We all understand the impact of leadership on organizational dynamics and effectiveness. In a military unit in a war zone the impact can be more pronounced and more rapid.
When I arrived in the RVN in the summer of 1969 I was assigned to an Assault Helicopter company commanded by a Major. A commander served for six months; in my one-year tour of duty I experienced three commanders. The first one was "short"; that is, scheduled to leave the unit in short order, when I arrived in the unit. He was a bigger than life and charismatic character. There were always affectionate jokes about his style and his Italian American argot but it was clear from the start that he was respected, revered---even loved. The unit in question was one of the most decorated of its type to have been activated during the Vietnam conflict. They saved many lives during the siege of KehSan and the battle for Hue.
He was replaced by a man as different in style as one could imagine. My second commander was a third tour aviator; he was quiet, understated and firm but never flamboyant. The unit continued to flourish under his calm, soft-spoken leadership.
Sadly he was replaced after six months by a man who didn't deserve to wear the uniform let alone the insignia of an officer. A pocked marked, oily, red faced little man who couldn't say ten words without four of them being profane and who was virtually illiterate in both oral and written communication. He lied, acted unethically and embarrassed himself at every opportunity. He wasn't even a very good pilot.
Within a month drug use skyrocketed and stupid accidents increased. At least one crew was lost during a blatantly idiotic attempt to fly under a bridge, another was involved in a senseless, inadvertent killing of an innocent civilian and we had our first attempted fragging of an officer. Missions were missed or poorly executed, maintenance availability plummeted and the unit went to shit---while the ugly little man turned redder and screamed even louder. Even more startling, the other officers in the command---who had excelled under their previous leaders---began to demonstrate traits and behaviors every bit as onerous as the commander.
How did the man become an officer, let alone a field grade officer, even more unthinkable, a unit commander? I certainly don't have a clue.
The other night I was watching an episode of The Unit. The TV show is loosely based on a book about Delta Force. In this particular segment, the highly trained special forces team must defend a small logistic outpost manned by poorly trained soldiers who lack discipline and any vestige of unit integrity due in part to an unclear or poorly established chain of command between the "box movers" and the security platoon assigned to protect them. The young female lieutenant in charge has apparently been tentative about taking command in the past. Under the expert tutelage of a highly trained and experienced sergeant major she becomes the commander she needs to become if the outpost is to survive.
The sergeant major could easily have said: "LT, you have zero combat experience and I have lots of it. This is now a combat command and I need to be in charge." She would have agreed instantly. Instead, he reinforces her role as commander, coaches her quietly and helps her find her own inner grit. To some this may seem overly optimistic and unrealistic; admittedly the story suffers under the confines of an hour in prime time.
I've seen it happen time and time again in the military, although it generally takes more than an hour. Sometimes it's a new commander. A General Ray Davis taking over the 3rd Marine Division and completely securing an Area of Operation that had been nasty for years in barely six months. Sometimes it's a good lieutenant, captain or even a lowly staff sergeant. You notice the initial changes in attitude and bearing within a day.
We all crave competent, ethical leadership; it brings out the best in us. Our current national malaise certainly has its genesis in too many years of unethical, incompetent and uncaring leadership in all branches and levels of government.
I touched on this theme in a previous work entitled, A Man Among Women. My fictitious unit this time, assigned a mission in an equally fictitious war is probably typical of many units in the US Army today. Populated with young men and women who joined up to help pay for college or learn a trade and inadequately trained in combat operations under the Army's recent and pathetic, "kinder, gentler" training regimens. Virtually all of the unit's members are assigned non-combat occupational specialties, have received inadequate training in basic security measures and never expected to hear bullets flying over their heads.
It would be realistic to expect that a generic aviation company with the basic mission of moving "boxes and bodies" in a combat support role would be heavily populated with female aviators and support troops. One would expect that they would be highly competent and adequately trained in their logistics role and flight duties but not so prepared to face the rigors of war.
