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
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.
U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Knowlton stands by with his Soldiers waiting to board the bus to Robert Gray Army Airfield, initiating the 62nd Sig. Battallion's deployment Sept. 1,
2013 at Abrams Physical Fitness Center.
(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. John Healy, 7th MPAD)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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.”
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.”
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.
Knowlton was convinced. He approached Cook after the presentation to
“'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
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
“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
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
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
By U.S. Army Sgt. John Healy
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