WASHINGTON, D.C. — If the Army is going to be successful both in garrison or on deployment, the service must ensure its units work together and soldiers trust their leadership.

Leadership failings, toxic command climates and disengaged soldiers can lead to a host of problems — from poorly trained forces not ready for their next mission to reduced re-enlistment, misbehavior and even suicide.

A recently developed group, the “Cohesion Assistance Team,” or CAT, now goes to commands either on request or by assignment and spends 10 days in a combination of one-on-one interviews with junior and senior enlisted and officers within the unit.

But this is not an investigation or an audit. It’s a way for an outside team of experts to help commanders find blind spots, looking for patterns or risk factors that could create a toxic climate or ineffective unit.

Maj. Gen. John Kline, commander of the Center for Initial Military Training, shared an overview of what the teams have learned over the past year and ways they’re refining the process at Tuesday’s annual Association of the U.S. Army Meeting and Exposition.

The two-star emphasized the “assistance” part of the team’s work.

“If we don’t leave a unit in a better end state than when we got there, then we are probably not doing our mission,” Kline said.

Following the tragic murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillén at Fort Hood (now Fort Cavazos), Texas in 2020, the unit and installation went through an independent review. Out of that review, the Army created a cohesion assessment team. The team, working through the People First Task Force, began conducting reviews of various units, identifying weak spots and warning signs for leadership.

This past year that interim project became permanent when Army Secretary Christine Wormuth approved the creation of a reworked version of those teams, the Cohesion Assistance Teams, now under the Center for Initial Military Training at Training and Doctrine Command.

The 13-soldier staff has conducted its assess/assist mission at six separate units across the force in the past year, Kline said.

The team consists of a colonel, two experienced lieutenant colonels, an operations officer and a master sergeant.

They assess 15 specific areas through a series of focus groups, one-on-one conversations and interviews with leadership. The process begins 90 days ahead of the visit, when Kline’s team calls the division commander and briefs the leader on the process, also asking for areas where they believe the unit might need a look.

After collecting much of the assessment data, Kline said, the CAT then deciphers the root causes of potential unit problems. Some may sound simple, such as how the unit handles presenting awards or whether the equal opportunity reporting process is seen as fair and reasonable.

Common trouble spots:

  • Reception, acceptance and team building in new or junior soldiers
  • Failure to integrate newcomers and build a culture of proper work-life balance
  • Perceptions of unfairness and lack of engaged leadership
  • Lacking professional development, counseling and mentorship
  • Breaking teams to make teams
  • Learned helplessness from leaders when responding to potential harmful behaviors.

Source: Center for Initial Military Training

One example from the trouble spots list involved “breaking teams to make teams.” Kline said the unit his team assisted was assigned funeral ceremony detail duties.

The unit pulled individuals from various units to create the funeral detail team. But that process didn’t look closely at the soldiers being pulled.

The move created a sense of isolation for some and compounded problems for others who had off-duty challenges in addition to these new tasks. The same team was often assigned three funeral details a week. That meant they were frequently preparing for, conducting or returning from a funeral all week, each week.

“We learned that those funeral details are not necessarily maintaining unit integrity,” Kline said. The members were not well screened and the constant exposure to mourning and death didn’t help.

But the team does more than simply point out trouble spots. They work the process much like a unit commander would see on a combat training center rotation. The CAT team operates as the observer-controllers do — pointing out flaws and watching as the unit formulates its own solutions, with some guidance.

Some commanders only have themselves and their senior staff in the meetings, others have brought in junior and senior enlisted to gauge their response to some of what the CAT team has discovered, Kline said.

The next steps break down a plan with the battalion commander, laying out what areas will be quick hits, meaning minor changes that could produce immediate results. That might mean conducting regular, unit-wide awards and decorations ceremonies consistently across ranks and formations.

The CAT team will also highlight areas that may take longer to change and require more work, such as improving communication.

Kline shared some results from a review of 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division at Fort Johnson, Louisiana.

From the assessments, the command found that they needed to share assessment results with the unit, build support networks that included fellow unit commanders, chaplains, Holistic Health and Fitness cadre and other soldier-focused organizations.

The brigade then added in a series of changes, some of which included a Mountain Mentor Program that trained corporals, specialists and sergeants on leadership expertise, a “Patriot Standards Book” specific to the unit that laid out the expectations for soldiers in 3rd Brigade, the “Patriots.”

The unit also began airing monthly 15-minute “Patriot Points” through a YouTube video session.

One of the key trends in well-performing units is good communication, Kline said. Those units where soldiers had clear communication from both their command and across the formation had better measures of unit cohesion.

Effective communication also gave soldiers some predictability in their schedules. When they knew what they were doing day-to-day or week-to-week, it helped reduce family and work stress, he said.

The work goes beyond the CAT Team. The final step involves another team from the Walter Reed Army Institute Research, which visits the unit 90 days after the CAT Team to see what they’ve done to implement recommended changes.

Currently, the CAT Team has a six to eight-unit annual capacity, next year’s schedule is finalized and the 2025 schedule is under review, Kline said.

Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.

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