From Afghanistan to West Point: Junior leaders offer advice to cadets
October 19, 2011
WEST POINT, N.Y. (Oct. 19, 2011) -- The junior officer deliberately removed her eye protection to look her Soldiers in the eyes. She kept her emotions in check and told the formation that five of their comrades had died in an improvised explosive device attack. It was a gut-wrenching moment, but she wanted to project strength to this tight-knit military police platoon from Fort Richardson, Alaska.
A video-teleconference at Robinson Auditorium Oct. 12 linked cadets from the West Point Capstone Course (MX400) with officers serving in Afghanistan. One of the questions asked to the panel of junior leaders was how they deal with death and injury during deployment.
"They're your Soldiers, so you have to stay strong for them," 1st Lt. Rionnon Blaisdell-Black told the West Point Class of 2012. "Your reactions drive their reactions, and however they see you act is the course they're going to follow because they look up to you, trust you and they know you'll make the right decisions."
Moderating the event in Afghanistan was the commander of Combined Joint Task Force-1CD, Maj. Gen. Daniel Allyn. Shortly after graduating from West Point in 1981, the young lieutenant deployed as a platoon leader in support of Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada. It wasn't until a few years later as a company commander, during Operation Just Cause in Panama, that he first experienced what it was like to lose a Soldier.
"It is incredibly, incredibly difficult," he said. "It's something you as a leader have to prepare yourself for before you get in the position because the reality is in our business there are people trying to kill us. Everything we do, every single day--even in garrison (or) in a training environment--is high risk."
Allyn told the cadets that their West Point training will provide them with all the tools to meet the leadership challenges after graduation. Be confident and be ready to lead, he advised.
"From the moment you take your platoon, be ready," Allyn said. "We've had at least three operations here since we took over in mid-May where a company commander got wounded and a company executive officer is very rapidly commanding the company in various intense combat. The time to figure out that you wish you had prepared is not then. Be ready."
Respect trumps popularity, and it is better to be admired for leading well than being liked, Allyn advised the cadets. Officers must exude confidence, competence and compassion--and be authentic about it.
"Be yourself," Allyn said. "Don't try to be John Wayne, or whoever you think is the best leader ever. Be yourself, stay within yourself and be confident in your abilities. Then get out there and lead. Soldiers can figure out a fake in about 30 seconds. Once that occurs, it's very hard to step back and recover from."
Class of 2012 Cadet Michael Manzano, Company B-1, enjoyed the way Allyn moderated the VTC and provided perspective from his 30-year Army career.
"Besides the experience he brought to the group, he was also a great speaker who is noticeably very passionate about his job," he said. "This combination of characteristics enabled his message to really hit home with a lot of us in the audience."
Nearly 75 percent of West Point faculty is comprised of active duty Army servicemembers, many of whom have served multiple combat deployments. Nevertheless, it's a rare opportunity for cadets to communicate with officers in theater.
"Through our classes and West Point's organizational structure, we do spend a significant amount of time with officers who have deployed but rarely with company grade officers who are currently on deployment, such as the platoon leaders, executive officers and company commanders that this opportunity afforded us," Manzano said.
In 2009, Capt. Benjamin Daughters took command of his newly stood up company at Fort Knox, Ky., and deployed with them in January--not a typical change of command experience and far different than when junior officers join their units in theater.
"It's a unique challenge from the standpoint that I was able to mold the culture of my unit right from the beginning, which was a great opportunity," Daughters, who commissioned from Ohio University's ROTC program in 2004, said.
Daughters spoke to the cadets about the challenges of counterinsurgency operations and working with the Afghan National Army. While fighting a persistent counterinsurgency entrenched in the community, Daughters said it is crucial to win over the civilians in his area of operation. This means partnering with the government, the military and security forces to improve their capabilities, providing stability to the economy.
"And, all at the same time, we're engaging the enemy in ground combat," Daughters said. "So at the small unit level, there's some pretty complex, constantly changing and, sometimes, frustrating challenges."
One cadet asked about mistakes they should avoid when they begin their Army careers. Capt. John Dean, the only aviation officer on the panel, said he concentrated too much on flying and neglected the maintenance component of his job--a mistake he made early in his career.
Blaisdell-Black, a 2009 ROTC graduate from the University of Richmond, emphasized the importance of property, something that never weighed heavily in ROTC training. However, as a platoon leader responsible for millions of dollars worth of equipment, paperwork and accountability matter.
It was this blend of experiences from different branch officers that Manzano found interesting.
They heard from an ordnance officer suggesting that adaptability was key to being a logistician, while an infantry officer stressed technical and tactical knowledge. A company commander spoke in broad terms of full spectrum COIN operations, but also shared characteristics of a good platoon leader.
"I think where the real benefit came from, though, was hearing where these officers prioritized the points they made. …bringing in officers of different positions and different branches really allowed us to not only gain perspective on officership but also examine the values and mindsets these different branches and positions require," Manzano said.