FORT HOOD, Texas - With the swagger of a Hollywood cowboy, Sgt. 1st. Class Michael A. Knowlton, first sergeant of Alpha Company, 62nd Signal Battalion, Tactical Theater Signal Brigade, enters the room.
Wild eyes skewer left and right as he saunters down the center aisle, leaving a petrified audience wondering who in their right mind gave John Wayne a set of ACUs and told him to go teach a class on developing interpersonal skills.
The pumpkin shaped drill sergeant’s badge on his right breast pocket begs the question of whether or not Knowlton’s idea of interpersonal skills involves grabbing soldiers by the throat, gently.
Today, Knowlton is here to drive home a single message.
Regardless of rank or position, it is key that all leaders know their soldiers, and Knowlton has a method which he knows is successful.
“I believe that senior leaders in the Army have the same problems as privates,” said Knowlton. “We’re supposed to project that image of confidence and leadership and being tough and hard.”
Knowlton experienced how easily a soldier can be overlooked first hand.
Following his last cycle as a drill sergeant at Fort Jackson, Knowlton was sent to Fort Hood where he immediately began preparing for deployment.
Knowlton lived as a geographical bachelor while his wife made preparations to move their family across the country. Knowlton shouldered the stress of the deployed environment with the added weight of relationship and financial problems at home.
Knowlton returned after eight months downrange with the hopes of repairing his marriage.
Before he could begin, Knowlton was met with a different kind of challenge. He had lost his first soldier in garrison.
One of his soldiers had been riding a motorcycle when he lost control.
“He had done something that was dumb and impulsive and ended up dying as a result of it,” said Knowlton.
The problems didn’t stop there. Thirty-four days later, a young sergeant in his company committed suicide because of relationship problems, and another soldier after that, again to a motorcycle crash.
Shortly after, Knowlton was assigned as a casualty assistance officer. He was responsible for making funeral arrangements for another staff sergeant who had committed suicide while visiting his family in California shortly after returning from deployment.
The staff sergeant had been coping with his own stress brought on by finances, issues at work, and problems with his relationship, exactly the same situation that Knowlton was facing at the time.
“My world here in the Army was on tilt, I was rocked,” said Knowlton. “To lose that many soldiers, to be that close to that much pain and hurt, and to have soldiers in your ranks, in your formations that you’re trying to take care of that are feeling that same loss, that same pain.”
“In the course of about five months, I had four extremely close and personal soldiers who were in stress, in distress, where the Army wasn’t able to get ahead of the ball,” said Knowlton.
“They weren’t able to see where the soldier was, they weren’t able to identify that with the training that we had received.”
In an effort to address the growing number of incidents occurring within the battalion a guest speaker was brought in to talk about managing stress, Capt. Rob Cook, chaplain, Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, III Corps.
Cook, a former headmaster of schools in Tennessee, had all of the soldiers in attendance fill out a survey designed as part of a program called Real Life Management.
“What Real Life Management teaches about that survey is that once somebody scores, that’s your basic attitude wiring,” said Cook. “From that, you will end up making choices about money, health and relationships, as well as other choices such as suicide, domestic violence, and sexual assault.”
“This was just another Army survey,” Knowlton said with a dismissive wave. “It was just another piece of paper that I have to sit down and fill out so that I can satisfy a requirement.”
Knowlton turned in his sheet and headed for the door.
Out of more than 100 people surveyed that day, Chaplain Cook approached only one, Sgt. 1st Class Knowlton.
Based on his survey, Cook already knew that Knowlton probably wouldn’t speak to him.
Cook could already tell that he had problems at home, that his relationships were falling apart and that he was dealing with stress at work. He told Knowlton that if he took the time, he could make him a better husband, a better father, and a better leader.
“I looked at him and I said ‘sure,’ and I turned around and I left,” Knowlton said with a laugh. “I had no way at the time of understanding the insight that he had on where I was in my life and who I was according to my survey.”
Two months went by before Knowlton and Cook met again, this time at a marriage retreat for senior couples in Marble Falls, Texas.
Knowlton was attending in a last ditch effort to repair his relationship with his wife.
“You don’t like to admit it, but we were probably done,” said Knowlton. “It was probably a divorce retreat for us.”
