“Taking Care of Your Three Feet of Space”

I’m getting ready to move to a new duty station, which has me making the rounds to different areas of post collecting stamps from various offices to outprocess; finance, medical, transportation, etc. As is the case, I’ve been crossing paths with lots of soldiers with whom I’m unfamiliar and exchanging salutes. Back in my unit, most soldiers are familiar enough with each other to spot one another from far away and can ready themselves to exchange salutes before they get within a few paces. Out in the wild, you often can’t tell what the other’s rank is until you’re just about right on top of them.

In these past few weeks, I’ve found myself getting annoyed at missed salutes. Not annoyed because I wasn’t being saltuted – the salute is a formal exchange of respect between soldiers, not to one. Rather, I viewed the missed salutes as a lack of situational awareness at best or poor disicipline at worst.

Each time it happened, I could have stopped the soldier from where he or she was going and made the correction. It’s a hard correction to make, by the way, because – like writing this post – it can so easily come off as pompous.

Hey, why didn’t you salute me?” 

Of course, the spot correction can be better handled by using the “exchange of salutes” technique, which I learned when I was a non-commissioned officer. If I were walking with my platoon leader or company commander and we passed a soldier who did not initiate a salute, I would correct the soldier, saying something like “It’s an exchange of salutes between the two of you, and as the junior soldier you are supposed to initiate it.”

As I collected more stamps across post, saluting became a mild obsession. Not only was I now hyper-aware of crossing other soldiers and the exchange of salutes, I also began honing in on the manner of the salute. Was it sharp or sloppy? Did they wait for me to return the salute before dropping theirs? I recognized that this obsession was getting a little weird, but I couldn’t help it.

As I approached another building for another stamp, I saw two soldiers approaching me at a distance. The one on the further left seemed a littler older, and the one nearer, on the right, was younger. As they got closer, I was able to make out the rank of the younger one – First Lieutenant. We approached one another and I keyed in on him, ready to return his salute. He looked back at me and directly into my eyes. He didn’t salute.

I was angry for only a millisecond when I realized I knew the Lieutenant and we were actually friends. He smiled and greeted me, and I instinctively threw my hand up in a salute because I was already primed. We exchanged hurried words in passing, “Hey man, what are you up to? Oh, you know, staying busy.” 

As we continued moving past one another, in the few seconds this lasted, I remembered that my friend was the Aide-de-Camp for a General Officer. My eyes moved from him to the back of the patrol cap of the “older” soldier who had passed me a moment earlier.

I suddenly realized that I had passed a General and had not saluted him, because I was hyper-focused on seeing if the First Lieutenant was going to salute me.

My friend, the Aide-de-Camp, quickly shook my hand and then dutifully followed his boss to a waiting vehicle where I imagined the General shared words about the lack of discipline and situational awareness in this generation of junior officers, as demonstrated by my failure to salute.

My focus on others’ behavior resulted in my failing in the exact behavior I was looking out for.

As embarrassed as I was, the episode served as a good learning point. When I was enlisted, I had a Battalion Commander who ended every speech by imploring us to “take care of our three feet of space.” He said that if we took care of ourselves and the things within three feet of us, we would all be exceptional soldiers. It’s a simple concept, and had I taken care of my three feet of space in this scenario, I would have recognized the General and rendered a proper salute. Instead, because I was so focused on the potential misbehavior of others, I failed to do the right thing myself.

Since this episode, I’ve been less concerned with what others are doing and more concerned with what I am doing. I’ve been taking care of my “three feet of space.” It’s a much more reasonable way to get through a day.

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