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GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — Leaders need to provide "anchor points" in combat zones to keep soldiers grounded and minimize atrophy that units experience after eight to 10 months downrange, according to the commander of the 172nd Infantry Brigade.

Col. Jeff Sinclair, who expects to lead about 3,500 soldiers on a yearlong mission to Iraq later this year, was talking to the brigade’s company commanders Sunday night about how they can address the issue.

"Good commanders keep units in the fight for eight months. Great commanders keep them in the fight for 10 months. Not many can do more than that. Fifteen months (downrange) is illogical," he told the captains.

"Soldiers reach a peak and then start to atrophy. Weird things happen. It is just a human dynamic of a cycle with soldiers," Sinclair said.

To keep soldiers focused on the fight, leaders should provide "anchor points" — familiar, pleasant experiences that bring them back to solid ground, he said.

Sinclair defines anchor points as experiences that lower stress and give a person a chance to rejuvenate. An example of an anchor point would be a family Thanksgiving dinner, he said.

"If you have a Thanksgiving meal and, afterwards, everyone lies on the floor and unbuttons their pants and watches football — that is an anchor point. When you went to college and went back home and Mom gave you a grilled cheese sandwich, that is an anchor point," he said.

Rest and recuperation leave is an important way that soldiers can reach an anchor point, Sinclair said.

"For commanders it is painful, but the benefit is that the American people are so wonderful to the kids when they go on R&R. They really come back refreshed and rejuvenated," Sinclair said.

Commanders can’t get to every soldier’s anchor point so they must go with a commonality, he said, before citing some things he has done on past deployments.

A self-described West Virginian redneck, Sinclair said he created a mock turkey shoot, along with videotapes of football games and parades to celebrate Thanksgiving at one base in Iraq.

Another way to give soldiers an anchor point is to pull a company out of the fight for two nights and one day and provide things like video games and a barbecue, he said.

"It has got to be an American barbecue with hotdogs and hamburgers because it has to be an anchor," he said.

On New Year’s Eve in 2004, Sinclair said, he asked soldiers to make a Times Square ball.

"It took two guys a couple of days to make one out of chem lights. We got fireworks and everybody had to wear eye pro (protection) because guys were mounting this stuff on their helmets and shooting it at each other," Sinclair said.

To take soldiers’ minds off of how much time they had left in country Sinclair posted sports results so they could focus on things like the Super Bowl, he said.

The 172nd will head to Hohenfels, Germany, later this month to begin a mission-rehearsal exercise to prepare for the expected Iraq mission.

Helping soldiers stay grounded

Col. Jeff Sinclair, commander of the 172nd Infantry Brigade, asked company commanders to think of ways to build "anchor points," familiar, enjoyable experiences that can help soldiers stay grounded while deployed.

Here are some of them:

Capt. Romas Zimlicki, commander of Company A, 2nd Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, said a combat outpost can provide an anchor point if soldiers are allowed to decorate it with posters and cheap furniture.

For Capt. Chad Probst, commander of Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 1st Battalion, 77th Field Artillery Regiment, mixed martial arts is an anchor point.

Probst said he put up daily posters for Ultimate Fighting Championship events screened on the American Forces Network during his last downrange tour, and hopes there will be a gym to practice the sport wherever he ends up in Iraq.

Capt. Aaron Kaufman, commander of Company B, 3rd Battalion, 66th Armored Regiment, said AFN is absolutely critical to provide anchor points downrange.

"There is no better time to talk to guys than when you are sharing the joy of (televised) football," he said.

For Capt. Christina Buchner, commander of Company C, 172nd Brigade Support Battalion, church was an anchor point downrange.

Buchner said there were a lot of churchgoers in her unit in Iraq who participated in revivals and "gospel explosions" at four churches at Camp Victory in Baghdad.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.
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