By Fred W. Baker III American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 2, 2007 – During the past three weeks, Army Command Sgt. Maj. Althea Green Dixon has done a lot of walking and talking.
She’s also done a lot of listening. As well as much inspecting, checking, moving and shaking.
What she hasn’t had time to do is any packing.
Sitting in her new office in the command section of the red-bricked Building 1 on the Walter Reed Army Medical Center campus, Dixon is surrounded by blank walls and bare cabinets. Her office is adorned with only the American and Army flags. All of her “stuff” is still in her old office on Fort Detrick, Md., she said.
But that’s OK, because the new top NCO over the North Atlantic Regional Medical Command hasn’t spent a lot of time in her office since being handpicked for the job at Walter Reed.
“I believe in management by walking around. Just stop in on people and say, ‘Hi.’ See how they are doing. Check on things,” Dixon said.
“I can get a lot done in this office sitting behind that computer, but I can get a lot more done by walking around and interacting with people and really seeing how things are going out there and hearing from folks directly,” she said.
Army Maj. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker, the new commander of Walter Reed and the North Atlantic Regional Medical Command, chose the 29-year career medical soldier to lead the changes in wounded soldier care at the center and within the command. The center and its previous leadership have been under fire for the past month since media reports of poor outpatient soldier care caught national attention.
Dixon served as Schoomaker’s “right hand” on Fort Detrick and Fort Gordon, Ga. She found out March 2 that Schoomaker wanted her to move to Walter Reed with him. The next day, when she was supposed to be packing her bags for a vacation in California, she was instead at the center helping coordinate the packing and moving of soldiers and their belongings out of Building 18. The building was spotlighted in the media for poor living conditions, including moldy walls, faulty plumbing and backed-up maintenance work orders.
“I needed to be here,” Dixon said. “Our first priority that weekend was to move our soldiers out of Building 18 and into suitable quarters. And we got that done.”
Dixon has taken only one day off since.
A native of Trinidad, Dixon speaks with a pleasant Caribbean accent, soft and sure about the basics of soldier care. Her passion for taking care of troops showed during an interview with American Forces Press Service.
“I hate to talk about the past. I probably shouldn’t. But part of the reason that we have this situation that we’re in right now is because noncommissioned officers failed to do their jobs,” Dixon said.
“They’re supposed to check on their soldiers,” she added. “They are supposed to know how they are living, what problems they have.
“I’m sorry. I get a little emotional when I talk about that because that’s basic stuff and they didn’t do it,” she said.
For the past three weeks, Dixon has spent countless hours making her rounds across the sprawling 113-acre campus reacquainting the center’s NCOs with the basics of soldier care as she sees them.
“I’m about three things: basics, standards and accountability,” she said. “Basic things like taking care of soldiers, basic things like checking soldiers’ living quarters, basic things like keeping up with your soldiers’ whereabouts. If you stick to the basics, you generally end up OK.”
Probably the biggest effort she’s taken on so far has been making sure all wounded warriors at Walter Reed are housed in “accommodations that are suitable for an American soldier,” she said.
Wounded soldiers in outpatient care with families at the center now live in the 280-room Mologne House, which boasts all the amenities of a luxury hotel, as well as Delano Hall and the two popular Fisher Houses.
The 274-room Abrams Hall became the primary facility for unaccompanied soldiers in outpatient care. Each room offers a private bath -- some with tubs -- kitchenette, walk-in closet, a large, flat-screen television mounted on the wall, and a brand new 17-inch iMac computers. Ten of the rooms there are fitted for wheel-chair access. Brightly lit dayrooms sport large-screen televisions and pool, foosball and ping pong tables.
“It’s the nicest set of barracks that I’ve ever seen since I’ve been in the Army, … and I’ve been in a lot of barracks,” Dixon said with a laugh as she walked from her office toward Abrams Hall to finish her room inspections.
Abrams Hall is across the street and only a short walk from Dixon’s office. The grounds look more like an apartment complex than an Army barracks.
Walking down bright white halls with waxed floors, past the security desk, Dixon lightly quizzed a handful of soldiers on duty about an upcoming town hall meeting.
They told her they knew about it, but not the time or the place.
She kindly set them straight. “Looking forward to seeing you there,” Dixon said.
To make room in Abrams hall, some permanent party and student soldiers living there were moved into furnished, two-bedroom apartments off the campus. Each has walk-in closets and private baths. A shuttle is provided for transportation. The Army paid all relocation, utility transfer and hook-up fees, Dixon said.
“We don’t want our young soldiers to be subject to any financial liabilities because of decisions that their leadership has made,” Dixon said. “I don’t think any soldier lost anything in this shuffle.”
Both Dixon and her boss have talked regularly to the student soldiers and have received nothing but positive feedback, she said. “I haven’t heard any major complaints so far. But we’re keeping those lines of communication open. We want to make sure we’re doing right by all of our soldiers,” she said.
Regular barracks checks help keep her in touch with the soldiers and the NCOs who lead them, Dixon said.
“When a new face comes in they tend to open up a little bit,” she said. “When I go over there, … I try to have a dialogue with them, just to see how they’re doing, get an azimuth check on how we’re doing and if there are any issues.”
Face-to-face communication is a recurring theme in many of the changes that Dixon and Schoomaker have made.
The center now has a weekly orientation for every new soldier-patient and family. On March 21 Schoomaker held his first town hall meeting with the soldier-patients, and more are planned. Schoomaker and Dixon also have held sensing sessions with NCOs and other leaders.
“We are here for the soldier. That’s our job. They ought to not feel they are imposing on us if they come to us with an issue. We are here to deal with those issues,” Dixon said.
In light of recent changes, Dixon said, morale for wounded soldiers is on an “upswing.”
At the same time, Dixon must also focus on the morale of her staff of soldiers. She said that the negative publicity has had an effect on those in uniform serving there. She said she is meeting with staff members to “get their thoughts on how they are doing and what can be done to improve their quality of life,” she said.
“Although a lot of the scrutiny has been on the (care of the) patient-soldiers, I want our employees to know that we still care for them,” she said. “We are here to take care of them the same as we are here to take care of our patient-soldiers.”
Dixon said she is pleased with the changes made already, but acknowledged much work ahead. She said she is receiving support, both from top-level leaders across the Army and DoD, as well as from her NCOs and staff.
The next step is to stand up the Wounded Warrior Transition Brigade, charged with overseeing the health, welfare and morale of patients as they recover. Army combat veterans have been chosen to stand up brigade. Its new top NCO, Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Hartless, has spent time recovering at the center from wounds he suffered while serving in Afghanistan.
About 600 soldiers will make up the three companies in the new brigade. Many officers and NCOs have been given only 30 days notice to report to their new assignments at the center, but haven’t complained about the sudden change. There has been “no whining,” Dixon said.
“They are just stepping up to the plate,” she said.
The three company commanders for the new transition brigade are already on the ground working through issues of furniture, space, personnel restructuring, offices and so forth.
By the end of this month, half of the staff is set to be in place, three-quarters by the end of April, and full staffing for the brigade should be in place by the end of May, Dixon said.
In the meantime, the sergeant major makes no apologies for the standards she sets and said she will continue taking care of soldiers with “high standards with a big heart.”
“I can be pretty easy going. But I’m often not, because I have high standards, because I really like people and I really care about people,” she said. “Sometimes I have to correct people. I try to be nice about it. Sometimes I’m not so nice about it.”