Nobody seems to care about the XO

Over the past couple of months, there have been a few articles on things a good Platoon Leader (PL) should do, or things people wish they did when they were a PL (69 TTPs for Successful Infantry Platoon LeadersWhat I Wish I Knew: Cadet to Lieutenant in Afghanistan). These articles are passed around for future and current PLs to digest. People have been writing these tips and lists for years.

The whole Platoon Leader thing is strange. Future officers – especially infantry officers – spend years thinking about what they’ll do when they finally get there and become a PL. They read memoir after memoir (after memoir after memoir). They watch movies and television shows about it. They are reminded  – ad nauseam – about how it will be the best time they will ever have in the Army, a dismal thought, thinking you might top out when you begin. All that time and energy spent fantasizing about that first job, a drop in the bucket of an Army career.

From the enlisted perspective, the Platoon Leader signs the hand receipt and a good platoon should be able to function without a Platoon Leader altogether. And as a very wise senior officer reminded me before I commissioned, “the Army doesn’t need platoon leaders – it needs field grade officers – the platoon will be fine with or without you, you are there to learn.”

And after that platoon time ends? Then what?

Some PLs get ‘speciality’ platoons (scouts or mortars), some move on to staff functions, others become Aides to Generals. And some PLs become Executive Officers, ‘XOs,’ second in command to the Company Commander. It’s an important job that pretty much no one spends any amount of time thinking about. I’m not sure anyone has ever written a memoir about their wartime service as an XO.

It’s a strange transition, PL to XO. You’re still a First Lieutenant (usually), like most of your fellow Platoon Leaders, so you don’t ‘outrank’ them, but there is no question that you are ‘over them’ in terms of where you stand in the chain of command. The PLs don’t call the XO ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ and since they are likely the same rank, no salutes are exchanged. If the unit’s officers are tight, it is likely that the XO and the PLs already know each other pretty well and might even hang out with one another on the weekends.

Since there are no good resources to go to, no memoirs or movies that glamorize the role of the XO, the XO is very much defined by the Company Commander and First Sergeant. Sure, there are things that most XOs take care of – maintenance, coordinating chow and training, for example – but these things are often also attended to by the Commander and First Sergeant. The lines blur.

Specifically interesting to me is the relationship between the XO and the Platoon Leaders. Is it the XO’s role to ‘wrangle’ the Platoon Leaders and keep them in line with the Commander’s intent, or is that outside of his lane? Should the XO serve as a ‘sounding board’ for the Platoon Leader’s gripes? Should the XO provide mentorship to those PLs or leave that to the Commander? How is the XO supposed to manage the social relationship with the Platoon Leaders now that he is “second in command?” Can he still go get drinks with them after work, or is that now unprofessional?

Of course, it is easy to say “the commander should make clear his expectations of his XO in his initial counseling,” but the reality is that these transitions are usually fluid and fast. They’re often over before they start. When a Platoon Leader steps in front of the platoon and gives “the speech,” he’s thought and trained about that moment and the coming moments for years. The poor XO gets a text message late on a Friday night that says “ur new XO of B CO starting monday good job.”

What I’m saying is I think we’ve reached max capacity on Platoon Leader articles. I can sum all of them up with the below quote, anyway:

Be really good at everything at all times and you’ll be fine.

I’d really like to see an article titled “69 Tip and Tricks to be a Successful Executive Officer.” I welcome your comments.

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Army Myths: Saluting a Medal of Honor recipient

Snow Salute

It is common knowledge that if someone is awarded the Medal of Honor, then that person will be saluted by other service members – whether the awardee is an officer or not. In fact, it is again, common knowledge, that even officers are obliged to salute enlisted Medal of Honor recipients. Soldiers I’ve known joke about this phenomenon unendingly, excited about the prospect of having the general “salute my ass.”

Well, it turns out that this common knowledge simply isn’t true, but a myth that has persisted for as long as I’ve been in the Army, and I’m sure much longer.

True, a Medal of Honor recipient gains access to a bevy of entitlements (see AR 600-8-22), including a supplemental uniform allowance, special identification cards (which brings other benefits), full military honors at burial, and admission to the military service academies for their children outside of the normal quotas (it would be interesting to see if anyone has ever done that, actually). But in no regulation does it say anything about saluting a Medal of Honor recipient.

Commonly, I’ve heard from soldiers “you’re not saluting the soldier, you’re saluting the award,” which sounds like it allows for this loophole, but unfortunately saluting an award also isn’t a “real thing.”