“Things were bad. The stress and the fallout from the soldiers I had lost in garrison had just had a huge impact on my personal life and on my marriage,” said Knowlton. “The stress that it put my family under was unbearable for me.”
“All of us are at risk,” said Cook. “At any moment, a culmination of life events can put any one of us in an ‘at risk’ position. It’s at those moments that poor choices can be made, or better choices can be made.”
Once again Chaplain Cook administered the Real Life Survey, and people were amazed by the results.
“He literally told me who I was without me saying anything,” said Knowlton.
This time, Knowlton was convinced. He approached Cook after the presentation to seek help.
“’I feel like I’m broken, like I’m under water,’” Knowlton told him. More than a year later it is still visibly difficult for him to admit.
Cook spent the next couple of weeks counseling the Knowltons using the Real Life Management program.
“Here’s a complete stranger who came into my house and introduced me to my wife that I’ve had for 15 years,” said Knowlton. “Now that’s a little embarrassing.”
He gave me something that I could immediately act on to make a huge difference and a huge impact in my home life and in my marriage. It was so immediate, so effective, that in three or four weeks my wife and I were communicating. We were getting to the bottom of things.”
Knowlton tracked down Chaplain Cook on post. He wanted to know how he could take the tools that Cook had used in his home, which had given him immediate success, and apply them to his platoon.
With Cook’s assistance, Knowlton surveyed the 60 soldiers in his platoon. That same day he learned things about his soldiers that he would never had learned otherwise.
Through the use of the Real Life Survey, Knowlton was able to see why certain teams didn’t work well together, which leaders worked well with other leaders.
“It improved productivity,” Knowlton said, sitting at the edge of his seat, swept up by his own story. “It had an immediate impact on our capability as a platoon. It impacted the mission, which was phenomenal.”
Knowlton emphasizes that the Real Life Survey is not a magic trick or an algorithm, it’s a tool; a way for Soldiers to tell leaders who they are.
“What the survey does is allow me to get to the real person,” said Knowlton. “And when I get to the real person, I build trust. That’s the key thing that we’re missing in the Army today.”
Today, Knowlton uses Real Life Management to teach his young leaders how to know their soldiers. The survey gives them a structure and a format to follow when sitting down with a young soldier.
“It gives you the right questions to ask,” Knowlton explains. “It gives you an idea of what actions to watch out for, and it gives you an idea of the decisions that those soldiers are going to make whether they’re doing great, whether they’re in stress, or distress.”
This newly established trust makes it easier for soldiers to come to their first line supervisors with their issues as well.
“For the first month or two it looked terrible, because we were reporting up everything that we found and it looked bad,” said Knowlton.
Chaplain Cook was excited at the prospects of Real Life Management being implemented by Knowlton at the company level.
“It’s been a great opportunity to know him and learn from him about how he’s using Real Life Management,” said Cook. “He can reach so many more people more effectively, especially soldiers. More than a chaplain ever could.”
Cook foresees Real Life Management being most effective in preventative training.
“We want our leaders, our junior leaders, to understand and know their soldiers,” said Cook. “To connect the dots, and keep them from moving into a stress or distress position.”
While evidence of the success of the Real Life Management program is difficult to quantify, Knowlton attributes the program to the prevention of three suicides.
On one such occasion, Knowlton was able to interpret the signs moments before it was too late.
“Sitting down in this office, it was incredibly obvious from looking at that pattern that I had a young soldier in front of me that was absolutely in distress in their entire life,” said Knowlton.
When asked, the soldier revealed that they had already planned their death. This was supposed to be their last conversation.
“We would have missed it. That’s the soldier we would have missed,” said Knowlton. “Instead of missing it, we knew the soldier. The soldier trusted the chain of command.”
“I knew that soldier’s actions, what they would be in stress or distress. And when I saw those actions, I could take action and immediately take care of it,” said Knowlton.
“(The Real Life Survey) is the only thing in the Army that has taught me the interpersonal skills to get ahead of the problem,” said Knowlton. “How to not only identify the problem, but how to get ahead.”
Knowlton is now facing his fourth deployment, this time as a first sergeant.
Making sure your soldiers trust you should be the number one priority leading into deployment, said Knowlton, but he has gone farther than that.
“It’s given me an idea or a window into how some of my teams are going to perform under stress,” said Knowlton.
“I have never felt more confident that I know and understand my soldiers than I do on this deployment.”