Leadership: “The Book” versus reality


About 2/3 of the way through my Afghanistan deployment, a new intelligence lieutenant arrived at my firebase. By this time my team and I had been in country for a while, had been in several engagements, and had a reputation for being outside the wire all the time. I was an E-7 with twenty years in, on my second deployment, and was pretty salty.

The new lieutenant heard about the work my team did, and when we met he said, “I really hope I get to go on some missions with you guys.”

It just so happened we were scheduled to go on a mission with French Marines the next day. “That’s a good idea, Lieutenant,” I said. “Why don’t you come out with us tomorrow? Since the French have a separate radio network, you can ride in the French company commander’s vehicle with an American radio and relay our traffic to him.”

The lieutenant’s eyes lit up. “You think I could do that?”

“Hell yes. All you have to do is get permission from your boss, borrow a radio from someone, and ask the French commander if he’d like to have you along.”

The lieutenant enthusiastically promised he’d do those things. I told him I’d find him later to help him prepare for the mission. He walked away excited.

French troops patrolling the Afghanya Valley, Kapisa Province. Photo by Thomas Goisque (www.goisque-photo.com).

French troops patrolling the Afghanya Valley, Kapisa Province. Photo by Thomas Goisque (www.goisque-photo.com).

Several hours later I saw him again. “Hey sir,” I asked, “you all ready for tomorrow?”

He glumly shook his head. “Uh, no, sergeant. I didn’t know who to get a radio from.”

I gave him a what the f**k look. “Dammit LT, come with me.”

I dragged him to the American Counter-IED Team. “You guys have a radio the lieutenant can borrow?”

The team’s sergeant tossed him one. “Sure thing. Just bring it back when you’re done.”

I turned to the lieutenant and asked, “Did you get permission from your boss?”

He sheepishly shook his head. “Um… I didn’t know if I should ask, since I just got here.”

“Dammit, lieutenant!”

I dragged him to his major, inside the firebase command post. “Sir, can your new LT come with us on the mission tomorrow?”

“No problem. Make sure he doesn’t get hurt.”

We walked outside. Even though I knew the answer, I asked the lieutenant, “Did you talk to the French commander?”

The lieutenant gave me a whipped puppy look and shook his head.

“Dammit, lieutenant!”

I pulled him along to the French company command post. “Hey sir,” I told the French captain. “We have a new intelligence lieutenant. Can he ride in your vehicle tomorrow and be your radio liaison?”

The French captain nodded. “Oui. But of course.”

French engineers clearing the road in front of a French VAB (amphibious armored vehicle)

French engineers clearing the road in front of a French VAB (amphibious armored vehicle)

I pulled the lieutenant out of the command post. His eyes were downcast. I asked, “Lieutenant, what the hell? You said you wanted to go on the mission. Are you scared to go, or what? If you don’t want to go, just say so.”

The lieutenant shook his head vigorously. “Sergeant, I’m not scared! That’s not the problem. It’s just that… well, I’m nervous. I mean, what if we get into a firefight, and I give a wrong order and get someone hurt or killed? I’m just scared of telling someone to do the wrong thing.”

I gave him a serious look. “Lieutenant. You don’t have to worry about giving a bad order tomorrow. You’re a new lieutenant, new in country. If we get into a firefight, and you give an order, nobody will listen to you. So don’t worry about it.”

The lieutenant looked stunned; for a second or two, he was actually speechless. Then he gathered himself, and said, “Uh… okay. In that case, I guess I’ll go.”

He went out with us the next day. And we got into a firefight. The Taliban opened fire on French vehicles as the team I was attached to scrambled down a mountainside. A burst of machine gun fire barely missed a French forward air controller as he stuck his head out of my vehicle. French gunners dumped thousands of .50 and 7.62 rounds back at enemy-occupied compounds. At one point, an RPG flew between the lieutenant’s vehicle and mine as we rolled down a road (I’ll never forget the look on his face when he described watching it zip past). It was a hell of a first mission for a new lieutenant.

