I recently hung up my uniform for the last time.
In my four years as a U.S. Army officer, I’m extremely grateful that I got to work with great teammates on things that mattered, make progress toward my own goals, and come back in one piece from a combat deployment.
This is the most important thing I learned:
When I was a junior lieutenant, my commander made us run outside when the temperature was 30 below zero until sweat froze through our watch-caps. In the summer, we’d hike around in full kit with multiple 45 pound gym plates in our rucksacks.
We weren’t extraordinarily tough people or top athletes, but the lesson was that you can prepare for anything, even uncertainty. To face the unknown, the idea was that the best thing to do was make sure your heart, lungs, and legs could keep walking forward no matter what.
“And most importantly”, my commander said, “on the night it counts it’s too late to prepare.”
Preparing for that one night became my religion. My parents were immigrants from China who taught me hard work and keeping your head down were the cornerstones of the path to success. Don’t get involved in things — don’t make waves. Standing up under enemy fire and taking charge flew in the face of all those lessons (waaay too risky) and that’s why I loved being in the Army.
I spent the rest of my Army career preparing for that one night. I went to Ranger School and learned to be tired and hungry for long stretches of time, so that on that night I wouldn’t let my personal discomfort get in the way. I took the guys in my platoon on long hilly runs, because on that night it’s too late to prepare your heart and legs.
Last year, I deployed to Iraq to combat a growing ISIS that was threatening to march into Baghdad and overturn the Iraqi government. I knew that I had to be ready to do the right thing when it counted. This was the reason I joined the Army. This is why I dropped out of Harvard and made my parents cry. This is why I woke up at zero dark thirty to run laps in the dark. I looked forward to Iraq with both anticipation and fear.
9 months later I came back without experiencing any real danger.
We took a couple rockets over the walls, but they weren’t accurate and I never felt the raw, animal sense of relief and joy of survival that I knew from finishing bold rock climbs or narrowly missing a car accident. I was happy that I wasn’t hurt, that none of my guys were hurt, but I felt not completely whole.
I had missed my chance.
After I got back, I was sent one of those random missions the Army makes up to take up time while Soldiers are not deployed. A National Guard Division was participating in a sprawling virtual war-game and I was in charge of the simulation operators.
When a general in the war-game wanted to move some simulated rocket trucks 3o kilometers west to counter a virtual Warsaw Pact brigade, my guys would click the screen and move the unit in the computer sim. Basically, playing a real time strategy game based on instructions from somebody else. Too easy, as they say in the army.
Our team of 20 simulation operators and I flew to a base in Kansas City where we spent two weeks fighting what turned out to be a war against boredom, sitting behind our workstations waiting for the phone to ring. The last day, a couple hours before we were supposed to head home, two of the Soldiers on my team walked in looking visibly upset.
A case of mistaken identity.
It was a large war-game and thousands of Soldiers from different places were all temporarily working at this Kansas base.
The two Soldiers, who were black men, were mistaken for two other black Soldiers who were “acting rowdy” in the dining hall.
The guard in the dining hall brought them to the sergeant in charge, who yelled at them, and gave them a disciplinary counseling.
For those not in the Army, a disciplinary counseling is a slap on the wrist, an administrative punishment that nobody remembers after a week. But it’s terrible to be punished for something you didn’t do when it’s only because you bear a passing physical resemblance to someone else.
I made an appointment to meet with the facility’s chief of staff, the officer who ran the day to day operations of the base. I thought optimistically that we could get an apology and an explanation and all would end well.
“We’re not apologizing,” said the chief of staff, a senior officer who outranked me, as soon as the Soldiers and I entered the room.
“Even if there was a mistake, you guys should just get thicker skin,” he told us before he walked us out of his office.
Something about how these two Soldiers had been treated felt wrong, but I wasn’t sure if it broke any specific rules and practically speaking, it seemed like the best idea to just drop the whole thing. I wasn’t sure what to do, and nothing in my Army career had prepared me for this.
In the end, I decided to let the two Soldiers, Specialist Wilson and Private Jones*, make the call.
There were two options:
- stay silent and let it be forgotten
- make a formal complaint with the Equal Opportunity office and perhaps create the perception we were troublemakers from out of town
Wilson and Jones jointly decided they wanted to make a complaint.
Every Army base has a Equal Opportunity officer who investigates complaints where Soldiers feel that they have not been fairly treated based on race, religion, gender, or national origin.
We called the base Equal Opportunity officer and she came over and ordered a mediation between Specialist Wilson and Private Jones and the chief of staff of the facility.
The mediation was a fact finding session where each party stated their narrative of the facts, the incident in the dining hall, the punishment afterward.
Specialist Wilson and Private Jones said that they felt that had been unfairly singled out because of their race. They said that based on eye witness accounts of other Soldiers, they couldn’t have been in the dining hall at the same time as the Soldiers who were allegedly “being rowdy”. They were on the clock, working at that time. They stated that the guard had not been too concerned with ensuring that they were the actual offenders before they were brought in.
The chief of staff questioned the Wilson and Jones’ recounting of the facts. But he wasn’t a eye witness and it was clear that he was not interested in arguing the facts, but instead just wanted to put the situation to bed.
The mediator, the Equal Opportunity officer, reminded us that the mediation’s purpose wasn’t to find wrongdoing, but to create some consensus outcome that we could all agree on.
In the end, the chief of staff declined to make an apology but agreed to rescind the punishment. Specialist Wilson and Private Jones, although not completely satisfied with the outcome, did get a chance to tell their side of the story. Everyone shook hands as they walked out and agreed to do better next time.
Not a perfect ending, but an acceptable one.
I’m not sure if I struck the right balance between getting in the way and not doing enough. I guess when I joined the Army, I expected that when it counted, there would be a clear choice to make and that I would be expected to step forward and make myself known as a leader.
I think I learned a lot of valuable lessons from the experience.
I learned that in every participatory system (countries, companies, even rigid bureaucracies, like the Army), by having a valid cause and going through the right process, you can make people more powerful have to pause their day to listen to your side of the story. You can achieve outcomes that, while imperfect, allow you to say what you need to.
And I learned that sometimes being a leader doesn’t mean being the person in charge, but instead empowering others as part of a team and community. Sometimes, on the night it counts, the best call is to let others speak.
*Names used in this post are fictional