FORT RILEY, KS, MAY 19, 2021

Five distinguished individuals from in and outside military ranks joined the 1st Infantry Division on Wednesday to participate in the Big Red One Year of Honor Leadership Professional Development series. This is the third such event the division has hosted as part of the year-long observance, which also honors the division’s 37 Medal of Honor recipients.

The five panelists included three Army Soldiers and two civilian first responders.

The panel consisted of Sgt. 1st Class Patrick Miller, a former prisoner of war and Silver Star recipient, Sgt. 1st Class Raphael Collins, a Silver Star recipient, Sgt. 1st Class Jose Arocha, a Silver Star recipient, Lt. Ryan Mellen, from the Topeka Fire Department, and Capt. Erin Freidline, from the Riley County Police Department. 1st Infantry Division staff member Lt. Col. Russell Brown moderated the panel.

The panel discussion revealed that their individual experiences are what led them throughout their various career paths, but they all had a resounding commonality—the drive to serve.

The panels’ moderator, Brown, prompted, “the aspect of 9/11 and service; I think a lot of folks in our generation have that story and can really relate to the sense of duty and having to do something,” after Mellen recounted that the attacks were what initially called him to serve.

Each panelist had their own story of why they decided to serve and lead within their organizations, and at some point, they all intersected in ideals.

Arocha described his story as one of change and the drive to be a part of something bigger. He said that he always wanted to be a “soldier, police officer, firefighter, I knew I wanted to serve.” He began his journey in Venezuela, but when Arocha was 12 he immigrated to the United States so he could serve a community he believed in.

The lessons Arocha learned along the way is what he said shaped him into the Soldier he is today. His time in the Army has been surrounded by sound leaders, so he strives to continue that idea with those he leads.

“In my opinion, it’s engagement. What I try to do is create an environment where they have a sense of purpose, and engaging them throughout the workday,” said Arocha when asked about leading the new generation of soldiers.

Collins’ sense of leadership mirrored Arocha’s, an audience member asked, “what advice do you have for younger junior officers in how to lead in and out of combat?” Collins, replied, “you have to be that same leader every day, your soldiers expect to see that same guy or gal that leads the platoon. They don’t want to see someone new every time something happens.”

The other panelists agreed with that statement. Arocha said, “be a leader of character and always be yourself. That’s what you will project to your Soldiers by being a leader of character, you won’t have to tell them you're their leader.”

Leading takes more than consistency and predictability, it also requires important connections with the individuals within the organization. In Freidline’s experience at the Riley County Police Department, she found that creating bonds keeps the entire team healthy as a whole.

“You rely on each other a lot of times, that’s your family. There might be weird humor, but at the end of the day, those are your guys, your family,” said Freidline.

Mellen’s take on creating bonds included this sentiment. The Topeka Fire Department has small stations all across the capital city, and so within those stations, it’s critical, in Mellen’s opinion, to maintain durable bonds.

He said, “We train to build up those people with strengths, as well as help those people with weaknesses, we share with each other. We share life together, so it’s not so much just a job, but more like a second family.”

From strong bonds to strong commands, leadership encompasses a multi-faceted corner of societal influence. Each panelist drove a different point of view about their leadership journey.

Oftentimes, tools to lead are given at childhood, all of the panelists had a similar story regarding how they became the leaders they are today.

Miller said, “I was raised to not quit, if you start something, finish it, even if you fail, finish it.”

“I never saw anyone serve and give up their time and money as much as my parents, especially my father. When that’s your household, it’s all I’ve ever known and I knew it was what I wanted to do,” said Mellen.

“I was taught to never quit, so I never quit,” said Collins.

Although some tools are learned along the way, “at some point, I have to shut up and listen. A lot of people have good [or bad] stories with or without criminal activity, and sometimes they just need someone to listen,” said Freidline.

Another key aspect covered by the panelists was the idea of open dialogue within the workplace. First responders and soldiers are often exposed to traumatic situations and experiences, and an audience member asked, “how do you, as a senior leader, discuss trauma and get those younger guys to open up?”

Each panelist had an opinion on the subject, “I know how much my major cares about me, so I try to continue that down the chain of command,” said Freidline.

“Interacting with soldiers on a daily basis, even in passing by—it creates a baseline for individuals that I interact with. When that baseline is off, I know that something is wrong. It gives them a space to open up with me or another individual,” said Arocha.

“Follow-up is necessary in everything we do, so why wouldn’t we follow-up with an individual who is at risk or could be at risk?” said Collins.