My First Challenge in Theater
On the plane to Afghanistan, over a 20 hour flight all together, I had lots of time to think about how I would react to my first leadership challenge as a combat platoon leader. Was I going to make an example of the enemy? Was I going to keep cool and calm under pressure? Would I listen to my NCOs?
Turns out my first leadership challenge in country was not from an enemy force, but from one of my own soldiers: his wife has already asked for a divorce. My first instict was, “It’s only been a week! What the heck is the problem!?” But after recalling our history with this particular individual, we knew that the soldier had been dismally irresponsible with his finances, putting both his wife and his newborn son in grave financial danger.
This would not be the first time. Right before deployment, this soldier had spent over $700 on alcohol and pornography after getting his paycheck in early July. He had just enough money left to keep his wife and kid healthy for the rest of the month before his next paycheck would cash in. I gave him a direct order to not spend a dime out of his bank account unless he had permission from the Platoon Sergeant, his wife, his section leader, or myself.
After the soldier shared news of the divorce, the Platoon Sergeant checked his email and found a message from the soldier’s wife explaining that their account had now mysteriously dropped to below $35 and wanted to know why. We knew something was up. My senior NCOs grabbed the soldier and searched every crevice on his person. We found a brand new PSP video game system that he had bought on our layover in Manas AFB…it was worth roughly $300, all the money his wife had left.
The soldier took a verbal beating from the senior NCO leadership that would make any self-respecting man cry. My NCOs pride themselves on being Good Men. They may be crude and hardnosed, but they are good fathers and good husbands who passionately take care of their famlies. In their eyes, if you couldn’t take care of someone you were supposed to love, how could you be trusted to take care of your fellow soldiers in a fight?
When the berating ceased, I saw the soldier’s head drop as he crawled into his bed in the fetal position.
Several thoughts ran through my mind. First, I was pissed. Because of one grossly irresponsible soldier, my senior NCOs (the backbone of my platoon) were now spending their time and effort babysitting a grown man because we flat out could not trust him. Next, I grew concerned. This soldier could be edging on depression. He no longer had anyone to come to; no one to miss him while he was gone. He didn’t have any money. He was on his 2nd failed relationship. He now had two kids from two different mothers, neither of whom would be allowed to see him upon his return. “Is this someone I want running around a war zone with live ammunition?” I made sure the Platoon Sergeant understood my concerns, and we agreed we just have to take it one day at a time, and keep a close eye on the soldier. At the end of the day, there’s not much more we can do.
The moral of the story, for all the junior officers reading this, is to take a proactive role in managing your soldiers’ personal lives. As leaders in combat, we need every ounce of a soldiers focus on the mission. We thrive on trust in ourselves and each other. When distractions like money, divorces, childsupport payments, and lawsuits get in the way, the unit is inherently weaker because a soldier’s focus is naturally divided, and his brothers must pick up the slack. I know my platoon sergeant did all he could to help this soldier, often at the cost of his personal time with his own family. I’m not sure what more we could have done, but we now have an internal issue to mind through the tour.
Other than that, things are great. The boys are in good spirits, we’re getting more cohesive as a unit, and we’re finally starting to acclimate to the heat. More to follow!