More I Learned Between Wars

By: Brooks A. Mick

You might wish to read or reread the first installment of this story as I don’t propose to rehash it here.

Shortly after I took command of my National Guard unit, I began wandering around through the armory during drill time, and I learned that the old commander had seldom ventured out of his office except for formations, preferring to sit behind his desk and make plans write orders to be carried out by the troops. This didn’t seem to have worked very well, so I determined to spend my time out observing what sort of training was underway. I found this gave me a much clearer insight into the problems that demanded solution than I learned at staff briefings. Later in life, enrolled in some management classes, I learned that some had termed this “management by walking around.” It worked for me. Often my First Sergeant would accompany me and we would then put our heads together and think through the best solutions. Sometimes, still, we disagreed.

A serious problem arose in my first few weeks as the new commander. I was approached by a pretty young female cook who presented me with a written statement charging the mess sergeant, an older black soldier, with sexual harassment. My First Sergeant was inclined to immediately begin the process to discipline the mess sergeant. (Had I mentioned yet that my First Sergeant was black? No matter–it wasn’t important, was it?) I thought it might be better to do some investigating first. We called in various members of the mess section including two black female cooks who were supposedly witnesses to the acts of harassment. Further sleuthing uncovered that one of these ladies had been rumored to have had her eye on the mess sergeant and another was upset over having been disciplined as a result of the health department’s condemnation of the kitchen. We re approached the initial young woman and she became tearful and admitted that the sexual harassment charge was false and that she was put up to it by the other two female cooks. Now at that point we could have filed serious charges against the three women, but after discussion, my First Sergeant and I simply sat down with them and explained that we were willing, just this once, to withhold filing charges that might result in loss of pay or worse if they would apologize to the mess sergeant for the trouble they had caused and the besmirching of his reputation. In addition, we made it clear that we would never again be lenient if we found any troop spreading lies or falsehoods about any other or if any were guilty of making false statements of any sort. No false report would ever go out of the unit under my signature. I believe my handling of this incident established my reputation for fairness among the troops. (There might be a lesson for Obama here: Don’t leap to conclusions when a black professor charges a white cop with racism. Gather the facts first.)

In the prior installment I mentioned that I had appointed a female as platoon sergeant. I didn’t mention that she was the first female platoon sergeant in the brigade. My First Sarge and I selected her for this position precisely because we knew she was extremely competent, got along well with everyone, understood human nature very well, and had the potential to be an excellent leader. We were not disappointed when, as I have said, she was considered by most who knew her as the best platoon sergeant they ever had seen. This set the stage in the brigade for other women to be appointed to leadership positions. A year after I left the company command, a young female captain was appointed as the company commander. The lesson again was promote and appoint people because of their competence, not because of affirmative action toward race or gender. If I had appointed a woman who was not supremely competent to a position and she had then failed, it might have ruined the chances of other women to assume leadership roles. (Nancy Pelosi, Kathleen Sibelius, and Janet Napolitano come to mind.)

When I was appointed commander of the unit, I was given a list of troops that were so bad that I should immediately fire them. One was a young black soldier who had a reputation as a black power advocate and a troublemaker. He and I had many long discussions about race relations. He was a bright young man and became a great asset to the unit and was eventually promoted to staff sergeant.

Another troop I was told I would have to process out, I found, simply had trouble recalling the tasks he had to do and organizing them. I gave him a small pocket notebook, he jotted down tasks he was assigned, and he always carried them out to perfection. Interestingly, brigade headquarters later selected him to be brigade commo officer, which I thought ironic considering they had informed me that he was a horrible soldier. I ran into him later at brigade HQ and he pulled his notebook out of his pocket and said, “I still have my pocket brain, sir!”

The second young lieutenant who was to have been “fired” also performed very well with a little mentoring, and he was later selected to be the general’s orderly and did a fine job.

Let me skip a few years ahead here to an appointment as commander of another, much larger unit. This Army Reserve unit’s outgoing commander, while the troops were out in the field for Annual Training, living in tents, bearing up under 104 degree weather in Georgia, would sleep in a nearby hotel and visit the troops briefly at intervals during the day for staff meetings. He would eat at local restaurants rather than the mess hall. When I assumed command, I slept in the field with them in the same tents and same sleeping bags as they had, I got up at 5AM with them for PT in the dark, I carried the same equipment, and I participated in the exercises. I tasked the mess section with always keeping some hot coffee and tea going in the mess section for troops on duty night or day. I would arise once or twice in the 2AM-3AM hours and walk through the area, checking to see how the exercise was progressing. (If I were in congress, I would make sure that I was not exempt from any of the laws I impose on others. I would insure that all government employees, present and future and active and retired, would have to live with the same health plan I concocted for others.)

One AT the unit was sent to California to participate in an exercise. We had our area established and 85% of the tentage set up while two other units were at 15% and 25% establishment. Things went so well that we had extra time and I set up a rotating schedule so that all the troops, most of whom were young, far from wealthy, and had mostly lived their lives in mid-Atlantic coastal Virginia, all got a chance to sightsee in nearby San Francisco. Most might never get the chance again. The next-to-last day was the day to take down and repack the tentage and equipment, but some of the troops had yet to have their San Fran excursion, so I approached my senior NCO and asked, “Can we get these tents down with half the troops gone?” “Yes, sir,” he replied, “I have a plan!”

About half an hour later the local post staffers came by griping and moaning that they would have to stay out here inventorying our tents and equipment late into the evening and perhaps into the next day because I had sent half the troops off sightseeing when we had a lot of heavy work to do.

“Don’t take a long lunch” was all I said. “What do you mean by that?” they asked. “Don’t worry, Sergeant Clark has a plan,” I replied cryptically, and departed the area.

Sure enough, when the post staffers returned at 1330 (1:30PM for nonmilitary), the tents were down and packed and the equipment ready for inventorying. The post staffers were mighty surprised.

(The lesson for Congress and Obama is that they might be very surprised if they simply got out of the way of the American people and let them work and produce to their capacity.)

The last incident above occurred in 2000. I recently ran into Sergeant Clark at a funeral service for one of our old mates, and I asked him, “Sarge, I’ve always wondered. When you told me you had a plan to take down the tents, I never asked you what your plan was.”

He looked at me and said, “Sir, I just told the troops that you wanted those tents down. And they did it for you.”

Take care of the troops and they will take care of you.

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