If it is stressful to lead the medical facilities at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas’s maximum-security U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, you’d never know it from the relaxed, upbeat demeanor of Master Sgt. Gregorio Villanuevaochoa, or “Sgt. V” as he’s known.
In part for his can-do attitude, Villanuevaochoa, the noncommissioned officer in charge of operations at USDB’s medical facilities was recently named the Army’s Corrections Professional of the Year by Corrections Command.
Lt. Col. Nathan Keller, the director of USDB treatment programs said Villanuevaochoa has a gift for focusing on recognizing soldiers’ strengths and empowering them.
“I really think Sgt. V epitomizes what an NCO should be, a true professional who has the ability to see problems before they become bigger problems,” Keller said. “I think a lot of the time in our current culture, we focus on what people don’t do or what they do wrong, and by focusing on what they can do and how that makes us stronger is the key,” Keller said.
Villanuevaochoa, was a first sergeant to a medical company at Fort Drum, N.Y., before coming to Leavenworth a year and a half ago. He’d previously been deployed to Iraq, Somalia and Haiti.
He ensures care, whether that means sick call or group therapy, for a very specialized population — though he just considers them patients.
“The soldiers in the disciplinary barracks have been confined by the military. They’re inmates, but we offer them services just like we do other soldiers,” he said.
In a population of 450, the average inmate is his late 30s. They come from across the armed services and have either been sentenced to more than 10 years, to life in prison or death.
Because they are confined, the most common injuries come from recreation time: sport injuries like banged up ankles, shoulders or knees. (No prison yard shankings, according to Villanuevaochoa. “It’s been pretty quiet since I’ve been here.”)
For the prison, behavioral health is an important way to combat recidivism and provide inmates a sense of control over their lives. They are evaluated by behavioral health NCOs and may go on to attend weekly group therapy sessions or see a professional every few weeks.
“I can not tell you how important it is,” Villanuevaochoa said of behavioral health. “We are engaged daily with these guys, and the concept is not just do your time and get out, it’s let’s see if we can modify the behavior or help.”
Yet manpower is a challenge, particularly amid tightening budgets and in the face of national shortages of mental health professionals.
Villanuevaochoa oversees 16 behavioral health NCOs and officers, and he has 12 civilian soldier workers and psychologists. With supervision by a licensed professional, the NCOs handle minor cases, with a caseload of 50 to 70 inmates each.
In his tenure, Villanuevaochoa said he has been able to increase staffing from 66 percent of the requirement to 88 percent. Human Resources Command has helped recognize the priority, he said.
“We want to make sure these guys get the best quality care, and it’s hard to do that when we’re undermanned,” he said. “I’m not going to kill a soldier or overwork him to meet that.”
Keller credited Villanuevaochoa for grasping the balance between quality health care and custody and control. Moving a patient from appointment to appointment in a prison requires more coordination, as does the security and maintenance of equipment.
One of their high profile prisoners is Wiki-leaker Bradley Manning, who after sentencing said he wanted to be called Chelsea and live as a woman. Manning’s lawyer recently credited the Army for the way it is assessing Manning for gender-identity disorder — the sense that he is a woman in a man’s body.
“Manning will receive the same good, quality treatment his lawyers have mentioned just like another inmate who came in weeks before,” Villanuevaochoa said, referencing convicted Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan. “No matter the inmate that comes in, no matter the profile that comes in, we treat them all the same, we give them the best quality treatment.”
Villanuevaochoa has also been praised for renegotiating a contract for medication distribution personnel that would have otherwise been scrapped due to budget cuts. Had the contract been canceled, it would have added more work for already busy NCOs.
But Villanuevaochoa spent two months renegotiating, and the company nearly cut the contract in half, to $300,000.
Under Villanuevaochoa, the prison met 100 percent of the American Correctional Association standards for the first time — which he credits to his NCOs at least as much as himself.
“There are a lot of things my NCOs do, which I just made sure they did, and at the same time allowed them to be soldiers and do their job,” he said. “I guess the environment I created allowed everyone to flourish in what they do.”■