Like other myths I’ve covered, the root is rarity. Passing a Medal of Honor recipient is an extremely rare event, mostly because of the few that are still alive, most choose to get out of the military. For most of us, the closest we come into contact is the forever empty space at the PX parking lot reserved for “Medal of Honor Recipient.” CPT Swenson recently returned to duty, and I’m sure passing him in the parking lot must be a “significant emotional event” for the field grade officers who are waiting for him to salute as they walk past each other.

All this said, the myth is so ingrained and reverence for the Medal of Honor is so high that even the saltiest Command Sergeant Major might not make that on the spot correction. As a military, we simply don’t encounter Medal of Honor recipients enough to really know what to do. If there were Medal of Honor recipients all over the place, and everyone was saluting everyone, I’m sure we’d tighten it up and start digging into the regulations and stop the madness.

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The RPG Elements of Military Service

Petraeus Explained
RPG Elements at work.

For those not familiar, RPG elements are defined as “game mechanics traditionally found in role-playing games that are incorporated into a non-RPG title.” They include:

Leveling up player characters
Inventory systems
Loot and loot systems
Character customization
-Persistent weapon and skill upgrades
Quests

For a deeper look at how RPG elements work, and how they make playing video games addictive (in a fun way), read this article at Kotaku.

One of the things that makes military service so enticing are the built-in RPG elements. Military service, by nature of war, is probably the job that relates most to video games – even if that comparison remains trite or childish. Besides the “content,” the way the military works internally often looks and feels like a very, very long video game.

To be clear, the military is not like a video game and, if it was, it would be like this one. However, I’m acknowledging something I’ve noticed over time, as a longtime gamer and soldier.

Looking around, RPG elements can be found all over the place. Using the examples above, I’ll elaborate.

Leveling up – Promotions with increased pay and job upgrades. Some promotions require going before a selection board, what might be known as a “trial” in an RPG.

An Army promotion board. Also known as a "trial."
An Army promotion board. “The Trial of the Command Sergeant Major.”

Inventory –  There are certain things that might be identified as “inspectable items” that have to be on a soldiers’ person at all times. Then, of course, there are packing lists for training and operations.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The stuff I’ve got in my “inventory.”

Loot – Special equipment for different mission sets (breaching tools, signaling equipment). Items found on the objective during a sensitive site exploitation – maps, cell phones, etc. And don’t forget the “free stuff” soldiers find when conducting police calls – usually eye protection, multi-tools, and magazines.

"Loot" gathered after conducting sensitive site exploitation during NTC.
“Loot” gathered after conducting sensitive site exploitation during NTC.

Character customization – Admittedly, aesthetic choices are limited. However, when it comes to field gear, most units allow a degree of customization – “shooter’s preference” – and most soldiers can tell apart other soldiers based purely on the way their gear is setup. And while hair is strictly regulated, there is definitely a range of allowed styles that can easily differentiate – from bald to the infamous high and tight.

"Geardo."
“Geardo.”

Persistent weapon and skill upgrades – Weapon upgrades come in the form of actual weapon upgrades. New sights, magazines, slings, etc. Skill upgrades come in the form of additional schooling and training.

Lots of "upgrades."
Lots of “upgrades.”

Quests – This is probably where military service most relates to RPGs. While military service generally speaking is most similar to a traditional Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMO) – essentially a single player game with thousands of others – there are also opportunities for Campaign Mode (Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom), numerous side-quests that upgrade your “stats” (Ranger School, Recruiting/Drill Sergeant Duty), and lots and lots of grinding (physical training, field exercises, staff duty, etc).

Worst. Quest. Ever.
Worst. Quest. Ever.

The thing that I think most encapsulates the RPG elements of military service is the Enlisted/Officer Record Brief. It’s like pressing pause and clicking on “status” in most video games. On the ERB/ORB, you get a “snapshot” of a soldier’s service. Included is: name, branch (infantry, aviation, etc.), rank, personal information (religious preference, marital status) previous deployment information (campaigns), security clearance status, foreign language proficiency, military education (special schools), additional skill identifiers, civilian education, awards and decorations, assignment information, and a picture of the service member (avatar). The more things you do in the military – the more quests you go on – the more stuff you get on your ERB/ORB. By the time you make Command Sergeant Major or General, you’re essentially at level 99.

It was Napoleon who said “A soldier will fight long and hard for a piece of colored ribbon.” While that statement remains true (look again at GEN Petraeus’ stack up top), today, Napoleon might say “A soldier will fight long and hard to update his ERB.”

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