KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany –
“Living is coping and we just gotta get through it,” said the U.S. Army Reserve Interim Senior Enlisted Leader and Command Sergeant Major of the Army Reserve during a sit-down interview July 10, 2016.
Command Sgt. Maj. James Wills is very concerned about the rate of suicides in the Army and he has made suicide prevention and awareness a primary focus during his time as the Army Reserve’s top noncommissioned officer.
He has speaks and listens during his visits with NCOs and senior leaders around the Army Reserve. He reminds them that they need to know their troops in today’s challenging environment.
In addition, Wills educates Army Reserve Soldiers and senior leaders with real life anecdotes and ideas to help distressed Soldiers in times of crisis.
“If you put that smiley face on the calendar six months from today, you’ll look back six months later and you’ll say I can’t even remember what I was upset about or what really held me back that day,” Wills said.
He emphasized that this is one way Army Reserve leaders can help Soldiers with stress and turmoil in the short term, to keep going and make them realize, their life can get better if they keep moving forward towards new goals and priorities.
The day prior, in front of a standing room only audience of 7th MSC noncommissioned officers and officers, Wills spoke with refreshing energy and blunt honesty in an open-air ‘fest’ tent during a picture perfect day on the NCO Parade Field a few hours after the 7th MSC’s change of command.
Wills’ life stories, his very candid remarks and the more than an hour-long question and answer session with the troops all tied into one theme, Army Reserve leaders need to be more engaged with their Soldiers, especially NCOs.
First visit to Europe
This was Wills’ first visit to the 7th MSC.
Over three days, July 8-10, Wills met with dozens of 7th MSC Soldiers, visited with the U.S. Army-Africa Commanding General in Italy and also met with the 21st Theater Sustainment Command’s CSM and the Commanding General of the U.S. Army European Command in Germany.
Wills is responsible for advising the Chief of the Army Reserve and Commanding General of the U.S. Army Reserve Command Lt. Gen. Charles D. Luckey on all Army Reserve enlisted matters and he also works with the Sergeant Major of the Army as the Army Reserve senior enlisted advisor and advocate.
His personal challenges and current priorities
Wills spoke about many topics during his town hall and interview, including his own personal challenges, triumphs, struggles and successes over his 30 plus years in the Army.
Currently Wills’ top three priorities are Army Reserve Soldier readiness; suicide awareness and prevention and taking care of and recognizing Army Reserve families and their loved ones for their support, but he can also adjust and focus on other important issues raised by Soldiers when he visits Army Reserve units.
He wants his fellow Army Reserve Soldiers and civilians to realize that every Soldier is human and anyone can overcome obstacles throughout their life.
Combating Suicide in the Army Reserve
Wills talked about a Soldier’s time of struggle and when they find themselves at their lowest points in life, a caring NCO or officer can save a Soldier from taking their own life with even the smallest
Wills also spoke extensively about Soldier suicides in the military and how he has personally made it through family struggles and tough times over his lifetime.
Wills said he has had close family members with addiction problems; he has had relatives that helped raise him, pass away; he also had to take a break from the Army to help his parents with severe health issues in 2006 and he went through chaplain’s marriage counseling earlier in his career.
And now that he has made it through his own life’s challenges and is now happily remarried with a beautiful family, he is letting Army Reserve Soldiers and leaders know that no one is infallible and that everyone in the Army Reserve needs to do better about taking care of Soldiers, especially when they are at their darkest hours.
“Along with those life events you lose self-confidence.,” Wills said. “When you lose confidence in your own self-worth. That is what drives Soldiers to the edge. A lot of times we miss that as a leader.
“So I ask that our leaders know our Soldiers, [that] we’re engaged with our Soldiers,” Wills said. “To be engaged in our Soldiers’ lives is critical and important in this day and age.”
The town hall
“The town hall was good, it was different,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jimmy Barker, an accounting NCO with the 7th MSC Headquarters and Headquarters Company and a military technician auditor in his civilian capacity with the 7th MSC. “The sergeant major gave an air of friendliness and caring but sternness to get the job done.”
Topics and questions ranged from Defense Travel Service voucher issues to the new Operational Camouflage Pattern uniform issue for USAR Soldiers to promotions and retention and a question about professional gear being included when a reservist accompanies an active-duty spouse during Permanent Change of Station travel.
Some questions, Wills answered directly. Sometimes, the audience weighed in with the information. And, Wills’ executive assistant NCO took notes on some questions for future follow up.
“The DTS questions related to me best because it let me know that we need to do our part to make sure that our Soldiers are trained on DTS and knowing what they need to do and how they need to do it, because that’s my area,” Barker said. “DTS and accounting, that’s what I do.
“The town hall, it was run similar to other town halls that I’d been to so the format was standard, it was good, but again, it was his liveliness, his laughter, his joking that kind of loosened up the crowd a little bit different than most town halls that I’ve been to, which I think led to some of the questions that were asked,” Barker said. “Which was good, because normally at a town hall you sit there and you get ‘crickets’ when questions come up.”
