WIU ROTC Military Ball Remarks
25 Mar 17 — Macomb, Illinois
Mayor Inman, Dr. Robert, Dr. Choi, Mr. Hallinan, Mr. Bierman, LTC Larson, LTC Pickett, LTC Eichorst, SGM Homan and Chaplain Pettigrew. Who as a Navy Chaplain, is accustomed to ministering to Sailors aboard ships, knifing paths through waves across the vast oceans… and therefore perfectly tailored for an Army ROTC Military Ball in Western Illinois. (Whispered loudly) Chaplain… Does the Navy know you’re here??
Fellow Leathernecks — thank you for this distinct honor. When asked to speak tonight, I initially hesitated understanding that my resume, as “random Army major”, hardly lends itself to a clear understanding of why I stand among you tonight and share this evening with you.
I am to speak with you tonight not because of any remarkable achievement I’ve accomplished, any lofty rank I hold, or for any battlefield heroism I’ve displayed. Upon reflection, you bestow upon me the credibility to speak tonight simply because I am both a fellow Soldier and a fellow Leatherneck. And it is because of this and by virtue of our shared experiences that I stand confidently before you. We are family so I speak to you tonight not as a leader of distinction, but rather as a brother.
Or, LTC Helling, a dartboard, a dart and a lucky flight path. Either way — cheers. I’m thankful and honored.
I am proud to be counted among you and it does my soul well to be home. As a Soldier, as a member of our profession and as a Leatherneck. I’ve not sat where you sit generally or as a term meant broadly to convey similarities, we’ve shared the same seats specifically. Like, that chair there followed up by a few beers with fellow, of-age cadets, just off Murray street. I too trudged across Q-lot in January, body held at a steady 15 degree lean against the wind and snow. The Army spends truckloads of money determining the most effective exercise to evaluate abdominal strength — I think traversing Q lot in January is as good as any. I too cursed the second part of President’s hill as we raced to ascend on our PT runs. But perhaps most importantly, I too sat in your seat for three different WIU ROTC mil balls.
I considered how best to frame this time and asked myself, “what would I, having sat in this room, in those seats, listening to a speaker at this podium, need to hear?” So this is what I, looking back, think CDT Archer sitting in those seats next to his gorgeous date, who, by the way, has been my gorgeous date since and is still tonight (no pressure gentlemen) needed to hear:
Erik — Focus on your grades. I’m losing you already — but stay with me. You played football and wrestled in high school, so the camaraderie, goal-focused training, physical challenges and teamwork of ROTC magnetically draw you in. But remember balance. Doors open and close later in the Army and in life based on your academic achievements here. You don’t realize it now, but here at Western, you are filling in lines on innumerable resumes and applications later in life. Decades of selections will be made based in part on your academic achievements here. Give wholly to the ROTC program and invest in the relationships that you’ll keep throughout your career and beyond, but not at the cost of eroding your academic legacy. Give yourself every chance to succeed. Except for that statistics class- cut bait. So, Erik — don’t sacrifice academic pursuits for the Army. The most powerful and inspiring leaders among us are Scholar Warriors.
Give wholly to the ROTC program and invest in the relationships that you’ll keep throughout your career and beyond, but not at the cost of eroding your academic legacy.
Erik — Think of the Army as a map in a video game. Explore. Remember those 3rd person video games that, when you pause the game, depict a map? Remember how at the game’s outset, the map is completely blacked out save for the space you currently occupy? The Army is JUST LIKE THAT. You are handed a map on commissioning day. It’s weathered, but expansive. On that day, everyone of you will receive that same map. Be bold and explore. Your first duty station, by virtue of it being your only known space on the map, will constitute the totality of your Army experience and you will err and consider it “the Army”. It isn’t — it is only a sliver. So if your initial platoon, commander, PSG, duty station, or report is rough, explore another square on the map. Don’t turn it in. The opportunities in our Army are nearly endless. My roommate from senior year when we lived on W. Murray branch detailed MI, then went infantry and became a Foreign Area Officer. The Army paid him to learn Greek in California, cavort in Greece while ostensibly furthering military objectives and has since taught him another language and stationed him in another country where he serves at senior levels. He explored.
Remember those 3rd person video games that, when you pause the game, depict a map? Remember how at the game’s outset, the map is completely blacked out save for the space you currently occupy? The Army is JUST LIKE THAT.
Erik, the richest stories of your career will occur after your first duty position, after your first commander. One day, as the the chief of police for Fort Carson, you’ll sit inside your MP sedan, electrified with anticipation as the MP Special Reaction Team speeds towards the housing community to make a forcible entry and arrest an armed and dangerous individual suspected of an on-post armed robbery and shooting multiple people. Later, you’ll serve as a forensics laboratory OIC in Helmand Province, Afghanistan where brilliant civilian scientists exploit captured enemy material to identify the enemy who would otherwise remain hidden. Our adventure begins after our first duty station. Explore.
