[July 27, 2020] My indoctrination to the U.S. Army as a Second Lieutenant began when I reported to my first Battalion Commander, a tight-lipped large man. His stern expression gauged my military potential, and his scowl indicated an unfavorable prognosis. I was about to be introduced to leadership in the real world.
Four of my classmates and I were finishing our lunch in the Mess Hall, in the Officers’ Eating Area, when a message came for our Platoon Leader. The expression on his face made us a bit uneasy, and it was to affect our lives and careers forever. A training exercise that was to begin at 0400 hours (4:00 am) the next morning had been designed and planned to determine our fitness as new Infantry Officers.
Until that moment, I believed my successful training at Fort Benning’s Infantry Officer Basic Course and seven years of enlisted service had provided me with sufficient knowledge to be an Army Officer. The Battalion Commander had, of course, decided he was going to test our knowledge and character.
At 0400 hours sharp, all five of us were arranged in a large room just outside the cantonment area and adjacent to the unit’s motor pool. Staff Officers of the battalion were present, seated around our commander, and we were told they would be the judges of our performance in the upcoming mechanized infantry exercise. The first to speak was the Battalion Adjutant, a Captain, who announced that the “evaluation” was really just a formality and suggested we relax.
The Staff Operations Officer, an acid-tongued, especially obnoxious Major, demanded that we be evaluated to determine our “discipline, orderliness, and acuity.” He wanted to ensure that the Army got men competent to command as officers, not fancy-pants schoolboys. The five of us stood trembling in our boots, seemingly forgotten, as the Battalion Commander entered the conversation.
The Army had turned into a harsher place than I ever imagined it. The staff agreed to judge us based on a day-long exercise with Alpha Company, acting as a test-bed of leadership. We were each given a platoon of 30 men, orders to infiltrate an “enemy” Task Force and report what we learned via secure radio communications. We were given one hour to be with our platoons, brief them on our plan, ensure our platoons had their basic stock of ammunition, food, and fuel.1
After the exercise was complete, we were all brought in for a decision. Eventually, after we had spent more than two hours in a side room where we could not hear their deliberations but noticeably heard shouting and arguing, I was called into the room. I was told that my assignment would be Food Service Officer, assistant to the Supply Officer, ammunition accountability officer, and to assist the Base gardener.
As I was collecting my wits, my Platoon Leader whispered in my ear, “Tell ‘em you joined the Infantry to be a soldier, not to understudy cooks and supply clerks, count bullets, or grow vegetables … You want a combat soldier’s assignment.” I did just that. And, the Battalion Commander blasted my logic and said that “What I want and what I get may not be the same thing.”
After a short pause, the Executive Officer pushed his chair back, walked around to face me, smiled, and said, “Welcome to our regiment and to the battalion.” Others crowded around and shook my hand, welcoming me to the unit. We had been introduced to real leadership and I would never forget the experience.
- The task given us seemed impossible. We had no time to know the men, inspect or account for our soldiers, or to decide who were the most capable leaders.