My Experience with a Military Narcissist

By | May 15, 2017

[May 15, 2017]  Our staff headquarters was going through a Transition of Authority (ToA) whereby an incoming military unit takes over the combat duties from an outgoing unit.  When I arrived in July of that year, the violence in Iraq was the highest it had ever been.  To complicate my transition into Engineer Staff operations, I had to coordinate with a U.S. Army Colonel that was a narcissist.

This is my story of what happened.  I write it so that others can learned what I did wrong and what they can do to not make those mistakes, as well as what I did right.  There are many ways of dealing with a narcissist but the first thing that must occur is that you must recognize you are in such a situation (not always obvious or easy); I didn’t know the Colonel was a narcissist.

The year 2006 in Iraq was one of a civil war between Iraqi Shia and Iraqi Sunni factions, each vying for control of the cities and government.  Leadership in the Coalition was still convinced that Iraq could be stabilized and the insurgency crushed.  That was not to be the case immediately; at least until later the next year after the “surge” succeeded.  With this violence, the Engineer leadership had to work to fix an internal staff problem, unrecognized, with one of its own senior leaders.

I first got a hint that something was amiss when a female Major came to me to say that one of the Colonels was making her life miserable and those of her soldiers too.  How could it be, I asked myself, that such an obviously successful Colonel do such a thing and why was it that I would be the first to find out?  Also, was the Major lying to me?  Was she exaggerating?

The Engineer commander asked me to informally investigate the matter to determine if a formal investigation was warranted.  Here are the main reasons we realized there was a serious problem:

  • The Colonel was making unreasonable demands of the Major and her section (which had been successful).  Over time, it became clear he was envious of those achievements and wanted to tear them apart.  He would blame that section for mistakes that weren’t theirs and for things outside their responsibility.
  • He did act arrogantly and overconfident at times (not atypical of a new Colonel) but this was accompanied by an overinflated sense of self-importance.  He even convinced one of his subordinates to submit him for the Bronze Star Medal for exceptional action in combat (which was approved).  With that approval, he got his hometown newspaper to do a big story on his bravery in combat.
  • He had soldiers do special favors for him like take and pick-up his uniforms at the laundry facility, making runs to get him dinner and served in his office, and making purchases for items he wanted to make his sleeping quarters more comfortable.

There were other indicators of when we later came to the conclusion his narcissism was clear.  But we were slow to recognize it as a problem (and psychological disorder) in part because it is so rare among senior officers.  We lacked the experience to see it.  When I found out about the hometown newspaper, I asked my commander for the formal investigation.

The Colonel was eventually given a General Officer Letter of Reprimand (very serious and career ending), his Bronze Star Medal was withdrawn, his higher command in the United States was informed, and he was required to make a formal apology to the Major and unit (in formation with about 50 soldiers present).

For me and others assisting my investigation, it took hundreds of hours of our time that should have been given to the fight against insurgents instead of duties looking into a narcissist Colonel.

A couple of years ago I write about the rise of narcissism and how leaders encourage narcissism.  There has been a lot of study into this psychological phenomenon but what has not been given enough attention is training leaders to recognize it.

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