The commander of the 4th Infantry Division's Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion is touting a new program that encourages leaders to perform regular checks on soldiers' well-being much as they would on equipment.
The program - dubbed PMCS, or Preventive Maintenance for the Comprehensive Soldier - bears a name similar to that of the Army's system of regular vehicle maintenance: Preventive Maintenance Checks and Services.
"We want soldiers to feel the love and care," said Capt. Samuel Rico, headquarters chaplain, during a recent phone interview from Kandahar, Afghanistan, where the battalion is deployed. "We literally live and die together."
Rico, along with Commander Lt. Col. Brad Wambeke and Command Sgt. Maj. Corey Gill, came up with the program in September 2012 when they were trying to figure out how to observe the Army's suicide prevention month.
They considered offering a class on the topic but thought better of it.
"Being engaged with soldiers is probably the best way you can prevent suicide," Wambeke said. "If I really know what's going on with a soldier and he's used to me talking with him, I may be able to steer him toward a resource that would be beneficial to him."
Soldiers perform preventive maintenance on equipment on a regular basis, be that weekly or monthly, using a checklist.
While headquarters is instructing leaders from squad level and up to check in with their soldiers regularly, there is no requirement for how regularly. Nor is there a checklist. The program's flexibility allows it to be tailored to each soldier and to be re-tailored if new issues arise, Wambeke said.
"It challenges the leader to truly know the soldier, not just on the professional side, but on the personal side," Gill said. "You don't have a manual for a person like you do for a vehicle. If it doesn't sound right, look right or smell right, it must not be right."
Another perk of the program: it's free.
"It doesn't cost anything except for the willingness of a leader to spend time talking to soldiers," he said.
Leaders aren't just on the lookout for suicidal soldiers. They're also keeping their ears perked for soldiers who may be struggling with other challenges such as substance abuse or abusive relationships, Wambeke said.
"We want to determine what's going on so we can identify things that aren't going quite right before they break down," he said. "Soldiers are a lot more important than any piece of equipment we have in our arms room or motor pool."
The program has proved itself even more important during the unit's deployment, which began this summer.
"Everybody has rocks in their ruck sack," Wambeke said. "When we deploy, you end up with increased rocks. As leaders, we want to identify some of those rocks and potentially take some of those rocks out."
Soldiers experiencing relationship problems might be referred to counseling or sent home on leave earlier to work things out. If family members stateside need help, that can be coordinated through rear detachment, he said.
At battalion "sensing sessions" held a year ago, soldiers were split nearly 50-50 when asked how engaged their leaders were. Headquarters is hoping the PMCS program improves the response rate at the next session, Wambeke said.
Anecdotally, the program seems to be working, Rico said.
"Last week, a young man reenlisted and started crying," Rico said. "He said the Army had taken care of him. We want to make this a lifestyle, taking care of each other as a family."
Serious incident reports are down, and a "climate survey" of headquarters soldiers shows that their level of satisfaction with the trustworthiness of their leaders and work groups is higher than rates of the same metrics for the Army as a whole, Wambeke said.
"When you take a soldier who is mediocre and wrap this type of program around them, the next thing you know, they're outperforming themselves," Gill said. "Being around that energy every day makes you want to better yourself. It bleeds everywhere nothing but goodness."