Tuesday, July 26, 2005


Profiles: The CO

This is the start of a series profiling the people I work with here at the Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Iraq. Today's profile: The Company Commander (CO).

Many MILBLOG readers will no doubt have a good handle on the role of the CO and his or her importance to the Army, and my regular readers probably have a good sense of it, too. As a First Sergeant, I work directly for the Company Commander, and represent his primary means of implementing any decision he makes. The CO directs, the 1SG makes it happen.

I have known my CO for the better part of 8 years now. I remember him as a Second Lieutenant, when we both worked for a very demanding Intel officer. (Others will still have more pointed descriptions, but I'm trying to remain respectful for those still within the range of his animus.) I was always struck by how much responsibility was loaded on him, how little appreciated he seemed to be to his superiors, yet how personable and positive he remained.

I watched him struggle against extreme personality conflicts, ignorance, no doubt some discrimination, and many dramatic changes in the Intel field and the National Guard over the years leading up to the post-9/11 era. He never avoided a difficult task, or shied away from a necessary confrontation. He learned his trade. Always on point, always aware, quicker to think than to talk.

He worked hard, he never gave up, and he did well. But he always lagged some of his more political-minded peers, always the last to make rank, with each promotion (and opportunity) a grudging one.

On the civilian side, he excelled, and I think that helped salve or avoid any grudges he might have otherwise have grown. He proved extremely adept at protocol and escort duties. His work in law enforcement brought him into regular contact with the movers and shakers, and he won admirers who no doubt appreciated this honest man who never seemed to harbor a personal agenda or seek unwarranted gain.

I have a favorite story about the CO from prior to our working together at Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC). To appreciate it, you have to know that the National Guard has had a practice of conducting staff and command exercises for major commands (Brigades, Divisions, and Corps), called a "Warfighter." Division staff could expect to undergo their own (evaluated) Warfighter exercise every 4 years, and be called in to support or augment subordinate or superior commands in the off years. Up until 9/11, Warfighter exercises were the closest any Guard unit would usually come to a real wartime environment, with the exception perhaps of UN Peacekeeping Missions in Bosnia or Kosovo.

For Intel weenies -- no disrespect intended to any old crows out there -- Warfighters meant two weeks out at Leavenworth where the really big issue was whether you got put up in the Hilton or if your Hotel had a bar or a pool (in that order of importance). Annual Training (AT)? That was per diem all the way, baby! The training itself consisted of command and staff exercise play, usually excluding the classified intel systems, but allowing the command elements to work through the intel and order processes. Not troop leading procedures by any means, no actual boots, wheels, or tracks on the ground, that sort of thing was done at joint readiness training centers (JRTC). So long hours, but no real hardship, and plenty of avenues for stress reduction. (Ahem.)

I remember one particular WarFighter, rumors were thick that our Division would be deactivated if we didn't do well. My CO was in charge of Collection Management at the time, and I believe had just received his 1LT. Collection Management & Dissemination (CM&D) is the most wonkish of the Intel processes for Division Intel, and required a thorough knowledge of collection assets and capabilities of which most of our supposed Intel officers were oblivious. (No really, they were like I am when someone starts talking about the insides of an engine, going all glassy eyed with talk of differentials and transmission components or fuel injectors and the like. What part of Intel weenie don't you understand? But I digress.)

Well my CO took on CM&D like he takes on anything. (It's not worth doing if you can't do it right.) And he struggled. Not because of his limitations, but because of the limitations of those around him, below him, above him. Like pushing the big rock up the clay hillside. In the rain. Big rock. Did I mention it was raining? You keep pushing, we have a 1500 tee time. We'll meet up at the bar later tonight, we'll check your slides out then. Keep up the good work.

He grew familiar with his trade, its components and capabilities. In one of those (I believe) divinely inspired coincidences, he ended up working with many of the very men and women with whom he would many years later go to war. The CO learned well how to read people, their strengths and especially their weaknesses. Often he jumped in and made up the difference.

I watched him get saddled with every difficulty during this exercise, every task that should have been tasked to more senior officers, but considered too difficult or "risky." No one wanted to fail, to look bad or be publicly humiliated by the difficult taskmaster we labored under, who had a microscopic view of deficiency (in his eyes), and no view at all of sharing credit when things went well.

I watched months of abuse leading up to an intense two weeks of abuse during the exercise that he endured. My CO kept his composure, kept coming back for more, and shamed many of his peers and superiors by his grace in the face of their disrespect.

When it was all over, as an Intel NCOIC within the Analysis and Control Element (ACE), I put him in for an Army Achievement Medal. I knew no one else would even think of it, and I wanted someone to say, good job." My CO spent a few years as a General's aide after that, only returning to our unit to take command, already behind the curve of his erstwhile peers and overqualified for the command if that was possible. But officers need their command time to advance, and my CO didn't want to take any shortcuts.

I had turned down a previous opportunity to be a First Sergeant for our HHC, feeling that my civilian career and family life would prevent me from giving the job the time it demanded and the soldiers deserved. Later on, when I heard that my current CO was to take the job, when asked I was eager to take on the challenge. When it became clear our "Peacekeeping" mission was to be Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) instead, I was relieved that he and I would lead the soldiers of our Battalion together.

(One short aside, at the time of mobilization, our "Battalion" consisted of an HHC, one small Company of radar guys, and a "plan" for several more companies. For half our mobilization training, we led the combined mass of both companies, as our C Company had about a dozen soldiers while we were at ten times that. So in a very real sense, the CO and I led our Battalion for much of our command time. Here in country, our C is still only 40 all told, we're 160 or so, and invariably pick up tasking for both companies.)

The CO was a driven man during mobilization training, and I think his many years of patiently working with the men and women of this command paid off. He knew well the challenges we would face. He knew it wouldn't be easy to overcome many of the Guard attitudes and mindset. He knew that anything less than complete preparedness might cost us lives. None of us knew exactly what we'd be called upon to do; we knew we'd be in harm's way, there were dangers, but not a lot of particulars in advance. The CO early on committed us (and himself) to training for worse case.

We exceeded expectations, and outperformed all of our adjacent commands during mobilization training. We arrived in country fully prepared, with a world class motor pool, an ACE as good or better than any active duty equivalent, all with soldiers that were still prepared to go toe to toe on combat patrols, running detention facilities, or conducting military operations in urban terrain (MOUT).

For a bunch part time soldiers and Guard technicians -- and especially us Intel weenies -- that was no small accomplishment.

He puts up with Battalion Staff, serves yet another demanding boss, has to make some pretty tough decisions, and he needs to hear my head fly off every week or so, usually about the Network or some Battalion escapade. He insists on taking the lead in taking on combat patrols, preferring that if any of his soldiers are in harm's way, he is too. I've never seen him put himself first, there has been no one he thinks not worth his time to work with to improve. At their worst, he sees the better of intents or some good to uncover where no one else would.

He is long overdue for Major. In response to superiors suggesting that "they can make it happen" (usually tied to some kind of favor or pressure they want to bring to bear), he answers "I'll get it. But I am going to finish what I started." By that he means, he led us to War, he will be the one to bring us home. God willing, that will include each and every one we brought.

And if we are so fortunate, it will be in no small measure due to his dedication, perseverance, loyalty, and strength.

(Linked as Covered Dish for Supper at Basil's Blog.)

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