My Public Affairs
Published in

My Public Affairs

Great Leaders Protect their Teams; and… What Is Bulgogi?

One of the best leaders I have had commanded the public affairs unit I served in for nearly ten years.

This is a story about how she focused on what was important and blocked out the nonsense, even when it rained down heavily from her superiors.

We were participating in a major combined-joint exercise in Korea. Our leader, a captain at the time, had just taken command of the unit. As a public affairs supervisor, I was assigned to the media operations center (MOC) to infuse a civilian media component into operations.

Meanwhile, my colleague, a fellow staff sergeant, manned the phones to take my team’s questions. The idea was to test the combined task force’s ability to respond to media queries and prepare commanders for what civilian media would be talking about.

The process was simple. My team would generate questions about the operation and send them to the MOC. My buddy would record those questions and forward them to the appropriate public affairs officer (PAO). Occasionally, the PAO would pass them on to higher authorities to get clarification or simply to provide situational awareness for other officers.

Then, answers to the queries would flow back to us. As civilian media, we were entitled to some response. Absent an official response, we would have to find information elsewhere or write that the military did not respond to our requests.

All this is a component of a larger war game. Eventually, the idea went, the generals would have to stand in front of someone to explain how operations were going.

After a day or two, it became boring. We hadn’t heard back on a single inquiry so our stories became lamer and lamer. They lacked context, and we missed out on an important part of the media operations cycle. Yet at the same time, we were learning more and more about Korean culture.

On day four, I made a routine inquiry. I concluded it by asking my colleague, “what is bulgogi?”

I honestly didn’t know. Neither did he.

As a dutiful Soldier, he passed the question on. Dutifulness was in high supply because that question made it all the way to the commander of U.S. forces in Korea.

He was unamused.

The rest of the story is somewhat hazy, for reasons that will be clear in a moment.

We heard that the general made straight for the barracks where my commander was, after hours. She was in the shower, and he sent word that he needed to talk to her.

He read her the riot act. Cliff's Notes indicate that our unit was unprofessional didn’t take this important exercise seriously.

Our captain took it on the chin.

What happened next was remarkable.


She didn’t mention it to us.

Another female Soldier had witnessed something in the barracks where the general accosted her. So there were questions and buzz. Eventually, our commander spilled the beans, but only to inform us and help herself laugh it off.

Now it is never fun to be dressed down by a superior officer. I‘ve been there. Executives (in this case, a commanding general) are under a lot of pressure and often want to obliterate small problems rather than take time in the middle of an important operation to understand them.

It is easy, maybe even instinctive, for middle managers to let that roll downhill. Our captain didn’t. She stopped it. She recognized it for what it was — a bug up someone else’s rear end that could have adversely affected her own unit’s morale.

It seems tiny, but that act of selflessness earned my stubborn loyalty. Now, it just so happens that she is a competent commander and a respectful human. But in addition to that, knowing that she wouldn’t throw us under the bus for something so seemingly insignificant increased her esteem in my eyes.

She was promoted to major shortly thereafter and led us during our deployment to Afghanistan in 2014.

I’ll always remember her for her ability to focus on the important things, to take the serious things seriously, and to shield us from unnecessary distractions.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store