Image of Logar Province courtesy of Flikr user isafmedia.
**Editor’s Note: Last Monday, 22 September, Author/Director Sebastian Junger, along with Major Dan Kearney and Producer Nick Quested of Goldcrest Films, visited West Point to screen their film, Korengal. In one of the question and answer sessions, Kearney mentioned how difficult the terrain was in Afghanistan – in specific, that his unit had a number of rolled/broken ankles in the Korengal Valley. This comment reminded me of First Lieutenant Scott Ginther’s excellent post in describing his experience thus far as a junior officer. The film, I think, does well explaining Afghanistan’s tough geography. More importantly, it describes the moral and human terrain of solders that have served in combat. For soon to be second lieutenants: you will lead in an organization comprised of men and women with these experiences. You will soon perform a “movement to contact” to them in the Army – learning about them and what combat was like for them – is a great piece of intelligence about, perhaps, your future squad leaders and platoon sergeants.
What follows is a (powerful) clip from the film, as well as First Lieutenant Ginther’s original post.
By First Lieutenant Scott Ginther
FOB SHANK, LOGAR PROVINCE, AFGHANISTAN
After ardently attempting once to write an essay on “what I know now that I wish I knew then,” I realized that writing even just a two or three paged paper is something cadets do not want to read. This being said, when I was posed with this task I swore I would do three things: 1) provide an honest answer, 2) express the truth in the most unvarnished way possible, and 3) keep things short. Therefore, I have decided to make a list that cadets can squeeze in between their class and sports demands, and their beloved naps and “Not Being At West Point” time.
1. You’re not going to be the greatest Platoon Leader Ever – This is hard to come to grips with for new lieutenants. Especially considering the competitive spirit among most West Pointers – and Soldiers at-large. The reality is most Soldiers in your future platoons will have between 5-12 platoon leaders before they become Sergeants First Class. Chances are they’ve had someone better than you. This is not a knock on personal talent or capability, but rather a matter of perspective. Excluding outliers, most new platoon leaders have zero experience in the Army. You are there to learn and make yourself better, not be the subject matter expert.
2. You may not be the greatest, but you’re the most responsible – Again, this is another facet that is hard to come to terms with. You may not be the most experienced in terms of tactics, time or doctrine, but you’re the only one that has been formally trained on leading. Your job is to take responsibility. You are the best qualified member of your platoon to pull your Soldiers together collectively and make things happen. You control your own consequences.
3. “Should” is the most dangerous word in the Army – As a lieutenant when your PSG, XO, CO and especially your Soldiers ask you questions – no matter how important – you cannot respond with “It should be done already, sir.” Or, “We should be at this grid coordinate.” Check on things and get oversight so you don’t have to say “I should not have done that, sir.”
4. Don’t be tougher than you have to but don’t be indulgent either – If you try and John Wayne your way through PL time and you’re really more of a Woody Allen, your Soldiers will instantly see your roués and not respond to you. Be YOURSELF.
5. Most of the time you’ll have no idea what you’re doing – This cold bucket of water is strange and uncomfortable at first, but you’ll have many tasks assigned to you at once that you’re going to have no idea where to start. I have gotten farther on problems just by deciding to dig in somewhere and not stop working or asking questions until circumstances become clear. You WILL figure things out. Turn off your $250,000 educated-brain for a second and stop arriving at the conclusion that the world is going to end because of you. Just close your eyes, grit your teeth and clear the jump door.
6. Your parents probably did a better job prepping you for leadership than anyone – If your parents taught you to get along with everybody as a kid, work in school, made you clean your room, be home by curfew and they trusted you, you’ll be alright. Being a good, honest person has gotten me much farther in my relationships in the Army than I ever expected.
7. West Pointers are spoiled – Yes you are. Even if you’re the nicest most considerate person in the world, you won’t realize the gift and legacy West Point is bestowing on you until well after you’ve graduated. The organizational infrastructure and support – let alone the Ivy League quality education – is something that can’t be matched. There’s a reason why West Point ranks in Forbes Magazine’s top five universities in the country on nearly a consecutive basis. Don’t squander the opportunities you have because of the infamous “cadet cynicism.” This Academy has been in business for 200+ years.
8. Start ruck marching – Do it a lot, and do it often. Especially if you plan on branching infantry, no one really cares how much you can bench. Your Soldiers are going to care how far you can take them in the disgusting, soupy Georgia heat and humidity with Banana Spiders hanging in the vines in front of your face. Furthermore, bench pressing is not going to get you your “Go” at Ranger School anyway. The mountains of Dahlonega are unforgiving to body builders and top heavy guys.
