Sea Stories, Chapter 2

I know it says Sea Stories and yes, we’ll get to the Navy stories soon enough. But I couldn’t leave my Army days without one more story and the lesson it shaped me with. Then, next week, I promise nautical shenanigans begin.

After I completed Army boot camp, I went on to advanced training for my MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) that would be my ‘job’ other than just being a soldier. I was a 44B10. Old Army dudes know that as a Metalworker, primarily welding. Why welding, you ask? Why not? I wanted to learn to do something I didn’t know how to do and have a skillset. (I was before my time on today’s Twitter gurus and multiple income streams!)

I headed off to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in northern Maryland. The APG is home to multiple Army schools and the Army’s Ordnance Museum (a highly recommended visit). In my time, it’s where the ‘new’ Abrams tank was being tested and evaluated. It was also to be my home for the next 6 months of intensive metalworking training. Everything from simple cutting torch to arc and MIG and TIG welding, and some auto body repair, paint and finish schools to boot. A good education and I was getting paid for it!

I adapted to the training well and as far as training goes, I did fine. I found the certain Zen in welding that welders know about. I found an artform in the beads, a comfort in the process and the accomplishment of mastering a new skill. (And for me, learning and being taught how to weld as a left hander was just an added challenge)

Where I really took off was in my leadership development. I figured out how to be pretty good at being in the Army and how to lead a group of peers without rank to give me authority, but how to lead purely by convincing a group of the things we should or shouldn’t do.

I became the ‘platoon student leader’ which meant I was responsible for our class of about 30 soldiers. We had a Staff Sergeant assigned to us as a type of Drill Instructor, but it was more relaxed than boot camp. I was the student leader, and this gained me some perks ( a private room, not the open bay barracks, a real bed and not having to do guard duty or other tasks).

I first learned that all though I assigned the cleaning tasks and other ‘chores’ around the barracks, the men seemed to like the fact that I still chipped in anyway and helped out with the work. Sure, I didn’t have to, but to me, it didn’t seem right. Little did i know I was exhibiting leadership and good leadership at that. Never ask your subordinates to do something you aren’t willing to do.

I also never used my head of the line privileges at the chow hall. Leaders eat last. I was doing that before someone wrote it a book.

The one thing I did do that served myself but also served my team was something called “Colonel’s Orderly” At the school, you would be assigned guard duty. At 1600 everyday, the night guard roster had to muster with the Staff NCO for assignments and inspections. If you passed inspection with an outstanding and could answer all the general orders, Army trivia and other training questions, the Staff NCO could award someone as “Colonel’s Orderly”. It was a ceremonious title, but it got you a certificate, and it got you out of guard duty for the night. You had a free night off.

Well, I had learned and enjoyed the fine art of soldiering. I loved pressing the uniform, shining my boots, the trivia, the military bearing. All of it suited me to a tee. So, I devised a plan. See, as student leader, I didn’t have to stand guard duty anyway. But, since I was good at having a flawless uniform and could pass the inspection hands down, I started taking my men’s guard assignments for our platoon.

They didn’t have to worry about getting a uniform ready, they knew I could, so I’d go to guard muster and pass the inspection with flying colors and receive the Colonel’s Orderly award, get the night off and my platoon wouldn’t have to stand guard duty. Perfect, huh?

About that. It was until it wasn’t. See, our Staff Sergeant found out what we were doing, and he set me straight on a couple of things. He agreed I had good intentions and he acknowledged I was the sharpest Soldier in the bunch, but was I really being a good leader by not making my platoon share the guard burden and not attempt at being as sharp and polished as I was?

I then got the picture. Sometimes my platoon wouldn’t pass the inspections, sometimes they’d fail. But if I had taught them all my tricks and tips for having that squared away uniform, and they tried, I had done my job. So, I turned to helping them be all they could be. I taught them about the old liquid Johnson floor wax on the boots, the cardboard cuffs inside the pants leg when you bloused the boots, the starch tips, the trivia, the everything. I became a knowledge dump.

And they went on to win their fair share of Colonel’s Orderlies for themselves.

The leadership lessons came quick and fast that 6 months. They would last a lifetime.