“People First” can be a slogan or a call to action. If we want “people first” to be more than words, we need effort, plans, and action. The Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps is working on the planning effort to develop a Corps-wide action plan devoted to the improvement of our overall wellness.
Many of us received a survey aimed to identify the wellness needs specific to our service.1 The Corps’s operational planning group has reviewed the survey’s data and has developed ideas for the resources and programs that would improve wellness across our Corps. Nevertheless, while that process continues, the rest of us must take action to support wellness for ourselves and our teams.
The tricky part about wellness is that it means different things to different people. In fact, wellness can mean different things to the same person at different times in life. This is not a one-size-fits-all or one-size-fits-always solution. Like all relationships, as leaders, our relationship to our teams and their wellness takes work. And, like other relationships, sometimes we will fail—hopefully less often than we succeed. By truly caring, we build our team’s wellness, and the team that remains focused on wellness will be resilient. These concepts come together when we are building teams, caring for our teams, and caring for our Soldiers in need.
While the various offices to which we are assigned look different and have different missions, we want them all to feel like cohesive and resilient teams. But, not every team has the same needs and we are all different leaders. In fact, we have all had the experience of a leader who is trying some new-fangled leadership technique or team-building exercise that seems awkward, ill-fitted, and perhaps even insincere. Ultimately, the new technique or exercise may not be effective—but, it sends the message that, at the very least, the leader is trying.
While I hate to disagree with Yoda, I think trying counts.2 Trying sends the message that the team is worth the leader’s time and effort. It shows the leader cares enough to try something new—sharing personal stories (of success and failure) and investing the leader’s time in the team. So, whatever the guidebook, game, or guest speaker, time spent focused on building the team is worth it—even when the event flops. The effort builds cohesion. And, being part of a cohesive team is a great source for support and wellness for our Soldiers.
Team Breaks Send a Message
We often ask our teams to do more with less. We acknowledge that certain jobs just come with the expectation of long hours and rare breaks. Leaders can fuel the mindset that working ourselves to the point of exhaustion is how we show diligence. When we reward the long hours with public praise and end the comments with a “get back to work,” we may not realize the negative message we send. On the other hand, when we set aside time for the entire office to get a break, we can send a positive message about wellness and balance. When even the busy trial counsel must show up for the picnic or help out for office clean-up day, that sends the message that the break, like the work, is important.
I am a fan of the office project. While we’re not relaxing, we are working on a non-legal project as a team. My last office clean-up day in Korea had Soldiers paired with people they did not normally work with to accomplish tasks—from reorganizing or shredding to repainting and scrubbing. We got a break from the grind, got to know our team in a new way, and then got to enjoy the fruit of our efforts as we got back into the grind. Whatever the type of break, its real benefit is seeing your team away from their desks and getting to know them better. The better we know our teams, the more likely we will be to notice the small changes that might indicate larger wellness needs.
Specialist Mariah Fualau, Paralegal Specialist of 40th ESB & USAICoE, took a break from Military Justice to experience the USAF Thunderbirds up close and personal. She listened to cockpit radio as the Thunderbirds practiced over the skies of southern Arizona.
Crisis as an Opportunity
When we think of wellness, we often focus on those programs—like Army Wellness Centers—that are designed to build improved health and wellness over time. However, leaders must also stand ready for those emergencies when their teams need immediate intervention. I have walked teammates to therapy and to an in-patient treatment facility. These were opportunities to build trust and resiliency with that Soldier—and the team by showing support for that Soldier—by not treating them like their challenge is contagious, by recognizing their strengths, and by continuing to value their role within the team.
When a Soldier needs to switch positions because of their health, we should move them and support them. When we decide the Soldier is now too vulnerable, fragile, or unreliable because they sought help and then move them, we send a clear message that asking for help may be a career-ending decision. Leaders must guard against this. We must always make decisions with our Soldiers in need—not for them. We must ask what they need and not provide what we alone decide or think they need. This empowers our Soldiers and shows we trust and value them.
The message we send when addressing these critical needs is heard by the Soldier in crisis and the team around them. In this way, we message that asking for help is acceptable. We also message how others should treat that Soldier in crisis and how they should treat future Soldiers in need.
My last team was wonderfully junior; almost any task they were given was new to them. While some view this as a negative, we decided to view this as an opportunity. We got to show these Soldiers what right looked like every day and on every topic. How we treated people in need was an important lesson for us to demonstrate. With new Soldiers living in Korea during a pandemic, there were needs. But, we offered support and appreciation for them trusting us with their challenges. As a result, Soldiers never stopped coming to us. I accepted their trust as a gift and did my best to support them and value them as they worked through challenges.
Wellness is a challenge that does not necessarily track with the stereotypes we have for tough Army folks. However, JAG Corps and Army leadership have identified time and again that our strength is our people.3 If we acknowledge that, and truly mean it, we need to value and send consistent messages about the importance of their wellness, including both their physical and mental health.
In my time in the Army, I have cried on my friends’ shoulders (and once up against a tree at Fort Benning), and have held friends, Soldiers, and clients as they cried. Being there when someone is at their lowest can be the greatest gift in that moment—just being there and listening has considerable value. However, that moment in time may not support their overall wellness in the long run. It is when we come back a week later to check in that we may need to offer longer term resources.
The tools available from our Army and our Corps continue to grow and improve. When we learn about these resources and champion them, we are sending a healthy message. When we also care for ourselves and proudly access these resources we send the message loudly and ensure we’re in the best position to care for and build our team. Take care of yourselves and your teams. TAL
1. The Judge Advoc. Gen. & Deputy Judge Advoc. Gen., U.S. Army, TJAG and DJAG Sends, Vol. 41-06, Wellness Survey (16 Nov. 2021) [hereinafter TJAG and DJAG Sends, Vol. 41-06].
2. Star Wars’ Yoda’s famously said, “No. Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.” Star Wars: Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back (Lucasfilm 1980).
3. See, e.g., TJAG & DJAG Sends, Vol. 41-06, supra note 1 (“The most important resource in the JAG Corps is our people.”); General James C. McConville, People First: Insights from the Army’s Chief of Staff, U.S. Army (Feb. 16, 2021), https://www.army.mil/article/243026/people_first_insights_from_the_armys_chief_of_staff (“People are the United States Army’s greatest strength and most important weapon system . . . .”); Major George S. Patton, Jr., Mechanized Forces, Cavalry J., Sept. 1933, at 3, 8 (“Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by [Soldiers].”).