Even Tom Hanks knew gripes go up…

The times I failed as an NCO

A response to 1LT (P)

This post isn’t easy for me to write. I am going to address the times that I was called into the Commander’s and First Sergeant’s offices for failing to meet the standard. Something similar probably happened (or will soon happen) to a 1LT (P) as well. My pride is about to take a bruising on this one, and I will try to minimize the excuse factory’s operations.

Just a few weeks before going to Afghanistan our Battalion was pushing for all the boxes to get checked. It was, as you can imagine, an interesting time. As a result of the multiple priorities any large organization must balance, I had a busy week or two of rifle qualifications, Soldier and NCO of the month board appearances, and combat first aid training. Not in that order.

First, I got to “stick” a Major with an IV needle. He was less nervous than I was (wrap your mind around that) and talked me through it. I’d serve alongside him later in the deployment when he was a Squadron S3 with another unit and I was an intelligence team leader.

The NCO of the Month appearance went well. I have a good memory and can bluster my way through those kinds of things better than I should. Those are crucial skill sets for facing an Army board. Add some additional study time to the required professional development time and you are more or less set.

But, all my time in the Army I was never a very good shot. I switched from an M4 to a 249 back to an M4 and so had to requalify on the rifle at an abbreviated range held days before the advanced party deployed to Afghanistan. I failed to qualify and upon returning from the range got called into the Commander’s office. I’ll never forget that. Up until that moment I had done everything that I was told to do at the level that was expected of me, and on occasion maybe a little better than expected. Not that day though.

“How am I going to explain to the Battalion Commander that our NCO of the Month failed to qualify today?”

“I’m sorry sir, I let you down.”

“Honestly, it’s kind of funny…”

That’s more or less how I recall it going. We were on mission at that point. I’d have to shoot some more rounds another day. My Commander didn’t remove me from leading my team, which he certainly could have. Maybe too many pieces were in place. My team had already trained with the Infantry Battalion we would be accompanying while at JRTC. Upsetting the apple cart may have done more harm than good. I am grateful I was given a second chance though.

What did I learn? A huge dose of humility tops the list. But, like a lot of soldiers I didn’t grow up with firearms and required lots of practice to get proficient. If we had more range time, I would have possibly done better. So, when we returned to Fort Campbell my platoon along with another platoon in our intelligence company prioritized an educational range. Lots of rounds with lots of time and plenty of officers and NCOs to help soldiers learn a vital task.

About ten months into the deployment, when it was time for me to take my two weeks of R&R leave, I had to take a physical fitness test while traveling through Jalalabad Airfield. Other units were exempt from these tests, or were administering informal tests while deployed but my Battalion was administering them in their formal for-the-record glory. After ten months of intelligence reports, sitting around on mountain tops, eating too much pizza at FOB Bostick, and a few non-combat injuries I failed this test. I had felt like I was depressed and had mentioned that to others in my unit. I never sought medical attention for a pretty significant fall off an MRAP in a remote village either — we had three days left in the village before we were back on base anyway. Was I lazy or depressed? My back was hurting but was it because of the body-armor or from the fall? After returning to Fort Campbell, I’d get lightheaded on runs. Was it from hitting my head in that fall or because I’m a pale Irish kid (frighteningly pale, I could illuminate the pre-dawn PT formation if we had enough moonlight).

By this point in the deployment, my soldiers and I had done our jobs well. The combat units we worked with were happy with our intelligence collection and delivery. But, I failed to meet a crucial standard and could have been removed from the leadership of my team. My First Sergeant, however, chewed a little of my ass then said we’d address this after my R&R leave. I kept my team through the deployment and got my ass back into shape. I am just as grateful for my third chance as my second. I think, if I can be immodest, my unit retained a motivated and hardworking NCO through the remainder of his contracted enlistment by forgiving me of my failings.

There really is no way to explain how complex the military is for people who haven’t served, or haven’t served many years. Not only is it a huge organization in terms of personnel, but also the high volume of work (a lot of it bureaucratically generated) means that each work day is burdened with tasks. Commanders (at the Company level) and First Sergeants are ultimately responsible for the performance and conduct of about 100 individuals. A lot of their time, unfortunately, is spent dealing with just a few individuals in need of extra attention.

1LT Max Lujan wrote a post recently on a popular military forum. In that post, he accuses a large number of the officer corps with “phoning it in.” He criticized a field-grade officer (let’s all admit to doing that in the past, full disclosure) and rounded out his post with five values and some serious issues that should be addressed. Under “integrity,” he discusses the kabuki theater of property book management. While he acknowledges that the offending individual was held to account, he also seems a little jealous (my inference) that the individual was still given a prime slot at a training program. That’s all we hear about this “commander.”

Next he critiques a 2LT’s brief to a platoon under the heading of “social skills.” This is another vignette, it really could be just one person’s bad day. Also the new “butter bar” is often in a pretty difficult position when assigned to a platoon. Almost everyone he or she now leads has more time in the Army. 1LT Max Lujan won’t surpass my years in service (West Point doesn’t count, and if you think it does you actually lose a year) until about 2016, and I was out like a fat kid in dodgeball. His issues with the unnamed 2LT’s performance should be called “command presence” or “authority.” But, for most people command authority requires some experience, a noted deficiancy among the 2LT population. This was a time to train that butter bar and monitor progress. How much professional harm has been done by writing about it instead?

His last point includes more disturbing lapses in leadership, issues that clearly need to be addressed. But, he titles this under “Courage to call out fellow officers.” I hope he did call out these officers for their lapses in professionalism. If he didn’t he is guilty of violating his own rule.

I hope 1LT Lujan did more than just call out these officers though. He should have definitely addressed his concerns (and the previous concerns listed above) with his Commander. If he felt that did not lead to a successful resolution, he should have discussed this matter up the chain of command. He should have also presented options for improving how his unit performs, and as a supposedly good soldier he should have exerted extra effort toward these goals. That’s the whole point about being a soldier and being a leader: the better you are the harder you need to work so your peers, superiors and subordinates can benefit from your talents and improve their own.

The last thing you do though is write an article in a highly visible website throwing your peers and superiors under the proverbial bus. Perhaps if serious criminal actions were occurring and your efforts to address those actions had met with resistance up the chain of command you are compelled to bring public attention to the matter. But the development and training of a unit requires hard work and trust. 1LT Lujan may have undone all of the former by endangering the latter.

Very few soldiers accomplish every task above and beyond expectations and the standard. Humility and compassion belong in every leader’s toolkit. This is not to say that these decisions are easy or simple. As with all human endeavors, there are good and bad people mixed into large groups. The vast majority of people are good and striving to do their best in sometimes difficult situations.

And if he did not address these concerns with his Battalion and Brigade Commanders, he will soon but with a lot more of his own actions to explain.

Two other worthwhile responses to this 1LT (P)’s advice were posted yesterday. The Commander in Snark had thoughts to share as did the Power Point Sapper.

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