Sunday, August 14, 2005


Profiles: The CSM

I thought this would be one of the harder profiles to write, but my Commander (CO), who I wrote about here, reminded me of a story from early on in our mobilization. You could say that it helped “frame” the story I wanted to tell about the Command Sergeant Major (CSM).

But first, a little background.

We started our mobilization training with quite a bit of ground to cover to make us ready for deployment to Iraq. One, we were National Guard. Two, most of our guys had never done Active Duty, and a very few had ever been in anything like a war zone. Lastly, and hardest perhaps to explain, we are a Combat Services Support unit subordinate to a Division, and a good third of our soldiers hold Military Intelligence (MI) Military Occupational Specialties (MOS).

When our CSM was first assigned to our Battalion, we all had to go through a learning period. We had to learn what it meant to have a CSM with combat arms experience, a former Marine at that. And the CSM had to learn what it meant to be the Senior NCO and Senior Advisor to a Battalion full of MI officers, NCOs and lower enlistees.

We had an easier time getting used to him than he had getting used to us.

I mean, for us, we just had to harken back to basic training or prior Active Duty and remember that Big Army has this thing about Regulations and Obedience and following orders when given by the Chain of Command or NCOs within the NCO Support Channel. Pretty “basic” stuff, really. That, and don’t use humor to disarm or smooth over conflict, at least not when the CSM was trying to make a point of discipline. (Some of our wise guys found that out the hard way.)

For the CSM, he entered an alternate universe. Strange characters unknown to the Marines, or the line units the CSM was used to: full time Active Guard and Reserve clerks who told the Commanders what to do. Troops who’d been around since the Guard started who could go get rolls for breakfast at drill, but little else. No show soldiers who were “on the books” for a slot, but did their actual drills near their homes, in another unit altogether. (The unit was close by, but didn’t have a slot with the right MOS, and units would make “arrangements.” Worked okay enough, until the Guard units started getting mobilized and found they all of a sudden needed all those absentee soldiers.)

And hardest of all, the unit was replete with officers who seemed to know everybody’s first names yet consistently confuse ranks. (“I mean, how hard is it to see the rank and the name? It’s on the g-d uniform!”)

Well, another one of those strange characters was a certain, newly minted First Sergeant with a career strictly limited to strategic Intel or classroom assignments, with the sole exception as a Platoon Sergeant for a tactical control and analysis element (TCAE). An Intel weenie of the first order. One heck of an analyst and reporter (if I do say so), but about as far away from tactical as you get in a senior NCO.

Now our training ran through a series of increasingly more coordinated tasks, from confirming what are called “common tasks” all the way through to squad, platoon and company defensive operations. Convoy, urban operations. The works.

One of the specialized training event senior NCOs and officers needed to go through was a session on setting up a squad in the defense.

So here’s the story about the CSM my CO reminded me of. We were going through the steps of setting up a defense, and then the instructor wanted a back brief from one of us, and the CSM volunteered me to give it. I didn’t want that, but I knew why I needed to do it. And I listened. To the instructor. To the CSM, to the other NCOs who seemed to have experience or just knew this shared language that was still new to me.

I ran through the placement of primary weapons, in our case a M2 (“Ma Deuce”) .50 cal machine gun and a M240B light machine gun. I described where we’d lay in the fighting positions, and control ingress and egress from our position. Then the instructor asked if we had anything else, someone suggested six M249 squad automatic weapons. They turned to me.

“Well, we should put one to cover the rear of the position, and then sprinkle the rest throughout the fighting positions.”

“Sprinkle?! What, like pixie dust?” bellowed the Sergeant Major. “This is g** d*** combat, Top, we don’t ‘sprinkle’ anything!” Then I think the CSM muttered something like, “I can’t believe I’m going to Iraq with an MI Battalion!” It wasn’t the first time he’s said something like that, and it wouldn’t be the last.

I didn’t hear the end of that one for at least a month. The CSM took it on as a special assignment to make sure I knew how to speak as tactically as I was training to act.

I’ve either learned my lessons well or he’s too tired to teach me anymore. That, or he’s giving me a break because of my son, who is a very good friend of the Sergeant Major.

They talk weaponry. Little Manly is quite the expert, having watched everything the History Channel has to offer about 20th Century wars, armaments, guns, you name it. One of our evenings out during training, Mrs. Dadmanly and Little Manly and I, and we ran into the CSM at dinner. Little Manly wanted to ask the CSM about the M14 (and M24 variant) sniper rifle. Well, the two of them talked it up for quite a while, talking characteristics, countries which used them, comparisons to other rifles. A little talking over WW II. Soldier stuff. But since then, I think a get a little special treatment because I’m Little Manly’s Dad.

So he had a lot to do, remaking us, conforming us, preparing us for whatever might be thrown at us. There were a lot of uncertainties, a lot of areas where we might be asked to take on more than just an Intel job: detainee operations, convoys, and force protection. The battle space isn’t linear anymore, as they say, which really means anyone and anything is a potential target, and as firefights and attacks can happen anywhere (front, rear, MSRs or cities, on the FOB or off), so too must we be alert and prepared everywhere.

Wherever we were at the start of this odyssey, I know where we ended up: the best prepared unit within the Division Headquarters and subordinate (non-combat arms) commands. Top performers, exceeding expectations. “Who are you guys? The MI Battalion?!” And the CSM was a very big part of that success.

We were the first mobilizing unit to receive some new training. We aggressively worked it, ran after action reviews (AAR), innovated. We forced our staffs to go the extra mile, opting for Operations Orders, organic resources, and self-supported operations in lieu of the sometimes off-the-shelf cookie-cutter exercise training set up for combat services support. We often took over our own training events, convincing our mobilization trainers we knew our stuff. We ran our own ranges, other units looked to us to take the lead. We did.