Not having the luxury of replacing the failing unit or of replacing the bulk of its personnel with more seasoned soldiers, the division commander calls on the services of an old war horse with significant previous combat command exposure. The general officer is desperate; his fighting units need their bullets and butter. If this aviation company can't be whipped into shape quickly, many soldiers will perish from lack of critical supplies. He needs a miracle and prays that he's found the right man to deliver one.
This is not remotely a celebration of war or a political statement. It is, I hope, a tribute to our nation's combatants with a special nod to our citizen soldiers, those we call back into service long after they have fulfilled their obligation.
"I can't say I'm pleased to see you standing in front of me, Major. I didn't pick you; the division commander has flagrantly usurped my authority as the support brigade commander...forced you on me."
"With all due respect, ma'am, I can't say I'm particularly pleased to be standing in front of you. I've done my time and paid my dues---in three conflicts."
"Your DD214 indicates that you are...forty-four? That's pretty old for a Major; I assume you've been passed over for promotion more than once."
"No, ma'am, that would not be a valid assumption. I spent eighteen years of active and reserve duty as an aviation Warrant Officer---Chief Warrant Officer, W4. I was commanding a reserve aviation company and someone decided that since it was a Major's billet it should be commanded by an O4. I accepted a direct commission in the reserves four years ago. I intended to stay in the reserves for thirty and draw retirement. Now I'm here."
"In my opinion you are absolutely the wrong person for this command. These are not combat soldiers; they are not used to the rigors of this kind of assignment. They need to be handled with finesse, a gentle hand...understanding. My lord, you're almost old enough to be one of their parents! You'll have a very difficult time relating to them."
"My understanding, ma'am, is that their stateside commander failed to deploy with them due to unspecified personal issues. The commander subsequently appointed to take charge---by you---failed to do so. The unit has yet to adequately perform their assigned mission on even a basic level. I was of the impression that I was here to command them---not relate to them or be their buddies. You're stuck with me, Colonel, and with all due respect it appears that I'm stuck with you and the command of a dysfunctional aviation company. I'd like to get on with it so, assuming we have nothing further to discuss...Colonel."
"You border on disrespectful and insubordinate, Major."
"I'm not much for politics and butt kissing, Colonel. I'm just calling it the way I see it. Will there be anything else, ma'am?"
"No, I suppose not. You're dismissed."
Just take care of moving your fucking boxes and stay the hell out of my hair, lady! Major William Wallace mused as he walked from the brigade commander's office in the direction of his new unit. He heard the HUMVEE racing up behind him and moved as far off the dirt road as was prudent. He heard it screech to a halt and turned to see the two star VIP plate affixed to the front of the vehicle. He came to attention and saluted as the division commander exited his command vehicle.
"Major, it would seem that the good colonel failed to present you with your commander's tabs. May I do the honors?"
"Of course, sir." The green tabs signifying a command billet were quickly affixed to the epaulets of the major's combat utilities.
"Stand at ease, Major." The general intoned, extending his hand. "Good to see you, Bill; it's been a few years."
"Nothing personal, sir, but a good dinner and some single malt at one of our favorite watering holes would have been just fine with me."
"I'm sorry to have done this to you, Bill, but I was out of options. I need you here; I need one of your miracles."
"I'll give it my best, sir."
"I know you will. On another note, here is a copy of your new unit orders; I was on my way to deliver them to the colonel. I need you to deploy that aviation company to a forward support base. They're useless to me back here in the rear. I need it done in seventy-two hours. Once you deploy the unit, you are under the operation control of the First Mechanized Brigade; your unit will ferry material to their five combat outposts, each of battalion strength.
"Chinooks and trucks---when they can get through---will drop off their loads at your location. You're unit will break them down, redistribute the loads to Blackhawk size and deliver them to the combat outposts."
"My engineers are already erecting berms, digging trenches and clearing a perimeter. You'll have a Marine platoon assigned."
"What's that amount to, sir? Thirty some Marines to protect 298 aviation and supply personnel and eighteen Blackhawks? How close is the nearest combat battalion?"
"Three hours overland, twenty minutes by air. Have you had a chance to take a look at what you just took command of?"
