I’m struggling tonight. I’m struggling to take almost 4 years as an officer and 12 years as a NCO and merge the two. My life in the army is divided into 3 parts: Junior enlisted Jess (less than 2 years), Sergeant Jess (over 10) and Officer Jess. I would argue that Officer Jess has learned more in the last 3 years than Sergeant Jess had to learn in her previous 12. Or maybe, the lessons I learned then are different in scope and impact than the lessons I’ve learned more recently.
3 years ago this week, I was in the field on Fort Hood on my first brigade level exercise in a brigade combat team. Why am I starting with 3 years ago? Because 3 years ago, I went to the field with a brigade combat team and learned about an Army I’d only heard about. See, when I was a private and a sergeant, there were these battalions called division signal battalions. They supported, well, divisions. So here on Fort Hood, there used to be the 13th Signal Battalion which supported 1st Cav. There used to be 124th Signal Battalion, which supported 4th ID. And then there was 3rd Signal Brigade, which supported all the Corps assets.
There has always been a line between division and non divisional units. Always. Division units went to the field. A lot. Division units had to provide comms to the warfighters. Non div, how I came up, supported Corps Mains. Major TOCs.
So when I commissioned from a sergeant first class to a second lieutenant, I thought I had a pretty good grip on the signal stuff. I breezed through officer basic course half asleep (I wrote 2 books while I was there, versions of which will never see the light of day but I digress). And then I arrived in Greywolf. I had a brigade commander look at me and tell me that he didn’t care that I was a second lieutenant, I had 13 years in the army and he expected me to perform as major. I don’t think I did all that well but I didn’t get fired. But what I did to, in spades, was learn.
So when I talk about 3 years ago this week, I was in the field here on Fort Hood, I remember it so clearly because I learned so much. I slept on top of my shelter because the radios wouldn’t stay up. I learned how to tell a company commander what to do with his retrans that his sergeants put at the bottom of a hill. I learned how to break the news to a brigade commander that his communications wasn’t working because we put the RETRANS at the bottom of a hill. I learned that you don’t screw with the ops sergeant major or he’ll put a toilet borne IED on the FBCB2 with your name on it. And leave it there for the entire exercise.
And I learned what it is that we as signaleers do. I saw the impact of when comms worked and when it didn’t. Three months later, I’d be putting the radios back in system in time for a real world MEDEVAC to be called. Let me tell you when you hear “MEDEVAC Follows” and you know that you just got that link in, it’ll hit you that what we do is not GI Joe and Army Ants.
As I’m writing this, I’m wondering what am I actually trying to say. What am I actually getting at. Whether I want to be one or not, by virtue of my position I am a leader and as a leader, the decisions I make have an impact. If I fail to request chow, my soldiers have to eat MREs. Or worse, buy their own food. If I fail to get communications in, someone may not get the air support they need. But back here in garrison, maybe the mission doesn’t happen. But will someone die? Training in garrison is training for combat. It’s not combat.
So as a second lieutenant, did I screw up. Hell yeah I screwed up. A lot. I didn’t get the right radios for one of the battalions once. But once I realized what I’d done, I moved heaven and earth to get the right amount of radios for them. And I can guarantee you I didn’t do it again. So maybe, what 2LT Jess learned during that two weeks of following her brigade commander around 3 summers ago is that learning takes all sorts. Maybe, making all the mistakes in the world back here garrison is okay. Even to the point of soldiers have to go through the pain with you.
Maybe that’s okay because we’re back here in the rear, we’re training. We’re learning. And maybe, the lessons that 2LT Jess learned are not going to be the same lessons my 2LT s learn from me. But maybe, just maybe, the mistakes they’re making now will sink in and they won’t do it again. And maybe, they still need me to hold onto the back of their bike until they’re a little more steady before I let go. I’m not sure but as I’m struggling tonight to find a way to help my subordinates learn, I’m learning new things about myself.
What can I do differently so that the people who work for me learn and the lessons sink in?