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Strategic Guidance at the Tactical Level

Sometimes, the things that I read about online that seem to be important to the Army or the military are very different from the things that seem to be important at the platoon level.

The other night I was reading something online – probably from the Army Times or Stars and Stripes – about some initiative or plan that the Secretary of the Army was talking about. I don’t remember what it was, but I remember thinking that it would be very unlikely that I would ever hear about it again.

This guidance was unlikely to make its way down the chain of command and to me through any official channels.

Every now and then I’ll be poking around online and click on a link that takes me to a “message to the force” from someone at the Army strategic level, and I’ll think about how odd it is that I found it on my own, and not in some more “official” way. I discovered a message to myself by accident.

My question: how is a junior leader supposed to respond to something like this? Is it the junior leader’s responsibility to carry out the initiatives of the SECDEF or SECARMY or CSA if he simply reads about it online, on accident?

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PlatoonLeader.net: The Junior Officer’s Best Kept Secret

Platoon Leader

I remember stumbling upon the now re-appropriated companycommand.com many years ago when I was still enlisted. I must have been searching for something Army related, and found myself on the site. I remember quickly closing the window in the same way you would if you accidentally clicked a “link too far” and found yourself on a website you really ought not to be looking. The gleaming silver bars on the page spooked me, reminding me of the seemingly omnipotent officers I knew in the 82nd Airborne Division. The thought of chatting with one or being in any way associated with a bunch of Captains – COMMANDERS – was terrifying to my younger, non-commissioned officer self.

I knew that the site existed though, as a resource for officers, at a time when social media was just budding and internet forums were intimidating and reigned supreme.

Fast forward to today, and the site still exists (although now in a more official capacity). But there’s also Company Command’s younger brother, Platoon Leader, which exists both in an official capacity (CAC required) and an easier to access, unofficial capacity.

The sites are great resources for junior leaders managed by a dedicated team of Army officers who aim to create a space to share ideas. It’s the same team behind the Company Commander and Platoon Leader blog on Medium which kindly published my article on the problems Lieutenants face when they write (as an aside, you should seriously consider writing for them as well).

Unfortunately, the sites are severely under-utilized.

Part of this is due to the difficulty it is in getting to the “full” site which requires a CAC login, milSuite registration, and then a submission to join the forum. There’s been few times that I can remember having the time at work to browse through the CAC site uninterrupted – there’s always something going on. For most junior officers, that means their prime time to explore the site will be when they’re at home and off work, which makes the likelihood of making a successful “hook up” low, especially, if like me, you have a Mac.

However, the seemingly unscalable technological wall is actually quite scalable. It usually just takes an hour or two of dedicated, uninterrupted time and a large cup of coffee. Once done, you’re in.

Thankfully, there’s a non-CAC version of the forums that simply requires a username and password to join. Whatever the question is, there’s an answer out there. There are few new problems facing junior leaders today, and even the news ones are being faced by more than one of us. The forums provide a space for junior leaders to have those conversations outside of regular social media, where the replies are more likely to be snarky than helpful.

BLAB (Bottom Line at Bottom): Basically, if you’re a junior officer, you should sign up.

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The Platoon Leader’s Most Powerful (and annoying) Weapon

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The entrance of the modern TOC.

Traditionally, it’s the radio.

But today, in an era where the PL spends much more time managing personalities and painting a picture for higher than analyzing terrain or calling for fire, it’s hard to argue that there is any tool more useful than the smartphone. Instant communication, regulations at your fingertips, emergency GPS, calendar and task management – all combined to provide a powerful tool for the modern platoon leader.

It’s the camera, though, that makes the smartphone invaluable today.

When I first joined the Army in 2001, NCOs and officers bemoaned the recent intrusion of email in their daily lives and longed for days when they had regularly scheduled meetings and if they needed something, they just sent runners. When I got out in 2006, I was just beginning to see some of the more senior officers carrying around BlackBerry’s, furiously tapping out emails between events.

The iPhone wouldn’t be released for another year.

Without question, the most striking thing about the way the military has changed since I got out (2006) and when I rejoined (2011) is the prevalence of the smartphone. Just about everyone has one. And the scourge of NCOs everywhere are soldiers sitting around on their phones, tapping away at games, text messages, or social media.