"You know me, sir. I put on my trusty E5 chevrons and did a little scouting yesterday. The troops appear to have a high degree of military bearing. Their company area is clean and well policed. Their aircraft and vehicles are well maintained. They have regular formations and do daily physical training. Military courtesy is observed and enforced---salutes and greetings are exchanged. It's a textbook garrison unit...not so sure it's a combat unit or even a combat support unit...or ever will be."
"Anything else you noticed?"
"Not a single hard stripe or commissioned officer who isn't female. A few maintenance specialists and a handful of male warrants but essentially...petticoat junction. Their security platoon, what there is of it, appears to be deployed picking up trash and painting rocks white...and even it is over three quarters female."
"Is that going to be a problem you can't handle?"
"Just an observation, general. We both know that none of these folks went through even a realistic stint in basic training. It's doubtful that any of them have fired a weapon since their last annual qualification---although I'm sure all of their personal and crew served weapons are well maintained and...neat as a pin. If they ever had a one hour class in unit security, they probably don't remember it."
"Carry on, Major. I can't think of anyone more qualified to turn things around and make that company effective. The colonel, in spite of the fact that she is, with those orders, not in your direct chain of command anymore, can be meddlesome...loves to micro-manage. If she becomes an issue, let me know---immediately. Once you deploy she has no real business coming out to see you although she is in overall charge of the division's support and logistics. She is not a combat branch officer---you are. Hopefully you won't have to remind her of that fact."
"Does she know her stuff, sir?"
"She is a friggin' genius when it comes to logistics. She is a solid support brigade CO and, as irritating as she can be at times, she runs a tight ship and knows her business. Make me proud, Bill...make us all proud."
Ten minutes later Major Wallace walked into the portable structure that served as the unit's orderly room and headquarters. As stunned as they might have been to see a weathered, male major wearing command tabs in their midst, the fetching young specialist who first noticed him quickly called the room to attention. It is traditional to do that once each day, the first time a senior officer enters a work area.
"Carry on." he intoned and the people present returned to their tasks. "I'm looking for the XO." The Executive Officer had been designated as the temporary commander of the unit.
"She's not here, sir. She's teaching a class on local customs, language and sensitivities," replied the young specialist.
"Marvelous! Perhaps the First Sergeant?"
"I'm the First Sergeant, sir," said a woman moving toward him from the back of the structure. "First Sergeant Margaret Cummings, sir. How may I help you, Major?"
Bill quickly perused the short, stocky woman who he judged to be his age or a few years his senior.
"Have you always been in aviation, top?"
"No, sir. Started out in the MPs, then most of my career in supply...I'm fairly new to aviation...two years, sir."
"Well, First Sergeant, it's a pleasure to meet you." Bill said extending his hand. "As you've doubtless surmised, I'm your new CO. In my hand I have new orders for this unit---deployment orders. Please have someone retrieve the XO and the unit's officers, commissioned and warrant, and have them fall in outside in...fifteen minutes---all of them. Then I'd like a formation of the entire company on the hour---everyone, even the walking wounded. Whatever uniform---or non-uniform---they happen to be in at the moment."
"Yes, sir!" the first sergeant replied, unable to suppress a quick smile.
All of the officers were in formation within the designated time frame. They were all in proper uniform and their haircuts were regulation. Bill told them to stand at ease and introduced himself. He then read them the deployment order. He identified key leaders and addressed them individually. Then he addressed the entire group.
"Make no mistake, ladies and gentlemen. We will deploy from this location within seventy-two hours. Heavy lift will assist us with the equipment we can't handle ourselves. Load the TO&E (Table of Organization and Equipment, or the essential equipment and supplies required for a line unit to operate) first. After that, prioritize the 'nice to have' stuff with first priority to spare parts, tools, weapons and ammo. I expect this unit's officers to roll up their sleeves and make this happen efficiently and safely.
"After the company formation, I want to meet with the senior NCOs while you communicate with your people. Following that we'll meet back here so you can brief me on your load out plans. Security platoon leader, please remain behind with your soldiers. XO, dismiss your officers."