9. Band of Brothers, Black Hawk Down, The Unforgiving Minute and other sources – Just because you read these books and saw these movies doesn’t make you an expert on warfare or the next Chris Kyle or Mike Murphy. Furthermore, these sources are not the benchmarks for which you should measure the fallibility of tactical or technical opinions and TTPs of others around you. These are personal accounts and reflections on leadership, personal challenges and demons, and should supplement your development as a leader, Soldier and as a person.
10. Don’t focus on being a badass – Focus on being the PL your Soldiers need you to be. Finding, fixing and finishing the enemies of the United States with extreme prejudice is awesome, but as an officer, you’re not a trigger puller. Your main weapon system is thirty-five to forty other trigger pullers. Learn when to be a hard-ass and when to be a human being, I suggest reading Eric Greitens’ book, The Heart and the Fist.
11. Stop being “slugs” – I absolutely hated this at West Point. I never understood why people would voluntarily go to USMA, just to become soft and do the bare minimum. You’re setting the tone for the rest of your Army career to be rather unenjoyable and you’re screwing over your future Soldiers. Get out now.
12. Stop being “brutal”– I also absolutely hated this at West Point. I never understood the “tool-bags” working their asses off just to gain praise from the administration. Being a good West Pointer is NOT the same as being a good Army Officer. Success bred from arrogance is not success at all.
13. Stop the division between “good” cadets and “bad” cadets – Like I said before, being a good West Pointer does not equate to being a good Army Officer. Work on your weaknesses now because they’ll be amplified in the Army. Work together as a class! You WILL run into your classmates and other West Pointers that know who you are all the time. If you’re a an arrogant “tool” now, and you get paired up with that “slug” you hated when you move on to Ranger School, you’re both going to have to earn each other’s tabs, or go home empty handed. Moreover, the RI’s know who you are and they can see this.
14. Take time to learn your school’s history – I feel that if West Point (and cadets) as an institution did a better job of this early on, I think cadets would have a better understanding of a.) what they are getting into, and b.) a deeper appreciation of their Academy. We all know the big names, battles and events throughout USMA’s history; but just barely. These pivotal events and monumental men are often relegated to lofty figures and dates in history books, not a living part of each cadet’s heritage. Doing this will help you figure out why you decided to come (or stay) at West Point in the first place.
15. Since when did Microsoft Xcel become a leadership tool? – This is a huge pet peeve of mine. When I was a cadet, I saw way too many kids immediately go to computers, spreadsheets and power point to solve problems. Yes, these are skills you will use at nausea when you’re a lieutenant, but get outside of your own head and go work with your Soldiers. Memos, briefings and trackers can only get you so far. Everyday interactions with Soldiers ultimately enforce and set standards.16. Your Soldiers will do stupid things – I always heard this as a cadet, but I didn’t realize how stupid things could get. I can’t delve into examples without long stories, but be prepared to encounter circumstance you thought only happened in the movies.
17. Your Soldiers will do amazing things – Far more often than your Soldiers doing stupid things, you will be blown away at how talented they are. I have the following Soldiers in my platoon: a former blacksmith and rodeo clown, a NASCAR pit crewman, two carpenters, a private who is a multi-millionaire and drives and Audi R8, a Sugar Bowl-winning, University of West Virginia offensive lineman and a SSG who graduated college at 17 years old and taught physics at Tulane before the age of 26.
18. Lieutenants will do stupid things – This issue often gets swept under the rug. I understand that as brand new lieutenants you will do every day stupid things; it’s expected of you in your learning experience. But more and more often I’m seeing or hearing of lieutenants doing inexcusably stupid things that land them in prison and out of the Army. Every incident I’ve seen or heard involves alcohol.
19. NCO’s will help you not do stupid things – Everyday I am completely blown away by how hardworking, and professional this brassy, prideful group can be. Sergeants indeed run the Army. Your platoon can function without you, but it cannot function without NCOs. For the umpteenth time, trust your NCOs. You do not know more than they do, this is their Army not yours, officers just get to drive it for awhile.
20. Friends of yours are going to die (and not necessarily in combat) – This won’t necessarily happen in combat. Fortunately I’ve only had three friends of mine killed throughout my Army career. Surprisingly though, only one was in combat, he was not a West Pointer. 2LT Justin Lee Sisson was my best friend and the best lieutenant I’ve ever seen. He was a Florida State grad, prior service and Ranger and Sapper qualified. The Motorcycle VBIED that hit him didn’t discern between how well trained he was or where he came from. This job is very, very real. Don’t wait to realize this until you are looking at your best friend’s mother at his funeral.
I hope this list will be worth all cadets’ time and they can relate to it. A message to cadets everywhere: Please – above all things – take personal accountability of your personal development. It will not be long before you have to “grow up” and do things on your own and be proactive.
First Lieutenant Scott Ginther, West Point Class of 2011, was a proud member of the West Point Boxing Team and member of cadet company A-2. He is currently a Platoon Leader with A Co., 1-504th PIR, 1BCT, 82nd ABN DIV.
