I have had the basis, time and opportunity over the last few weeks to reflect on my tenure as the Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment. To help me collect my thoughts and frame the lessons learnt, I have written this short reflection. The following is a snapshot of key events during my tenure intended to underline the turbulence I have experienced as an RSM. I offer these observations with humility and in the knowledge that I have made mistakes. I hope that by sharing some of my failures and successes, others may learn from my experiences.
Some of my lessons learnt
Observation 1: I posted into the Regiment in August 2017 to prepare the unit and Task Force elements for deployment to Iraq as part of a Taji rotation. I was in the unit one day when the Commanding Officer (CO) and I departed on our recon. Upon return, I assisted in the preparing of the force with members from 58 different units from across two Defence Forces. In my opinion, the Taji rotations for a non-infantry unit was problematic and upset morale and unit cohesion as the Regiment could only deploy the Junior Non-Commissioned Officers / Senior Non-Commissioned Officers (JNCO/SNCOs) and Officers. There was no room on the operational manning document (OMD) for Cavalry soldiers and this left the Regiment without junior leadership back in Australia.
Tip 1: You still need to have an influence on those that do not deploy and provide a guiding hand and mentor/coach to the caretaking command team. This will make for a smooth transition upon return.
Observation 2: When I returned (June 2018), the unit had an unsurprising post-operational attrition rate. Coupled with Plan Keogh, the Regiment haemorrhaged talented JNCOs and soldiers. I spent six months assisting the CO and sub-unit chains of command in trying to rebuild a dispirited organisation and re-grow a culture of resilience, professionalism and job competence. 2019 was going to be the year where we focused on training. The JNCOs and SNCOs were very positive and energised about creating the combat mindset in the turret; however, the weather had other plans. The Regiment's response to the Townsville floods was as rapid and selfless as it was inspiring. The men and women of the unit rallied to help not only the community but each other's families. I am very proud of the performance of the Regiment.
In early 2019 the unit suffered the loss of one of our JNCOs. I learnt very quickly how traumatic death can be on our people and at the same time it was a particularly stressful time for me personally and it took its toll physically.
Tip 2: The stress I felt was self-induced, I was so fixated on getting the funeral correct and in ensuring the send-off was fitting that I forgot about self-care. Sending soldiers off correctly and with reverence is essential, but so too is your health (mental and physical). You must take the opportunity to step back from the emotional stress and focus on you. Self-care can look like PT or some other relaxing activity, but you need to get away to forget everything for a time. This will allow you to refocus and cope better with stress in the future.
Observation 3: The Townsville floods, of course, had huge effects on us being able to train. When we did finally deploy field to conduct collective training, mother nature again had other plans. This time high fire danger put a halt to proceedings. We did manage to get some valuable training done but were unable to reach the training levels we set out to achieve. Before we were forced to cease training, the regiment learnt an interesting lesson on how normalised deviance had crept into training design.
Tip 3: The crawl, walk, run training methodology over time has been incorrectly applied and this methodology has morphed into 14 days or fewer stints in the field. Instead of conducting crawl, walk and run in three distinct training blocks, they are best carried out consecutively in one block. By applying this amended (intended) methodology saves time and resources in battle preparation and refit to fight time. In short-duration exercises, soldiers do not learn how to thrive in the field; instead, they just survive the short duration. The Regiment has found that the soldier performed far better on extended field exercises when forced to consider effects on personal life (family), equipment carriage, plan for paying bills etc.
Observation 4: At the end of 2019, we planned our first three months of 2020 in detail to make up for the lost time. Unlike 2019, 2020 started well with individual and collective training underway in earnest, the focus of the first month was combat behaviours.
Tip 4: Combat behaviour training has resonated with the soldiers. Care of the Battle Casualty, the Combat Shooting Continuum and the Army Combative Program have all contributed to improving soldier motivation and job skill standards. Combat behaviours are not just for the combat personnel; our combat support and combat service support soldiers also respond well to the training.
Observation 5: Over several years, the Regiment has placed particular emphasis on JNCO leadership development. The JNCO development activities have been well received and now form an integral part of our yearly program.
Tip 5: The JNCO leadership development activities have proven invaluable and set our JNCOs up for success. However, it is important not to forget the SNCOs and their development. I confess I have been guilty of this. It is equally important to invest in the development of our SNCOs and WO2s.
Observation 6: The Coronavirus was only white noise when the Regiment was again rocked by the death of a soldier. This was a devastating loss to the Regiment as we had lost a young, popular soldier that had only been in the unit a short time. The resilience of our people was yet again tested and although I was better prepared this time, I still found it challenging. The difference between the two experiences was the extraordinary support I received from outside the Brigade. I received numerous calls from key positions within Army to make sure I was doing okay. I had certainly felt supported by my peers within the Brigade after the death in 2019, but the calls I received this time really made a difference.
Tip 6: You are not alone and you should not feel like you are tackling these difficult situations alone. The takeaway for me, was to remember how important those phone calls were and to reach out to others to assist when I can.
Observation 7: Then COVID-19 went from white noise to a national emergency. Strict compliance with government restrictions meant we had to cease collective training and prioritise force preservation. This presented new challenges. What do RSM's do with no soldiers? How do we train as a dispersed workforce? How do we look after our people in such unusual circumstances? Most importantly, what have we learned (or can we learn) from these troubled times? We now find ourselves in uncharted waters, things are not clear, and the enemy could be anywhere.
To make matters worse, our families and loved ones are in the fight with us.
Tip 7: What do RSMs do? They find meaningful and achievable training for the workforce. As senior soldiers, we have many years of training experience, and we understand 'what' we need to exercise/train. But we need to harness innovation by talking to our soldiers and asking them 'how' they think it could be achieved.
Some thought on training
In crisis there is opportunity and COVID-19 might be the catalyst for training transformation in Army. It may force us to transform our training quicker than we planned, but change we must. I have mused of late how this might look: how can we do things smarter and better? One example I have considered is to modify the delivery of Subject One Corporal as follows:
The course content could be delivered via two desktop modules and one residential module.
Mod 1: Computer-based literacy course from basic through to advanced.
Mod 2: Theory components delivered via interactive desktop learning.
Mod 3: Residency phase, for those subjects unable to be delivered via desktop.
These modifications would reduce both time away from teams and course costs and if we are required to work dispersed again in the future, we can get our people to complete modules of training online. Other career courses could follow a similar methodology and help to future proof Army.
Another possibility worth considering is the design of a PlayStation/Xbox compatible Army tactical trainer so they learn as they play.
As I said from the outset, I have made many mistakes in my tenure and have learnt the hard way at times. But through mistakes comes experience, with experience comes wisdom, and sharing that knowledge is vital to overall Army improvement.