Sunday, August 28, 2005

 

Profiles: The LT

“Top, if I hadn’t been here, your head would have fallen off a long time ago!”

We have a Lieutenant (LT) who serves as our Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC) Executive Officer (XO) – don’t you just love the way we military types make everything an acronym? And our LT is a character.

He jokes all the time. He especially likes to point out to others that he’s had to “dummy cord” my head to my shoulders, so in case it does fall off, we don’t lose track of it. Dummy cord is what the old time Army NCOs will use sometimes to help junior soldiers not lose important things, such as their weapon. We use a lot of a strong but light and slender cord, known as 550, and we use it to tie down items to our gear, or, as suggested, to keep a certain First Sergeant’s head from rolling off his shoulders in a fit of “Command” anger.

And where does that come from? From the many boneheaded, foolish and even outrageous things soldiers sometimes do, getting in hot water with Top. I sure have a temper, and those who have seen it tend not to want to see it again. With the initial stresses of mobilization training and deployment, I had a harder time controlling my anger, and the required command and control environment for Active Duty units, especially one such as ours, deploying into a combat zone, tends to favor more directive forms of leadership, and yes, a certain harshness. If Soldiers can’t handle anger and very sudden orders in the train-up environment, how on earth would they handle similar treatment under combat conditions?

Still, it’s a delicate balance sometimes between the hardness sometime required, and that which can stray into abuse. Early on, I needed to come to grips with the fact that my anger was sometimes getting the better of my judgment.

I remember the first day I met LT. I had only recently been promoted First Sergeant for HHC, following many years working strictly as an Intelligence Analyst or an Army Instructor of various Intelligence courses. They introduced me to this Staff Sergeant, and mentioned he was an Electronic Warfare (EW) Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) Analyst, Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) 98C. We don’t come across too many of those in the New York Army National Guard, so I took a special interest. At the time, I was running a SIGINT team on a Contributory Intelligence mission for a customer Agency, and immediately I thought, “I can use this guy.” At least I did at first, until he told me he was leaving shortly for Officer Candidate School (OCS). Drat.

And then I didn’t see him again, except as phantom, whose name would drift across our manning rosters. One of the many Soldiers attached to other units or away at schools. Besides, if we ever saw him again – and that was a less than 50% probability, the way people go away and then find new units – he’d come back an officer, and that would have meant he might still be useful to someone, but not to me. Little did I know.

The next time I saw LT was after we had mobilized and gone through all of our required training and were in a seemingly endless holding pattern at the Mobilization Site. A newly minted Second Lieutenant (2LT), the LT was assigned to the lair of he who would become his nemesis, the S3 shop (Plans and Training) of the Battalion.

Now I would be willing to bet that LT remembers our next encounter of significance, rather than the first I recounted above. I don’t even remember what it was about, but something the Battalion had initiated or ordered, instigated by the S3, was threatening to impact my Soldiers in various unpleasant ways for what I perceived as no good reason. This is uncommon neither for S3 shops, nor by reaction for First Sergeants who go to battle against them on behalf of those Soldiers. And it must have been, either that the LT was the minion charged with whatever plan it was, or just happened to be the only staff in the immediate vicinity when I let loose. (I think I’m beginning to see where this whole, “Your head’s gonna fall off” stuff started.)

I wasn’t happy about it at the time, but unusually for one of our staff officers, the LT went toe-to-toe with me and didn’t budge, didn’t flinch, didn’t back down. (He had to have still been wrong, but not remembering what the issue was, I can’t confirm particulars.) He is one stubborn Soldier when he thinks it’s important enough. And if it has to do with readiness, preparations, training or accountability, it will be important enough. Except when there’s a joke or gag involved, then that’s always important, too.

I think the command elements found him useful, intelligent, and highly capable, especially for a junior officer. That reflected his NCO experience. I think they also enjoyed his very boisterous sense of humor, at least they did until it took a critical turn. He’s quite a mimic, picks up the most telling mannerisms, and combines that with a tracker’s eye for the pathways of the foolish. In short, they may not have liked the way his sense of humor "turned inward." They found it too often disrespectful. Or too accurate. Both.

Somewhere along the line, the LT pushed an envelop a little farther than the seams allowed, and he ended up as our Company XO.

Our previous XO was quite remarkable in his own right, so much so that he was yanked away to do a mission in Baghdad, and we only see him now and again for visits. Also remarkably, he is an Orthodox Jew, who manages to maintain his faith traditions and Sabbath Ordinances while in a combat zone. He also manages to survive on Kosher meals-ready-to-eat (MREs), which I think would have killed any of the rest of us. Or at least caused us to go hungry, or violate the Ordinances. Anyway, I couldn’t have done it.

Right away, the LT seemed to take particular delight in poking fun at my “extremes” of behavior or character. He still tells the story of the day I was particularly frustrated with a certain obstinate (however skilled) Motor Sergeant. Mac was objecting to one of any number of Staff or Company requests that tried his patience, and gave me a Mac lecture (a rant in itself) about how they have the “best motor pool in Iraq,” and “they don’t realize what we have here,” and “where are you going to find a motor pool like this? Nowhere, that’s where!”

That’s the point at which I threw up my hands, stormed back into the HHC in a rant, “How many times do we have to tell them, they’re the best d**ned motor pool in all of Iraq!” I should note that, prior to the LT, whenever I would lose my temper like that, the CO, really pretty much everyone, would just raise their eyebrows and murmur, “What was all that about?”

