Patrol Debrief #5: The Servant Leader (Part 1)

Maj. Gen. Mark Inch, provost marshal general of the Army, reviews troops in formation Sept. 22 during a Regimental Review marking the Military Police Corps Regiment’s 75th anniversary at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. MPs attended events throughout the week to mark the anniversary. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Jacob Boyer/Released) (Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Jacob Boyer)

Our second interview with the Provost Marshal General spanned two discussions, two locations, many topics, an Irish pub, and several months.

Reflective and candid, our senior MP shared his thoughts on aspects of our branch and the profession that you might expect, but he offered powerful and personal insights as well on Post Traumatic Stress (PTS), sleep’s importance, servant leadership, and how he judges success.

We as Soldiers sometimes struggle to admit our post-deployment struggles for fear it will label us, will make others see us as less strong, as able to be injured.

So it especially powerful to hear the senior among us discuss his own struggles. Forthrightly and without being asked. Where we may seek to hide these battles to protect our individual ego, the PMG offered his to share with us that we do not struggle alone.

In this service of ours, if we use a campfire analogy, we all sit alongside the fire. The night is brisk, the sky awash in stars and the fire provides the only light and warmth. The flickering light allows us to make out the forms of others beside and across from us, but only when the fire surges does it splash enough light on these faces for us to identify people.

Grab a chair, pull up next to the fire, and listen to part I as MG Inch takes us off the path of a normal interview and asks you to see his face next to you — plainly and without judgment.

So are you ready for moral courage?

Comparing notes and strategy, we met a final time outside the OPMG office boxed in by one the countless non-descript Pentagon hallways. Our approach hurriedly validated, we stepped into the OPMG offices, held securely behind a heavy door. We were ushered into the PMG’s office and met by a warm and smiling MG Inch. Even before we fully took our seats, the PMG preempted our planned interview strategy with, “So are you ready for moral courage?”

MPPJ (taken aback momentarily): What do you mean Sir?

PMG: How do I look? If you walked in and just saw me sitting here what would be your estimation of how I’m doing?

MPPJ: (pausing to evaluate): Well, you seem to be in good spirits Sir.

PMG: Look more closely at my eyes. Look again.

MPPJ: (pausing to evaluate): Well, you have a fresh haircut and you’re wearing a smile on your face, so I would guess that you’re doing well Sir.

PMG: Well, I am, in fact, exhausted

MPPJ: You hide it well. Why the exhaustion?

PMG: That is a great question. I did a sleep study last night. It seems like more Soldiers are getting sleep studies, but I bet you it’s about 10% of those that probably need one. Walter Reed does it exceptionally well I think. They can be done as a purely physical assessment but at Walter Reed the person that leads the sleep disorder center is also a psychiatrist. I have probably known that I needed the study since 1993 so I finally went. As I sat with the doctor, he asked me to tell him about my dream life. So I told him that I dream often and have some vivid dreams. Few achieve the level of night terrors but certainly nothing like it was after Somalia all those years back. And he asked me, “How does that make you feel?” I paused and told him that I’ve been asked that question before, but that was during marriage counseling. I said, “wait a second what kind of doctor are you?” He replied that he was a psychiatrist so I asked, “Am I having a session now?” And he said, “Do you want to have a session? And maybe we should do this every month.”

Many leaders recall when I spoke to their CCC class about the proverb, House of four rooms, commitment and how to keep balance. It is a speech I often give, even as I struggle to practice what I preach in my current position.

As I look back over 35 years, this is a hard profession to be committed to. And we must remain committed or we must leave. It’s not easy and it doesn’t get easier. I don’t know what it looks like looking up towards the senior officer ranks and the general officer ranks, but I can attest to you that it doesn’t get easier. It gets harder with every succession. When I was a lieutenant I used to look at what the company commander did and think, “I could never do that.” And when I was a company commander are used to look up at the S3 and think, “I am never going to be able to do that.” Right up the line it’s always been that thought but building that inner resilience and having the balance to allow you to surge to meet the crises and the requirements of our profession really are, using the term “awesome”, not in the popular use of that word, but in its better definition of the word.

As I look back over 35 years, this is a hard profession to be committed to. And we must remain committed or we must leave. It’s not easy and it doesn’t get easier. I don’t know what it looks like looking up towards the senior officer ranks and the general officer ranks, but I can attest to you that it doesn’t get easier. It gets harder with every succession.

So after spending a night doing a sleep study, I see that you have the Stratplan in front of you, but you’re probably catching me at the least capable time I have to think about it.

I’ve known for months that I need the sleep study because my personal batteries as I near my last six months are run down to zero. They really are. It seems that the energy I have coming in each day is a reflection of whether I got a good nights sleep, a good meal and good exercise. I actually feel the effect if I missed any of the three.

There is an article in this morning’s Washington Post that compares a lack of sleep to being under the influence of alcohol. Missing two hours of sleep is comparable to being at .08. We’ve all seen this in our career — the folks that say they only need four or five hours of sleep and can still perform; I’ve worked for some people like that. And there been times I’ve surged like that. The reality is though, if I’m not getting seven hours and 15 minutes of sleep, there is a direct reflection and there are cognitive and cumulative impairments. (smiling) I’m very pleased to know that I’m hiding it well.

