Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”- Isaiah 6:8
I reported to my first assignment late in August 2012 as a newly minted Second Lieutenant fresh out of Infantry School. I was on edge– four years at West Point and a year of combat training later and I was finally going to lead a platoon of soldiers. Had I prepared enough? What would I say? Was I ready? Like all major life transitions there is a little anxiety about what awaits in the unknown. I was the same way reporting to West Point, making my first jump, reporting to Ft. Benning– but the end result is the same. A few weeks in you find your stride and the unknown becomes routine.
That’s not to say there are not a few curve balls thrown at you. By trade I am an Infantry Officer trained in light infantry fire and maneuver. I have a BS in International Relations and within my degree I focused on the skills I thought might be most useful on what seemed like a guaranteed deployment to Afghanistan– counterinsurgency, non-state actors, counter-terrorism, south asian culture and history, and “soft” combat power. But I was assigned as a platoon leader of a M1A2 Abrams Tank platoon. Normally, a slot reserved for an armor officer (basically an entire different career path). I was once told you “have to bloom where you are planted” and to stay “fexible” and I can think of no better example. I showed up and signed for $28 million dollars in equipment, including 4 M1A2 Sep v2 Abrams Main Battle Tanks and all their component pieces having never stepped foot on a tank before in my life. I am responsible for about 16 soldiers (4 tanks with 4 crewmembers each). Within the last few weeks I have had my nose buried in technical user manuals, spent time in simulators and have done two field problems trying desperately to learn a job while on the job. Any anxiety I had before has been completely overshadowed by the shear amount of information I must digest and learn in order to be effective as a platoon leader.
And while I am not technically an “armor” guy. My platoon of tankers has embraced me almost immediately. Not without a few jokes both ways. We come from different cultures within the Army. I value dismounted operations, physical fitness, and aggressiveness. They value technical proficiency and mounted operations. We have a lot to teach and learn from each other. I have a platoon sergeant from Kentucky with about 10 years of experience on the tank. He is my life line. I lean on him for almost every decision I make:
“Sir, I like you… we’re going to get along just fine”
“What do you mean, Sergeant? You mean you’re not ready to trade me in for an Armor LT yet?”
Laughing. “Negative Sir. You didn’t come in here acting like you knew everything. You’re not afraid to ask questions. You listen. And you’re smart. You have a lot of common sense.”
“Are you hitting on me?”
“No, Sir. But I can if you want me to.”
Regardless of what branch you are in. A good platoon sergeant will make or break you as a young officer. I lucked out– I have an awesome PSG and we work well together. Despite our age and experience levels we have a good understanding of what each of us brings to the table– I bring my education and he brings his experience. We know our roles and we keep each other informed and “in the loop” about everything. Leadership is not about knowing everything. It is all about knowing as much as you can, recognizing what you do not know, and leveraging everyone under you to fill any gaps so that the whole team is stronger.
And that “team”, the platoon itself, is largely composed of 18-19 year old privates and specialist. Most of them have no college experience, they have families, a lot of them come from broken homes, and poor backgrounds. They have problems– finances, alcoholism, marriage issues, depression, and the list goes on. And you have to care for them– you have to demand that they not only become better soldiers, but also better men. Your work follows you home even after a 17 hour a day. You’re phone is always on. And you have to be there for not only them, but their families. Being a leader is about leaving your soldiers better then you found them. And believe me, they are always watching. Everything you do or don’t do is noticed. And if you do not really care with all of your heart about them– they will see right through it. If you do, however, they will go to the ends of the earth and then some for you.
It’s not all sunshine and roses. A weak and timid PL will get walked on as sure as the sun rises and sets. Sometimes you have to get deadly serious. But generally, if the strength of your conviction is solid enough– they will begin to buy into it and follow. They may be a little hesitant at first and change does not necessarily happen overnight. But for any of my fellow classmates, West Pointers, and future LTs out there wondering about what it will be like. Trust me, you are better prepared then you think. A lot of the cliches are true. If your heart is in the right place and you demonstrate through your actions that you care (in other words, get out of the office, spend time with your soldiers, sweat with them in the motor pool etc, ask questions) they will love you. You’re not expected to know everything– but you are expected to make an effort, to lead, and make decisions.