After more than 10 years of combat operations, Special Operations servicemembers and their families are feeling the strains and pressures of multiple deployments and busy training schedules. To ensure everyone within the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) has the resources available to them to deal with those stresses, a special task force has been launched.
The Preservation of the Force and Families Task Force (POTFF) was asked to identify problems and underlying symptoms, as well as highlight best practices of service specific and Special Operations Forces programs designed to support servicemembers and their families, stated Adm. Bill H. McRaven, USSOCOM commander, in a Jan. 9, 2012, message to the force and families. He stated the task force gathered information from more than 400 focus groups that consisted of more than 7,000 servicemembers and 1,000 spouses from 55 different units across the globe.
The task force was originally created by McRaven’s predecessor, Adm. Eric Olson, and was called the Pressure on the Force and Families Task Force. The name change came about as the command realized it was more than just pressure on the force, according to USSOCOM Command Sgt. Maj. Chris Faris.
“Preservation of the Force and Families is a holistic look at education opportunities, training opportunities, pays and incentives, and all of these things that help keep the SOF Force intact within the Department of Defense and out on the battlefield on behalf of our Nation,” Faris said. One of the top issues the POTFF found, Faris said, was the amount of time SOF servicemembers were spending away from home, even when not deployed.
“That's what we classify as PERSTEMPO, or personnel tempo, and the real crux of the problem for the families is there is no predictability because of this PERSTEMPO issue,” Faris said. “One of the quotes that came from the Pressure on the Force and Families Task Force was from a servicemember that stated, ‘I can say no to everything, and I can say yes to nothing,’ in conversations with their spouse.”
Faris said the command is going to help servicemembers gain some predictability in their schedules by creating “black space,” a term coined during a visit to Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command. To create this “black space,” USSOCOM is implementing a tool to help track all of a servicemember’s time, as well as the commander putting out a policy on personnel tempo that will state a minimum amount of time for every servicemember to be at home.
“SOF consists of type-A-plus personalities that want to focus on the mission, that want to achieve the mission, that never want to say ‘no’ to anything,” Faris said. “When the commander puts out his policy on PERSTEMPO, that’s going to cause them to have to probably not train as much as they want to … they’re going to have to shoot a thousand less rounds in a shoot house, or something like that. They're not really going to want to do that, but we've got to save the force from itself and put these policies into place.”
Another step being taken to assist the force and families is the development of inter-disciplinary teams and facilities – a one-stop-shop where counseling and medical, rehabilitative and psychological care is offered, according to Faris. This will make it easier for those seeking assistance to get the best help that’s right for them.
“Not everyone is comfortable with talking with a chaplain … they may be more comfortable talking with a social worker, or they may be more comfortable talking with a psychologist,” Faris said. “You need that one-stop shop where you can walk into the building, and if it's physical, you take care of your physical needs; if it’s mental you take care of your mental needs; if it’s both, you've got it all there.”
Faris said the idea for these centers came out of the POTFF best practices survey, and are already in use at some commands.
While having the facilities available is one thing, it’s another to get SOF members to say they need the help, according to Faris. He said the stigma attached to admitting you need help was another issue brought up to the POTFF. In addition, many people believe they will lose their security clearance if they seek help, and Faris said that’s not the case.
“The commander and I are hammering, and all the component commanders are doing a very good job at hammering, that there is no stigma attached to getting help,” Faris said. “You are more courageous for coming forward and getting the help before you do get in some sort of trouble. We’re trying to convey to the force to get the help you need early, because if you don’t, it will ultimately manifest itself in some sort of negative event that ties the chain of command’s hands and forces disciplinary action.
“We have to make sure that everyone understands that the true coward is anyone that tries to talk you out of getting help. The true bravery is stepping forward and raising your hand and saying, ‘I'm having a problem. SOF is unique in that people perceive SOF members as having no weaknesses … there are supposed to be no chinks in your armor. At the end of the day that’s an absolute fallacy because no matter whether you’re a type-A personality or a type-C personality, you're still a human being. A human being only has X amount of capacity for coping with the things that go on in their life, both at home and while deployed, which for some is nearing 11 years of war.”
Resilience – of both the warfighter and family – was another topic brought up during the initial POTFF study. Faris said to address the SOF member’s resiliency, the Human Performance Program is in place. This program is run in consultation with sports trainers, and is designed to teach SOF members to be preventative in terms of injuries, and allows them to recover more quickly.
In terms of family resiliency, Faris said that is still being looked at. He said the programs for the servicemember are great, but the command is still looking at how it can provide training for the families.
“A spouse or family can attend the same resiliency training that the servicemember does, but it's geared toward their need to be resilient in order to make the servicemember healthier,” Faris said. “As we enter into 11 years of war, what we’re finding is the spouse out there is saying, ‘Hey, when he's gone, I’ve got my own issues. I want resiliency training for me. I don't want to be a cog in his wheel; I want my very own wheel.’
“You don't marry someone in SOF without taking on a part of the mission yourself, and our families are strong … they’re very strong, but they have certain needs and certain requirements right now that we just are not fulfilling and we’re going to address those the best that we can.”
Faris said the services all provide excellent support to the families and servicemembers, and USSOCOM will focus on building on those services to best support the command.
While those services may be out there, Faris said another big issue is communicating they exist and how to receive them. To help with communicating what’s available, and to build a network of support, USSOCOM will soon launch a Facebook page that will be a one-stop shop for the families.
“The intent of the Facebook page is; one, over-communication is a good thing; and then two, we owe the force updates on what we're doing in terms of Preservation of the Force and Families,” Faris said. “Part of the communication breakdown is -- and everybody in the military is guilty of this -- if you hand me a Family Readiness Group meeting flyer that I'm supposed to take home to my wife, it ends up in the inbox on my desk and I never take it. We can't rely upon the servicemember to be carrying home to the family the progress we’re making, and this will be a place for the families to go and see where we’re making progress, and we also expect to get some feedback.”
Faris doesn’t see OPTEMPO slowing down for SOF units any time soon, but he thinks they can sustain the current pace if USSOCOM implements all the programs it wants to.“The force has heard the commander, and ultimately, the force, I think, gained a degree of faith in the chain of command that we recognize the issues that are out there, that we're going to take action, and that we are going to hold leaders accountable for implementing the actions that the commander directs in the future,” Faris said. “They hear us talking the talk, and they’re waiting to see us walk the walk on this. And if we can achieve the goals that the commander has outlined and that we want to achieve, then I think we can absolutely sustain the current OPTEMPO that the force has.”