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Program uses healing power to help noncommissioned officers

Mary Lopez knows they're coming.

They're the grizzled, combat-tested noncommissioned officers who want nothing to do with her "hippy-dippy" teachings.

But after five days in a program that includes acupuncture, yoga and hypnotism - along with a good bit of soul bearing - those same soldiers are singing a different tune, she said.

Lopez is director of Soldier 360, a five-day leadership training program held on Fort Bragg and Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.

Lopez is a retired colonel who began the program while on active duty in Germany in 2010. She is known as a grandmother to many of the thousands of senior enlisted soldiers she has taught over the years.

Soldier 360 is aimed at making soldiers more resilient by targeting the group that Lopez said is key to a healthy Army: the noncommissioned officers.

"It's not a treatment program," Lopez said earlier this month, after a class of 56 soldiers, airmen and Marines graduated from the course on Fort Bragg. "This is a leadership course. And you learn through doing. If you've lived it, you can teach it."

In the age of "death by Powerpoint," Lopez said her course is driven by hands-on activities.

Its goal is to train enlisted leaders on techniques and programs that could help a soldier in need.

"That's how you get the power of it," she said. "You're putting more tools in the toolkit. You're changing the dynamic of the unit."

On day one, many of the attendees are stiff, Lopez said. But by the end of the day, they're laughing.

"In five days, you see such a change," she said. "In 33 years on active duty, I have never seen anything work like this. Never."

The program has earned high praise for Fort Bragg leaders, including Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, commander of the 18th Airborne Corps, and Fort Bragg, and Maj. Gen. Clarence K. K. Chinn, the commander of Task Force Bragg and the post's acting senior leader.

"This is just such a powerful and emotional class," Chinn said after speaking to the latest class. "It really helps the (noncommissioned officers) see themselves. They become better leaders. Better persons."

This month's class was the fifth for Fort Bragg. The program began in May, but was facing an uncertain future after federal budget cuts claimed the program's funding.

That's where the USO of North Carolina came in. John Falkenbury, president of the nonprofit, said the organization decided to sponsor the program after a USO of NC employee attended a course at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

"We made a commitment to fill gaps in funding," he said. "It's proven, sustainable results."

"It's a phenomenal program," Falkenbury added.

The most emotional aspect of the course is the "Fish Bowl," leaders and participants said. There, hours before graduation, combat-proven leaders are often reduced to tears as they tell personal anecdotes of how the course has changed their outlook on resiliency and post-traumatic stress.

In every class, Lopez said, at least one soldier admits to having suicidal thoughts.

Earlier this month, a soldier with the North Carolina National Guard admitted that before the course he had already decided to end his life. That soldier said he was looking for a way to commit the act. But he said he rethought his decision because of Soldier 360.

By the end of the course, the soldier said he was able to look at himself in the mirror and smile.

"I'm going to be OK," he told his classmates.

For Master Sgt. Kristine Erb, a soldier with the 108th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, the course has given her a new lease on life.

"I learned a few days ago that my worse issue is myself," she said. "I don't trust myself. That's my biggest enemy. That's my first step."

Erb said she sees doctors for mental health and pain management, stemming from an October 2003 incident in Iraq where her quick reaction force vehicle was struck by an armor piercing round.

The attack left her with spine damage that has continued to plague her military career.

The course introduced her to yoga, which has provided some unexpected relief, she said.

"I was twisting and turning and stretching beyond what I thought possible," Erb said. "I realize now that in order to help my soldiers out, I need to take care of myself."

Erb said ego and machoism went out the door almost as soon as the course began.

By Wednesday, many shells were cracked, she said.

"I shared things I hadn't shared before," Erb said. "It felt really good to release all that. It was just great to let it all out."

brooksd@fayobserver.com

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