At the end of a career, military members like to remember their skills, tactical acumen, deployments, and the great military members they led. Now a retired Army officer, I was once a second lieutenant, the lowest grade of officer, in the Infantry. We are known as the skilled, on-the-ground warfighters of the U.S. Army. As a second lieutenant, I led my soldiers, but I also led them in laughing at my mistakes and misadventures.
Military life is filled with incredible humor, mostly inspired either directly or indirectly by junior military officers, specifically ensigns and lieutenants. The misadventures of these junior officers as they simultaneously learn to lead, how the military works, and what their jobs truly were serve as an amazing resource for timeless humor. They also offer a training ground for life lessons.
My military career began in the Republic of Korea (ROK) as a U.S. Army second lieutenant in the early 1990s. I did my part as a young second lieutenant and provided my platoon a lifetime of mistakes, screw-ups, and misadventures to fuel their stories for a lifetime. On one of my first field training exercises, I asked several of my soldiers to take my camera and photograph their jobs from their perspective. The fact that I handed a $100 camera with extra film to several smiling enlisted soldiers proved for the last time that I was a terribly, terribly naïve young officer. A week later, they handed me the camera back along with a bill for some extra film. In turn, I also received several life lessons that I still carry with me today.
Here are a few lessons I learned while flipping through the photographs taken by my soldiers:
Help with the worst jobs
All the jobs in the field that the soldiers hated the most were on the camera — digging fighting positions, filling sandbags, handling mortar misfires, waiting in line for chow, running out of coffee, and standing guard. This was a great lesson for me because this told me that these were all the tasks that I should help the platoon perform. For the rest of my time, I sought out the worst jobs — filled sandbags and stood next to the crews while they handled a misfire.
Lead by example — always!
There were also pictures of me looking less than stellar. In the pictures, my chinstrap was unfastened, and I was wearing a completely unauthorized Marine Corps sweater that was great in the Korean winter. Another photograph showed me about five feet from my rifle — an infantry no-no. Of course, my platoon had photographic evidence of me doing all these things, even if it was only once. Leadership by example is only leadership by example if you always do it and do it all the time.
Ask for help — even if you do not think you need it
I thought that the next three pictures on the roll of film were a mistake. They pictured a Korean farmhouse three separate times as it became progressively darker. The real story of the pictures is that I was lost and did not want to tell the platoon, especially the platoon sergeant. So, instead, I rolled by our next position four times and everyone in the platoon knew that we should stop. Correction: everyone but me knew that we should stop. It always benefits a leader to engage the entire team in helping make and perform a plan, even if you do not think you need the help. Great leaders ask their team, repeatedly, and ahead of time, what their team’s opinions are to create an even better plan.
For heaven’s sake — get some sleep
One of the funniest things is watching a sleep-deprived lieutenant issue orders and fall asleep while doing it. Initially, I felt that I needed to be awake all the time to ensure that my platoon performed. My sergeant felt this was a fine idea until a private found me sitting against an armored vehicle fast asleep, probably with my chin strap unbuttoned. Leaders need to realize that when they make a mistake, they affect the success of hundreds and not just themselves. I learned that nutrition, rest, and exercise made me a better leader, and if I wanted to make good decisions for my team, I needed to take care of myself and trust others to help me operate the platoon.
Take one for the team
On one of my final exercises, my commander ordered that every soldier would require sleeves down on their uniforms, kevlar helmets on, and all equipment buckled. This was a great idea, except that it was August, when Korea is over 100 degrees and humidity hangs like a sweltering invisible fog. Hours later, I was having a conversation with my battalion commander on the side of a road with my platoon racing by dressed only in T-shirts and soft caps. Naturally, I was yelled at (“lit up” in military parlance) for 30 minutes like the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree by my battalion commander. Returning to my platoon, they braced for a chew-out session that never came. Sometimes all you can do is protect your team.
The final picture on the roll is two of my most junior soldiers giving me a “traditional” one-finger salute. I love this picture because it showed that I was successful as a leader. I was trying to create a powerful sense of initiative, a fighting spirit, and a sense of personal pride and accomplishment in the platoon. In the Army, a willingness to “own your disrespect” is a sign of pride, initiative, and audacity — and this is exactly what I wanted to create.
I helped form a unit of soldiers that were confident and proud. In turn, these same soldiers helped create a leader that would always remember to help with the worst jobs, lead by example, ask for help, take care of himself, and support the team in front of his boss. I was fortunate to be promoted several times in my career, but I will always remember my time, and its fortunate lessons, as an Army second lieutenant.Read comments