This quickly became applied to anyone and anything I would get angry at. The S6 would fix one of our computers, but only halfway or forget a final, necessary step (Don’t get me started.) “How many times do we have to tell the S6, they’re the best d**ned S6 in all of Iraq?!” Or when the S3 (yet again) did something that “inconvenienced” the Companies, “How many times do we have to tell them, they’re the best d**ned S3 in all of Iraq?!”

It reached the point of absurdity when I started hearing, “How many times do I have to tell that coffee maker, that it’s the best d**ned coffee maker in all of Iraq?!” But it always makes me smile, now.

LT’s sarcasm is legendary. Perhaps you know the type, the guy who can make the simplest silliness seem the height of moronity. “What makes you think that?” Always with the most deadpan of expressions. And I’m gullible, I tend to (at first) believe pretty much anything anyone tells me. And he’s got me going so many times, I should always expect a joke or gag, but somehow I don’t.

We have a young woman helping us out as a clerk. She’s a fantastic clerk, very organized, a hard worker, raised on Long Island, a city girl. She’s rather small, and we in the HHC at first took a fairly protective stance, making sure she doesn’t run afoul of any of our more “obnoxious” characters. We needn’t have worried. She interacts easily with the Motor Pool mechanics. Her S1 colleagues ask her, “Aren’t you afraid of Mac?” “No way,” she says,” He’d do anything for you. He’s just like my father, always walking around cursing.”

The LT got her good one day. She was having trouble with her camera, she asked the LT if he could fix it, and while he was looking at it, she looked away while working on something else. At that moment, the LT licks up a hole punch and slams it really hard on the desk, saying “Hmmm, I wonder what’s wrong?” Our clerk whipped her head around like she was going to start screaming, only then realizing her camera was safe in his other hand.

Recently, I asked one of our guys to pick up some wings for me for dinner. I kept working, was hungry, and looking forward to the wings. A lot of our guys don’t go to the dining facility (DFAC), and for a time I had difficulty finding anyone to drive with me for dinner. The LT, famously, eats oatmeal (watery gruel he calls it), it seems like three times a day.

When the food was brought in, it was set over by the Charge of Quarters (CQ) desk. I couldn’t see it, my back was to the desk as I worked, and I could hear the LT, “Hmmmm, what have we here? Wings!”

I turn and see him eyeing a plate over by the side of our office, and I say, “Hands off, Lieutenant, that’s my dinner!” I see him reach down and pick up a wing, saying “You’re not going to want these.” As I jump up out of my chair, the LT starts to lick one wing after another, going through the entire plate as I get to him. “You SOB! I can’t believe you did that!” And then I look over to the CQ desk, and there’s another plate. My plate. He’s licked a plate full of wings alright, but they’re his. "The last XO wouldn't done that to you," he observes, "heck, he wouldn't have been able to touch them, let alone lick them!"

Now in case, as you’re reading this, you may think the good LT isn’t serious about anything, you’d be mistaken. He’s serious about a hundred things. Anything to do with NCOs, and how they should be, but often aren’t. He’s our Movement Officer, our Battalion Motor Officer, a Platoon Leader for Maintenance Platoon, a stand-in for the CO or HHC staff on dozens of different missions. He is a Convoy Commander, with as many Combat Logistic Patrols (CLP) as just about anybody. And he cares about his family, his wife and kids. He hates liars, dishonesty, immorality. He has a strong work ethic, and he makes sure the Soldiers come first.

Sure, he can be a little extreme sometimes. Like when he refers to his niece as a leading character in Revelations (not Jesus or God). Like when he explains that he had his three year old son hauling tree cuttings. “He needed to get to work.” Like when he takes on one of our most challenged NCOs as a personal project, and hounds him until he sees a step towards improvement in caring for Soldiers or completing a job to standard.

But he is 100% for his friends, for his Soldiers, for the unit, for our mission. He’s courageous, and forthright, honest and dedicated. He cares about all of our Soldiers, even the knuckleheads. (They’re his knuckleheads after all.) He admires and respects people most that really most deserve that respect. And he has more patience than you might guess, for either the knuckleheads, or for a certain First Sergeant who started out this deployment not knowing an air filter from a manifold, nor even the most rudimentary knowledge of anything related to electricity, mechanics, or construction.

I don’t know how I’ll manage without him, after this. That dummy cord better be strong, I have a feeling I’m gonna need it without him.

EPILOG

When I published this piece, he and the CO were very eager to read it. The LT pointed out two technical errors, said that was 5 points a piece, and wrote an "A" on the top of the printout, along with "Good but not your best work."

What were the errors? The LT points out that 550 cord (not 5/50 as I had originally rendered it. The 550 refers to the test of the cord, which is held to be able to sustain 550 pounds of pressure. The LT tells me that you should be able to rappelle with this cord, it's that strong.

The other error was rendering Soldier's instead of Soldiers when pluralizing the noun. (We have an NCO that uses 's every time he means more than one of anything, it drives the LT nuts.)

Leave it to the LT to have the last word.

Other Profiles in the Series:
The NCOIC
The CSM
The Motor Sergeant
The CO

Links: Basil's Blog, Outside the Beltway, Mudville Gazette, Dawn Patrol



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