In the good old days, soldiers just sat around.

As an aside, a significant decision that leaders have to make today is whether or not they will allow soldiers to bring their phones with them to the field during training. I’ve seen some leaders allow them and others outright ban them, going as far as conducting inspections and recommending Article 15s for soldiers caught in the field with them. Some might scoff at the notion of being allowed to bring smartphones to the field at all, arguing they have no place in training. Others might think banning them is overbearing and not taking into consideration changes in society. Interestingly, on the modern battlefield, many leaders and soldiers have cell phones with local voice and data plans.

Anyway, the fact that everyone has a smartphone and the effect this has had on work, relationships, and the like, and whether that is a good thing or a bad thing has been written about elsewhere. Here, I want to highlight its effect at the small unit level, in this case, the platoon leader.

Just as conducting classroom training and briefing has shifted to using PowerPoint as a default, the rapid proliferation of digital cameras – and especially smartphones – has resulted in documenting events with images as a near-requirement.

Stated another way, if training occurs, but no pictures were taken, did training really happen?

The “pics or it didn’t happen” adage has been unofficially adopted by Army leaders everywhere. In a media saturated environment (and the military is just as media-saturated as anyone else), pictures are the best way to rapidly highlight what’s going on to a higher headquarters. Leaders respond to subordinate leaders’ elaborate training plans with “Sounds great, make sure you get some pictures.”

In the past, if a leader wanted to capture images of an event, he or she would have to get a camera, usually through PAO, combat camera, embedded journalists, or some other coordination. If they were lucky, they might have a guy in the platoon with a camera and willing to expend some film. There was rarely a requirement to capture training events on camera because it just wasn’t practical.

The fact that just about everyone has a smartphone today significantly lowers the bar, and capturing images is now generally expected. Not only is capturing the event in a picture important, but capturing it and quickly getting that image to higher has become paramount. You’re only as good as your last storyboard.

With this, there are all sorts of pitfalls, operational security (OPSEC) being one of the chief concerns. It is easy to carelessly snap a picture that might contain something considered secret or confidential, which can rapidly become a significant emotional event for all parties involved, especially if the image is transferred to other devices or posted online.

There’s also the great annoyance of sending up pictures only to have them torn apart by an eagle-eyed NCO looking for uniform deficiencies or other violations. You can send up a photo of a soldier standing over the still warm body of Osama bin Laden, but let that soldier’s eye-protection be sitting on his forehead and watch as the wrath of Hades comes flying your way in the form of a nasty-gram.

And of course, the dumb things that soldiers do are now routinely captured in pictures or video and shared with the world.

While these developments may seem strange to some and terrible for the force in the same way people curse PowerPoint, these changes are not necessarily bad – just different. The landscape is changing, and the way wars are fought is changing. Just look at all of the wild pictures in the ISOF Gold series I’ve been running. While some of those photos are goofy, there is an effect that they have on the populace – by sharing candid photos of Iraq’s elite forces at work, a message is being sent that their security forces are out there. And when they conduct an operation, they make sure to take out the camera phones and start snapping pictures.

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The Universal Truths of Relief in Place

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Relief in place, commonly referred to as “RIP,” is that process of one unit changing out with another. I first heard about it shortly before the invasion of Iraq. Our initial mission set was to jump into Baghdad Airport after the Rangers had jumped in and relieve them (aka, the greatest mission that never happened). My platoon sergeant described it as a process of literally finding your counterpart on the battlefield and relieving him of his position, so he could go on and do something else.

Today, the RIP process is less literal. The incoming unit comes in and is shown the ropes by the outgoing unit, usually involving a lot of conversation and questions and some version of the “left-seat, right-seat” ride. That is, the outgoing unit will “do it” (whatever “it” is, a patrol or manning towers, for example) with the incoming unit observing, and then at some point they’ll switch and the RIP will be complete.

I don’t really have much to say about the RIP process, other than there are three universal truths that I’ve discovered over time:

  1. The unit you’re relieving is fucked up.
  2. The unit reliving you is totally not prepared for this.
  3. Both units want the other to hurry up.

