[February 7, 2021] I spent my first year in the U.S. Army as a Private (E-1, in military jargon). A private is the lowest rank, least experienced, most impressionable soldier. They make up the largest population of soldiers, and we find lots of them on the battlefield. My peers from the Officer corps put little faith in them. Me? I would always eat with the Privates. They made me humble and appreciate being an American.
You have little responsibility as a Private, and yet, as expected, you get the dirtiest, least desirable jobs. “Hey, Private, come here and clean out that grease trap.” “We need a guinea pig to take off their gas mask to determine if the killer gas is still around; you’re the volunteer!” I could go on, but I think our readers get the picture. A Private has little value in the U.S. Army. Or, do they?
As a senior Army Officer, I traveled extensively around the globe, visiting units and meeting with senior officers from other countries. Those in charge of my schedule would place me with high-profile civilians and senior military personnel at every stop. The idea was to establish relationships. It worked. However, I would always insist that my meals were with Army Privates (or Airmen Basic, Seaman Recruit, Marine Private) in the Mess Hall.
Peers of mine in the Army would ask why I would eat with the Privates or any “low-ranking soldier.” The answer was easy. Privates give you blunt, honest assessments of what they see. You ask a question, and they give you the answer. I gain tremendous insight into the real interworkings of their units. There is no shading the truth, trying to make things look better than they are, misleading, or distortions. I discovered they are amazingly straightforward; they have nothing to gain or lose by their answers.
There is a second reason I eat with the Privates; usually with six to eight at the table. Those of lower rank have a biased view of senior Army leaders and the U.S. Army; I get the chance to set the record straight. I believe they gain something from my visit. They ask questions of interest to them. These are far-ranging from generic Army questions like how to get promoted. What I appreciate is when they tell me about why they joined the Army or their upbringing.
A third reason I eat with the Privates is to encourage them to adopt Army values (loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, and personal courage) and how to be successful as a soldier and a human being. By following these values, telling the truth, working hard, adopting responsibility, and staying out of trouble, I tell them they will succeed. How they look, where they are from, their religion, race, or gender does not determine their success. Attitude matters. How they act matters.
Those Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines who decide to place themselves in harm’s way in combat do so to protect their buddies. They do it for the bond of brotherhood. You can only understand this feeling by being there with them, talking with them on their terms, and being part of their day. That is what leadership means; there is no substitute.