About 100 civilian aides to the Secretary of the Army were in Missouri last week to attend their national conference and witness firsthand the variety of training conducted at Fort Leonard Wood.
CASAs, as they’re commonly called, are business and community leaders appointed by the Secretary of the Army to advise and support Army leaders across the country. They serve without a salary, and each state has at least one.
This was the first time Fort Leonard Wood — or Missouri, for that matter — has been chosen as the host location for the conference, said Keith Pritchard, the CASA representing western Missouri.
Pritchard welcomed the attendees during a briefing last Tuesday morning in Lincoln Hall Auditorium.
“We get it done out here, and we send fantastic, trained soldiers of all levels to the big Army for the fight, and we send them ready to go,” he said.
As one of four Army initial military training locations, and the home of the Maneuver Support Center of Excellence, Fort Leonard Wood trains thousands of service members from all branches of the military. Before introducing the commandants of the installation’s three main schools — the U.S. Army Military Police School, the U.S. Army Engineer School and the U.S. Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear School — Maj. Gen. James Bonner, MSCoE and Fort Leonard Wood commanding general, thanked the attendees for their support to the Army.
“There’s no better place to serve than right here,” Bonner said. “I look forward to meeting every one of you. Thank you for what you do.”
Exploiting and enhancing the effects of terrain is the overarching goal of Army Engineers, said Col. Joseph Goetz, USAES commandant, who spoke on the variety of skills these Soldiers are trained on here, and at detached locations across the country.
“We see ourselves as a force for the Army — and a joint force — that closes a distance,” Goetz said. “And that training starts here at Fort Leonard Wood, where, in an average year, we’ll put about 15,000 service members of all stripes through our training here. And we’ve got some special facilities here to do it.”
Last week, the CASAs visited Training Area 250, where soldiers with the 35th Engineer Battalion’s Combat Engineer Skills Division had the chance to demonstrate and explain how the Army brings heavy equipment across wet gaps.
Kevin Robinson, a CASA from Alaska, rode a floating bridge across the training area’s lake as part of the event. He called it an awesome experience.
“It is amazing to see the ability the Army has to overcome an obstacle,” he said. “This has been a great experience to help me recognize everything we have in the Army.”
Robinson’s spouse, Ann, came along for the ride. She was impressed with the soldiers she met.
“I am amazed at how young the soldiers controlling these amazing pieces of equipment are,” she said. “They are controlling boats and building a bridge.”
On Wednesday, the group also toured Training Area 244, what Goetz said is affectionately called “the million-dollar hole” — a heavy equipment training site, where the CASAs had the chance to get hands on with some of the construction equipment Army Engineers train on.
As the Army evolves to meet potential future threats from near-peer competitors with state-sponsored weapons of mass destruction programs, the demand for the CBRN skill set trained here is “growing exponentially daily,” said Brig. Gen. Sean Crockett, USACBRNS commandant.
“What’s unique about the CBRN branch is that we have to maintain a healthy balance between the warrior side of our business, as well as the technical side,” Crockett said. “That balance is constantly in motion. I need my formations, my leaders, to understand our maneuver population first before they can properly integrate that unique skill and tool that we bring to that fight.”
Crockett said he was excited to show the CASAs the Defense Department’s only live chemical warfare agent training facility. The Chemical Defense Training Facility, as it’s called, provides training opportunities for service members from all branches of the military, as well as other federal agencies.
One of the CASAs who toured the facility, Toloa’i Ho Ching, from American Samoa, said he has no military background and “really didn’t know what to expect.”
“The details they put into the training here are just amazing,” he said. “It brings me comfort to know they have real-life training and not just simulations. I think is it important that smaller areas like American Samoa are aware of this great training and be involved in this in some way, shape or form.”
Training the “largest police force for the United States” comes with some pretty unique responsibilities, said Brig. Gen. Sarah Albrycht, USAMPS commandant, who highlighted some of the skills learned here, including corrections, forensics and advanced driving techniques.
“We train more police officers right here at Fort Leonard Wood than anyone else in the United States,” Albrycht said, noting that training is in line with federal standards. “We have partnerships that both certify and accredit us to do the jobs that we do.”
The CASAs toured the Stem Village training area here on Wednesday, a police training site built to resemble a small city, complete with a movie theater. Dr. Jeraline Johnson, a CASA representing Florida (South), said she thinks more civilians should have the opportunity to see what the Army has to offer.
“They know what they see in the movies; they know what they may have heard from family members, friends who have served, but it’s a different thing to see this in action and to see all of the education that comes with it,” Johnson said. “In my day job, I get to work with six high schools in Palm Beach County School District that have criminal justice academies, so it really made me feel good to know that what we’re doing in our school system early on with students, training them about law enforcement and various careers in policing — I got to see that the Army is doing the same thing. For those students who are looking for a way to continue what they’re learning in high school, the Army has a great way of continuing that as a Military Police officer.”
In addition to experiencing a taste of some of the training that occurs on Fort Leonard Wood, the CASAs also had the chance to have a literal taste of the food served here, when they sat down for lunch at an Army dining facility with trainees from their respective states.
Marcia Anderson is a CASA representing Wisconsin. Though she’s eaten at an Army DFAC at least once or twice before — Anderson is a retired major general, with 36 years of service — she said it was a great opportunity to sit down with a Soldier and share a little from her experiences.
“There are so many opportunities to excel in the Army,” Anderson said. “It’s really all about you — what you want to do.”
Anderson said she initially joined Army ROTC because she “needed a science credit in college, and they gave me a $100 a month stipend.”
“That’s why I joined ROTC,” she said. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but in the end, it turned out to be a really good choice for me. I met some great friends; I got some leadership skills I didn’t have, because I was very shy — I didn’t play on any sports teams, and I didn’t know anything about teamwork. The Army taught me a lot about that.”
Her fellow Wisconsinite, Pvt. Cameron Shannon, who is currently in basic combat training with Company B, 1st Battalion, 48th Infantry Regiment — and will continue with advanced individual training at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, to be a firefighter — said he wanted to do something different with his life.
“I’ve always been very passionate about helping people, and I thought this would be a good way to start living my life for others,” he said. “At first, I wasn’t sure about firefighting, but I really looked into it and the noble acts firefighters do just seemed like a perfect fit for me.”
Another event this week that happened to coincide with the CASA conference was the Community Salute to Service on Wednesday evening at Waynesville High School. First held in 2019, the event honors area high school students, who are joining a branch of the military, ROTC or who have received an appointment to a military academy. Plato was represented.
Johnson said she thinks it’s fantastic that the Fort Leonard Wood community shows its future service members how much they are appreciated for their decision to serve.
“We do such a great job recognizing our graduates when they’re going to college, when they’re signing to play different sports, and so, I think it’s most appropriate for us to also give that same level of recognition to our students, who have made the decision to serve our country,” Johnson said.
This year also marks the centennial anniversary of the CASA program. Angela Ritz, CASA program director, said the program has been around — in one form or another — since 1922.
“It had its beginnings in the Plattsburg Camps, out of World War I, and out of the military preparedness, they decided that the civic leaders and influencers were really the ones who could bring troops in and get them trained quickly,” she said. “And so, after World War I, it transitioned into a community influencer program. We weren’t training troops after World War I; we weren’t using the CASAs to bring troops in, but we were using them to bridge the military to the public. It’s become more important now, more than ever, because as the number of individuals serving continues to decrease, there are some communities — where I grew up, I never saw anybody in the military; I never even thought about it as a career — so, what we try to use the CASAs for, is to tell the Army story.”