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Senior enlisted panel talks MHS leadership at AMSUS

Two military personnel, wearing masks, giving each other an elbow bump Army Command Sgt. Maj. Michael L. Gragg (right) bumps elbows with Army Surgeon General and Lt. Gen. R. Scott Dingle at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas, last June. Gragg emphasized the critical importance for each member of a team to understand everyone’s role during an AMSUS panel last week. (Photo by U.S. Army Photo by Rebecca Westfall, MEDCOM/OTSG.)

Senior enlisted military leaders with a strong sense of communication and chain-of-command transparency are the connective tissue for Military Health System units throughout the world, according to a panel of such leaders at last week’s annual meeting of AMSUS, The Society of Federal Health Professionals.

“There are things and feedback and ideas and innovation that is lurking within the organization that will never be able to reach the upper echelons without that senior enlisted individual being able to connect” the lower and higher levels, said Army Command Sgt. Major Michael Gragg, senior enlisted leader for the Defense Health Agency.

“That individual allows the [commander] to have a pulse of what his organization really is about.”

The moderator, Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Troy Brown, command senior enlisted leader (CSEL) of the Uniformed Services University, said “Using the CSELs’ experience and influence to be the image of executive leadership” is paramount.

Gragg emphasized the critical importance for each member of a team to understand everyone’s role. A CSEL is the individual who augments the reality of a command, he explained, because most of the organization is going to be enlisted.

CSELs can provide a grounded “down and in” perspective, while remaining keenly aware of the “up and out” of the command. Gragg explained that, put simply, it is remembering where you came from as a newly enlisted soldier and “using that understanding when informing the upward and outward approach of the organization and enterprise.”

“It’s all about effective communication,” said Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Dawn Kolczynski, chief, Medical Enlisted Force, Office of the Air Force Surgeon General. “It is all about collaboration, partnerships and building trusting relationships, and I can’t emphasize that enough.”

Three military personnel, wearing masks, talking to each other
Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Dawn Kolczynski (center), shown with Lt. Gen. Dorothy Hogg, U.S. Air Force surgeon general (left), and Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Michael Malone told a panel at last week’s AMSUS meeting that with a solid CSEL, “you can also make sure that you are considering diversity and inclusion in all of your decisions.” (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik.)

Communication on the ground and in the office was clearly the theme of the panel, especially across services within the MHS.

“We should have input from the gamut of all the personnel that make up the Military Health System,” said Navy Master Chief Randy Swanson, command senior enlisted leader at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. “Active duty, civilian, all the different services, enlisted and officer.”

Gragg made the point that inclusive behavior must be modeled. If enlisted personnel are not included in the decision making, important perspectives can be missed, he noted. Give people responsibility and challenges, so that uncertainty, which makes troops nervous, can be avoided. This creates resiliency instead of an organization that is “fragile to change.”

“If we don’t force ourselves to speak the terminology of the DOD, then we will only be allowed to play in the medical realm,” Gragg added. “We have to be able to speak the operational language of the DOD so that can utilize our talent” in other areas. 

“It is challenging times,” Kolczynski said. With a solid CSEL, “you can also make sure that you are considering diversity and inclusion in all of your decisions. By having the right people by your side, you can take time to really think when you are making a decision, ‘Is it the best thing for the organization?’ And ultimately, the best thing for our patients.

“Oftentimes as senior enlisted leaders, we will make decisions that we truly believe are the best for the mission or that will make the job easier, or better, or make it better for our patients,” she said. “But then at the execution level, our airman, our soldiers, our sailors, will look at that same policy and think, ‘What in the world are they thinking?’ So, your senior enlisted leader will hopefully have the pulse of your organization.”

Get out of your offices, Kolczynski recommends to staff. Walk your MTFs [military medical treatment facilities]. There’s no other way to know what that pulse is. Not only that, but SELs must grow future SELs, she said. “That means they must be at the table, helping make decisions.”

Navy Master Chief Joseph Rawson, senior enlisted leader at Navy Medicine Readiness and Support Unit at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in Virginia, asked, “Are they ready for the mission that we’re being called to do, whenever that comes up? When that call comes, and our platform is pulled for deployment, is that sailor and is that soldier ready? And do they feel confident in their competencies? And that’s the biggest thing.”

Rawson explained that he firmly believes MHS can operate outside its comfort zone — but with proper training. Where that stems from is a comfort level that must be worked on each day

“It’s on us to make sure that each of the other services know what capabilities we bring to the fight,” said Kolczynski.

CSELs are the bearer of a lot of information — and being able to process it is truly vital, Swanson said. And being immediately reactive is not necessarily the right thing to do. Knowing what’s appropriate to pass up and down the chain of command is important, and commanders deserve the “unvarnished truth.” Transparency in both directions is the key.

“We all are growing up in the Military Health System together, and understanding that this is very flexible, and things change all the time is just a part of what we do each and every single day,” Swanson said. “We keep the priority the priority, with taking care of patients and their families — high quality health care — but also, be transparent with our team.”

Throw a national pandemic on top of all that, and these senior enlisted leaders could not be prouder of their teams, Swanson concluded.

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