It was also his last mission. When we got back to base, his boss told him he couldn’t go out again because it was too dangerous. So he got to go outside the wire one time, and earned a real Combat Action Badge for it.

And I like to think I taught him something important. Just because the book says “the officer is in charge and everyone of lower rank must follow his orders”, real life says “if you don’t know what the hell you’re doing the best thing to do is shut up and listen to those who do”. That applies to all of us in the military who call ourselves leaders. Including me.

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Chris Hernandez is a 20 year police officer, former Marine and currently serving National Guard soldier with over 25 years of military service. He is a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and also served 18 months as a United Nations police officer in Kosovo. He writes for BreachBangClear.com and Iron Mike magazine and has published two military fiction novels, Proof of Our Resolve and Line in the Valley, through Tactical16 Publishing. He can be reached at chris_hernandez_author@yahoo.com or on his Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/ProofofOurResolve).



13 Responses to “Leadership: “The Book” versus reality”

  1. I own a few books entirely filled with tales of military blunders and catastrophes throughout history. It’s reassuring to read a story where common sense actually prevails. I was afraid at the beginning that this would turn into a red-tape fiasco where the lieutenant gets “the book” thrown at him for failing to arrange the proper paperwork or something for joining the mission.

    Glad it ended well for him and the rest of the men involved.

  2. 2 Mark W.

    Excellent article. I’ve seen the same thing happen over and over in the RR industry only just the opposite in the Lt’s case, where a newby inexperienced boss comes on the track and figures because he is the boss he knows all and had the experienced veteran railroader followed his orders he would have been killed instantly. The look on the face of the boss is priceless. Happened to me also several times where I knew the order from the egotistical newly arrived boss was wrong and had I followed it I would be looking up at grass from underneath it. The worst kind are the ones that take credit over and over for something someone else did until the proverbial sh*t hits the fan….I did this and I did that, but boy oh boy are WE in trouble now!

  3. 3 "Greg"

    another awesome posting Chris, but dare I ask… what recent occurence compelled the new posting (or did it just pop up inside your mind and thus here it is?)

  4. 5 MACV S-2

    I was lucky as a shiny new 2Lt. I worked with (more likely FOR!) senior NCO’s and Warrants who wanted to make sure I had a solid foundation. In the RVN, the quality of NCO’s varied but I again lucked out in both the S-2 and 3 shops with Sergeants who were not only highly capable but well and diversely experienced. Some of my ‘fellow’ officers, on the other hand, I would not have left the team compound with to go get pho’!

  5. 6 mac11b2003

    Best line in the story: “Lieutenant. You don’t have to worry about giving a bad order tomorrow. You’re a new lieutenant, new in country. If we get into a firefight, and you give an order, nobody will listen to you. So don’t worry about it.”
    Man, that’s freakin’ funny. And true. Thanks for writing this. Your story reminded me of a few experiences I had on my deployments. One in particular with a Navy O-4. Good times. Gooooood times.

  6. 7 Don Davis

    Chris: True, that!

  7. I once ticked off a young LT so bad, he wrote me up on a brown paper towel because he couldn’t find the proper paperwork to use. Fortunately, I was in the right, so the charge was thrown out.

  8. 9 BoydK

    ‘That applies to all of us in the military …” Experience brings perspective, great article but I would apply the idea universally.

  9. 10 Danny

    Chris impressive history, Lt. sure will never forget this experience has had and hopefully be well. By the way I noticed that the French army uniforms used Woodlands, yet the US military’s use or only for training?

    • The French have a camouflage pattern very similar to US Woodland. We stopped using Woodland around 2006/2007 and replaced it with ACU, which is the worst camo pattern in the world. Sometimes in Afghanistan I wore a French uniform with American flags, because it was better camo.

      • 12 Danny

        Did not he know that the ACU was even worse ?, know since I was a kid I always Woodland uniform taste, it is a pity that no longer use because it really gave a good style. And the US military is the only one using ACU?

  10. NCO’s have to lead upward as well as down most of the time it seems. I have a fairly good opinion of the French. They were always quite professional, and didn’t shy away from a fight. Nice post.

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