Military life is filled with incredible humor. 99.999% of military humor is inspired either directly or indirectly by junior military officers. The misadventures of these junior officers as they simultaneously learn to lead, learn the military and learn what their jobs truly are, serve as a resource for timeless humor and as a training ground for life lessons.
My military career began as a US Army 2nd Lieutenant in the early 1990s. I 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 that I was a terribly naïve young officer. A week later, they handed me the camera back, a bill for some extra film (I was overcharged, of course), and I received a great life lesson that I would carry with me for years.
Help with the worst jobs.
On the camera were all the jobs and experiences in the field that the soldiers hated the most. Digging fighting positions, filling sandbags, handling mortar misfires, waiting in line for chow, not enough 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, I was wearing a completely unauthorized Marine Corps sweater that was great in the Korean winter and another photo with me about five feet from my rifle — an Infantry “No No.” The US Army of the 1990s lived by buttoned Kevlar helmets, snapped field gear and your weapon within arm’s reach. Of course, my platoon had pictures of me not doing this, 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 don’t need it.
I thought that the next three pictures on the roll of film was a mistake. It pictured a Korean farmhouse three separate times as it became progressively dark. 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. Let’s just say I do this now.
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.
Get some sleep.
One of the funniest things is watching a sleep-deprived lieutenant issue orders and fall asleep while they are doing it. Initially, I felt that I needed to be awake all the time to ensure that my platoon performed. My sergeants felt this was a fine idea, and they got to sleep for about three days, 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 be dressed with sleeves down, Kevlar helmets on and all equipment buckled. 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 for 30 minutes 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.
I helped create a unit of soldiers that were confident and proud. The soldiers helped create a leader that would always remember to help with the worst jobs, lead my example, ask for help, take care of themselves and always support the team in front of the 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.