Secretary of the Army visits Fairbanks Army post for first time, informing future budget decisions

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FAIRBANKS, Alaska. (KTVF) Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy and the Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston visited Fairbanks to tour the facilities on Fort Wainwright and meet with soldiers. It was the first visit for both to the post to see the unique challenges firsthand.

Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy and the Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston sat down with media to talk about their visit to Fort Wainwright. (Sara Tewksbury/KTVF)

There was a media roundtable with McCarthy and Grinston to talk about their time in Fairbanks. Many of the questions surrounded leadership’s response to soldier suicides on Fort Wainwright.

“Suicide is a horrible difficult issue and one in which behavioral health scientists really work very hard... but it is very challenging to really truly identify root causes associated with that, so we watch it very closely,” said McCarthy.

McCarthy said one important tool is how they strengthen soldiers and individuals through the program ‘This is my squad.’ “There’s no greater mechanism that we have other than making cohesive units, the men and women to your left and right. Those are the people that help you get through a tough day,” said McCarthy.

The secretary referenced ten quality of life issues identified at Fort Wainwright that they wanted to improve on. “It was really to identify where [there] were some quick wins we could look at -- improving the barracks conditions, looking at the dining facility hours, the weight rooms... how does it make it a more agile footprint? A lot of that was investment in some of the things we needed to do to improve the quality of life here on the ground,” said McCarthy.

He went on to say they also looked at some larger projects that were longer-term investments, which they can try to influence in the budget they are building for fiscal year 2022. Some of the larger projects could include housing, barracks construction, and recreational activities.

Fort Wainwright, as well as U.S. Army Alaska leadership, have been working on the issue of soldier suicide and what they can to do improve the quality of life on post.

“I think the leadership team has been very aggressive in responding, they’ve come forward with additional requests, with resources as well as authorities, and we’ve moved very quickly on that. With that brigade in particular being deployed, it’s a complex problem; but they have the entire army behind them,” said McCarthy.

Major General Peter B. Andrysiak, commanding general of U.S. Army Alaska, went over some of the changes that are in place following the findings and recommendations of the EPICON report.

- A fitness center that is open 24/7
- A 10% increase in the Basic Daily Food Allowance implemented on November 1, 2019 with another 25% increase in effect on February 1, 2020
- Two vans for on-call shuttle transportation
- A barracks self-help store was established for minor barracks repairs
- An intensive outpatient behavioral health program established at Bassett Army Community Hospital
- Over the counter dispensing of routine dosing of vitamin D for ages 18 and up
- $240,000 to Fort Wainwright for entertainment support, such as comedy and music acts
- Arctic Family Time, where soldiers are released at 3 p.m. on the last day of the 2nd and 4th weeks of the month, and payday activities

Andrysiak commented on the benefits of having an intensive behavioral health program on Fort Wainwright to keep soldiers close to their families. “The idea is that you bring these soldiers in for intensive periods of time, but they get to go back home and to their unit -- so you’re avoiding having to send them away for weeks at a time, and increasing the isolation that is unique to the interior of Alaska. So here they’re actually staying close to family and close to friends, but they’re getting an intensive session with our behavioral health experts here on the installation,” said Andrysiak.

The program is already running at initial operating capacity and exceeding the targets of how many soldiers they can take in and treat. Andrysiak says they are bringing on additional staff and should be at full operational capacity by March.

Some of the pending improvements are:
- $910,000 of new gym equipment has been ordered and should arrive by March or April 2020
- A dining facility kiosk for Barracks building 1001 is under construction to be complete by April 2020
- Barracks 1001, 1004, and 3448 have funding approved for renovations
- Blackout blinds are expected to be installed by May 2020

McCarthy said some of the challenges with getting larger projects done include putting them into a proposal that would go through congress and the legislative process. “Can you thread the needle to get it to the right time of the year where the weather would be such where you can move on the construction... we’ve got to manage expectations with the realities of the bureaucratic nature of just how we propose and acquire funding and authorities,” said McCarthy.

When asked how leadership will know if the additional improvements are working, Grinston says it is hard to gauge happiness -- but they want to see suicides go down. “We want to see ideations go down, and we want to see less suicides. That’s going to be our gauge, I think, ultimately. We’ve had a higher number, and we want that number to go down,” said Grinston.

On another note, McCarthy also mentioned how they are looking at possible investments to the ranges. “Alaska provides unique opportunities for us to test weapons systems that have greater range in lethality, which is a challenge -- and we’re going to see challenges within the Lower 48. I thought that was of particular interest, and we had lengthy discussions about that -- so we’re going to go back and take a hard look at that,” said McCarthy.

McCarthy mentioned that he was remiss not to travel to Fort Wainwright sooner during his time as the Under Secretary of the Army, or during the four months since he has been the Secretary of the Army. “I’m very proud of the leadership team here on the ground, met a lot of very motivated soldiers over the last 24 hours... a tough mission in a tough environment, and they’re performing extremely well. I learned a lot and it is going to help inform the SMA (Sergeant Major of the Army), and I as we head back, we gotta make some very big decisions for this next budget cycle,” said McCarthy.

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