As were talking about this, I’m very comfortable with this being what you put in this article. We will set another time to talk at Murphy’s, but I think this is an important topic that I am not sure we spend enough time talking about.

We talk about sleep schedules for leaders in terms of NTC (National Training Center) but it doesn’t feel like we talk about it a lot when we come back stateside.

MPPJ (improvising): Dave Grossman discusses sleep debt. He proved that one acquires a sleep debt and he or she can acquire this debt over several months but whenever individuals were allowed to regain that sleep, they slept for 20 hours in a day just in trying to regain that lost time.

A Marine sentry prepares to close the gate to the Joint Task Force Somalia headquarters during the multinational relief effort Operation Restore Hope. (Department of Defense/Joe Gawlowicz)

PMG: We talk about sleep schedules for leaders in terms of NTC (National Training Center) but it doesn’t feel like we talk about it a lot when we come back stateside. I was the Chief of Staff for 134 in Iraq for ~18 months. That’s a long 18 months but I had a very clear schedule set up so that I returned to my CHU (Containerized Housing Unit) before 2230. But when we were back in CONUS you add in the time we spend with your spouse with your children and hobbies that are now available to you. So when you mentioned cumulative affect and short-term affect. I would argue there’s a cumulative affect over the long term.

I remember when I was having all my difficulties after Somalia. I was teaching Middle East and African geography at West Point and they were looking for a volunteer to work with the UN in Somalia. The fact that I actually knew that Somalia was on the east coast of Africa made me an expert. And so three of us went to support that operation from West Point. My dreaming coming back was very active. Every night. I experienced many of the symptoms of PTS. I remember talking with my father about it and he gave me this exceptional analogy to help understand the dreaming. He said when we become overstimulated, our mind can only handle and process so much. But, meanwhile, we’re still taking in all that stimulus. So the way he visualized it in his mind was as a wall of filing cabinets, like the ones you see in museums now that we use computers. But just work with me here (laughing).

There are times when that pile is so big that you need help from somebody to work through that pile, and organize it.

Think of the traditional filing cabinets. You have to think of all the stimuli as a pile of paper in the corner that hasn’t been filed yet and for some people it’s a big pile. You can consciously work through your experiences and that’s like going to that pile and filing it. Hopefully there isn’t more coming in on you, and I think that’s been the challenge of so many of us with multiple deployments is that before you finish sorting the pile, you are in another deployment receiving more of that kind of stimulus again. So you work through the pile and if you don’t work through it consciously, your brain wants to order itself it wants to understand experiences. He was convinced that dreaming is going over that pile, picking up a piece of paper and experience and for your brain to understand where to file it — that is your dream. There are times when that pile is so big that you need help from somebody to work through that pile, and organize it.

U.S. Army Sgts. Hunter Thorton, front, Crystal Cornejo, center, and Patrick Deleonguerrero participate in a presence patrol in Kabul, Afghanistan, Feb. 9, 2012. Thorton, Cornejo, and Deleonguerrero are assigned to the 1186th Military Police Company. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Catherine Threat

I’m humbled by the depth of experience your generation has gone through. Driving in this morning FOX News was doing a special about a house being given to a wounded warrior that spent 50 months in theater over 12 different deployments. I can’t help but wonder what the cumulative effects of 50 months deployed must be. I was lucky — I had 10 years between my difficult experiences in Somalia to when I started going back into theater in 2004. I was afforded a lot of recovery time and I used a good five years to get my balance back.

The first five months of that time I told myself, “this will pass, this will pass” while the anger and lack of patience I had with my kids, who were ages 1–6 at the time continued. I also had challenges with my late wife at the time.

West Point sent me to Somalia in part so that I could return and give classes to the cadets about the experience and culture. So I gave these classes about aspects of the urban geography of Mogadishu and the cultural geography of the clan structure and even early examples of what later became PTTs as I worked with the Somalia police and the police program.

The first five months of that time I told myself, “this will pass, this will pass” while the anger and lack of patience I had with my kids, who were ages 1–6 at the time continued.

And yet, after five months, it became clear that I was not finding that balance. So I went to a faith-based Christian counselor that I had a lot of confidence in and certainly received good help. It probably took about two years to see the real fracture lines that that period of the deployment and post deployment had in my marriage. It brought my late wife and I to the point of knowing that we needed help. We went to a family life chaplain at Fort Carson. And it really wasn’t until the next assignment in Japan that I remember Barb and I sitting having a glass of wine on the back deck and she looked at me and said, “We’re really back at a good place.” And we were. And we were for the next 15 years of marriage before she passed.

I realize that it took me five years to recover. Is that something your generation got? Five years between assignments? It’s something to really think about. And I know that in the past there have been studies of the cumulative effect of back to back deployments but I think it something that really has to be looked at. I had the benefit of 10 years.

MPPJ: The time between deployments certainly, but I wonder too how many of us are able to self-identify the problem and then seek out avenues of assistance? I don’t know the percentage of Soldiers that can seek, find and benefit from help on their own and the percentage that needs a guide at one or all of those stages.