Thank you for the insight Sir. I commission in a month and this will be some good advice for me to take.
1LT Ginther, Good Blog! It will be interesting to see how you perceives these same points once you have some staff time. V/r Bill
LT, good write up. Just two points to add based on my 35 years (I was enlisted first). Cherish your time as a LT. Life will never be that simple again. 1. Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to say you are, you are not. 2. Your number one job is to train your soldiers so that no one dies. If you focus on that, the admin and the non-essential will fall in behind it.
Actually, it is his NCOs’ responsibility to train those soldiers so that no one dies.
1LT Ginther – Well said! While not a West Point grad (I went to Texas A&M), a lot of the cadet-oriented advice holds true. I spent 20 years in the Marine Corps, and I learned a lot of the lessons you speak of the hard way. Fortunately, I had good officers and enlisted Marines around me. If you have this kind of insight as a 1LT, and you decide to stay in the Army fur the duration, I see you going quite far, and it WON’T be based on the fact that you went to West Point. It will be based on the fact that you "get it".
I’m a PL right now and a Georgetown ROTC grad. Another piece of USMA-specific advice: as unfair as it is, avoid talking about USMA to other Soldiers/LTs until they know you as a person. Depending on your audience, a reputation that is not your own may precede you. Make sure that your Soldiers know your personal and individual qualities before you come in with the "back at West Point" stories. If you don’t, some may start tacking on the one-size-fits-all USMA stereotype. This is completely unfair, but completely true. I deal with a less extreme form of this, as I’m an MP and have to consider this with some people from other branches.
I think that the greatest lesson I ever received is what I call "getting what you asked for." I was in the Air Force and one weekend I was the officer in charge of a flight line. This was my first time in charge of the entire line. I felt good… My into the OIC truck and began driving around… yep, I’m in charge.
Suddenly on the radio… "Major fuel spill on tanker [KC-135] so and so. Initiate emergency procedures for evacuation." "This is the big one" I thought. I gunned the truck and charged towards the airplane in question. The maintenance supervisor (a senior NCO) was at the aircraft. I asked him what was going on. He explained to me there had been a fuel spill, they were in the process of doing so and so. I then said, we should move the aircraft and move the other aircraft… The NCO said "Sir, so you want us to move the aircraft?" he eagerly replied.
BAM!!! It hit me… I didn’t know what I was talking about and this NCO was ready to do whatever I said… "No, disregard everything I said and continue with your standard procedures." I said in a state of semi-shock… he was actually going to do what I said thinking out loud… I went back to the office, sat down, thanking God that the NCO had not done what I asked. I never forgot this day.
Moral of the story: Before issuing orders, know what needs to be done. Otherwise, keep your mouth shut and let the troops do what they know to do.
I think that the greatest lesson I ever received is what I call "getting what you asked for." I was in the Air Force and one weekend I was the officer in charge of a flight line. This was my first time in charge of the entire line. I felt good… Got into my very own OIC truck and began driving around the flight line… yep, I’m in charge.
Suddenly on the radio… "Major fuel spill on tanker [KC-135] so and so. Initiate emergency procedures for evacuation." "This is the big one" I thought. I gunned the truck and charged towards the airplane in question. The maintenance supervisor (a senior NCO) was on the scene. I asked him what was happening. He explained to me there had been a fuel spill, they were in the process of doing so and so. I then said full of authority and command, ‘we should move the aircraft and move the other aircraft…’ or something to the same. The NCO said "Sir, so you want us to move the aircraft?" he eagerly replied.
BAM!!! It hit me… I didn’t know what in hell I was talking about and had no clue; yet this NCO was ready to do whatever I said… "No, disregard everything I said and continue with your standard procedures." I said in a state of semi-shock… he was actually going to do what I said thinking out loud… I went back to the office, sat down, thanking God that the NCO had not done what I asked. I never forgot this day.
Moral of the story: Before issuing orders, know what needs to be done. Otherwise, keep your mouth shut and let the troops do what they know to do.
Good job. One more from my 39 yrs experience… Just because it’s not your idea, doesn’t make it a bad idea! You’ve already mentioned how much (non-military) talent and experience you have in your platoon. Learn to use that!
Great memo Sir! I wish you’d written it in 1970 so I could have shown it to my XO’s, who didn’t listen much to a Spec4 giving advice!
Well put sir, I appreciate you taking the time to write this out and inform all of those in ROTC.
