As company commander one of your major challenges is teaching a bunch of hard-headed, arrogant, know-it-all Infantry lieutenants the skills to make them, eventually, into good company commanders. One of the rituals of passage is the “lieutenant’s leadership challenge.” You most often encounter this in your dealings with your lieutenants in how they manage, rather than lead, the manpower in their platoon. Even though it is preached at you in every school to spend 90% of your time on 90% of your troops, inevitably young officers will encounter a Sad Sack, Joe-Sh**-the-Rag-Man, who tries mightily but never quite succeeds, or who has some personal flaw that keeps him on the company commander’s and battalion commander’s radar. The guy will consume 90% of their time, leaving only 10% to devote to the rest of the platoon. Instead of adhering to Kenny Roger’s dictum about “know when to fold them,” they will inevitably throw good money after bad to the detriment of their own career and try to save the truly lost.
Not long after I took over my company, my executive officer (XO) moved to battalion headquarters as the adjutant and I moved my senior rifle platoon leader into the XO slot. My new XO, Tommy, was a West Point graduate and dynamic platoon leader whose troops would do just about anything for him. He wasn’t all that happy with the move from leading a rifle platoon to leading a headquarters section composed of a supply sergeant and clerk, a NBC sergeant, a communications sergeant and a tactical wire specialist aka “wire rat.” Most company headquarters sections don’t look all that impressive. They are the only non-combat specialties in the company and their primary mission is the day to day work of keeping equipment running. There are exceptions, but, as a rule, they don’t like going to the field and they can usually find some important meeting they have to be at at higher headquarters when you’re going to the rifle range or doing a road march. I have to admit that mine was not different. But I’d found the only way you retain your sanity as a commander is to live the AA serenity prayer about knowing what sh** you just aren’t going to change.
As part of his in-briefing I gave him my view of the strengths/weaknesses of the HQ section and the personalities and I informed him that I had was processing his wire rat for what is called a Chapter 13 discharge. The Chapter 13 discharge is an expeditious (relatively) way of getting rid of troops based on unsatisfactory performance. It is vile hard work if you you’re trying to use it against a career soldier but pretty easy against a first termer. The wire rat was 19, his wife was 17. They had a kid. He was too junior to qualify for military family housing. He didn’t make enough, really, to rent an apartment in California. To make his problem worse, his wife worked at a Burger King. She literally didn’t make enough money to cover babysitting. He was on food stamps but that doesn’t help when you literally eat three fast-food meals a day. There had been run-ins with Child Protective Services over the baby’s “failure to thrive.” This was caused by them feeding the kid Karo pancake syrup cut with water rather formula because it was cheaper and because the sugar made the kid feel like he wasn’t hungry. But the proximate cause of his impending unemployment was his chronic indebtedness. As a commander you are responsible for seeing to it that your troops pay their “just debts,” and local merchants know that. So when he missed a car payment or stereo payment or whatever, the merchant would write Division Headquarters and that missive would come smoking into my in box with notes from the 1-star, the brigade commander, and the battalion commander asking me how I was going to un-f*** the problem. Every month I received several of these and my patience and excuse locker were exhausted.
Unfortunately, the wire rat was a good kid. He was no problem on duty. He always turned out looking sharp. He wasn’t the brightest bulb but he was diligent and reliable.
“Sir,” said Tommy, “pull the discharge packet and let me work with him. He’s a good guy and just needs a break. He hasn’t had any real leadership. I can save him.”
Me: Okay, you’re my XO and you have to run that section. But let me tell you how this movie ends. It ends in heartbreak for you and with him packing his sh** and going home.
Tommy calls the wire rat in and reads the riot act to him. Then he tells him how things are going to work. They made a budget. The wire rat relinquished his check book (thank heaven this was before banks started sending unsolicited credit cards to infants). Every week they met, they balanced the check book. The wire rat wrote out the checks for bills. Tommy put them in envelopes and personally posted them. Tommy went downtown and turned in the wire rat’s stereo (you know, the 99 cents down and $25/month for the rest of your life kind of deals that you find in garrison towns around the world) after telling the proprietor that if he didn’t take the stereo back and cancel the debt he’d make it his mission to have that shop declared off limits to military personnel.
A month went by. No bad checks. Two months. Nothing. Three months. By now Tommy was giving me the “I told you so” snark.
Then month four came and with it a half-dozen bounced checks. I called the XO in and flicked the stacks of nasty-grams from higher headquarters at him, one by one.
Me: WTF, XO? I thought you were going to fix this sh**? Who the f*** is in control in that shit hole you’re running?
He read the letters of indebtedness. He blanched. His mouth did the whole beached carp thing.
“Sir, that’s impossible. I mailed the checks. I balanced his check book.”
Me: Well, it is possible because here it is. Now fix it. Today.
A quick inquiry found that living with his means cramped the wire rat’s life style. So he went to the bank and ordered replacement checks. And started writing them. As soon as the root cause was discovered, a chastened Tommy came into my office, admitted defeat, and agreed the wire rat needed to go. I pointed to the telephone on my desk and had him call the battalion adjutant, the guy who he’d replaced as my XO, and tell him to resurrect the Chapter 13 on the kid. In about six weeks the wire rat was a civilian an someone else’s problem.
Being a father, I’ve discovered, is a lot like being a company commander. You can try to pass on your wisdom and experience to your children but they are inevitably going to think you are old and out of touch and that they can succeed where you failed. They are wrong, of course. They aren’t going to succeed where you failed. But the only way an man learns sh** is by trying his hardest and failing, sometimes spectacularly, then dusting himself off and driving on. That’s how you build combat leaders and that’s how you build young men.