Nine years after 9/11 and nearly as many years into simultaneous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the battlefields the United States faces today are “in our backyard,” leading to significant security challenges for the country. That warning came from Brigadier General Belinda Pinckney, who recently retired from the U.S. Army as one of the highest-ranking women and Blacks. She addressed DiversityInc’s audience of chief diversity officers and executives at our two-day event in Washington, D.C.
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Pinckney said there are three major issues that endanger the nation’s ability to meet those challenges: shortages in language and cultural skills, poor education levels and inadequate health and healthcare, particularly mental healthcare.
Diversity, Pinckney said, is critical to engagement. “How can you face these challenges when leaders are all one gender and often one race?” she asked. “How do you develop a pipeline that ensures that we look like the nation that we’ll serve some years out?”
Pinckney said that language-skills shortages could lead to dangerous situations. “When you can’t speak the language in an environment, it makes it pretty hard to be effective,” she said. Understanding of various cultures and religions, particularly those of the Middle East and of Islam, have become critical, requiring soldiers facing deployment to receive cultural- and faith-awareness training.
Dramatic deficits in education and health add to the challenges the nation faces. Last year, the Pentagon reported that 75 percent of 17- to 24-year-old Americans were ineligible for military service because of criminal backgrounds, obesity or inadequate education. The high-school dropout rate for Blacks, Latinos or American Indians is two to three times higher than the dropout rate for whites, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Mental-health challenges caused by multiple wars and back-to-back deployments are also a growing hindrance to engagement. Pinckney said many veterans are coming home with severe disabilities—from severed limbs to traumatic brain injuries, PTSD and depression—but can’t afford to the healthcare they need. There also aren’t enough healthcare providers to meet that need.
“To effectively engage, we must understand the cause and the severity of the problem and the steps to take to relieve the problem,” Pinckney said.
There are some initiatives the military has employed to face the challenges. Pinckney said the Army piloted a resilience training program at Fort Lewis in Washington. Holistic healthcare assessments, which require service members returning from overseas to fill out a survey, help officials determine where they need the most help and promptly schedule appointments in those areas.
Any effective strategies to solve the problems the nation faces require “implementing and standardizing a new way of doing business,” Pinckney said. “If we don’t have engagement, we’ll fall deeper into this hole, and we can’t afford that.”