If we define epic as, “A long narrative poem in which the setting is vast in scope, covering great nations, the world, or the universe, and the action is important to the history of a nation or people,” the adventure before you is epic. If…. you take charge. So Erik, don’t let the Army happen to you — take the reins.
Erik — One day you may want to leave the Army. Less than 20% of leaders that join stay for 20 years and those 20% are tempted often. The Army is different things to different people. Some will leave, some will stay and each of us has to do what is right.
If you do stay, one day, at some level, the Army won’t call your name. Whether that is for promotion to major or for selection to brigade command, one day, the Army won’t choose you. And that’s okay. The Army owes you nothing. Nurture your understanding of history so as to appreciate the sacrifices of those that came before you. Remember your small role in this Army and military of ours. Serve boldly, decisively, compassionately, and without regret. And when that day comes, let grace lead you to gratitude for the days the Army gave you with Soldiers, in the snow, in the heat, huddled by a stove, under fire, or sharing stories while chowing down on a MRE.
You will meet too many leaders in the twilight of their careers who stare wide eyed at the realization that they built their castles in the sand of the Army. The tide comes in on all of us. The castles you build in the Army will wash away with the tide of the next generation. The castles of stone are built in the leaders you inspire and in your family. The day after you leave the Army, whether after three years or 30, you are a social security number to the Army. You are a hero to your son. A man to your wife. A rock to your daughter. Don’t build castles in the sand of the Army at the cost of building castles in the stone of your family.
Erik — competence is never a substitute for character. You will become enamored with a leader because of their seemingly endless reservoir of knowledge, their knack of accomplishing the mission no matter the obstacles in front of him. You will rely on her expertise and she will seem indispensable to you. Then he will fail. Ethically. Morally. Legally. And a great mental battle will erupt in your mind. You will feel that loyalty demands you fall on your sword for the Soldier. You will feel that your team cannot succeed without him or her. You will stand, indignant, in front of superiors, believing you are walking the noble path, and advocate for this Soldier. But no PT score, no rifle qualification, no aptitude in the field erases an ethical failing, a domestic violence incident. By definition, these Soldiers are no longer your best. No amount of competence fills a character gap. Remember your responsibility to steward the force. More simply, this translates to some tangible actions — culling the herd, feeding the flock, and watching for wolves. Deciding who needs to be culled, who needs to be treated/fed, and who the wolves are can be challenging, but this is what Army leadership is and what you must do.
But know also that good leaders shy away from the word “or” and instead seek “and”. Very few things in the Army are binary. There will be times where a leader’s failings don’t rise to the ethical, illegal or immoral threshold and your resultant actions will shape careers. Remember that Colin Powell lost his .45 as a LT and but for the understanding of his company commander who only verbally counseled him, we would have never had General Powell. Create a climate where mistakes of the mind are allowed and growth can occur. Stand by or in front of your troops if honest mistakes collide with a zero defect mentality from higher. So Erik, steward the Army and don’t be blinded by competence.
Erik — train your Soldiers to be physically and mentally tough. Possessive of just this fortitude, your Soldiers will prevail. New terms packaging old concepts will fall upon your ears often and will distract you from the simple truth offered by the Prussian — War is a realm of physical suffering and exertion. If the challenges you pose to your Soldiers in peacetime surpass the obstacles they’ll face in war and if they trust each other and you, the fight, when it comes, will exhilarate. Consider this the foundation for your platoon, your company, your battalion and any team you influence. So Erik, before all else, make sure you and your Soldiers are physically and mentally tough — able to withstand the thunderstorm of combat.
Erik — Read. As James Mattis said in 2004,
The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.
Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.
Erik — That’s good advice, but don’t let the book make you stupid; question the things that don’t make sense. One day, you’ll be a brand new platoon leader in Germany responsible for a platoon of MP providing law enforcement in and around Hanau. Another company will be tapped to deploy and as the dominoes fall, your platoon will be tasked to cover down on their law enforcement footprint in Wiesbaden. Problem is — their footprint is 60 minute drive away. And? The increased footprint with the same amount of manning requires longer shifts. So your guys will drive 60 minutes to work a 12hr shift (which always ends up being 13–14 with paperwork) before driving 60 minutes back. You’ll feel that this is wrong. That your guys and gals cannot be asked to do so much. That there has to be barracks space in Wiesbaden where your guys can stay so as to eliminate the driving requirement.
