By MAJ Sean Delpech
The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the Army Reserve to think outside of the box to meet training requirements for what used to be resident, in-class training. For the U.S. Army Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command (Airborne) Unit Ministry Team (UMT), this challenge presented an opportunity to increase the quality of training above and beyond the expected capacity of the virtual platforms available.
Each year, before the COVID-19 pandemic, USACAPOC(A) brought their approximately 180 UMT’s together for in-person annual training. Comprised of religious support specialists and chaplains, USACAPOC(A) UMTs serve the religious needs of Soldiers, support unit missions, and support commander priorities. In addition, USACAPOC(A) UMTs form a vital part of deployable civil affairs teams from the battalion level all the way up to the two-star command headquarters.
“USACAPOC(A) UMT’s are like any of our Soldiers with specialized capabilities, in that it’s important that they be well trained and ready to perform those vital skills and duties knowledgably and with up-to-date information,” said Brig. Gen. Jeffrey C. Coggin, USACAPOC(A) commanding general. “As a specialized capability, the UMT’s play an important role in the influence and effects of religion in both the cognitive and physical operating environments of our Civil Affairs operations, as well as performing their vital Soldier support role.”
“Even though this year’s UMT training could not take place with all participants here at Ft. Bragg, the group worked together in the virtual environment to be leaders for collaborative influence and create a great training program,” said Coggin.
“We usually bring everybody here to Fort Bragg, where we do a lot of in-person training, integrating vignettes and scenarios,” said Master Sgt. Frederick J. Cohen, USACAPOC(A) religious affairs non-commissioned officer in charge. “We would do PT together, were planning to do an ACFT this year, and we make sure to bring everybody together for some of the best conversations and some of the best information we gather for in-person discussion.”
UMT training is an annual USARC and Department of the Army requirement that is mandatory for all USACAPOC(A) Soldiers who are serving in a chaplain (56A), a chaplain candidate (56X), or a religious affairs specialist (56M) position.
“What we try to do every year is to instill in our Chaplains what is the true mission that we accomplish for USACAPOC(A), said Lt. Col. Richard James Sr., USACAPOC(A) command chaplain.
The advanced UMT training is designed to prepare unit team members with the tools necessary to meet the challenges of working in today’s diffused ministry environment, and certified USACAPOC(A) UMTs to meet new USARC ministry standards ahead of schedule.
“This event is a lot of training, it’s a lot of awareness, it’s a lot of leadership, and it’s looking at what is the CG’s guidelines for us as it pertains to USACAPOC(A) directly, and also what are the Chief of Chaplain’s guidelines for us,” said James. “During this process, we combine these two together so that each UMT has a clear understanding of their function.”
The ministry teams at USACAPOC reflect the diverse community of the command, and this requires significant crossover of communication, coordination, and training for UMT operations.
“Here at USACAPOC(A), there's a lot of things that we just aren’t able to talk about on a regular basis because we are spread out so far, especially with the Chaplain Corps being as diverse as it is; we have chaplains from the major religions, reflecting the faiths of our Soldier community,” said Cohen. And so, in-person cross communication on a lot of those ideas and cultural items helps us maintain a standard of diversity and excellence as a Chaplain Corps over all.”
This year’s UMT training, held virtually, was expected to encounter many challenges to maintain the standard of quality of previous years. The virtual platform for the 2020 UMT training has been tested throughout the Army Reserve for everything from virtual battle assemblies to training meetings, but few had experience trying to fill the UMT format requirement for shared training.
For instance, resident class UMT training is important because it provides an opportunity for the religious support teams to network and compare real-world solutions to problems encountered throughout the year.
“Annual UMT training allows the other chaplain directorates at the CACOM, the POG, and the TIOG an opportunity to spend some time with their UMTs, who are scattered and diffused across the U.S., to reiterate together what is our mission, what is our goal, and what is our responsibility to our commands and to our Soldiers,” said James.
Because of its capabilities, chaplains in the USACAPOC(A) organization have a specialized mission set.
“UMT training is annual training that supports the unique USACAPOC(A) mission for Chaplains,” said James. “Due to the high rate of deployment for our Chaplains, almost all UMT’s will be impacted by the mission at some point during the year.”
The USACAPOC(A) Command Ministry Team sought to overcome challenges presented by the limitations of the virtual platform while keeping the audience engaged and participating throughout the course.
“We bring online subject matter experts from the first levels of the organization, we bring in leadership from USACAPOC(A), as well as leadership from the 81st Readiness Division and U.S. Army Reserve Command,” said James.
Conducting the training virtually, with the platform that was available, took intensive coordination and oversight throughout the course schedule.
“Imagine you have Soldiers scattered through the country, and the training begins at 9:00 a.m. and goes until 6:45 p.m. every day,” said James. “So, the challenge becomes how to keep them engaged throughout the day using the virtual tools available, moving from the different presenters, who are themselves scattered at different locations, some at offices, some at home, some at headquarters.”
“Our staff had to constantly ensure that every UMT in the program was connected to the virtual training platform, and when the training actually began, it was great to see that we were able to keep 120 or 130 participants online every single day throughout the training,” continued James.
Speakers at the UMT training included Brig. Gen. Jeffrey C. Coggin, USACAPOC(A) commanding general, representatives from U.S. Army Reserve Command (USARC) and the 81st Readiness Division. The training covered a range of required topics, from Title 10 religious accommodation requirements to religious area analysis.
“Our USACAPOC(A) chaplains reflect a lot of the energy and enthusiasm around them, not only about performing their religious support mission and their important support of the Soldiers,” said Coggin. “Part of the influence of effect they bring to the organization is that wealth of knowledge that contributes to the operational mission.”
“Take, for example, real world operations where UMT members have a key role to play interacting with the local populace and conducting key leader engagements,” he continued.
But it wasn’t just the presenters, leaders and subject matter experts that made the UMT training a success. The participants engaged with each other over the virtual space, adding an increased element of self-learning to the training.
“The great thing about this is that we we’re sitting there in the virtual platform watching people have those discussions, and it was interesting because we had those important cross discussions on the side, sharing information, and worked together a lot better than expected,” said Cohen.
The intent of the UMT training was to produce the best religious professionals that the Army has to offer; and that includes staff planning and knowing the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP).
“It's not just asking the question of whether you can pray with the Soldier,” said Cohen. It's also important that you are trained as a good staff officer or staff NCO.”
“We study a lot of those staff skills, making sure that people know how to do MDMP, how to do work with the rest of the staff, and how to be the best advisor to support the commander’s master religious program.
“During the enlisted breakout,” said Cohen, “we spent three hours on MDMP, which is exciting to a lot of our UMT enlisted staff, because it isn’t a commonly visited skill for religious support professionals.”
In the end, the effectiveness of the training is reflected in the capability of the UMT course staff and participants.
“The religious support personnel in USACAPOC(A) stepped up and added those extra ‘rocks in the rucksack’ that they’ve dealt with, and every day they prove their value,” said Brig. Gen. Coggin. “This period of the COVID-19 pandemic has added stress across our entire force, and these chaplains and NCO’s that comprise the UMT’s have all helped us through.”
“There were pressures before the pandemic to the Soldier in everyday life and to their families, but the pandemic has added to that, and all the more reason why we need our chaplains now,” said Coggin.