Another 7th MSC Soldier Sgt. Ricky Philizaire, Company C, 457th Civil Affairs Battalion, a civil affairs NCO, who works as a project manager assistant in Wiesbaden for the Army Corps of Engineers for his civilian position also enjoyed the town halls’ open discussion format with the answers for questions sometimes coming directly from fellow Soldiers.
“This one was good,” said Philizaire.
Philizaire asked Wills a question about the new Army OCP uniform issue to reservists.
His question was answered by a fellow 7th MSC Soldier.
“I like that he wasn’t just giving a standard answer,” said Philizaire said. “That line all the time, ‘talk to your chain of command.’ I believe the problems need be addressed openly, so everybody, the whole chain of command can hear.”
Philizaire said he will follow up in the future with his unit supply NCO and the 7th MSC G4 NCOIC.
“Approachable and realistic”
“He seemed really easy going and approachable and realistic,” said Sgt. Erin Hodge, an NCO in the 7th MSC Office of the Surgeon, whose civilian employment is at NATO Joint Force Headquarters in Brunssum, Netherlands fitness center.
“He was so quick to just even throw his email address out there,” Hodge said. “He was like, ‘Hey, if you need something, email me,’ He seemed very approachable.”
Those issues that can’t be resolved at the lowest level, that need to be elevated to him, will absolutely be taken care of by him, Barker added.
Balancing business, service and family
In addition to being the USAR’s Senior Enlisted Leader, Wills owns three companies back home in West Virginia.
His daughter helps him run his businesses when he is on active duty.
“I have a daughter that’s a bit older,” Wills said.
Wills said he is blessed that his daughter basically runs things like the CEO of his companies for him during his current assignment.
“I lean on her a lot,” Wills said. “I do reach out at the end of most days or, you know we’ll text or something a couple of times throughout the day.”
Wills said a lot of major business decisions come to him via email.
“I can’t turn my back on my companies,” Wills said, “because eventually I’ll have to go back to that, but at the same token there has to be a balance,” with my family on top of all this as well.
“With the amount of travel that I do,” Wills said, “I think it’s critical that my wife and my children see what I do and they’re engaged in what I do.”
He also encourages Army Reserve members to involve their families in their careers as much as possible, like taking them to the Army Reserve center to show them their Army duties and responsibilities.
He said that he wishes he saw more of this when he visits Army Reserve Soldiers.
The 7th MSC’s capabilities are diverse and unique
Wills’ first visit to the 7th MSC was an eye opener for the Army Reserve’s senior enlisted leader.
“You guys are doing great missions,” Wills said. “Many of the training missions that our Soldiers are doing over here in Europe actually turn into real world type scenarios. I think that was very eye opening for me.”
Wills noted that he is extremely proud of the Soldiers that the 7th MSC has such a diverse asset and capability here.
“Many of the Soldiers speak two and three languages,” Wills said. “They may be a resident of a different country ----but they’re a proud serving member of the Army Reserve. So lot of capability in the 7th, with a lot of heart here and I applaud the effort.”
The 7th MSC Soldiers are truly in the fight every day, he added.
“I think this command over here is one of the most unique,” said Philizaire who has been in the Army Reserve from 2010-2016. “It’s not a Reserve Center, it’s not some unit out there in the middle of nowhere. We are actually on active duty installations. We see active-duty people every day. We conduct business similar to active-duty. That’s what I like about the 7th MSC.”
“Diversity is healthy”
What socially looks right to some is not the same to everybody, Wills said during his interview.
He was referring to the U.S. government’s 2011 decision to allow gay, lesbian or bisexual service members to serve openly in the U.S. military and to the recent decision in June, by the Secretary of Defense, to also allow transgender Americans to serve.
“What I would encourage people to understand is, is that what makes us America is the right that we can be who we are from a civil right to understand,” Wills said. “I’m entitled to believe what I want to believe and be the person that I want to be.
“It’s time to change and diversity is healthy,” Wills said
He said that Soldiers need to realize that whether it’s a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender service member serving alongside them, “that these are all people that could just as easily be our own family, our own son or daughter.”
“I think that is how we have to approach society today,” Wills said. “It's about mutual respect to people around us. I encourage our Soldiers to make sure they embrace change. All Americans, regardless of creed, race, religion, sexual orientation or otherwise [should] --be able to stand up and serve and don the uniform if they have a preference to do so.”
“We have to care about each other”
Wills concluded his town hall with a few final heartfelt words of encouragement and appreciation for the 7th MSC Soldiers and their families and loved ones.
“You need to go home and make sure you let your family know that they mean everything to you, OK, and thank them for what they do,” Wills said. “You’ve got to understand. We’re people. We’re in the business of people and we have to care about each other.
“I absolutely love Soldiers and their families and that’s why I do this,” Wills said. “I truly believe in American Soldiers.”