Post Platoon Leader Series: Buy the unit coffee mug

Unit Coffee Mug

This post is part of a series that attempts to add something to the “platoon leader advice” category beyond the typical “be good at everything at all times and you’ll be fine” variety. The intent is to provide more specific (and obscure) advice.

An interesting aspect about military culture is the zeal commanders have for their current unit. While it’s always a little tongue-in-cheek (because how can it be possible for each successive unit to be the BEST they’ve ever served in), when done well, it really is internalized. You can tell when a leader really loves their unit and is giving it their all. That leader wants their subordinate leaders to share that same enthusiasm.

Which is why you should buy your unit coffee mug.

One of the first things I did upon arriving to my last unit was visit our museum (which is good advice in its own right). At the gift shop, I bought a stainless steel coffee mug. pictured above and on the right, nestled gently into a space in my MRAP during a mission in Afghanistan in 2014.

From day one in the unit, I had that coffee mug, emblazoned with our unit logo. It went with me to the field, to the National Training Center, to Afghanistan, to Dallas-Fort Worth for funeral honors, and I still drink out of it every day.

On multiple occasions, officers and NCOs would ask me where I got the mug. They liked it, and were always surprised that it was sold at our very own gift shop.

Besides the fact that carrying a coffee mug is good Army practice ( if the Army is there, coffee is too), choosing to identify further with your unit beyond what is required sends a signal to your soldiers, peers, and leaders that you support the unit. Simply buying the mug doesn’t necessarily “do” anything – you can buy all the unit swag available and be a terrible leader.

But, buying the unit coffee mug is a very simple way of displaying that “you’re in.”

You have to drink your coffee somehow, you might as well do it with a purpose.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Post Platoon Leader Series: The Psychological Impact of the Platoon Leader and Platoon Sergeant Working as One


This post is part of a series that attempts to add something to the “platoon leader advice” category beyond the typical “be good at everything at all times and you’ll be fine” variety. The intent is to provide more specific (and obscure) advice.

This might seem like common sense, but I’ve seen the opposite of it so often that I thought it worth sharing.

At just about every echelon of command, the Army pairs officers with a non-commissioned officer counterpart. It’s a brilliant system that favors the officer, because he or she is normally paired with a much more experienced non-commissioned officer. I’ve generally seen company command teams (CO and 1SG) and echelons above “get” how important it is for the command team to be on the same page.

At the platoon level, not so much.

When the platoon leader and the platoon sergeant act as one and are in agreement on how to run the platoon, the platoon responds. I have no evidence to back this up other than anecdotal, but there is a psychological effect of the senior non-commissioned officer and the platoon leader actually being in the same place at the same time and in agreement.

I know this to be true mostly because I have seen the effects of the inverse, as both an enlisted infantryman and as an officer. It is clear to everyone in the platoon when the platoon leader and platoon sergeant are not in agreement on an issue.

When this happens, Squad Leaders will tell their guys “Mommy and Daddy are fighting again.”

As an enlisted infantryman, I remember having a very strong platoon leader and a very strong platoon sergeant who both thought they knew exactly how to best run the platoon, and although they were both great infantrymen, their approaches were wildly different. This resulted in very vocal and very public fighting, which could get awkward in the platoon office in garrison or a patrol base in the field (or a hide site in Iraq).

As an officer, I saw other platoon leaders who were adamant that it was “their” platoon and made that point known a little too often to their platoon sergeants. As an aside, I’ve always been of the mind that it’s not the platoon leader’s platoon; he or she just signs the hand receipt.

Before my platoon sergeant and I ever did anything in front of the platoon, we’d talk privately to make sure we were in agreement on what we wanted to do or communicate. Once we understood each other, we’d get out there and do it.

As a piece of advice to new or would-be platoon leaders, I would suggest building a strong relationship with your platoon sergeant, establish the same goals, and to the greatest degree possible, never disagree with one another in front of the platoon.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

On the “unpopularity” of Serial Season 2 and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

I just finished listening to the final episode of DUSTWUN, Season 2 of the Serial podcast that covers the Bowe Bergdahl saga. I enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the topic. I would especially recommend it to anyone who already holds strong feelings on the subject. Listening to it with a critical ear might not change your mind, but provide some nuance you may not have been aware of.

I’ve also been listening to Task & Purpose’s podcast that has followed each episode. It’s their first foray into podcasting and Lauren Katzenberg does a very good job of keeping things moving along. In their final episode, they talked about the relative unpopularity of this season of Serial, as opposed to the more popular Season 1. After hearing that, I started searching around to see if there was any data to support the idea that this season has been less popular. I was only able to come up with this post that says it did fine, in terms of popularity (measured by podcast downloads).

The season drew strong numbers. Entertainment Weekly reported that the second season had surpassed 50 million downloads going into Thursday’s final episode. Kristen Taylor, Serial’s community editor, confirmed those numbers, further noting that each episode had consistently enjoyed around 3 million downloads on its launch week throughout the season.

While the show’s numbers were not altogether surprising given the now-legendary response to the first season, it did strike me as incongruous with what feels like a relatively tepid critical response. I asked Taylor how the team has felt about the reception this season, and whether I’m erroneously reading my conception of hype or buzz as some approximation of critical response. “The second season is a really different type of story, and of course the field is in a different place than last year — what you’re seeing in the number is the dark social, the growing audience listening and writing to us and talking to each other privately,” said Taylor.

The vibe I got over the course of the season is a general sense of dissatisfaction from the audience, evidenced through discussions in social media. I’d blame this partly on the fact that the Berghdahl saga is unsettled, and partly because of the built-in bias of most listeners.

I couldn’t help but think that the supposed unpopularity might have been due to the ongoing disinterest in anything Iraq or Afghanistan unless it involves some form of military fetishization, evidenced most recently in the disappointing box office numbers of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

“It’s hard when you have your homogenous club…”

I was listening to Tim Ferriss’ interview with writer and former San Francisco firefighter Caroline Paul. Late in the podcast (1:22:00) she talks about developing a thick skin, and what it was like being one of only a handful of women in the fire department. The quote below struck me as particularly relevant to the current – and ongoing – saga of female integration into combat arms.

“I mean, it’s hard when you have your homogenous club, like we all do, if you look at your friends they all look like you, and then suddenly it’s forcibly opened, and it’s just difficult. It’s right. You shouldn’t have your club necessarily, you don’t have a right to it, but, still, it’s going to be hard, and I really did empathize with that.”

It’s very rare to hear empathy for the loss of “the homogenous club.” It takes a lot of maturity to be a trailblazer in this regard yet still understand what the other might be feeling and have empathy – especially when you think that feeling is wrong.

I’ve written previously about the infantry being the last “all-boys club” and that a lot of the defense of maintaining an all-male infantry might be couched in protecting that status.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.