I was as green as it gets. I was sitting as a new platoon leader for Delta Company in the Kunar Province out of Eastern Afghanistan. As an officer, I was in charge of a group of 24 men. I was trusted to make decisions that would impact the lives of all these men. I was at war, and I was scared. Not of dying, but of failing at my job and losing men. Though I had gone through basic training, officer candidate school, Infantry leadership school, airborne school and ranger school, I was still unprepared.
Seven years later, now I understand what true leadership within the military is and how that it has impacted my life today. It is not always about giving out orders, but about knowing when to “shut up” and listen.
Welcome to the Stan
I remember the day that I got into country, December 1, 2009. I was part of a replacement group and the only officer on board my flight. As I arrived in Bagram, a Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) received and directed us to our tents. There, he briefed us and provided instructions for the next 24 hours. Like any soldier, I listened dutifully and inquired about the chow hall and where I could make a phone call.
Over the next 24 hours, I traveled from Bagram to Jalalabad airfield where I was introduced to the Brigade Combat team. Soon afterward I was on a Chinook to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Blessing, where my battalion was staged. Again, my excitement level was high, and I couldn’t wait to be in the mountains with my men. As our Chinook landed, we were rushed out and berated by another NCO. Finally, as he directed us near a wall he screamed, “Hell sir, you need to move your ass when I tell you to giddy up. You idiots were taking rocket Propel Grenades.”
‘36 hours in Afghanistan and I was in it.’, I thought to myself. But I didn’t have a clue.
Several days later, I met with the Battalion Commander, who gave me an “expectations” speech and informed me that I would take over Dagger 4th Platoon. I will readily admit that I was nervous and anxious, and the haunting fear that I would not be good enough lived soundly in my mind. Nonetheless, I was ready—if only because I didn’t have a choice.
When I arrived at Honaker Miracle later that month, I sought out Sergeant First Class (SFC) Korey Staley, the current leader of the platoon. When I finally had the opportunity to meet with him, I was very clear about my goals. I told him that I was green, that I knew the men had just gone through the summer fighting season, and that they probably weren’t too excited about getting a rookie leader again. I asked him to mentor me and teach me how to be the leader for the platoon. My only interest was to make sure that I did my job correctly and brought everyone home. I took my pride and my ego, and I set them aside. At that moment, I not only had the greatest job in the world but the most important one as well: leading men into combat. SFC Staley listened to me and simply replied,
“Shut up for the next seven days.”
He said that we would go out on patrol and when we got hit, for me to watch the way we maneuver, listen to the way we communicate with each other, how we relay with the base, and how air cover is requested. He told me to make sure I became a subject matter expert on the terrain, to learn all target reference points and how we call for fire. He literally did not want me to speak.
After the seven days, he and I would sit down, discuss everything that happened, what I want to change, what I want to keep and why. Then we both would come up with our plan, brief it to the squad leaders, get their input, revise it and finalize it. After all that, the platoon would be mine to lead.
Here I had a man who had been blown up more times in Iraq than I’d been on dates in my entire life, teaching me the keys to success as a military leader. He saw a young man with a tremendous responsibility and he helped me. Over the course of that tour we were in numerous engagements and none of our team members were killed. I attribute that to SFC Staley’s sound leadership. To take charge when necessary and lead by example, but most importantly to take a step back when need be. The man never yelled he was a father-figure type of leader, the one you didn’t want to disappoint.
As a young lieutenant, I listened to him, and I watched the way he interacted with the men. We were a team, and we agreed on our steps before each patrol. By the end of our tour I had acquired a new family and I had grown exponentially as an officer.
What I didn’t see
What I didn’t see then but know now, is how I had been internally changed from that first tour. While the importance of my role was never lost on me, it took losing four men under my watch for a distant reality to become a true one.
People ask, “What do veterans bring the table? Specifically, combat veterans?”
I say this: Imagine yourself on your worst day. Then picture that day, and imagine that your favorite people in the world are there, and they depend on you to be at your best in this incredibly difficult situation. Now add the fact that failure equates to potential death.
What do you get? American service members in their element, at their best, running towards the fire instead of cowering away. I had the privileged to fight with our nations’ finest, and I only succeeded because others took the time to teach me and believe in me. In return, I responded like an American Soldier- I gave it my best.