RICHMOND, Va. –
Nine Virginia National Guard Soldiers traveled north to attend a Comprehensive Health and Wellness Leaders Course, held July 25-30, 2021, at the Army National Guard Readiness Center in Washington, D.C. The five-day course brought together more than 40 Soldiers and Airmen from 13 states and territories. The course aimed to equip leaders with effective tools for improving and managing the culture of health and wellness within their states and units.
Over the last half decade, the Wisconsin National Guard developed the Comprehensive Health and Wellness Program, pulling knowledge from a variety of resources to create a wellness program that goes beyond base-level physical fitness. The program focuses on five pillars of health: physical, mental, spiritual, social and financial, and today includes two courses, including the leaders course attended by Virginia Soldiers as well as a two-week basic course.
For leaders, the course focuses on dialogue, according 1st Lt. Megan Skrepenski, one of the lead instructors for the course and a member of the Wisconsin Air National Guard. She said the training teaches leaders to empower their Soldiers and Airmen to find wellness solutions that work for them, in recognizing that one solution won’t fit every circumstance. Skrepenski said they don’t teach leaders to provide solutions to problems, instead they motivate leaders to engage with Soldiers and Airmen to learn about their individual circumstances. From there, leaders work through open dialogue to help individuals find solutions to their struggles and develop action plans from there.
“The number one lesson I learned during this course was that everyone internally already knows how to fix their own problems,” said 1st Lt. Timothy VandeWater, one of Virginia Soldiers who attended the course. “The issue is that they don’t know how to find the solution themselves. That’s where [this training] comes in and allows us to help them figure it out.”
Skrepenski explained that sometimes, life falls out of balance and the CHW program doesn’t just encourage leaders to hand out one-size fits all solutions to problems. It’s not as simple as telling a Soldier or Airman to do more push-ups if they’re struggling with physical fitness. What works better, Skrepenski explained, is helping them implement real change and figuring out how that change can fit into the life of the Soldier or Airman.
“The biggest thing we can change as leaders, is to change the way we listen and just be more receptive,” Skrepenski said.
Master Sgt. Ramon Abreu-Perez, the Virginia National Guard’s state fitness coordinator, attended the course and said, essentially, it all comes back to Soldier Care and recognizing that individual Soldiers and Airmen are our organization’s most important asset.
“A healthy Soldier is one whose fitness is proportionally balanced,” Abreu-Perez said, explaining that fitness and wellness isn’t one-sided, but multi-dimensional. “All five domains are equally important and intertwined and when one of them is deficient it directly affects the others.”
Comprehensive Health and Wellness isn’t just problem-focused, according to Chief Warrant Officer 3 Aaron Hunnel, lead instructor of the Wisconsin Comprehensive Health and Wellness courses.
“You don’t have to be sick to want to get better,” Hunnel said, explaining that change doesn’t have to be prompted by a problem, but can and should be a life-long process toward overall betterment.
For Staff Sgt. Catherine So, a Virginia Soldier assigned to the 429th Brigade Support Battalion, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, the communication techniques discussed in the course resonated.
“We as leaders need to help change the stigma of mental health [and] if we want deeper answers from our Soldiers, we need to ask more open-ended questions versus yes and no questions,” So said.
Focusing on more than physical health when talking about wellness was a key takeaway for many who attended the course. In the military, fitness and wellness is often focused on successful completion of physical fitness assessments, just one small piece of the wellness puzzle.
“We tend to assess fitness in terms of how well our Soldiers perform on the [Army Combat Fitness Test] and how they maintain height and weight,” Abreu-Perez said. “Health and fitness are so much more than that. A cultural change in our organization on how we view health is needed. We need to do a better job in developing assessment tools that can identify Soldier’s health status in other areas, especially in the area of mental health.”
Brig. Gen. Joseph R. Baldwin, National Guard Assistant for Director of the Army National Guard Staff, attended the course graduation and listened as students discussed key takeaways.
“As we move forward we need to grow the next generation. We must leave the organization better than when we found it,” Baldwin said.