The American Millennium Online
I recently ran across an uplifting article about a young lieutenant in the Army National Guard here in Minnesota. Uplifting, because it looks like a young officer just beginning his career is on top of the world and is looking for an exciting and action packed life. As a recent retiree, I feel it’s my duty to throw the cold water of reality on the situation.
Luke Dery has been in the Minnesota Guard a while now and has his first platoon leader position, a platoon of medics. You can read about his story in Star Tribune here. Apparently he’s got a degree in biology from the University of Minnesota and is working on an MBA. Good for him. The life is challenging, but he’s enjoying it. Good for you.
Now here is what you can expect in your future that the recruiters at ROTC didn’t explain. With luck you probably had “the talk” with your first platoon sergeant. Hopefully, like mine, he or she is a seasoned veteran with loads of advice for a new LT. He or she probably pulled you aside and said, “You got all the book learnin’ LT, now listen to an old salt and let me tell you how it really is.” In lieu of that scenario, here is my advice to you.
Enjoy your time in the Guard, but be wary. Get to the rank of Captain as fast as you can and don’t dawdle. Stay healthy and in shape, and pray you don’t get hurt. PT sucks when you’re hurt. If they pull out the command chair for a company for you, take it! And, when your two or three years is up in the command slot, GET THE HELL OUT! You’ll have all the leadership experience you need to look impressive to prospective employers from platoon leader to company commander, but beyond that, the Guard becomes your career, not your civilian job.
Don’t expect to always have cake walk two week annual training periods. More often than not, as a leader, they’ll ask you to do more, maybe three to four weeks, which will leave your civilian employer scratching his head. The longer you stay, the more pissed off your civilian employer will get. Don’t breed that animosity. And if you are deployed, forget about it. You’re employer will really be pissed and if they’re good, they’ll hold your slot, if not, they’ll find a way to fire you for cause. They’re required to keep your slot by law, but if they word the paper work carefully, they will find a way to let you go.
If you do decide to make the Army your career, get out of the Guard after your command and join the Reserves. The process is fairly easy and there is usually a mass exodus from the Guard to the Reserve at the captain level. The Reserve recruiter will understand. I’m sure it will be easy to place a medical services officer and there will no doubt be a major slot with your name on it. And then the way is paved for you to Lieutenant Colonel and beyond. But not if you stay in the Minnesota Guard. Don’t do as I did and wait too long. Opportunities are wasted if you wait.
Hopefully now that the “wars” are over, you’ll settle down in a routine, but I wouldn’t count on it. Thank your lucky stars you missed out on the West Africa Ebola Mission! Barack Obama won’t be president forever and the war on terror is far from over. In a new administration, the deployments might kick up again and you can expect to spend long periods away from home. Embrace the suck. Wives and girlfriends aren’t terribly understanding after the second or third deployment.
“Thank your lucky stars you missed out on the West Africa Ebola Mission!”
And prepare to watch your men die. That is what platoon leaders and company commanders do on deployment. There’s no way around it. Commanders’ duty is to make sure their units are well trained and equipped. Ready to go. Training breeds confidence, confidence removes fear, fear breeds hesitation, hesitation will get you killed. The old drill sergeants will tell you that a well trained soldier is more likely to survive and that is partially true. A well-trained crew in an uparmored vehicle driving down the main supply route can be easily picked out. They drive aggressive, they own the road, the gunner is out and alert, his head on a swivel. The crew looks badass and Haji don’t wanna fuck with them. They’ll fuck around with the crew that doesn’t look prepared for a fight. Haji is a coward, but he ain’t stupid.
“Training breeds confidence, confidence removes fear, fear breeds hesitation, hesitation will get you killed.”
An ill prepared crew will get killed far more often than a crew that is properly trained. A crew that sucks in training will not be confident in you, the leadership or their skills and they’ll eventually balk at doing their jobs under stress. Then you’ll have to discipline the whole platoon and squad. Don’t be that guy.
Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you won’t lose anyone because you’re good. You will. You just won’t lose as many. The ones you do lose will be the good ones, the best of the best and that will make it all that much harder. Navy SEALS get killed, and there is no one better than they are. Sometimes Haji gets lucky.
“Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you won’t lose anyone because you’re good. . . Sometimes Haji gets lucky.”
Take a good pen with you on deployment. You’ll need it to sign the letters back to family members explaining to them how you lost little Johnny or Janie. No form letters. Family can see through that shit. Make it personal. If there are tear stains on the paper, all the better. Its hurt to write those letters. It’s supposed too. You can type it out to make it official, but then you sign with your nice pen. Make it personal. Families will thank you for your candor. They’ll resent you if you do it half-assed.
As a platoon leader of medics, you have the bravest of the brave working for you. Everybody loves Doc. Get over the notion that your platoon will be all yours during deployment. Most likely you’ll have most of your medics farmed out to other units, aka detached and Opconed, where you will have little influence in the lives and fortunes of your men. The gaining unit will have responsibility, hopefully they’ll get a good unit. More than likely you’ll hear a few horror stories, so be prepared.
Minnesota Guard is a combat arms driven state. If you aren’t Ranger qualified and aren’t an Infantry or Armor guy, they powers that be won’t understand your value and they won’t respect you. So they won’t hold command slots open for you. And you can forget about field grade, unless you’re a surgeon. That’s why it’s important to jump ship early. Only you can manage your career.