But, in what will become the greatest regret of your career, achieved very early on, you fail to confront this issue because you figure higher must know something you do not. Erik — never fail to ask a question because you assume there is a good reason behind what appears to be a bad decision. Especially never when it involves your Soldiers. Question, probe and advocate. Your lack of experience very early in your career is not a muzzle to keep you silent. If anything, is compels you to ask questions, learn through experience, and to fail. Leaders expect lieutenants to fail so take the slack and run. It isn’t there as a Captain. So Erik, question and, if need be, confront what seems amiss.
Erik — love your wife fully. In the tumult of our Army, as the winds whip, the sea surges, and the rain batters what some days feels like a very small raft, your partner becomes the north star providing direction and the rain slick keeping you dry and warm. We neglect what we take for granted. Never take for granted the strength and support of your partner and those that love you.
You will snicker as a young officer in the stands at those outgoing company and battalion commanders who, on a warm summer day, stoically deliver their farewell address to the assembled troops on a field of neatly cut grass but then promptly lose their composure as they thank their wife or husband for their sacrifices. You will find it unmilitary. Like a great many things, you will think you know before you have experienced. Later, on the final day of your command, as you thank your own wife and family for so much sacrifice given so freely and so often, you will blink vigorously in your own desperate struggle to keep those welling tears on your eyeball and not let them spill down your cheek. You will then understand. In our transitory profession where everything can change in a moment, the love of our partner and family remains fixed. Against the wind and currents, they guide and steady. So Erik, remember that your soul’s compass is your family — care for them accordingly.
Erik — Keep strong the bond to this university —value and appreciate the connections you make here at Western, the first stop on your Army journey and the foundation for what comes. You will find yourself, in your Army adventure, clinking beer steins at Oktoberfest, fighting in Baghdad and traversing endless land navigation courses spread across the globe. The Army will fling you far across the globe.
You don’t know it now and would never guess, but 16 years from now, you will also find yourself back at Western, in this very room. Can you imagine that the man who gave you your first salute, SGM Homan, your current PMS, LTC Larson, your former residence hall director, Matt Bierman, and the man who was to you and your ranger company buddies the physical embodiment of the Army, LTC Pickett, would all attend an event where you are the speaker? You’ll attend it with the same date on both evenings, 16 years apart. And you will share that evening 16 years from now with many of the same cadets you do tonight. Pat Deforest. Adam Dykstra. Matt Wallace. Great men and Army leaders with whom you fired the cannon during football games, marched alongside all over campus (PS.. .you’re never do figure out a counter-column by the way) and sweated with during countless 0600 Ranger PT sessions. They were friends then and men you will trust with your life forever forward.
Fellow Leaders, this is special. Hear me at my point in my journey share with you at the beginning of yours — the ground here is fertile for a life’s worth of relationships and meaning. Come home when you can. Keep in touch with the people in this room, the ROTC department, be involved with the alumni chapter, give what you can to cadet scholarships, invest in our legacy — fellow WIU leaders and cadets. So leaders— travel widely, but remember your home at WIU.
Cadets — Trust in yourself and focus on the challenges at hand. I believe you are entering the military at a watershed moment. The operational environment you are set to join is described as contested and disordered and daily headlines bear out this assessment. It is an exciting time and our profession is one of moments. Only a moment kept Dwight Eisenhower from retiring as a LTC. After leaving the Army in disgrace due to a drinking problem, only a moment about 150 miles north of here in Galena kept Ulysses S. Grant from eternal obscurity. Your moment will come as well. Perhaps not with repercussions so grand or in a conflict so sweeping.
Or perhaps so.
Maybe your moment won’t even bear fruit in your own career — because of your influence, your words or your actions, someone else will have their moment. I am unabashedly proud that our profession is one of action, mud, maneuver, challenge and conflict. It is said, “behold, I have refined thee in the furnace of affliction.” This adversity, uncertainty and hardship, before you in spades, will refine you. In you grows, even now, a passion of service, a love for your fellow Soldiers, a distaste for banalities of today’s politics, and a desire to overcome adversity. Be thankful for the furnace because it refines you. Seek it, confront it, overcome it and emerge steeled. So Erik, charge into the difficult assignment, over the challenging obstacle and through the enemy. Seek the furnace.
Ours is a profession of moments — be ready for yours.
Thank you again for your camaraderie tonight. If you are ever in DC and need a place to stay or a drink to share, please reach out. Truly, I count this among my career’s most meaningful moments. Not because I stand before you. But because I was asked to stand among you. We are Soldiers. We are Leathernecks. We are family.
Erik Archer is a NCR based MP and a proud WIU graduate who remains eternally thankful for his time spent in Macomb. WIU gave him much more than an education.