“The first step towards change is awareness. The second step is acceptance.”
“Ok everyone, we have a new Lieutenant in the Battery. This is LT Velez. Introduce yourself.”
The baritone sound of the Commander reverberated in my ears as I awkwardly stepped out in front of the formation of the smirking sergeants and surprisingly friendly privates of Delta Battery.
The sun beat down on my newly washed, over-sized OCPs as I gave my best smile and blurted, “Hi everyone. My name is Second Lieutenant Velez, and I am a lost LT.” Then, I passed out.
Did this really happen? Not really. Did I feel like that was going to happen? Yes.
The first step is acceptance. You will be a lost Lieutenant, and everyone knows it.
The key is to own it. Work it. And find your way to authenticity.
When I first entered the Battery, I immediately realized that BOLC did not teach me how to interact with Soldiers and junior NCOs. Fortunately, or unfortunately, you will only learn about these relationships through experience. So, when you ask your confusingly mean or way too laid back BOLC instructor what to expect, and scoffing, she replies with a glitter in her eyes, “you’ll just have to see,” she might be kind of right.
That does not mean, however, that “you’ll have to wait and see” serves as an adequate answer.
I am terrible at Land Nav. Put a compass and a map in front of me, and I will dead reckon the hell out of my points. At West Point, when the apocalyptic day arrived for me to validate my solo land navigation skills, I owned my incompetence. The penultimate day, I asked as many questions as my friends could handle about terrain association and dead reckoning. I took notes when our instructors reintroduced us to intersection and resection. I circled and highlighted the emergency azimuth…multiple times. Then, like free range chickens, our cadre let us loose to navigate. After spinning in circles a few times, I made it to the first point…then the second point…the third point… and finally, with one hour left, I hiked up my ACU trousers and blazed my way to the last point.
I became horribly lost.
I frantically attempted to terrain associate. “Ok…here’s the swamp I just crossed. Here’s the spur…where’s my point?” Tears started welling up in my eyes as I tried to calm down and take deep breaths. Time was running out and I did not want to be “that guy.” You know, the one that causes the mass helicopter search just for the cadre to discover the cadet was 100 kilometers away from the start point. I heard a rustle in the bushes above me. I called out, “Hello? Hello? Is someone there?”
“Yeah, are you good?”
Oh. My. Crap. My savior arrived.
Feigning coolness, I uttered, “Yeah, I’m just not sure where we’re at. Do you know where you’re going?”
He started to look uncomfortable. I could see the cadet honor code circling around his head as he weighed the moral implications of helping me out of my predicament, “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do.”
“Yeah. I’m figuring it out now.” He began to walk away.
And like a lost puppy, I followed him.
Relief washed over me as I began to recognize the land after a simple five minute walk out of the muddy woods.
You will fail. You will falter. You will make difficult decisions. You will get lost. And you will have to own it.
Perhaps I never should have followed that cadet, and navigated my way without help. I do not regret this decision, but I do ponder it from time to time.
Did I truly own my incompetence?
No. I did not. I tried, but not with enough effort. A plethora of options existed for me to improve my land nav skills prior to the event, and I did not capitalize on those opportunities.
At the time, I did not own my weakness, but I did own my decision. After that land navigation event, I became resolute to improve my basic soldiering and leadership skills.
When you enter BOLC, you will solely experience the tip of your MOS iceberg. The three-week, two month, or even six month long course will not teach you everything you need to know about an assigned weapon system, computer program or new technology. Work on the holes in your knowledge.
When you reflect and understand your weaknesses, you become more open to criticism and flexible to change. You must pursue mentorship, especially when the operational tempo is volatile and fluctuating. Seek advice from your Executive Officer, usually the most senior LT in the company, and other platoon leaders.
Rely on your Platoon Sergeant and the junior NCOs in your company. If you are not familiar with an MOS specific system, ask your squad leaders and junior enlisted Soldiers to explain it to you. While asking, “Is there anything wrong with the equipment? What does this do?” this time also serves as an opportunity to ask about your Soldiers’ personal lives. When your Soldiers see that you care about them and the mission, they will help you navigate through the toughest terrain.
You will encounter a similar attitude with your Platoon Sergeant. By the time your Platoon Sergeant reaches E-7, he or she will have “seen it all.” Since your relationship will define the climate of your platoon, demonstrate to your Platoon Sergeant that you are motivated and open to guidance. You may be surprised that you reinvigorated the original fire that inspired your PSG to continue reenlisting and lead Soldiers.
“Working it” is more than just an exercise of charisma. When I entered my first platoon, I vaguely remembered the mention of a “.86” and “SPINS”. I barely attempted to crack one of those manuals open until I became the senior Lieutenant in my Battery. I solely relied on my NCOs and senior LTs to lead the way. This approach failed me on more than one occasion. As a platoon leader, you must understand how to create a battle rhythm that coincides with doctrine. Take an effort to read and understand tactics and procedure. Ask questions when the TC becomes gibberish. Possessing doctrinal knowledge will provide you with the ammo to fight for your Soldiers and your company when outside organizations attempt to shoot you down.
Find your way to Authenticity
I recently spoke to a new LT in our Battery. We laughed as he recounted his experience as the new guy, explaining, “Yeah…I kind of don’t know what to do. I went up to them to make sure we picked up the MREs and I just said ‘Ok! Well, make sure you eat lunch!’ They just kind of nodded their heads and said ‘Roger, Sir.’ It seems like they don’t really need me.”
I reminisced on my first platoon and the awkwardness involved in leading a group of twenty and thirty-year-old men who managed to function without me for so long.
Your platoon sergeant can manage a platoon without you. Your presence will only help or hinder your platoon’s growth. So, make everyone’s job, including your own, easier by cultivating and understanding your authentic self as a leader.
Find what makes you tick. Figure out what pisses you off. When you find what upsets you, you begin to realize how you want to improve yourself and the organization. No, I’m not encouraging you to become “the good idea fairy.” When you realize your passion, however, you will become more motivated to learn and lead.
As a platoon leader, I became in tune with a level of anger and frustration that only a mother bear could surpass when one of her cubs become threatened. I began to realize that while I am not necessarily passionate about the technicalities of Air Defense, I am passionate about those under my care. When one of my Soldiers were forced to work over time for an impractical mission, I began to realize the importance of knowing my craft. Although I hate tactics and technical equipment, as a Philosophy major, I love asking people an unhealthy amount of questions and expanding my knowledge in a futile attempt to find truth. I used these two passions to my advantage. In inquiring about conventional maintenance and tactics, I was able to argue intelligently about various ways to accomplish the mission “smarter, not harder.” While my temperamental self could not win all the battles, at least my Soldiers knew that I tried fighting for them.
Be awkward. Be nice. Bake cookies. Be strict. Be disciplined. Be yourself. You will not have all the answers, and you won’t always know what to do. I guarantee you will have to figure it out! Do it in the way that suits your personality.
Your journey out of the woods is not a solo expedition.
Soldiers want leaders. They want someone to act as their voice when higher comes down with extra taskings. They want someone to hold their leadership accountable. They want mentorship and to accomplish the mission.
So, go find yourself, LT. The final point is surely rewarding.
I enjoyed taking the Myers Briggs test per recommendation of a good friend. Myers-Briggs is a well-known psychological study based on 16 personalities. Even if the test doesn’t exactly pin point your personality, from my experience, it gives good insight into it.
You’d be surprised how many resources the Army has out there! Use Army Pubs to find TCs, TMs, DA forms, and most other Army documents. It’s a .mil site, so make sure you have your CAC.