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Shut Up And Color: An Anecdote on Resiliency in Today’s Army

The thoughts conveyed in this article are the writer’s alone, and the following content does not reflect the official views or policies of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Army, or the United States Government.

To the uninformed layman, it often comes as a surprise to hear that my job as an Army officer doesn’t normally consist of pulling triggers, barking orders, or watching explosions with my Soldiers.  On the contrary, what your recruiter won’t tell you is that you will spend more time putting the “office” into officer than becoming the subject matter for the next Hollywood summer blockbuster.  I do work in an office building, and my office, depressingly, has no windows.  While I relegate myself to my “bat cave” and continue my staff job, it’s hard to forget that just on the other side of the parking lot is $350 million of M1A2 Abrams Tanks, M2A3 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and an array of other military equipment supporting the immense combat power of our Combined Arms Battalion.  To that point, instead of fantasizing about being a war hero, a part of my seemingly normal desk job does have its welcome distractions.  For example, I spent my lunch today with 30 of my other Lieutenant peers at another LPD (yet another fondly-adopted acronym for Leader Professional Development) with our Battalion Commander.  I wanted to share this anecdote and capture our topic of discussion to shed some much-needed light on the successes and challenges that my unit currently faces.  I found the discussion interesting because I believe it highlighted the characteristics of many units in the culture of today’s Army, the behavior of units about to deploy, and what it means to be a leader in such an organization (as you may have guessed, our unit fits snugly in this Venn diagram of the criteria listed above).

Today, our Battalion Commander took this leadership development opportunity to prepare himself for a meeting with his bosses that would ultimately provide them with open feedback about the First Infantry Division’s strengths and weaknesses.  What are the strengths of our unit?  What is our unit’s legacy?  What is our next big challenge as an Army?  Like any good manager of an organization, this commander fished for feedback by posing those three questions to the leaders at the user level.  By that, I mean that the majority of the missions directed by Division, Brigade, and Battalion commanders alike are controlled and executed by junior officers like the collective group of my lieutenant peers that sat in the conference room.  We all took this unbridled opportunity to weigh in, spending another lunch break in the vicinity of our office space broadening our professional horizons.

We answered the first question with an overwhelming sense of agreement that our greatest strength was that we were flexible and adaptable.  However, our strength spawned from our greatest weaknesses: failures to forecast training and establish a clear list of systemic priorities.  An organization like the Army must thrive by balancing predictability and the unforeseen.  Optimally, the Army expects its commanders to plan training calendars that look 12 weeks out with a fairly certain level of fidelity.  However, the most favorable scenario mentioned before can never quite be achieved.  It seems that the number of “hey you” last-minute tasks from higher headquarters increased significantly as I climbed the proverbial corporate ladder over the past two years, and the planning horizon has progressively decreased from 12 weeks to, at times, as little as one or two.  For major training events like live fire training exercises (what you readers thought I did every day), this creates decisive moments for commanders at a time when they must assume a considerable amount of risk to attain the same degree of mission accomplishment.  I’ve learned it before, but it has become more and more apparent that the Army system isn’t totally broken, even though I’d like to complain about its bureaucratic shortfalls.  Instead, the Army continues to thrive, in part, based on the expectation of its leaders to react by assessing risk at their level and mitigating that risk with appropriate control measures.  While this can be exhaustingly frustrating for junior leaders, we can have solace in the fact that this systemic problem has only helped forge our greatest strengths and create better leaders.

