Public domain image via official Fort Leonard Wood Facebook site, https://www.facebook.com/107763626052/photos/a.107780486052/10154202433776053/
As Mike Ford is still occupied, I’m filling in again for him.
Your formative experience as a second lieutenant is your first assignment. That’s your first experience outside of a training environment and the rhythm, the ethos, you learn there will follow you the rest of your career. If you find an officer who is a micromanager and refuses to delegate, I guaran-f***ing-tee you that if you go back to his first unit you’ll find that he found, as they say, his ass in a sling, his tit in a wringer, because someone he expected to do something failed…and they did so regularly.
Though I would have killed the man who told me so at the time, being assigned to Fort Leonard Wood, MO, as a baby lieutenant was the best thing that could’ve happened to me. I’d asked, on the famous “dream sheet,” to go to the the 172d Infantry Brigade in Alaska, to 1st Bn (Airborne) 509th Infantry in Vicenza, Italy, and to the 82d Airborne Division. Of course, several thousand other infantry officers had made the same request. To say I was heartbroken when I got my orders is to understate the disappointment. Going to a TDA (Table of Distribution and Allowances), or non-combat, non-deployable unit was a slap in the face because every real infantryman longed for assignment to a TO&E (Table of Organization and Equipment), that is, a deployable (at least in theory) unit.
I was assigned as a company executive officer (aka XO)/training officer. What this meant was that the company was authorized, upon mobilization, an XO and a training officer. In peacetime, one lieutenant did both. Company commanders didn’t show up at training very often (why? I still don’t know) and so from about 4:30 a.m. physical training (PT) formation until after 7 p.m. I worked with a group of a dozen drill sergeants. In ROTC I’d been on our unit drill team and had done the presentation of colors at sporting events and I quickly established myself as a value-add, as someone who could lend a hand on the drill pad working with trainees and not mess things up. After a fairly short while, the drills treated me like I was one of them and not one of the trainees and being accepted as a peer, as a colleague, by senior NCOs was quite a satisfying event for a 22-year-old officer.
The guy at the center of this rather high performing group of NCOs was our First Sergeant. He was a little fire plug of a guy who did not miss a trick on anything. He even ran a register of incoming mail to each trainee, logging in what mail they received and from whom. If a guy suddenly stopped getting letters from a girl he’d call the trainee in and find out what was going on. The number of AWOLs and trainee discharges he averted by this simple act had to number in the hundreds. The drill sergeants feared him. Every Saturday he conducted barracks inspection. There were two prizes, Honor Platoon (rest of the day off) and Pig Platoon (working Sunday). The Pig Platoon trophy was on old toilet seat with a pig pained on it that had to be displayed hear the office of the platoon sergeant in the barracks. And he really didn’t like officers…particularly second lieutenants (“sir, there are just three things I can’t stand: cold coffee, wet toilet paper, and second lieutenants”). Needless to say, in best abused child fashion, I tried desperately to get the acceptance of this crotchety old E-8.
It came about in the most unusual way.
I came off the drill pad around 4 p.m. and arrived in the company orderly room to take care of my daily paperwork (we had 220 trainees and every thing concerning their training, discipline, and clothing issue required the signature of a commissioned officer, needless to say, the company commander wasn’t signing squat). First Sergeant was sort of giggling. “Sir,” he grinned, “the colonel wants to see you ASAP.”
My heart sank. “Do you know why?”
“You missed an officer’s call with the brigade commander at 2 p.m. and he wants to talk to you about it.”
Sweat began popping out. Heart began thumping. Fight or flight was in full bloom. My career, I was sure, was over.
Then First Sergeant became dead serious. “This ain’t no thing, sir, you are just about to get what I call a “lieutenant’s ass chewing.” Here’s what you do. Nobody ever gets his ass chewed by surprise. You know what you did, right? What’s the colonel going to tell you? What you did wrong. What to do to fix it. And don’t let it happen again. So just walk in there, tell him what you did wrong, what you’re going to do to fix it, and that you won’t let it happen again. What’s he going to say?”
I was skeptical…explaining how we were short of drill sergeants and why it was important for me to be training troops instead of at a meeting had been my initial plan…but I knew First Sergeant had experience I did not have and I put myself in his hands.
I did as commanded. I showed up. And before the colonel could speak, I hit him with First Sergeant’s three-point-plan. It worked like a charm. Not only did I not get an ass-chewing, I was complimented on my dedication even if my judgment was lacking.
Just a few days ago, thinking about this, I found First Sergeant, now a retired Command Sergeant Major, on Facebook and pinged him to let him know how much I appreciated his counsel and how much that advice had served me in good stead, and how I’d taught his advice to my kids.
This is what makes being in the infantry much more than a job. It’s a culture and way of life as foreign an exotic as any you’re going to experience. And it changes you forever.
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