Lifelong Obligations

This post is the third in a series in which the CC/PL team highlights the leadership ideas and experiences of company grade officers. Interested in contributing? Read more here. This post is from CPT Darrell Fawley, a U.S. Army Infantry Officer. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.

Across the nation and across the world many a young officer is preparing to take charge of his or her first platoon. Shortly behind them, many a cadet is waiting for the same opportunity. Platoon leadership is an interesting goal: so coveted yet so fleeting. The average officer will likely spend nearly five years preparing for a job the officer will be lucky to hold for a third of that time. It comes slow; it goes quick

But, if you are a young platoon leader reading this — or a future leader waiting in the wings — know this: the platoon will always be the Army’s but the soldiers will always be yours. You will be forever linked to those soldiers. Thanks to the prevalence of social media, you will be linked even tighter than before.

Even if from afar, you will celebrate their triumphs, engagements, births of their children, awarding of college degrees and promotions. You will delight in learning they finished their first marathon, earned an award and finally maxed their APFT. It will make you proud. After all, these were the men and women who worked so hard for you, who shared some of your worst times and some of your best. They are the soldiers that trained you though you outranked them and stuck with you when you made mistakes. They are the ones that wouldn’t let you fail. You are proud of them and can’t help but love them.

But, you will also deal with the pain in their lives. You will be there through divorce, depression, debt and even death. You might even find yourself providing character testimony at a court martial years in the future. Even the best soldiers (and officers) go through bad times. It is easy to celebrate the good times; it is even easier to shy away during the bad times. But, that’s not the officer you want to be. Remember, you are inextricably linked. You celebrated all of their good times. Now they need your hand, your shoulder or maybe just your ear.

Please, don’t enter this endeavor thinking you can do your time and move on. As a platoon leader you will quickly learn the unique nature of your job when you, who barely understands how to make it in life, are placed in position to give sage life advice to a “kid” a year older than you. You will quickly learn that the tactical and technical dimensions are comparatively easy as you learn that the human dimension may mean counseling someone ten years your senior through a divorce or debt. It can be difficult; it can be exhausting.

A bad platoon leader is one who takes on this as a burden, as if it were something that must be done to get to other things. A good platoon leader will be empathetic and embrace the role of big brother. A great platoon leader will still be there ten years down the road ready to help.

I have had many soldiers through my ten years in the Army. Admittedly, I have remained closer to some than others. And, I am not so arrogant to believe that every one of them wants to keep in touch with me. And, undoubtedly, my leadership impacted some more than others. However, inevitably, former soldiers will contact me out of the blue for a letter of recommendation, for help with something or just for a reference. I am happy to do it.

Not every soldier deserves this level of loyalty nor should every soldier deserve loyalty from you. There are soldiers who care for themselves alone and disgrace themselves, their unit and their uniform. Hopefully, you have the opportunity to remove them from the service. Still, most soldiers deserve your lifelong dedication. Most soldiers are good soldiers even if not great. Not every soldier is a future sergeant major. Some will have massive potential, some will have peaked and some are best suited for civilian life. But, nearly all will contribute to your success and the success of your platoon.

One of Darrell’s former squad leaders high fiving him on the marathon portion of IM Louisville.He is now a cadet at U of L.

When you leave platoon leadership or command, you look at your OER and award and feel guilty. “It wasn’t me…” you’ll say. “It was them.” But, the Army isn’t going to give a unit citation to a platoon or company unless they do something out of this world. In positions of leadership you can repay your people for all their hard work through strong evaluations, ample awards, time off and recognition. Out of those positions, you can write a strong recommendation, provide good advice or offer a shoulder to lean on. Maybe you can even reminisce about old times over a beer years down the road.

Enjoy your time in platoon leadership. It is certainly a privilege, a thrill, an amazing finishing school and the job of a lifetime. It is also short. But, while the position is not destined to last forever, the toughest — and most rewarding part — will last for life. Be the leader that soldiers can reach back to months, years and decades after you led them and receive help. Be the leader that sees soldiers going through rough times and reaches out to them. Please don’t be the leader that thinks, “Not my problem any more.”

You are about to enter into an amazing time of your life. Maybe you are already there. Maybe that time has passed. But regardless of the rank you wear, the position you hold or years its been, remember only the platoon is no longer yours. The Army can take that — that arbitrary division of soldiers — from you. It can relieve you of the responsibilities of daily leadership. But, those are still your men and women out there and they need you. Be the leader they need…now and forever.

Darrell with with a former platoon sergeant at Fort Benning

About the Author:

Darrell Fawley is an Infantry officer who served as both a rifle and assault platoon leader and as rifle and headquarters company commander. He currently serves as an assistant professor of military science and operations officer for Ohio University Army ROTC.