I’ve had good moments in my career and bad. Hopefully you will benefit from my bad experiences. Here are a few of the shittier assignments and experiences I’ve had that you can look forward to.
*Soldier of mine suffering from spots on his lungs, VA won’t pay because the problem wasn’t identified in theater. Probable cause, burn pits. Sucks to be him. Minnesota VA is better than most, and still won’t do much. Embrace the suck.
*I once had to sit on a young lieutenant in jail. Yes, a lieutenant! A young African-American officer went AWOL at Annual Training, and then when he decided to show up to work, he threatened to assault his company commander, also African American. The decision was made to throw him in jail at Fort McCoy over night and let a few of us captains sit on him to make sure he didn’t hurt himself, because contracted police at Ft. McCoy don’t provide jailors. Units have to do that. I’m retired now, and that knucklehead is still in. How does that work?
*I was asked to provide security for the St. Paul Airport and the Army and Air National Guard air assets for the Republican National Convention in 2008. Local law enforcement response teams as well as the FBI where deploying from there. The Coast Guard had helicopters deploying from there to monitor the air space around the rivers. There were other assets deploying from there that I could not recognize. In preparation to make a decent base defense, I asked for barrier material, concertina wire, serpentine road obstacles, shot guns with less-lethal bean bag ammo, M9 Berettas, body armor, protective masks, CS gas, and a shelter for my 8 Janes and Jonnies. I got plastic barriers and a trailer. My guys had to be out there in the hot weather in their battle rattle with no weapons of any kind with our good looks and verbal judo checking ID cards of people coming into the airport. I didn’t get any of the training I requested, because I didn’t get the weapons. Thank God for Homeland Security and the local South Saint Paul Police Department who had their weapons, otherwise I would be out there in the wind alone. Embrace the suck.
*During my tenure, a Command Sergeant Major was relieved of duty for harassing female soldiers on deployment. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a female lieutenant who refused to take it anymore and reported him. The CSM should have been busted to E-1 and kicked out. Instead he was busted from E-9 to E-7 and allowed to quietly retire. The good old boys network was in full force. Embrace the Suck.
*On deployment to Iraq I had a less than stellar soldier attached to me for a long term work detail. He related this story. He was injured on deployment and couldn’t work and was not allowed to rotate home. He also had the bad habit of showing up late for work detail and hanging around his girlfriend’s living area after hours, for which the unit tried corrective action. To correct some of his behaviors, the unit decided to lock him in to a shipping container over night without a cot or a blanket. When the corrections didn’t hold, the soldierwas farmed out, that is Opconed, to me where he was slightly better than totally worthless. (I actually got him showing up on time four times out of seven!) I approached the unit command to try to find out more about his situation. I advised that nowhere in the UCMJ did I find that you could incarcerate a soldier for Article 15 procedures in a shipping container. You can take pay, you can demote a soldier, you cannot lock people in a box. I politely recommended that he be placed in housing with a sergeant who could keep a better eye on the lad from here on out. “Tut tut, young captain!” I was told, as the sergeant major patted me on the head like I was a puppy. “We handle things our own way in our company.” I advised JAG of the situation, but in theater, JAG doesn’t work for the soldier, he works for the commander. A soldier can get representation, but the Trial Service doesn’t have offices in theater. The soldier had to make a call to some rag bag kicking up his heals somewhere in Europe. After a 20 minute call, the soldier decided his situation working with me was better than what was going on with his unit and that he would gut it out until the end of deployment. Embrace the Suck.
*I saved the best for last. I once had to do a 10-6 investigation on a soldier and his unit. What was his crime you ask? Embezzlement? Assault? Disrespect to a senior officer? Nope, nope, nope! ADULTERY! The smuck cheated on his wife, with a female soldier in his unit. A Military Police Company! Sounds medieval doesn’t it, but the Army can and will prosecute you for that. That’s awesome! I was in a room, interviewing a 20-something pregnant beauty with doey blue eyes and long dark hair as she sniffled and moaned about how much her douche bag husband had hurt her and their family. It doesn’t get any better than that. I had a long talk with members of his unit, after which I thought, this is going nowhere. I got nothing. If this kid is smart he’ll lawyer up and say nothing and then I got nothing expect an unhappy bride who is 8-months along. I finally got the knuckle head in my office. “So!” I told the young sergeant. “Are you cheating on your wife and if so, why?!” I had a 30 minute discussion, on tape, as the soldier explained how and why he had tried unsuccessfully to cheat on the Missus, after I had read the soldier his rights. I made recommendations to JAG for conduct unbecoming and called it a day. I didn’t hear how it went, but I hope they busted the soldier back to specialist. Two weeks later I got a call from the wife. They had gotten back together and were trying to make a go for it. I was asked to drop any charges. I told the young lady that this episode might be a pattern of behavior and that I’d already submitted my findings to JAG. It was up to them. I hope she is doing well, but again, I never heard.
And that young lieutenant is a brief summary of the kinds of things you might find yourself dealing with if you stay in the guard. Take my advice with a grain of salt. Mind your own career because no one else will. I hope you have good, true leaders above you who recognize you’re worth. Be aware of those who don’t, and when you think you’ve had enough, move on with your life. It is your life and career to manage. Hopefully, it will be a good one.
“It is your life and career to manage. Hopefully, it will be a good one.”