 

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The Spectre of Military Suicide: For Whom The Bell Tolls

Forever War The first contact I had with suicide in the military was when I was still a Private. I remember being called down to an unscheduled formation in the courtyard along with everyone else in the company. Looking across the yard, I saw MPs walking into Alpha Company – a sister unit. The mood was quiet and somber. I asked a buddy what happened and he told me someone in Alpha Company killed himself. I nodded and remember thinking that killing yourself in the military seemed pretty strange. This was 2001 and shortly after September 11 – suicide as a military problem was not considered a “thing” at the time.

Since then, military suicide has weaved in and out of my life as I transitioned out of the Army and into the civilian world, and then back into the Army. I’ve had veteran friends who killed themselves during their struggle to make the transition to civilian life. When I see a Facebook post about a veteran friend who suddenly passes, it only takes a few hours before I start getting messages from other friends confirming that it was suicide. I’ve watched as the problem has grown larger both inside and outside of the military. Since rejoining the Army, I’ve seen it up close. I have also witnessed the shift in the way the military addresses suicide – a far cry from where we were in 2001 when it was viewed as more of a random act that couldn’t be helped.

On the morning of 2012’s mandatory “suicide standown,” I found myself waiting in line for breakfast at a DFAC at Fort Benning. Standing there, a newly-minted Second Lieutenant, I overheard two senior NCOs in front of me talking about suicide and the “bullshit” classes they would be forced to endure for the day. One of them was aggressively making his case, loudly, that he had no respect for anyone who kills themselves and that committing suicide is an act of weakness that ultimately makes the Army stronger because it gets rid of the mentally weak. This NCO claimed that he would never kill himself and had been through some tough times, thus, no one else has an excuse. The other NCO challenged him, arguing that you can’t say that you would never commit suicide because you simply don’t know the circumstances that might lead to it. This was dismissed, again, as a function of mental weakness. This NCO was sure that committing suicide was something he would never do, and since he would never do it, it’s not a real problem that the military needs to address.

Later that day I attended my own unit’s suicide standown training. The jokes leading up to the mandatory training among peers were of the “this suicide training is making me want to kill myself” variety. As depressing and lame as those jokes were, the day was not a total loss. I found myself impressed with my commander’s presentation on suicide. He internalized the problem and addressed it in a way that emphasized the seriousness of suicide without getting overly dramatic or with any of the all too common winks and nods, notions that “I’m only doing this because I have to do this.” The commander’s “buy in” of the issue translated in the way it was received by everyone in the room – you could see it on their faces. For that moment, they were listening. The key lesson that I learned that day, as a young and impressionable junior officer, is that when you address your subordinates, they’ll take it seriously if you take it seriously.

Without question, the military has gotten better in the way it addresses suicide. The old running line, that suicide is not a “real” problem in the military because the rate is lower than comparable age groups in the civilian world, or those who commit suicide are selfish or weak, is fading. There are still holdouts, like the NCO in the DFAC line at Fort Benning, but I think as more and more of our buddies kill themselves – buddies who were the badasses, the seemingly mentally strong, good soldiers – those holdouts are starting to come around. It is hard to find anyone who has been in or around the military for a few years whom suicide hasn’t touched.

What I’ve come to realize is that as a community, whether we like it or not, we are simply vulnerable to suicide right now. The Reaper is out there – a looming spectre – and he’s just looking for the right opportunity to swoop in. Every suicide should be a reminder of that – a reminder that given the right set of circumstances, the hardest men and women can be brought down from the inside out.

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

It is for that reason that we should continue to talk about it and bring it up, speaking about it with conviction and “buy in” like my commander did. We shouldn’t be looking to “connect the dots” after the fact, or ramp up suicide awareness training when someone kills themselves in another unit. Just as important, is that we don’t treat the topic with so much seriousness that it becomes one that we feel uncomfortable talking about at all – which manifests itself with aggressively jumping down a soldier’s throat if they make a suicide joke or bringing the mood of a room down with an awkward transition of “And now I want to talk about something serious for a  moment.” Addressing military suicide should be routine, spoken about as casually and frequently as combating DUIs. Talking about it should be a normal part of soldiering, because right now, it is.