from RAND Corp.'s
A table from RAND Corp.'s "Assessing the Needs of Soldiers and Their Families at the Garrison Level" study breaks down soldier issues by post. (Source: RAND Corp.)

Lack of effective leaders

RAND surveyed more than 4,500 soldiers, who selected their top concerns from a long list of choices, then conducted site visits to four posts during spring 2016.

Team members chose Fort Gordon, Georgia, Fort Hood, Texas, Fort Huachuca, Arizona, and Fort Meade, Maryland, based on the number and range of problems reported and the percentage of the soldiers there who reported them.

Soldiers sat down for interviews and focus groups with the team, to elaborate on the issues brought up in the survey. While issue categories like well-being, military culture and work-life balance were common among recipients, narratives diverged by age and experience.

Researchers found that not only are soldiers stressed and tired, but they have trouble sleeping, maintaining healthy diet and exercise routines, and feel they don’t have mentors or a chain of command they can communicate with.

“When soldiers described problems related to their own well-being, they frequently attributed the problems to work-related stress," according to the report. "Soldier respondents reported work-related stress due to units being short staffed or having too much work put on their units.”

It’s not just a manning issue, respondents said, but a quality issue.

“Some senior leaders complained about a lack of effective mid-level leaders, which resulted in relatively senior soldiers getting involved in issues that should have been the purview of a lieutenant or a team leader,” according to the report.

Those mid-level leaders, in turn, expressed frustration with getting through to younger soldiers.

“While a period of adjustment is expected, experienced soldiers described how there is more distance between contemporary civilian culture and military culture than there used to be,” according to the report. “They described how new soldiers do not always acculturate well, especially those who arrive with little respect for authority and precedence, and who are not shy about questioning authority. NCOs expressed the view that new soldiers’ lack of willingness to keep their heads down and do the work makes it more difficult to lead.”

While part of a broader issue, new soldier discipline is precisely an issue the Army is trying to tackle, by building more of it into basic training.

Reaching out

“The Army needs its soldiers, many of whom are very young and new to the responsibilities of adulthood, to keep their personal lives on an even enough keel to maintain readiness and their ability to deploy,” the report found. "In some ways, the Army has set up a system designed to handle this challenge, particularly for junior enlisted soldiers: the NCO corps.

“Some leaders and service providers noted a challenging tendency of many junior soldiers to prefer staying in the barracks — playing video games, for example, or watching Netflix — rather than showing up for events or engaging in activities,” thwarting their efforts to build rapport with their joes.

Researchers found this in some places more than others, particularly in the Army’s cyber warfare hub.

“This theme came up for junior soldiers across the installations we visited, but the concern was more pronounced and widely shared by participants at Fort Gordon, who explained this behavior as a personality characteristic that was more common in the type of soldiers who were training there,” according to the report.

But, respondents pointed out, the Army’s messaging doesn’t always support an intervention.

“One challenge we heard described by focus group respondents is a changing culture that in some ways places greater emphasis on privacy, making it more difficult for NCOs to bond with soldiers and create an environment that fosters asking for help when it is necessary,” according to the report. "NCOs also reported relatively little time to build relationships, given the impetus to do more with less and accomplish all of the many taskings. "

Sometimes, the focus groups found, a soldier’s issues might require several different types of services.

“This situation could result from multiple problems that are interconnected or from a single problem that ‘gets out of hand’ when it is not handled in a timely fashion,” according to the report. “For instance, chain of command may send a soldier for behavioral health counseling upon noticing certain behaviors, but once in counseling, the soldier may realize that there is more to the problem.”

The key, according to the report, is informing soldiers at all levels of what’s available, where to find it, and for providers or leaders to take charge and help coordinate when a soldier comes to them with an issue, rather than referring them to another resource.

“As described by one respondent, ‘It may just be that in peeling back the onion these soldiers realize they need more and more care from different providers,’ " according to the report. “In other cases the soldiers may just wait too long to get help and end up with compounded problems (e.g., financial problems that generate other problems, such as letters of indebtedness and loss of credit, if neglected).”

Horses graze indifferently as a convoy passes during training operations at Fort Polk, La. Despite the wild life, Fort Polk soldiers reported feeling stressed, lonely or bored in a RAND Corp. study. (Staff Sgt. Daniel Love/Army)
Horses graze indifferently as a convoy passes during training operations at Fort Polk, La. Despite the wild life, Fort Polk soldiers reported feeling stressed, lonely or bored in a RAND Corp. study. (Staff Sgt. Daniel Love/Army)

Going forward

Once researchers had compiled a mountain of data and stories about soldiers' issues with the Army, they set out to evaluate the resources available on posts to help soldiers deal with those issues.

“For example, ‘rumors or gossip in the military community’ was one of the five most selected issues by soldiers at Fort Bragg [in North Carolina] and Fort Rucker [in Alabama],” according to the report. “In addition, ‘loneliness or boredom’ was one of the five most selected issues at Fort Meade [in Maryland] and Fort Polk [in Louisiana]."

Most issues were shared across the Army, but researchers concluded that location had a lot to do with individual issues. Large posts like Fort Hood are packed with deploying units, which brings its own stresses, but also have more services and are within driving distances to big cities. On the other hand, a post like Fort Polk, a training-focused installation, has a smaller community and a more remote location.

“In addition to loneliness or boredom, ‘finding nearby or affordable options for recreation, stress relief, or family time’ and 'not being able to stay at or go to the military installation you prefer’ were unique issues commonly selected by soldiers at Fort Polk,” the report said.

Soldiers appreciated the range of resources available if they felt overwhelmed, researchers found, despite not always taking advantage of them.

“Soldiers spoke fairly consistently about the value of the mental health services and embedded behavioral health in particular,” according to the report. “There were more inconsistent views on the awareness, quality, and values of Military and Family Life Counselors, with some respondents describing them as very valuable and others unaware that they even existed.”

Soldiers said long lines, appointment wait times and an inability to secure child care were reasons they had not sought behavioral health. But the biggest problem, the report found, was that many of the resources were open only during the duty day, requiring the soldier to get permission from their chain of command to take time out.

In other cases, soldiers turned to the Army’s emphasis on resilience rather than seek professional support.

“That is, soldiers at all levels often reported that they wanted to be able — or should be able — to solve their problems themselves without needing to bring leadership into the equation,” according to the report. “That sentiment was balanced by the responses of NCOs who expressed a sense of responsibility for their soldiers, along with an awareness that soldiers might wish to maintain their privacy.”

But kicking that can down the road can make things worse.

“Respondents pointed out that the downside of this tension can be that, by the time individuals realize they are in over their heads and need assistance, their challenges have evolved into a much knottier problem to untangle,” the report said.

At the top of their suggestions, RAND researchers wrote that more and more detailed information about resources should be available online, where soldiers can already find a variety of details about their installations through command websites.

“Shorter, more frequent exposure may provide better opportunities for the information to sink in and for integrating information into routines, especially given the complexity of the information and the task of helping soldiers and families,” according to the report.

This would not need to be another training requirement, researchers wrote.

On an individual level, the report said, NCOs and younger soldiers should regularly receive updated information about resources available to them, for instance, during in-processing or counseling sessions they already periodically have.