My Military Career
I never wanted a military career. But the draft was hanging over me, waiting for me to graduate from my university. Being healthy and single, it was quite clear that I would have to go, most likely to Vietnam. I decided that if that was to be, I wanted to be in control of my own fate as much as any soldier could be, and I wanted to be as well trained as possible.
My ambition was to be a technical manager — naively, I though that people who went into sales or marketing were the dummies. I would do my duty and put it behind me. Then I would get an MBA to learn how to be a real manager.
Little did I realize just how wrong I was. The Army, especially my first three years in the Army, was the best management school and the best management laboratory I have ever known. Not only that, but when I did get an MBA with a concentration in management, I discovered that we never once studied how to manage organizations by leading the people that compose the organization.
I entered the Army in September of ’68, went through the Corps of Engineers’ officer training where I learned about planning and building bridges, roads, structures, etc. I learned a little, very little, tactics. So I applied for Ranger School.
Ranger School was the best life preparation school I ever attended. I expected to be a skilled soldier when I graduated. What I did not expect was to learn so many practical management skills—skills that I would use repeatedly in business. Ranger School’s mission is to teach young officers to lead and manage small units in the harshest of combat situations.
Ranger training was intense. It was 8 weeks and 2 days long with 2 eight-hour breaks—literally. We were in training 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I lost 45 pounds because when we were in the field—which was most of the time—we only got one meal per day. Ranger training was very demanding. There were 165 of us who started and 52 who graduated. I certainly learned tactics and leadership. I am convinced that those skills kept me and those who were trusted to me alive in Vietnam.
It was no surprise that Ranger training builds character and self-confidence. On several occasions I was convinced that I could not go any farther. But I refused to quit. I refused to not go on. I learned how to dig deep. I discovered that I could do far more than I thought. So can you.
What did come as a surprise was that I developed practical management skills. It taught me how to evaluate people’s capabilities quickly, how to prioritize, how to keep teams coordinated, how to explain tasks in the most simple and straightforward way possible, and how to know if someone understands the instructions completely before they start.
Of all the many unexpected lessons, the biggest one I took from Ranger School was that the people who succeed are the ones who refuse to fail.
After Ranger training, I was assigned to Germany. My orders no longer said that I was on a trajectory to Vietnam.
My first assignment, as is traditional for green second lieutenants, was to be platoon leader. One incident still stands out as a life changing experience.
We were combat engineers assigned to build a bridge by hand in bitter winter cold. It was obvious that we would not be finished before two or three in the morning. Even though we were in blowing snow, we had our coats off and were sweating. About 3 in the afternoon I sent Corporal Wells into the nearest village with all the money I had on me. I told him to buy ice cream sandwiches.
At midnight, I stopped the operations and passed out the ice cream. There were old sergeants in my platoon who had been in the Army longer than I had been alive. They were the ones who had tears in their eyes when I handed out the sandwiches.
I had really bonded with that platoon because I showed them that I cared. It was not a carefully orchestrated event. It was spontaneous. I don’t think that compassion is something that can be faked. Yet it pays off in spades.
Once you know people, it is hard not to care about them. When I first became their platoon leader, I spent time talking to them all, learning about their ambitions, background, aspirations, problems, skill, accomplishments, etc. So that is something I have done since then.
The final proof of their loyalty to me was when I was assigned to Vietnam. Two of them, Corporal Welles and Private Foote, wanted to go with me.
A year after entering the Army I was promoted to first lieutenant and given command of A Company in that same battalion. Now I was responsible for 4 platoons rather than one.
The high point of that assignment was when we were sent to Hohenfels near the Czech border to build roads and buildings. My battalion commander, Colonel Hartman, trusted me to operate independently while he took the other 4 companies to Grafenwehr. He also assigned three platoons from an equipment company to help me. This put my strength at 160 with 75 pieces of heavy construction equipment. We were good engineers — good enough to be given the highest priority for supplies on the post — and that is a good measure for success. But that was not the most memorable metric.
The part of those four months that means the most to me was complaints. I should say the lack of complaints. We worked 10 hours every day and 5 hours on Sunday. I had a policy that when someone wanted to talk to me, they could make an appointment with my clerk and I would find time to talk to them within 24 hours. When we were in barracks, I would hear at least two complaints every day. During that entire period, I only had one complaint. The complaint was that the soldier did not have a job assigned to him and he wanted to work.