In doing so, we continually surprised the senior leadership with what we were capable of. We were more than just “those Intel guys.”

But of course, everything comes at a price. For us, the price has always been, “You guys are good at this, we need you to do it.” (I feel like we were the “Easy Company” of Division elements, I think the Division staff enjoyed tasking us with a “So you think you’re hot stuff” pay back for making others look like pikers. (Of course, that’s how we saw it.)

Soldiers grumble all the time. If we’re complaining, it means we’re alive. Morale has to be measured in less tangible terms than the level of bitching. And as Senior Enlisted Advisor and number one NCO in the Battalion, all that bitching coalesces in one top at the top of the NCO Support Channel: at the CSM.

Some may want to envy the CSM his position, but I have seen first hand – if not before, now that I’m filling in for him while he’s away on R&R – the job looks a lot more appealing from the outside than it does when you sit in the seat.

During our mobilization training, one of our “flamboyant” officers volunteered to lead Arabic classes for the Battalion. The BC loved the idea, made it mandatory “evening hours” training. Some of our soldiers were eager students, most ambivalent, many down right hostile. Even the Intel guys didn’t like the idea of group classes on their own (otherwise free) time.

For this officer, language class was yet another “on stage” opportunity, and he tried to liven up the training by writing skits. Never mind the professional training aids we had available from the Defense Language Institute (DLI), ignore the many DLI grads within our midst trying to suggest that there were more effective methods of training. We were going to do his “skits,” and the BC was his method of enforcement.

We hated those evening classes, held out on the grass in front of the BN HQ. Next to the BC’s and CSM’s windows.

The CSM attended the first few, supported his Commander’s intent. But he knows as well or better than all of us what Army training looks like, how it’s prepared, and the standards that need to be met. And these drama classes didn’t even come close.

When the CSM finally lost patience with this over-eager young Lieutenant, during the course of one class he asked the LT if he had a lesson plan, if they could stick to teaching, that he didn’t think we needed to run through anymore of these little skits.

That started an argument. The LT didn’t respond, nor realize this was a polite invitation to move on. The LT tried to dismiss the CSM’s suggestion, the CSM got a bit hot reiterating what he meant, next the LT says, “At ease, Sergeant Major!”

That stopped everybody in their tracks. You could have driven Lady Godiva through on the top of a Humvee, she wouldn’t have received as rapt the attention. The CSM at that point folded up his chair and walked away. Immediately, several of the officers present pulled the Lieutenant aside, and explained what he had done.

For those outside the military, this may be difficult to understand. Even though technically, all officers, even Lieutenants, outrank all enlisted soldiers and NCOs, even the 1SG and CSM. But the Army reposes a very special trust in NCOs in Command Positions, such as the 1SG for a Company and a CSM for a Battalions and above. As the LTC told his staff officers in the movie “We Were Soldiers,” the Command Sergeant Major “Answers only me.” He made clear, the CSM spoke with his authority. That’s pretty much how it works; I work for my Captain as 1SG, staff officers, Lieutenants and Junior Captains try to be deferential, for me are in positions of command and authority. For the CSM, the same goes for Majors. And aside from tradition, the CSM is probably the most experienced Soldier in your unit. You’d be a fool to ignore his advice.

That Lieutenant made a bee line for the CSM’s office, and very humbly asked his forgiveness for being rude and disrespecting his authority. And that’s the CSM’s job, too, mentoring and teaching and guiding and sometimes battling with the Staff Officers both on matters of Army regulation and policy, but Soldier concerns as well.

Everybody wants you to change the world. You intercede with the Battalion Commander (BC) on behalf of troop welfare and morale, and when you can influence things, that’s just your job. No thanks due from the troops. When it goes the other way, and a Commander needs the CSM to impose discipline, or implement a decision, or bring the troops up another level, then he’s “gone native,” and a lapdog to his officers. It’s never true of course. But he’s plugged in enough to command philosophy, the current situation, what’s ahead, that he knows why the nits he picks today may be the force multipliers of tomorrow. Or that the order he supports today may become the routine that avoids unnecessary injury or loss of life. That’s his job. It ain’t easy, he asked for it, no feeling sorry for yourself here. You get the job done.

And that’s the CSM all over. He runs as many convoys as any of our guys, did the regular runs to all the hot spots. He has to deal with and train all the Staff officers, those with the same pedigree as the troops (MI, Guard), but with rank enough to be able to skirt and shirk the hard or unpleasant duties, were there not the Sergeant Major there to hold their feet to the fire. You see, he knows them, and he knows their world.

Our CSM was not just a Marine. He was a Marine Captain. Somewhere along the way, he must have stepped away from service, and when he came back in he went enlisted. He’s been CSM for combat soldiers, prior to him joining our Battalion. I am pretty sure the powers that be thought we could benefit from a hard nosed, combat arms CSM who maybe could whip us into some kind of shape. He did.

And while our troops may never appreciate how much effort he put into getting us where we needed to go, he was a big and critical part of us being ready for this job, doing it well, and all getting back in one piece, should we remain under God’s protection.

The CSM wouldn’t have it any other way. He doesn’t want thanks. He wants his soldiers to make it home alive. Kick ass while we’re at it. Always meet the highest standard, because he knows (and we know) we can. And besides, he’s already got the best reward a Sergeant Major could ever get.

He leads the finest bunch of enlisted soldiers he’s ever had the honor of serving. And that, in the end, is a job well done.

Other Profiles in the Series:
The Motor Sergeant
The CO

(Linked at Mudville Gazette's Open Post, and stuck in traffic Outside the Beltway.)

UPDATE: Posted as a Covered Dish special at Basil's Blog, linked at Mistakes Were Made

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