Strain and battle fatigue of war hit home front

USA Today

The situation at Robins, where thousands of workers repair military aircraft, is a case study on how the war overseas has affected those serving on the home front. Here, a different kind of strain and battle fatigue has surfaced, often in startling ways.

The wounded came not from engaging the enemy, but from scores of workplace injuries that increased as the war intensified. The low morale was measured in rises in drunken driving and domestic abuse, discrimination complaints and lost productivity. Most dramatic were the suicides — double the national rate in 2004 — and murders on the base, the first in Robins’ 65-year history.

“We do have the rigors of a wartime mission,” explains Lt. Col. Dan Mokris, the base safety officer. “We just have to do it right here.”

No one believes the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan is to blame for all the problems at Robins. Indeed, there’s no way to know for certain how much the hostilities play a part. Maj. Gen. Mike Collings, who has spearheaded the effort to cure the ills here, is convinced that the Pentagon needs to take note of what happened at Robins the problems and the efforts to address them — as the military tries to reinvent itself while fighting a protracted war.

Stress at the base built as Defense Department demands for a leaner, meaner and more efficient military grew, base officials say. When Collings came to the base in 2004, he says workers were cutting corners, compromising safety and focusing on war production at all costs. “Morale,” he says “was in the pits.”

People felt that they were being asked to do more and more and more and more and nobody necessarily worried about giving them the right training and making sure that they did their job correctly,” he says.

After U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, the demands of war exacerbated the challenges of trying to modernize and streamline the military, Collings says. As a consequence, he says, the needs of those at Robins were neglected, and the troubles at the base began to swell.

“Whether you’re talking about the soldier in the field who’s getting ready to take the next bunker, the fighter pilot, the maintainer who is turning wrenches on the flight line, the engineer doing software development here or Ronnie who works in the paint shop,” Collings says, “if you don’t have their heart and their belief that you are leading them in the right direction, it’s a non-starter.”

A steady state of change

Robins covers 13 square miles. Its 26,000 employees make it one of the largest employers in the state.

At its core are the almost 15,000 workers of the Air Logistics Center under Collings’ command. The center is tasked with keeping America’s fleet of heavy transport aircraft flying supplies, troops and missions into Iraq and Afghanistan. Air Force C-130s, C-17s and massive C-5 jets — the largest cargo aircraft in the U.S. arsenal — are in various states of repair across the base. The center also does maintenance on Air Force F-15 fighter planes.

Many are keenly aware of the role they play in the war. “I find myself trying to see if I can recognize a serial number on TV (war coverage) of an airplane from work,” says Greg Horton, 39, a sheet metal worker on C-130 aircraft.

Beginning with the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91, through operations in Bosnia and Serbia during that decade and the monitoring of no-fly zones over Iraq, the base has been on a near-continuous war footing. The fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq made the situation all the worse.

Combat deployments increased. Base closings in the 1990s brought new civilian workers to Robins, and many of them were disenchanted with relocating from California or Texas to central Georgia. Repair schedules were accelerated. Departments merged and then were re-organized; workers answered to new bosses.

The strain of war combined with the changes created a “perfect storm of events” that worsened stress and undercut morale, says George Falldine, the base’s longtime planning director.

Grease board messages reminded workers when they fell 20, 30 or 50 days behind schedule on an airplane. Delays grew particularly severe with older model C-5A cargo jets. When base closings brought the regular overhaul of C-5 aircraft to Robins in 2000, repair work slowed from roughly 250 days per jet to nearly 400. The average time for overhauling C-130H cargo planes has been longer than the 135-day target for each of the past four years.

“It just seems like you’re in a steady state of change. And yes, that does add stress,” says Barry Shepherd, 46, a hydraulic mechanic who works on C-130 aircraft. “And of course the war does add more because you have to be able to run these aircraft out much quicker.”

Across the base, there were signs the workforce was fraying.

Informal discrimination charges by civilian employees were at record levels in 2000 and 2001, and formal written complaints peaked in 2002. More than 1,000 union grievances were filed in 2000. A year earlier, 136 unfair labor practice complaints were filed, a 20-year high. Unfair labor complaints rose again to 111 three years later.

In June 2003, Robins had the highest number of lost workdays due to injury of any U.S. military installation of its size anywhere in the world.

Cases of child abuse among the base’s 6,000 military personnel more than tripled — from 25 in fiscal year 2001 to 83 in FY 2004. Incidents of spousal abuse increased from 41 in FY 2001 to 63 three years later. The base began tracking drunken driving arrests in 2003 among military personnel. The arrests increased from 63 that year to 73 in 2004.

Deaths were turning point

When he became head of occupational medicine at the base in 2004, Sanford Zelnick recalls weeks when at least one distraught employee came to him for counseling each day. Their problems included conflicts with co-workers or a supervisor, or concerns about work assignments. “I would see people in here who were crying,” he says.

