From July 26 to Aug. 4, 2022, Soldiers from the 75th Innovation Command virtually joined forces with U.S. Army Human Resources Command to participate in a National Security Innovation Network Innovation Bootcamp to resolve one of the most prominent issues facing today’s military: Gray Area Retirees.
As of September 2020, approximately 427,000 Reserve and National Guard service members received $7.3 billion in retirement entitlements. These figures are expected to rise during the next decade as more veterans from the War on Terror join the ranks of those who served during World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the first Gulf War.
Many retirees do not immediately receive benefits. Unlike their active-duty counterparts, retired Reserve and National Guard service members typically do not start collecting retirement benefits until they reach age 60. These Gray Area Retirees must submit applications to ensure they receive entitlements in a timely manner.
The number and complexity of these applications has led to a four-month backlog of more than 3,000 cases.
“Applicants call daily to know their [application] status,” said Lt. Col. Ingram M. Scott, innovation plans officer, 75th Innovation Command. “The lack of transparency about the application process has led to formal complaints and congressional inquiries.”
To resolve this issue, HRC turned to the 75th Innovation Command for assistance. The 75th's IC’s leadership partnered with the NSIN to create a problem statement and facilitate a forum to formulate solutions.
“The NSIN mission is to build networks of innovators that generate new solutions to national security problems,” said Kelly Schulte, Boot Camp program manager. “NSIN programs promote collaboration among the defense, academia and venture communities to better address matters of national security.”
The Innovation Boot Camp is one such collaboration platform. This eight-day program includes lectures, breakout sessions and interactive presentations that help participants develop practical solutions.
“The expectation is that students learn core innovation skills and tactics that drive great outcomes,” said Nic Meliones, Innovation Boot Camp instructor and CEO of Rev, a San Francisc-based company that supports entrepreneurs and their startups. “As instructors, we give the ingredients to successful innovation, and we intentionally establish accelerated timelines to promote ambitious results.”
Students were divided into six teams comprising subject matter experts who face the issue at hand every day, as well as instructors and Soldiers who work elsewhere but have the education and experience to provide in-depth analysis and feedback. Each team focused on a specific slice of a problem statement developed by the NSIN Innovation Boot Camp cadre and the 75th IC leadership: How can we improve U.S. Army Reserve and National Guard Gray Area Retiree pay packets processing to ensure that retirees receive their retirement pay?
“My team had a good mix between 75th [IC] Soldiers and subject matter experts familiar with the problem,” said Sgt. 1st Class Sam W. Altman, Tech Scout, 75th Innovation Command. “Rather than shooting down ideas because of perceived limitations, SMEs considered the feasibility of every idea presented by 75th [IC] Soldiers outside the problem.”
Myriad solutions percolated during the next eight days. The discussion, research and analysis culminated into comprehensive ideas ranging from streamlining administrative processes to updating automated systems and creating information portals.
“The biggest challenge was collecting evidence and developing a cohesive flow to make our solution appealing to our leadership,” said Staff Sgt. Brian C. Turner, innovation analyst, Chicago Team, 75th Innovation Command. “The input and feedback we received from the instructors helped our team create a comprehensive solution.
“The problem itself is not complex, but the solutions can be complex, since they must address the U.S. military’s technical parameters, stringent regulations and hierarchical structures,” said Issac Park, Innovation Boot Camp instructor and CEO of Pathos Ethos, a software development company headquartered in Durham, N.C. “That’s why we take a coaching approach to this Boot Camp. We amplify talent by teaching them practical skills that they can immediately apply to the problem.”
Each team recorded a five-minute video and uploaded a presentation no less than 48 hours prior to pitching their respective solutions via virtual meetings with Brig. Gen. Heather Reuter, deputy commanding general, 75th Innovation Command.
“I’m very impressed with the wide variety of creative ideas,” said Reuter. “On day one, I challenged our 75th IC Soldiers to collaborate and innovate in ways they never thought possible. By day eight, they exceeded my expectations by providing practical solutions that will help hundreds of thousands of retirees receive their entitlements for decades to come.”
“This was a huge win for everyone involved,” added Schulte. “The 75th IC Soldiers were passionate about the project and committed to the problem-solving process. “It would be a great honor and pleasure to work with them again in future Innovation Boot Camps.”
As students and instructors bade farewell and closed their Zoom sessions one last time, Turner and his team reflected on what inspired them to be part of this Innovation Boot Camp in the first place.
“We are here to help those who serve our country,” said Turner, who also serves as a management consultant for Accenture, a Chicago-based innovation hub. “That is what is all about in the end.”