By Elaine Sanchez
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 27, 2012 – The military’s top enlisted leaders and their spouses gathered here today to discuss the most pressing issues affecting service members’ lives, and to identify possible solutions.
On the first day of the Defense Senior Enlisted Leaders Conference, leaders touched on a wide range of issues including pay and benefits, suicide prevention, community awareness and outreach, and transitions from military to civilian life, Army Master Sgt. Terrence Hayes, public affairs chief for the senior enlisted advisor to the chairman, told American Forces Press Service.
“This conference brings our senior leaders’ experience and knowledge to the table,” he said, noting the venue serves as both an idea exchange and an avenue for practical solutions.
The Defense Department’s most senior service member, Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Bryan B. Battaglia, is leading the conference. Battaglia serves as the senior enlisted advisor to Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Joining him for a series of roundtable discussions are Sgt. Major of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III, Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James A. Roy, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Michael P. Leavitt, Command Chief Master Sgt. Denise Jelinski-Hall of the National Guard Bureau, and nine combatant command senior enlisted leaders.
Earlier today, the spouses broke away to meet with First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House to discuss issues impacting military families. Seated around a table in the Pentagon, the leaders focused their attention on suicide prevention.
Battaglia stressed the need to combat this universal problem. “We need to work extra hard and put in some midnight oil just to try to crack the code on it and where this is coming from,” he said, stressing the need for a “significant reduction” in suicides.
Navy Fleet Master Chief Petty Officer Roy M. Maddocks Jr. of U.S. European Command noted a need to address the three primary behavioral health risk factors: broken relationships, financial problems and legal issues, which he said often overlap.
The military should be getting ahead of these problems starting from a service member’s first day of service, Maddocks said. They need education on retirement planning, financial management and investments, such as the military’s Thrift Savings Plan, he said.
“We have, traditionally, taught these things to officers from the time they come into service, but haven’t, traditionally, done it that well for enlisted,” Maddocks said. “We’re starting to do it more, but I don’t think we’re doing it well enough.”
Later in the day, the focus shifted to community awareness and outreach. Army Col. David Sutherland, special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for warrior and family support, explained the DOD’s efforts to raise community awareness and support for troops, veterans and their families. His staff, he said, travels across the nation to support community-based efforts to aid troops and their families with transition and reintegration.
Troops don’t come home to government programs, he stressed -- they come home to their families, neighbors and communities.
Communities must step up to embrace troops and veterans, particularly once their battle buddies are no longer by their side, the colonel said. They need new battle buddies, he added, but this time from their communities -- people who can assist them in translating their skills, knowledge and attributes into civilian life and organizations.
Government programs can’t do it alone, but independent organizations working together at a community level can, he told the leaders.
The leaders and their spouses will continue their discussions tomorrow at the Pentagon, Hayes said, and will follow up throughout the year to discuss progress and steps toward solutions.