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An officer’s performance report, called an OER, categorizes successes and failures by supporting a checked block with a paragraph of key performance objectives.  You are rated in one of four categories, all of which compare you to your peers by measuring an arbitrary aggregate level of expected performance called the “center of mass”.  These reports are due annually or simply when your rater (boss) or your duty description changes.  These reports are relevant for the same reason our Battalion Commander wanted feedback from the group of lieutenants – it provides validation of your efforts, whether they are above average or subpar.  Take note that being rated above your peers does not make you a successful Army officer.  I will say, however, that many successful Army officers do get recognized for their hard work, and that hard work is generally rewarded with harder work or a more challenging position.  I won’t go into depth here, but any experience with the Army will show that your previous job barely prepares you for the next one (a junior officer’s career path is not always the same as that of his or her peer – there is a certain degree of flexibility even when it comes to assignments and career progression).  From my experience as an Armor Officer in the diverse maneuver world of the Army, the technical set of skills changed significantly with every job.  Whether I was commanding my vehicle, leading a Platoon, managing the maintenance and commodity areas of an entire Company as an Executive Officer, or droning in some section of Battalion staff, the only skill that transferred well was adaptability, and it has shaped the success of my career so far.  Mission accomplishment depends on how well you can teach yourself a new job, implement new systems, and demand high performance from your subordinates in a constantly changing operating environment.  Considering all of this, I’m sure we can agree that it would be optimal to reduce the reliance and burden placed on these adaptive leaders.  After all, it would be foolish to keep your Ferrari for years without ever considering giving it an oil change.

The answer to my Battalion Commander’s second question is that what we are known for – that is to say that this is our legacy – is our undeterred work ethic.  We are workhorses.  We are winners.  We accept that free time is a privilege.  I do normally complain about a lack of free time as it relates to my personal life, but in the grand scheme of things, leadership is characterized not by simply providing guidance and direction for a unified purpose, but by serving selflessly to better the lives and ensure the mission success of those who serve with and under you.  It’s called service for a reason.  Ultimately, if you don’t believe that, you may want to reconsider why you joined the Army in the first place.  If anything, this provides a sense of purpose when in need of motivation.  If I fail, others will suffer.  This is an unacceptable consequence.  In basic training, we are inculcated with the Warrior Ethos, which dictates that we will always place the mission first, we will never accept defeat, we will never quit, and we will never leave a fallen comrade.  This spirit drives a certain amount of success for units across the Army, and it is a solid foundation for friends, battle buddies, leaders, subordinates, and units alike to build a team dedicated to the concept of victory.  We will do whatever it takes to win, but this workhorse mentality does not come without consequence.

Proving that you can succeed with some accepted and well-mitigated risk is good.  Relying on you to constantly assume that risk, and INCREASE that dependence gradually, is bad.  Over time, that exhaustion can degrade our unit’s greatest strength.  How long can someone be adaptable without finally crumbling under the weight of a system subject to so much unpredictability?  Our group cited a pervasive lack of discipline and a decreasing set of standards that has continued to grow gradually as our OPTEMPO increased (the operational tempo of training events is characterized by the frequency of going to the field for training exercises).  To varying degrees, it’s present in every unit.  No military post is without discipline issues.  But despite the steady rise in discipline concerns across our formation, it certainly seems that higher headquarters expects us to adapt and overcome, just as we did before.  Sometimes they adopt the stubborn kindergarten teacher attitude and begin to yell at the children to just “shut up and color”.  They say, “Make it happen.  You’ve done it before!” I would argue that there is only one problem with that attitude, and it’s that eventually you will run out of resources.  Every other officer can tell you that their most valuable resource – their time – can often be capitalized by mandatory early release at 3:00 PM every Friday or other directed efforts out of their control.  Mandatory training for equal opportunity, sexual harassment, resiliency, substance abuse, and other topics required by the Army prevent commanders from focusing on their own priorities like training on their equipment.  We understand the need for these training events, but last minute tasks labeled high-priority just add to the madness in an unpredictable system.  Well, teacher, I think we’re running out of crayons.

We must now consider the solutions to the problems identified above.  One of my friends in the room shared a story about a heated conversation he had with our previous Company Commander while they were both deployed in Afghanistan in 2011.  Breaking down while citing the unpredictability as his fail point, this Lieutenant demanded of his commander, “Sir, when is it going to stop?” There was an answer, but it wasn’t what anyone wanted to hear.  “It doesn’t stop.” That was the rebuttal my friend shared with the room.  It doesn’t stop.  The game doesn’t change.  The only way the Army still succeeds with this system is by conducting a familiar form of roster management and player rotation of a new batch of volunteers fresh out of the basic officer course.  The way the Army manages these officer moves gives rise to another passionate issue (the mismanagement of talent in the Army and how it results in issues pertaining to the retention of successful high-performing officers), but I don’t have time to get into that now.  The only reason the struggle bus keeps rolling is because it picks up new junior level officers every time it stops.  The only reason the pain train keeps coming is because of the flexibility of so many hard-working leaders who bought a one-way ticket.