But the deaths, particularly in 2004, prompted base leaders to focus on the work environment and culture.

The first murders in base history occurred on July 5, 2004. Senior Airman Andrew Witt, dressed in camouflage and armed with a combat knife, attacked and stabbed to death another airman and his wife. Witt, 23, is awaiting execution at a prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Witt had been feuding with the couple after trying to kiss the wife two days before the murders, according to trial testimony.

A month later, Senior Airman Gregory Class, 24, was arrested and accused of beating to death a 17-month-old boy he was babysitting. His trial is pending.

And six people committed suicide that year, all in a period of seven weeks.

From 2002 to 2005, at least 24 deaths involved workers or residents of the base, including 15 suicides and six homicides blamed on airmen.

The most recent suicide was James Sturdivant, 43, a former civilian worker who had hurt his back on the job and was struggling to get worker’s compensation for corrective surgery. On July 22, he walked into base headquarters, sat at the personnel director’s desk and shot himself in the mouth with a 9mm pistol.

Another was Airman 1st Class Jeremy Monat, 24, a member of Robins’ honor guard. He was anguished by a troubled marriage, a boss he considered overbearing and the constant pressure to perform better at work, says his mother, Mary Keller, of Lewiston, Mich.

When his tearful call to her ended abruptly the night of June 2, 2004, Monat wrapped a belt around his neck and hanged himself in his kitchen.

“He hated that base,” Keller says bitterly.

Many unit commanders are reluctant to blame the homicides or suicides on conditions at Robins. Rather, they see them as simply a string of unfortunate events. However, Beth Zeiger, a base psychologist from 2002-2005, says conditions may well have played a part.

“We’re talking about stress,” Zeiger says. “In each of these situations, you’re looking at someone who is not coping very well. … If they are feeling not supported in their workplace for some reason, or if they are feeling like they are not fitting in or they are unwilling to reach out for help, that is a stress that can be overwhelming and then some people make pretty poor choices.”

After the murders, suicides and the death of an airman who fell 50 feet while changing a light bulb in a hangar, base leaders took action. Chaplains were already busy with grief counseling, but suicide prevention classes were expanded. A “wingman” program, designed to encourage civilians to look out for each other, grew.

In a series of addresses to base workers, Collings began promoting what he described as a work environment that “puts people first.” He urged civilian workers to embrace Air Force military values of integrity and service before self. He promoted his concept through the slogan, “People First, Mission Always.” He introduced a fitness program for civilians that allowed them three hours a week to work out. A new gymnasium for civilian workers is under construction. Days off became rewards for improvement.

And early this month, more than 800 lower-ranking aircraft mechanics were offered the chance to earn immediate promotions with annual raises of $4,000.

1,635 problems documented

Most dramatic, Collings gained permission from Air Force headquarters to bring in about 250 veteran airmen from around the country in late 2004 to spend three months scrutinizing base operations. The concept was to learn where training and practice had gone awry and reverse the trend.

In a scathing report issued last year, the investigative team found 1,635 problems ranging from minor procedural errors to life-threatening hazards.

The 155 most serious wrongs included:

•Mismanagement of a maintenance shop where an aircraft part made of depleted uranium was stored. Workers were neither educated about the risks of radiation nor monitored for exposure levels. No complete inspection of the facility had been done since 2001.

•A grenade-launcher firing range that was nearly 200 yards too short. As a consequence, buildings used for training and portions of an obstacle course were susceptible to wayward explosives.

•Cases in which police working on the base sped and ran stop signs when there was no emergency.

This year, Collings says he will use the findings to begin a series of training sessions for civilian and military workers. He says his efforts and emphasis on workers and their morale are paying off.

Key indicators, such as labor and discrimination complaints, accidents and lost workdays because of injury and cases of drunken driving, child and spousal abuse are all trending downward. Programs designed to streamline the repair and maintenance of aircraft are reducing the time for overhauls. Maintenance on a C-5 was finished in a record 159 days early this month.

Perhaps most important: no suicides in more than six months.

Even so, all is not perfect. Only about 10% to 15% of the civilian workforce is exercising, base officials say.

And during one of Collings’ troops talks last November, Leslie “Geri” Rogers, an inventory management specialist, complained about poorly trained supervisors and unhappy employees in an office that manages testing equipment. “There are very few people who are willing to stand up and raise a hand to a two-star general and I took that chance because morale is so bad,” Rogers says.

Collings says the lesson of Robins is clear.

“We could transform anything we wanted to,” he says, “But the only way you can sustain that is if you have complete buy-in from the people who are working. And it’s training. It’s taking care of them. And it’s their belief in a leadership that truly cares.”

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