APRIL 12, 2016, FORT HOOD, Texas – Certain trends and traits are specific with each passing generation — from the bell bottoms and go-go boots of the 70s to the leg-warmers, scrunchies and hair spray of the 80s to the ripped jeans, slouch socks and combat boots of the 90s.
While all those trends ebb and flow, one thing remains the same — the ways in which the young people of any generation communicate with each other usually leaves older generations scratching their heads.
This communication gap can lead to some pretty humorous misunderstandings, but in an organization like the Army, where not only communication but understanding is paramount to mission success and unit cohesion, those misunderstandings can be much more devastating.
“The younger generation is coming straight out of high school or have only been out of high school for just a few years, and they’re bringing this culture into the military with them,” said Celetia Glenn, the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division victim advocate.
In particular, Glenn recalled an instance when she picked up her 15-year old granddaughter from school and the light that experience shed on the issue of communication.
“I was standing out in front of one of the high schools, and as I was waiting to pick my granddaughter up from school, I was looking at how the students were interacting with one another, the things they were saying, the things they were doing to each other, and the things that were okay,” she said. “They had a whole language that I couldn’t understand. Of course I had to solicit her help to understand a lot of it.”
Only two years older than Glenn’s young granddaughter, the minimum age to join the Army is 17.
Along with the generation gap, regional differences widen the chasm of understanding and create a real language barrier.
“With the younger generation, all they really understand is this is what I know. This is my area. These are the social norms where I grew up,” said Sgt. 1st Class Eric Bryant, the 3rd ABCT Sexual Harassment and Assault Response Prevention Sexual Assault Response Coordinator. “They haven’t really completely adapted to the Army culture, so it’s challenging to get across that barrier. The biggest way to get around it is through awareness, and training does help in that but sometimes it also comes with just having a conversation.”
On a peer-to-peer level, getting to know the Soldiers to the left and right can help alleviate misunderstandings before they occur. But on a leader level, it’s even more of a responsibility.
“Leaders, who are generally in a lot of cases a little bit older, need to really get out there and hear and see what’s going on,” said Glenn, a native of Nolanville, Texas. “Learn about it. Ask those questions. ‘Hey, what does that mean?’ Look it up. Do your own research. As a SHARP, when we hear stuff, we don’t just say, ‘Oh, I don’t know what that is,” we write it down, we take notes, we have that mental Rolodex going. For us to be able to teach them, we have to understand their language on their level.”
The danger of not knowing what the Soldiers are saying is a crippling loss of ability to make on-the-spot corrections before situation escalate out of control.
“What we have in the sexual assault realm is something called the continuum of harm,” said Bryant, a Valdosta, Georgia, native. “Now not all cases, but a lot of cases fall into this continuum of harm, meaning before they get into sexual assault and rape, it starts with innuendos, which means someone is saying something, but it has another meaning.”
Unchecked, those innuendos can turn into sexually suggestive jokes, and perhaps no one says anything about the jokes either.
It could be that the intended target of all this attention is just hoping that ignoring it long enough will make it go away. Be that as it may, unchecked, the jokes may continue.
“Now it turns into touching, could be playful,” Bryant said. “That’s how it starts. No one says anything. They let it go. It continues to escalate. It’s like the statement your parents used to say, ‘If I give you an inch, you’ll take a mile.’ That’s basically what the continuum of harm is. Now let’s add in alcohol. Let’s add in drugs.”
And what may have started with words can go terribly wrong.
Glenn said in the past she has led training sessions that addressed the language challenges that can result when people of different ages, different cultures and different backgrounds come together.
“We have done it, and it has been very effective,” she said. “That gave the best results from any training session that I’ve ever actually gone through. The Soldiers were excited about the training. They were still talking about the training when they walked out. They weren’t mindful of the time. They weren’t looking at the clock.”
Ultimately, what Glenn said is paramount to preventing the misunderstandings that can have dire consequences is the buddy system that is so popular in the Army.
“It’s a matter of policing up each other,” she said. “That’s what we’ve got to get comfortable with from the bottom up to the top down, the policing up of one another. If we start policing one another up, then incidents would drop. And so that’s a major key. We want the understanding and the good behaviors to spread. We want everybody to be comfortable enough to say, ‘Hey, stop that. That’s not right.'”
Ensuring that a zero tolerance policy remains an integral part of the Army culture is the responsibility of all who wear the uniform.
“It requires engagement at all levels, not just Soldiers, not just leaders, but everyone must be engaged, especially during this time when we’re also combining our forces and when we have females coming into MOSs that are predominately male,” Bryant said. “That is going to be a challenge, and it’s not just going to be from Soldiers. It’s going to be from those old Soldiers, because one of the things that we hear a lot when we train is, ‘This is how we’ve always done it. This is what we’re used to.’ People have to understand that as times change, so does the Army. We have to evolve with it, if we’re going to survive and be successful.”