Great article. Only two things I see a little differently. One, the best leadership comes from experience, not ivy league formal training, hence why LTs need to listen and trust NCOs. Two, ruck marching is unneeded stress on your body. My point, I somehow managed to get away with only doing two timed twelve mile rucks over 6 years and they were in 2:31 and 2:12 both in the uniform set for the air assault ruck. I didnt ruck on a weekly basis because no matter how often you do them they still suck and you don’t improve that much. I am a small guy 155 lbs at 5’8", all I did was run 5 days a week, short fast runs, long runs, short distance intervals. You want to be able to ruck all day or get from point A to B fast, drop the ruck, get out of uniform and start running. Yeah running isn’t exactly great on your joints but rucking is just as bad on all the same joints plus your back and every other joint in your body. Just my two cents, still a great read.
Stunning, and well-said. I wish I’d had this much sense when I was a 2LT.
Excellent advice… I also never tried to broadcast that "I was a West Pointer"… I realized that I was in a different Army, the "real" Army where everything did not run like clockwork like it did at West Point… When I was assigned to 5th SFG and the "seconded" to MACV-SOG, I soon realized that I was very lucky to be working with the most amazing group of soldiers you could imagine… At least I want to believe I did fully appreciate them, and that they knew it… Looking back 43 years, I might have come across as a "spoiled West Pointer," but I don’t think so… I was also in the position of working with not just top-notch NCOs, some with two stars on their CIBs, but also other LTs and CPTs who were formally NCOs themselves, and received commissions via OCS or field commissions… These guys were very experienced and wise in the ways of the Army… I was very fortunate to work for the legendary Robert L. Howard, a former SFC who was given a direct commission by GEN Westmoreland himself… I was his XO as a 1LT when Bob took over the Recon Co. at Kontum, and he could not have been a better commander, and example for me… I tried to keep my mouth shut and my eyes and ears open and learn all that I could… So, as said above, be yourself, be honest and strait forward, listen to your NCOs, and look out for your men… Mission first, men always…
Recon Co. XO and RT "Straphanger, CCC, MACV-SOG, 5th SFG, Kontum, RVN,, 1970-1972
Thank you for the advice sir,or i will have no idea what i will do when i graduate to become an officer in the army.
Your comments are excellent. It is also important to remember that 75% of your peers paid for their education and if the best thing you ever do in your career is graduate from a university, then you may have missed something along the way.
Great article. But, also be prepared for the possibility of criminal, dishonest NCOs and warrants, especially in combat service support branches. If something seems wrong, it probably is. I agree with respecting your PSG and your warrants; but like all populations, you have your bad apples from time to time. As a 1LT in Afghanistan, I had my CW5 talk me out of inspecting his walk-in warehouse safe during a health and welfare inspection. "The door’s broken and too difficult to get back on" he explained. Three days later, he had a DUI on the flight line and was sent home–fortunately he didn’t kill anyone. I also overheard my unit supply E-6 tell my supply E-4 not to worry too much about keeping up with inventories because "the LTs can afford it". In addition, we had an E-7 conspiring with Afghani fuel contractors to profit from shorting the US government jet fuel (inaccurate depth gauges).
Excellent! Thank you!
Leadership starts at some fundamental, basic levels, and this certainly points out some very human pitfalls in our tendencies to ignore the basic human vulnerabilities and realities; so, we can get on with leading. I particularly like the point of loss not in combat. We see that all too often. Current and former Military Members and their Families focused on the ultimate loss but getting hit from left field with family, spouse, and friend loss. Everyone, and especially leadership, should be better prepared for this inevitability, which has such devastating affects and is so little prepared for and empathized with. This article kindly illustrates the start of the building blocks for constant empathy. In my opinion, everyone, even before they sign on the line, should read such a thing and then often. Bravo! -Military Family Voices
As a cadet who is about to graduate; Thank you.
I enjoyed reading your comments and commend you for your patriotism. My daughter graduates from Eastern’s ROTC in another year. Her mother and I are very proud of
her commitment to the program. I salute you and your fellow brothers and sisters in harms way. May God Bless those that have given their all and comfort their loved ones.
Major, British Army.
I am an educator — a former university professor in teacher education. I have never been (nor will I ever be) in the military, but still I cannot express how inspiring or how challenging this article was to me. I could easily adapt its principles to college graduates entering the classroom whether in kindergarten or high school. Never fear – I will always cite appropriately when borrowing from he outstanding piece of soul writing. Thank you.
Very insightful article by 1LT Ginther! Great to see that he is learning the right lessons as a Lieutenant and taking the time/effort to capture them for the force.
As an addendum to his post, I offer a list of continuing lessons that show how the leadership environment changes in the transition from Lieutenant through command to Field Grade Officer.
You can find it at:
Great work, and excellent advice.
My only caveat would be to trust your instincts as well as your training, particularly when it comes to working with your NCOs. Great NCOs know how to train their PLs to become more effective leaders. Bad ones know how to take advantage of them. Remember that if something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. And be very skeptical of the term "NCO Business." Knowing your role as a leader is important, including the boundaries of what you should and should not do, but so is understanding when something is absolutely your business as well.
That is true, but I also had input into the training schedule.