As the NFL draft proceeds tonight for a select group of college football players and others practice for interviews as they go pro in something else, the US Military Academy seniors who won the Armed Forces Bowl Game last December prepare for commissioning as second lieutenants in the US Army.
Last week seniors safety Jordan Trimble, center Carson Homme, and slotback Patrick Mealy, their 1,000 classmates and one hundred Reserve Officer Training Corps seniors from around the country heard a spirited presentation given by USMA '80 graduate Major General Vincent K. Brooks. This talk was part of the "Battle Command Conference" organized by the Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic, designed to help senior cadets prepare for the responsibilities they will soon assume as Army officers.
The challenges Gen. Brooks described for the former football players and their colleagues reflect the unique situations they will likely face going in harms way leading platoons in the Army. I was very appreciative that USMA officials invited me to sit in and listen to General Brook's remarks.
Major General Brooks is the commanding officer of the First Infantry Division based at Fort Riley, Kansas. Just back from Iraq, he described the satisfaction of witnessing the accomplishments achieved by US forces,
"To see progress, and what few veterans see with their own eyes, to see what it is to win".
Acknowledging that with the upheaval of culture and religion in the world, Gen Brooks told the audience that,
"None can predict predict what is going to happen". He cited global warming and natural disasters such as earthquakes in Japan and Haiti, and a mudslide in Korea as,
“Worse than any weapon for causing destruction”.
The former West Point “First Captain” stated that the big questions the soon to be commissioned cadets might be asking themselves are,
"Do I have what it takes, will I be ready for the first bad day?
Offering advice, the General who has served in five of the army's ten divisions answered the question by saying, "Have confidence in what has been set within you", but warned,
"Your soldiers will expect you to be ready, when you arrive, you lead right away, the apprenticeship is over the day you take the oath of office".
Describing that his first unit he was assigned to was a mortar platoon, not what he expected as a prospective infantry officer, the thirty-one year veteran Army officer stressed flexibility, "Lead the platoon you get".
General Brooks described the importance of building relationships with the Non Commissioned Officers and described how he built a relationship with the first sergeant he worked with, a demanding Vietnam veteran.
Addressing the challenge for many young officers today when assigned to a veteran unit which has been through multiple deployments,
"Tell them who you are and what you expect, and try to identify a skill or special knowledge you bring to the unit" that will help them, keep them focused on what is ahead”.
He developed the point that the Army must not lock in on the experiences of the past, but prepare for constant change while utilizing the experience of its soldiers.
General Brooks challenged the prospective US Army Second Lieutenants on three key points:
“Be ready on arrival, soldiers will watch everything you do, demonstrate who you are by your actions”. The General talked about being prepared for bad days and moments when the unexpected happens, such as if a bomb goes off, or sniper fire is received, or as recently happened, news comes that pay may be delayed. He told the audience to be ready to handle the question, “What do we do now sir?”
“All the time, listen to your NCOs, listen to your soldiers” the General said, emphasizing that the young officers should be ready to probe if they believe a soldier has an issue, whether military or personal, that they may be hesitant to mention. He cautioned that when a soldier confides in an officer, to point them in the right direction and handle the situation and information appropriately so that in the future, soldiers “Will trust you to handle it well”.
“Apply the knowledge given to you, put it to use. Keep learning, you will never have all the answers. Learn how to deal with stress, translate stress into action and orders, learn from feedback, and learn from operations”.
About the seriousness of command, Gen. Brooks said, “Judges and military commanders are the only professions in which the authority is given to restrict the liberties of fellow citizens”. He added,
“Don’t put your soldiers at risk unnecessarily, and share that risk.”
Addressing a question regarding how to lead an Army which may be serving more time at garrison on base, than it has the past decade of nearly constant deployments,
“Sharpen the sword, all the time. Practice combat skills, focus on honing your craft, exercise skills, keep high standards, take care of your unit, never take short cuts. Remind troops why their service matters”.
Addressing concerns about budgets, he said, “We operate with the resources provided, we may have to do with less programs, but we never say “no” and we will still be the best Army in the world.”
Ken Kraetzer hosts the Sons of the American Legion Radio Report broadcast every Monday at 2:30 PM on WVOX radio in New Rochelle, NY and nationally on WVOX.com. This past year he covered West Point football and Iona College basketball. Reach him on firstname.lastname@example.org.