By lex, on May 10th, 2009
SNO brought two of his old school chums over last night, both Marine 2LTs, the first just back from a 7-month tour in Iraq as an LAV platoon commander and recently reunited with his bride, the other an infantry officer leaving for Afghanistan in two weeks, and himself off to flight school this fall. His friends have been household guests for the last four years off and on, and greeted me as “captain” at the door, a formality I’d never requested of them as midshipmen. To my lifted eyebrow, the former explained that he had gained a new found respect for seniority, in the Corps.
Watched an old movie, suffered under the imposition of adult beverages in modest qualities, the Hobbit having laid out the usual array of appetizers sufficient to feed an understrength company.
A pleasant dinner, with your host doing more listening than talking (for a change). The recent returnee had good things to say about his vehicle, fast over hardball, and pretty quick over open desert too. You have to watch out for wadis, though. Especially at night. Throw yourself across one at 60 kph and you’ll break more than just bones.
The vehicle carries a 25mm Bushmaster, a coax 7.62 and a pintle-mounted 7.62. But it was the Bushmaster that made him smile. How many Marine infantrymen does the LAV fit, I asked.
“One more,” was his humorous reply. “Always one more.”
The young man soon leaving for Helmand province had always tended towards the taciturn, and last night he was if anything less loquacious. His wolf is still before him. When asked, he spoke highly of his current staff sergeant, and was relieved to be shot of an company commander cast in the mold of Captain Herbert Sobel, from “Band of Brothers” infamy. The Corps does many things well, and eventually it sorts out the able from the others.
The detritus having been withdrawn and the ladies having removed themselves, the young gentlemen and myself lingered over a nice bottle of red that had been brought by. The LAV platoon commander in time asked a question.
“Sir,” he began, “did it seem to you when you went through your warfare training, that the emphasis was all on tactical excellence, but when you landed in a position of leadership more of your time is spent on the people, dealing with problems?”
It’s an old question, and I had the old answer. “The tactical part is the fun part, it’s what we want to do. But taking care of the people is the job, it’s what we get paid for.”
A lot of young folks join the service seeking order in their lives, adventure, the chance to prove themselves capable of doing great things in challenging circumstances. To serve. For whatever reason, that was lacking before they joined, and in the Navy at least, a young person from our broader culture has about 18 months to make a citizen of themselves before the system concludes that they cannot. Part of a leader’s role, especially at the junior level, is demonstrating that we are what we say we are – an organization dedicated to and expectant of routine excellence. It’s a two-way street, and you cannot demand it of your people without providing it to them.
Part of that means caring. Not in a patronizing, superior or inauthentic way – junior servicemen have wonderfully sensitive BS detectors. But in the way of a leader who knows that his people have issues that they alone cannot solve, that service – especially wartime service – entails hardships, some of which are unnecessary and mitigable. In the way of knowing that mission success for all depends upon the best efforts of each.
Everyone has a dream, I said. Your peoples’ dreams may be different than yours, the arcs of their immediate ambitions constrained by their circumstances, but they are just as real to them as yours is to you. You must try to find out what that dream is in the service context, and help them find a way to realize it. You’ll never know the difference you might make in a young person’s life.
Warming to the subject, my son asked, “As a division officer, how often should I visit the spaces?”
Every day, I replied. And here’s the funny thing: They won’t want you there. You’ll be an imposition on them, and their work routine, and you’ll never be their friends – they have friends. They’ll be happy when you leave. But you need to go anyway, and they need to know that you’ll be there, every day.
It’s funny, my son said. As a youngster midshipman, he had gone to sea on a frigate and served in the electronics shop with the sailors “before the mast,” as is our custom. Noting that he never saw his division officer in the workspace, one day he asked, as a potential leader ought, “How often does the DivO come down here?”
The sailors exchanged wry glances, before one of them replied, “We have a division officer?”
Yes, they did. But evidently not a leader.
My time in uniform is done, but it was very pleasant to spend time three such outstanding young men, and to know that we remain in such good hands. It was warming to be asked my opinion on such things as junior officer leadership, and to have my words listened to attentively.
The service offers young people, officers and enlisted both, a chance to make a difference, in things both large and small. It’s an opportunity unlike any other, and it’s over far too quickly.
What a shame that anyone might squander a moment of it.