Assumption of Command

22 August 2005

What My Command Means to Me: Bad Times

This is Part 2 of 5 in a series of posts looking back at my Command during, and in preparation for, this deployment to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom III.

Previously:
1. Good Times

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At the end of this long year, I would love to be able tell everyone that this deployment has been a cakewalk, but I am not a good liar. There are a lot of good things about being in command but there a plenty of things that are not so fun. As my favorite Battalion Commander, COL (at the time he was LTC) Kevin C. M. Benson said many times, “These are the conditions under which we live.” He would say this when he knew something was very unpleasant, but there was nothing we could do to change it. He was also telling us he was suffering with us.

Previously, we talked about how great promotion ceremonies are. But there is a flip side to them. Not everyone gets promoted when they think they should. There are a multitude of reasons: Not enough experience, not enough promotion points, the chain of command not giving a good recommendation.

For promotions to E-5 and E-6, I have to complete a worksheet assigning a point value to their performance and potential, along with a written narrative about the soldier, that goes into the promotion packet*. This worksheet can make the difference between a selection and a non-selection. As any good commander does, I consult with my First Sergeant on all of these worksheets, as he is my senior for all enlisted matters. He gives me a recommended point value and we privately discuss the trooper’s ability. I will then fill out the points and narrative.

But I also have another option; I can stop the packet from going forward in turn saying that the soldier is not ready. If I do this, I have to bring the soldier in to my office and tell them why I stopped their packet from going forward. Do you know how difficult it is to look at someone and tell them they do not deserve to be promoted right now? But it is necessary for two reasons. If a soldier is not ready to be promoted, I would be doing that soldier and the unit a disservice by putting him or her in a position that they are not ready for. Secondly, and just as important, that soldier needs to know what they can do to improve themselves so we don’t have to have this conversation again.

This is one of the tough decisions a Commander has to make. One of the true marks of a Commander is the ability to make the tough decision. There are many opportunities in the Army to choose the “simple wrong” over the “difficult right”. During training for this deployment, I would have loved to give my troops some more time with their families, but I would not have been doing the right thing. We had a lot of thing to do and we needed a certain level of confidence in our ability to soldier and to work as a team. The best thing I can do for the families of my troops is to prepare them to do their job and to do it safely.

Some times my conscience and my care for the long-term welfare of my troops has garnered criticism from the unit. When I wake up in the morning and look in the mirror while shaving, I see someone who made the right decision and didn’t give in to the “easy wrong”. As a Commander, everybody doesn’t have to like me. And if the troops don’t like a decision I have made for their welfare, so be it. They don’t have to like me now, they can like me when the mission is done and we are all safe at home.

Up until now all of these “Bad Times” have been part of decisions that I have to make, but there are many of “Bad Times” that I have no control over at all. There are times when things just suck and there is nothing you can do about it but be strong.

A lot of people think that, as reservists, we are putting our life on hold to come over here to serve our country. In some respects we are, but mostly our lives at home are rolling on without us. For example it is well documented that deployments will put a marriage to the test. My company is no different. But just talking about relationship problems, and other situations, like this takes the personal suffering out the conversation. So let’s put the personal side back in.

In both of my deployments, (Bosnia 1998-99, Iraq 2004-2005) I have had young men that work for me find out that the loves of their lives are not being the faithful loving wife that they deserved. This dreadful news never fails to absolutely crush an otherwise great trooper, and it breaks my heart. It hurts me to see these troopers suffering like this. I haven’t been through something like that, so I can’t imagine what is happening inside them, but I can sure see it how bad it is on the outside. Most of the time there is not much to do, except listen.

I can’t speak for other commanders, but when my Soldiers hurt, I hurt. I wish there was a way I could just wave a magic wand and make things better, but the PX doesn’t sell these magic wands.

One of the other duties of a Commander, is being one of the people who will deliver a Red Cross Message. The Red Cross provides a great service by collecting and getting important messages to soldiers no matter where in the world they are. But the news in that message is rarely good. That is why the First Sergeant and myself are the ones to deliver it. Through this deployment, I have had to be the bringer of some seriously bad news. I have had to tell someone their father died. I told someone else that their new born grandson died minutes after delivery. I had to tell a trooper that his wife was in the hospital due to a stroke. I dread receiving a Red Cross message, but I take the part of the job very seriously. Nothing my higher can do upsets me more than fouling up the delivery of these messages. We owe it to our Soldiers to give them the news in a timely, professional and compassionate manner. But it still hurts.

Telling one of my troopers that one of their loved one has died is the second worst event that can happen to me over here. I am very thankful that the first hasn’t happened. Of course, I am talking about the loss or critical injury of a Soldier. I don’t know how or if I would cope with this if it happens. There are so many emotions that come from the loss of a Soldier. Some feel sad. Others feel anger and thirst for revenge. No matter how you grieve, it has to be done. But until that happens, and I hope it doesn’t, I won’t know these “Bad Times”. Thank God!

Looking back, I can safely say that the “Good Times” as a Commander have outnumbered the bad times. But the “Bad Times” seem more intense. In the future, I hope that the memories of the “Bad Times” will fade away and that I can look back and say how good things were. Truth be told, I am not sure if that will be the case. Only time will tell.

* This is how we do promotions in my unit. I know that other units do them in other ways.

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Coming Soon: Necessities