PMG: When you see somebody that’s not getting the help they need, how do we address it? Is it peer intervention? Is it Commander intervention? Do you go up and tell the person, “I think you need to see the chaplain?” Is that the answer?

I realize that it took me five years to recover. Is that something your generation got? Five years between assignments?

MPPJ: I think that by virtue of wearing the same uniform we have instant credibility with our peers struggling. By virtue of our service together, we have the ability to shape and help.

PMG: A guy named Robert Delaney wrote a book called Surviving the Shadows. He has spoken to a lot of military audiences and is known for being a NBA referee. He was very visible to anyone watching basketball. He was actually a New Jersey state cop for nine years before becoming an NBA referee.

For three of those years he was deep undercover with a mob family in New Jersey. He wrote a book about that experience and that was his first book and Surviving the Shadows was his second book. When he was pulled out of that mob experience, he absolutely demonstrated all the classical symptoms of PTS. Surviving the Shadows outlines his personal, but academic, approach to addressing post traumatic stress. One of his contentions that seems to have a lot of validity is that peer counseling works. Now peer counseling won’t help if the pile in the corner of your brain is up to the ceiling but it is I think a lot of legitimacy and I think it’s an advantage we have especially if you deploy as a unit.

So while no one has the same experience, we have like experiences and that does open opportunities for sharing and, in talking, releasing some of that stress. Example I heard in one of the speeches for Mr. Delaney was to visualize a balloon. You blow up a balloon. And it just keeps getting bigger. Eventually it’ll pop unless you let the air out. So he asks, “do you take the issue head-on, take a needle and let the air out that way?” Of course not. It pops — that doesn’t work. He asks, “Do you just let go and let the air out that way?” Of course not. The balloon will escape your grasp and blow all over. You will have no idea where it will land. He said that you have to take the edge of the balloon and stretch it so that only a little opening exists to let a little air out at a time. He asks the reader if they remember what that noise sounds like? And he makes that squeaking sound screeching sound. It sounds horrible! And then he says sometimes that’s what it sounds like when we talk about our stressful experiences. His charge to everybody was to be the person who is willing to listen to that story. And multiple times.

So while no one has the same experience, we have like experiences and that does open opportunities for sharing and, in talking, releasing some of that stress

I remember my brother in law telling me about one battle he fought in where the enemy attacked them from an actual trench-line and bunker system. The tactic back then was to spread out, run up the hill and to shoot every time your left foot hit the ground. And he told me the story at least five times times. And during the sixth retelling, he shared that his best friend, SPC Glenn “Mark” Friddle was on his right and then all of a sudden he wasn’t there. And he was killed that day. And later the traveling wall came through and he showed me his name on the wall. But that story didn’t come out in that aspect and come out until numerous retellings of the story.

PMG: Last year we were up in Buffalo and my wife’s uncle there is a Vietnam veteran. I remember being told both this and not to ask any questions about his time there. He was a Navy Corpsman. So I was intrigued. He did a full career afterwards in the railroad and down in his basement he had an awesome model railroad array. We were in the basement and he was showing me the switches and how to operate the system when I asked him, “Hey Bill, I understand you served in Vietnam.” He replied, “Yeah, I don’t talk much about it but I did.” I told him that my brother in law did too and was up in Pleiku with the 25th Infantry Division. And we were off. We talked for about an hour and half when I noticed that one of his son-in-laws had come down, taken a seat on the couch and was just listening to us. He wasn’t participating, even though I could sense he was a veteran too, he was just listening.

US Army General WC Westmoreland congratulates men of the 25th Infantry Division for their success in defeating an overwhelming Viet Cong force during Operation Paul Revere, Pleiku, Vietnam, May 1966.

So I finally asked him what service he was in. And he told me armor with 1st Cavalry. I said, “You’re obviously not in now, what happened?” He replied that he was wounded during the early phases of OIF and this was before we developed the WTUs so he was a guy that was wounded, medically evacuated to the states and then medically discharged from the Army before his unit even returned from the deployment. I asked him, “Have you talked to any of the buddies from your platoon?” He said, “No.”

I thought then, “How many young kids in their father-in-law’s basement across this country have served, separated and are completely divorced from their comrades? We know in our extended families and network of friends who the disconnected veteran is. Do something to reach out to them to let them know they’re appreciated.

“These things are worth talking about and sharing…”

Within our veteran community, we as MP are probably are the best peer counselors. If someone needs professional help, they should seek it from a professional, but we provide peer counseling that releases stress and creates bonds.

These things are worth talking about and sharing so I am comfortable with you writing about this.

This concludes Part I. From here, we broke camp at the PMG’s office and reconvened at Murphy’s a month later to discuss synchronizing BDE and BN efforts across the regiment, talent management at the division PMO level, personality based versus institutional based successes and other MP-centric topics. Upon transcribing this, we felt a powerful and natural division between this discussion and what followed at Murphy’s and believe that by treating the two talks as one interview we artificially stitch together two talks that are separated widely by topic and tone.

So consider part I and standby for part II.


~Team MPPJ.