By Army Staff Sgt. Leah Kilpatrick 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division
FORT HOOD, Texas, October 29, 2015 — Today, almost everything is on the Internet, and mobile devices place that immense collection of knowledge in the palms of our hands.
But not everything is online -- or at least much of it isn’t readily accessible -- so one noncommissioned officer is using the power of the Internet to help soldiers.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Ronnie Russell, mortar platoon sergeant with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, develops mobile applications to provide troops and their families with tools to help them navigate their duty stations and surrounding communities.
About 15 years ago, while stationed in South Korea, Russell struggled to get from one place to another in the foreign country. It was an irritating reality that Russell said he just became accustomed to over time. Russell recalled that experience when he returned to South Korea last year with the Charger Battalion for a rotational deployment. He was shocked, he said, that there were still very few resources to help soldiers navigate the local area.
“There was nothing being done about it, except through each area’s publication, so I didn’t like that,” said Russell, a Fayetteville, North Carolina, native. “So I said, ‘Let me try making an app.’ The app was really for my soldiers, because they were new. Korea was not new to me.”
After getting the runaround from a couple of mobile application developers, Russell said, he took matters into his own hands.
“I was like, ‘Well, I’ll teach myself,’ so I went on Google,” he said. “I tell people now, ‘I went to Google University, and my professor’s name was YouTube.’ That is who taught me.”
The app, called Penn Around, serves as a mobile one-stop shop stocked with all the resources a soldier assigned to South Korea might need. Penn Around consolidates a variety of information under one umbrella, Russell said.
“When the app first started, it started small,” said Army Sgt. Melvin Dizon, fire direction computer check assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1-12 Cav. “It was basically the bus schedules of all the camps. That helped, since being 1-12, we weren’t from Korea. It was the best thing that was out at the time to help soldiers who were transitioning figure out where to go.”
Inside the roughly 13-megabyte file are resources ranging from bus schedules and military lodging information to MyPay, taxis and exchange vendors.
And the response has been positive.
The app has more than 5,000 downloads and an average rating of 4.4 stars out of 5. “Very convenient app,” one reviewer wrote. “It provides access to all the bus schedules as well as keeps me up to date with what’s going on.”
Dizon said that Russell put care, thought and the concerns of his soldiers into the development of this resource.
“Sergeant Russell approached each member of our platoon, because he said he was going to start an app to help soldiers transition and get around Korea,” Dizon said. “He took ideas from every soldier in our platoon, so whatever ideas we first pitched to him, he added that to the initial app when it first came out. Ever since then, it actually evolved. Now it has the SHARP program on it. It has the movie times. Whatever you needed as a soldier out there, it eventually ended up on the app.”
Russell spent a lot of his off-duty time ensuring he was going through all the right channels and getting permission from all the right people at every step of the way -- a lot of work for a noncommissioned officer who simply wanted to help his soldiers learn how to traverse the Korean Peninsula.
Russell’s concern for the welfare of others didn’t stop there.
The single father sought information about safe neighborhoods in which to rear his son. This quest for knowledge grew into “Tx Corral,” another mobile app that serves as a tool to keep citizens informed of what’s going on in their neighborhood and in neighboring towns.
It taps into the social media feeds of various law enforcement agencies and provides access to services that contact nearby cab companies and tow trucks using the GPS location from the user’s phone.
Russell dedicated a lot of time to traveling throughout Central Texas to obtain permission from the various agencies involved to use their information.
Having tackled Central Texas and the Land of the Morning Calm, Russell is currently working on prototype apps for U.S. Pacific Command and U.S. Army Japan.
In all of the programs he is working on, Russell said, he considers what is important and relevant to the soldiers at that specific assignment. What is a priority for soldiers in Hawaii isn’t necessarily what’s important to soldiers in South Korea, and vice versa, he explained.
As the apps are all free to download, there is no monetary gain for Russell. But he does get the satisfaction of knowing he may have helped a soldier answer the same questions he once had.