The lessons I took from this incident were that when people can see the results of their work, know why the work is being done, and are appreciated for what they are doing, they will work very hard without complaining. The pride of doing a good job is a strong motivator. Also, people want to belong to a successful team. These two motivators don’t come into play until they can see tangible results and when their colleagues are enthusiastic about the work.
As I was truly enjoying my time as a company commander, I was surprised by a personal letter directly from the Pentagon. It seems that I was being ‘honored’ by being selected to go to Vietnam because of my ranger training and command experience. Of the 52 lieutenants in my battalion, I was the only one selected for Vietnam. I didn’t feel honored; I felt scared.
The day after I arrived, I was promoted to captain. That clearly was an honor, but I would have rather been a lieutenant in Germany building roads, bridges, and structures.
I was assigned to be the senior adviser of the only ranger-engineer company in the South Vietnamese Army. An interesting job, but the senior advisers of the ranger battalions were lieutenants. Since battalions are made of companies, my boss, Colonel Knight, though better and assigned me to be a battalion adviser as well.
Since the Americans provided the helicopters for the airmobile operations, and the Americans did not want to take orders from the Vietnamese, I was always the mission commander during airmobile mission. Because all of our missions were airmobile, I got a lot of combat command experience.
I took another very useful lesson away from this experience and I’ll bet it will surprise you. By making Americans commanders for the most crucial part of the operation, we were undermining the credibility in the eyes of their own soldiers. In combat, that can be deadly. We were also denying them very valuable experience.
The civilian analogy is making someone a department manager but not letting them manage their department. That’s crazy. I learned that when I give someone a task, whether it is to type a letter or to be the CEO of a corporation, to let them do the task all the time. Tell them what is expected, give them advice but don’t take the job away from them especially at the most crucial time.
For the rest of my year in Vietnam, I went on to other advisory and command positions. I earned a fist full of medals including the highest award that an American two-star general could give and the highest one a Vietnamese three-star could give. I won’t deny that I am proud of them—by the way, they were both for ideas that made our operations significantly more effective, not for heroism. My greatest benefit from Vietnam was perspective.
My Vietnam perspective:
- Effective management is not possible without good leadership.
- Manage by listening, coaching and building consensus.
- I am now a true believer in being the manager without authority whether my position grants me authority or not.
- Don’t be afraid to assert authority when all else has failed.
- Cultural differences are extremely important and cannot be ignored.
I returned to the States, left the Army and joined the Army Reserve. I was promoted to major and then to lieutenant colonel.
After some soul searching, I applied to be the battalion commander of a Special Operating Forces battalion. My battalion was activated and sent to Haiti to be part of the United Nations Mission in Haiti.
I was eventually put in command of all Special Operations Forces in Haiti. This included Green Berets, Psychological Operations, and Civil Affairs. That was a strange situation because most of the Green Berets were active Army and resented being put under a reservist commander.
Once again this was a time that I had to rely on the skills I had learned in Vietnam: how to manage as though I had no authority even when I did. Getting them to believe that a decision is theirs and not mine resulted in much less confrontation and much more cooperation.
While on Haiti, I was notified that I would be promoted to colonel. (Colonel is one promotion away from general.) Of the 152 lieutenant colonels considered for colonel, only three of us were selected.
Two years after returning to civilian life, I was pulled back into the Army and sent to the Balkans as part of the US involvement in Bosnia. This would be my third Special Ops command in a combat zone. Strangely enough, my greatest accomplishments were in public relations—another very useful skill to develop.
In total, I spent 33 years as a commissioned officer, commanded Special Operations Forces in combat three times, (one of my combat commands was not SOF) and received 30+ medals and badges from various nations, NATO and the UN. The medals include three that were the highest that an American two-star general could award, one that was the highest that a Vietnamese three-star could give and another that was the highest possible from an American three-star. It’s nice to be publicly acknowledged.
I learned more useful management and leadership lessons in the Army than in all my management training both formal and informal. But the time I spent with the Army and the Army Reserve certainly slowed down and disrupted my civilian career. I don’t regret a day of it.