EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- Leaders must know their Soldiers in order to motivate them. That was a consistent theme of advice provided by many of this year’s MacArthur Leadership Award recipients.
“Different people are motivated differently and you’ve got to be able to learn and figure out what motivates your individual Soldier,” said Capt. Samuel Kuenker, S3 for the 6th Ranger Training Battalion.
Kuenker is one of the 28 company-grade officers and warrant officers from across the Army’s three components selected for the award given to those who reflect the leadership ideals for which Gen. Douglas MacArthur stood.
Motivating Soldiers is one of the first two things Kuenker talks about to Ranger School students when he meets them at the bayou patrol base for the beginning of the swamp phase.
The other is flexibility with plans. Leaders must be in charge and have a plan, he said. “But just don’t get stuck on that plan. You have to be able to react to whatever the changing environment and conditions are, and still be able to execute that plan.”
As operations officer of the Ranger battalion at Eglin Air Force Base, he schedules and oversees the training, orders the ammunition and takes care of all other details to ensure the 17 days of training in the swamp go off without a hitch. It’s the final phase of what he says many consider the Army’s “premiere leadership school.”
He also still serves as an instructor, whenever he can spare a 30-hour stint.
“I’ve got to be able to de-conflict it with executing my duties as the S3, but I try to get out there at least once a class to maintain my proficiency.
“Also it’s a little bit of a reprieve and refreshing to be able to engage with Soldiers, to try to coach, teach and mentor -- and help set them up for success.”
When not out in the Yellow River or bayou, Kuenker is often coordinating training essentials for the final phase of the Ranger School. To order the ammunition and other equipment needed for training, he must work within the confines of the Air Force system at Eglin, “which is much different” from what Soldiers are accustomed to, he said.
The 6th Ranger Training Battalion at Eglin has 182 Soldiers, including its 78 instructors. The first thing many staff officers do when they arrive is qualify as instructors, he said.
“I’m still a certified instructor … so I still walk with Ranger students,” Kuenker said.
The latest Ranger class arrived at Eglin June 6 and headed out to Camp James E. Rudder. There, they have been learning waterborne operations, movements using inflatable zodiac boats, stream crossings, reptile familiarity and how to recognize which snakes are poisonous. Another danger is poisonous spiders, including the brown recluse and black widow.
“I was one of the fortunate ones who made it straight through” Ranger School, he said about when he was a student several years ago. Only an average of about 30 percent make it through without being recycled, he added.
Ranger class sizes range from about 190 to 230 students, he said, and more than 2,500 go through the course each year. That includes about 50 women who have graduated from Ranger School in the last three years.
“I try to take care of my subordinates as much as I can,” Kuenker said. “Taking care of them sets me up for success. I determine my success from what they’re able to do.”
Before coming to the Ranger battalion, Kuenker served as a company commander with the 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Before that he was a platoon leader with 1st Bn., 17th Inf. Rgt. at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.
He went to Afghanistan as a platoon leader in 2012-2013 where his troops completed missions in the Panjwayi and Zharay districts.
Then as a company commander in 2016-2017, he deployed to Bagram Air Base where the company had training missions across Afghanistan.
During that deployment, he said one of the most difficult missions they had was to re-establish a coalition presence in the Tarin Khowt district of southern Afghanistan.
“We had to go in there with a limited force to a place that coalition forces had not been in five or six years and re-establish the security posture,” Kuenker said. He explained that his troops were under constant threat of rocket attacks.
“I had a great group of Soldiers working for me,” he said. They were able to complete the mission without any injuries, he added, and the coalition presence they established at Tarin Khowt still has a long-lasting effect there today.
One of the most important things a leader will ever do, he said, “no matter what type of unit they’re in, is they’ve got to be able to motivate their Soldiers.
“You can’t just sit there and yell at people,” he said. “That’s not really leadership. That’s not going to get the job done.”
(Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of four leadership profiles of MacArthur award recipients. The award is normally presented in May or early June, but due to COVID-19, the ceremony scheduled to take place in the Pentagon in October.)