To conclude on a positive note, our Battalion Commander acknowledged all of these issues, and he agreed that we were hitting the mark.  We know there’s a problem, and we don’t have enough influence to fix it.  We can, however, decrease the force of the unforeseen blows that make us feel beaten down.  He ended the discussion with four points.  The first being that accepting risk is never worth getting someone hurt.  We must mitigate risk to the best of our ability, but we can never disregard safety just to achieve a check in the box.  It is a leader’s responsibility to decide which balls to drop, because it’s impossible to juggle everything.  Second, in the absence of priorities, you must ask for them.  There’s nothing worse than operating in a vacuum without any direction.  Seek out the methods that will bring you back to the light.  Never accept your position as an excuse for your failure.  Third, as a junior leader, you have the most important impact on your subordinates.  Be safe, be positive, and become that direct link from the commander’s intent to the success of the mission.  Finally, he posited this question: what do you want to be known for?  There’s a difference between what we’re known for, and what you want to be known for.  Let your desired outcome become your legacy.  Don’t let your environment dictate who you are.

My Commander followed up with an email later in the afternoon that stated, “I believe the story behind our namesake and call sign says it all.  No matter how deeply stuck in the mud, with determination and hard work, our Battalion meets every challenge and can do the impossible.” He then followed with the story of our Battalion:

Arriving at Vung Tau on 10 September 1966 with their M48A3 Patton tanks, 2nd Battalion, 34th Armor Regiment (2-34 AR) began conducting limited operations with the 173d Airborne and 1st Infantry Division.  While under operational control to the 1st Infantry Division, 2-34 AR was conducting search and destroy operations in the II Field Force Area.  The Vietnamese rainy season had turned the ground into a problem for the Tankers.  Thirty-four of the Battalion’s tanks became mired causing their mission to be in jeopardy.  Major General (MG) William E.  DePuy, the 1st Division Commander, monitoring the situation from a helicopter, contacted Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Stailey, the 2-34 AR Battalion Commander, and asked, “How many Tanks do you have stuck, Tanker?” LTC Stailey responded with his situation report (SITREP) of thirty-four tanks mired.  MG DePuy then challenged LTC Stailey to a case of beer that he couldn’t get all his tanks recovered by nightfall.  With determination and hard work, the tankers met this challenge and were on the move again (and thirsty) before dark with all thirty-four vehicles recovered.  So impressed by their performance, MG DePuy nicknamed the Battalion “DREADNAUGHT” meaning they could do the impossible and feared nothing.  From that point on, 2-34 AR would be known as the “DREADNAUGHTS” and also become a familiar call sign throughout Vietnam as its Tank Companies would be parceled out to other units until the Battalion’s departure.[i]

I will conclude my lesson with a piece of advice I’ve carried with me since high school.  My football coach, Mark Newton, reiterated it every time we played a game.  “Team First” was our motto, and excellence was his expectation.  He knew how to manage a football team, but he also knew how to develop young men.  He knew we worked hard, and he knew we weren’t perfect.  Under his leadership, we experienced tremendous success, including several berths in the playoffs.  But it wasn’t ever about winning.  It was always about working harder than your opponent.  It was about never quitting on the man next to you.  It was about setting the tone.  It was about becoming a leader on and off the field.  As I continue to develop as a young leader in the Army, I constantly draw back on the ONE piece that stuck with me through the years.  I can still hear his voice in the back of my head: relish the joy in facing adversity.  Quitters never win.

 

 

 

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John Haynes is a native of the Bay Area of California and graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 2011 with a BS in Engineering Management.  After commissioning as an Armor Officer, he successfully completed the Armor Basic Officer Leader Course and Army Reconnaissance Course at Fort Benning, Georgia.  He is currently assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 34th Armor Regiment, 1st Armor Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas.  Now a First Lieutenant, he has served as a Platoon Leader, Company Executive Officer, and Battalion Logistics Officer, and his next goal is to become a Company Commander. 



[i] “2/34TH ARMOR,” Dave Barry Photos, accessed February 10, 2014.  http://www.pbase.com/d_berry/image/91635444/original.

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