The security platoon leader was a tall, wiry, attractive young brunette lieutenant. There were six men and twenty-four women in her charge including a somewhat mannish Sergeant First Class. Bill walked the ranks and did a quick visual inspection. They looked very sharp; they looked very young.
"Sergeant, take charge of your formation. Lieutenant, let's step into my office...assuming I have one." The young lieutenant fell in beside her new CO.
"Have a seat, Lieutenant. Tell me about your security platoon."
The young lieutenant proceeded to do so and do so quite well.
"Lieutenant, now tell me a little about their commander. How'd you get here?"
"I'm a reservist, sir. I was called up to augment this unit. I know most of my people from civilian life, sir. They're solid. They're damn tired of painting rocks...it's not what they signed up for. I did a four year hitch in the MPs, then the last three in the reserves. I'm a cop back home---so are more than half of my people. My platoon sergeant is rock solid; she's also a cop---state police."
"Maybe less than half in checkpoint security and such. My NCOIC (Noncommissioned Officer in Charge---the platoon sergeant) saw significant action in the last conflict."
"A six month deployment in what wasn't supposed to be a war---but turned into one...in the Caribbean. You sir?"
"I seem to be unable to miss any of our little adventures overseas. This is my fourth."
"You commanded an aviation unit before, sir...in a combat zone?"
"On more than one occasion."
"Lieutenant, as soon as we link up with our Marines I want you connected at the hip to their platoon leader. Don't let your ego get in the way. If you can't work together effectively I won't be pleased. If you are missing anything---or need anything you don't have which isn't on the TO&E---let me know."
"A Ma Deuce (M2 fifty caliber heavy Browning machine gun, first used in WWI and still in regular use today) would be nice...two of them even better."
"We don't have any? Fuck! Excuse my French. Get me a list---within the hour. Carry on, Lieutenant."
Major Wallace was pleasantly surprised when he met with his officers a while later. They appeared to have already kicked off their deployment plans. He had been equally impressed with the tenor of the senior NCOs.
A couple of hours later he went to another location to meet with the combat brigade commander to whom he would report.
"The Commanding General speaks very highly of you, Major. I sense you two have some history?"
"I was a brand new wobbly-one Army Aviator twenty some years ago when he was just a Captain. We seem to have bumped into each off and on over the years. I suppose we've hauled each others butts out of the fire a few times."
"What can I do for you, Major?"
"I need to beef up the security platoon's weapons load. A couple of M2 fifty cals, a couple of mortar tubes, some sniper rifles."
"You have personnel trained to use 'em?"
"I've got two Michigan state police snipers who own Barretts(.50 cal sniper rifles) back home. My M60 gunners have received M2 training. I've got a warrant aviator who started out enlisted in mortars. And wire---a hell of a lot more wire, some Claymores---here's the list, Colonel."
"Well, the one thing we seem to have here in the rear is a shit load of excess equipment and ammo. I'll get with my S4 (the brigade logistician) and get it on a seven ton and in your hands by the end of the day. Anything else, Major?"
"No, sir. That should do it."
"Portable toilets, Major," said the first sergeant on Bill's return to his unit.
"Way down my priority list, top. They make perfect targets for an enemy sniper or mortar. They're impossible to service and maintain in the field. If they go in the load plan at all---they go dead last. Even then, I'm thinking no, but let me think about it."
"A suggestion, sir?"
"Just say no, Major."
"Your call, top."
"Thank you, sir."
A few minutes later, the first sergeant again stuck her head in the CO's door.
"A USMC 1LT named Jenkins is here to see you, sir."
"I'll come to him."
"Tell me about yourself and your Marines, LT."
"I did a stint as a platoon leader with a Battalion a year or so ago. I'm prior enlisted---basic rifleman. Went to recon school and volunteered to bring this platoon over. Solid NCOs and over half of my Marines have seen combat---all recon trained. Still, I just flew back in from our new home. It's a lot of friggin' terrain to cover with thirty-four Marines."