The following is reprinted from September 2011.
I enlisted into the military service in 1958 and left it in 1996. It was a long and good career for me, and I learned right many hard facts of life, one of them being that, in one aspect, the military is like a marriage. What you receive from it depends upon what you put into it. I also learned quite early in my military career not to assume anything, go only with the hard cold facts, follow your orders explicitly. When you get in the habit of assuming things, sooner or later you are going to get hurt and, maybe, you will cause others to get hurt also. Things are not always the way they seem, and a good soldier and leader assumes nothing.
There is a hidden logic behind rules and regulations. In the military, all things hinge on regulations, most of the time being what is called SOP, standard operating procedures. It took me a right good while and a lot of sweat before I finally figured out that in the Army, rules and regulations are made by people in high authority to protect themselves if and when something goes wrong.
Consequently, I learned that a good leader always follows orders and regulations, but he also knows how to, and when to, bend regulations a little bit and doesn’t hesitate to do so when the situation calls for it. You can go right up to the point of violating regulations, but you need to know, mostly from experience, when to turn around. In the Army it’s called CYA.
In the Army, your career is an ongoing, never-ending educational process. For instance, during my 38 years, I attended numerous training sessions that lasted from a few days to several months. During a required career-enhancing course called “Advanced Noncommissioned Officer Course” (A-NOC) at Fort Lee, Va., nine weeks of torture attended by quartermaster soldiers, Army-wide, I was the oldest soldier among the several hundred attending. I was in my late 40s at the time.
In the Army, you are taught and trained to think ahead, much of the time through unpleasant experience. Once, in 1959 when I was going through U.S. Army Basic Combat Training at Fort Jackson, S.C., my platoon was standing in formation, and the drill sergeant ordered us to remove our helmets and place them on the ground in front of us. Then he ordered us to take our entrenching tools (small shovels) and fill our helmets with sand. It was a hot summer day, and we all were pretty much drenched with sweat from marching, running, push-ups and other strenuous activities. After we filled out helmets with sand, the sergeant then ordered us to put our helmets back on our heads, which we all did without hesitation. We were all a dirty, grimy mess. Then the sergeant demonstrated to us what we should have done. He took off his own helmet and filled it with sand. He then said loudly, “I will now put my helmet back on my head.” He picked up his helmet, poured the sand out and put it on his head. He shouted to us, “Troops! You have to learn to think ahead!”
Once, well into my Army career, a colonel form Fort Meade, Md., was inspecting my unit. During the inspection, he asked me, “Sergeant Newell, do you know what are the two most dangerous things in the Army?” I answered, “Colonel, I have an idea, but it probably is not the same as yours.” He then said, “A private with a paint sprayer and a brand new second lieutenant in charge of something.”
That immediately brought to mind an incident during my basic training. Part of our training involved military traditions and courtesy. One of the privates in our barracks was walking down the street and met a brand new second lieutenant. The private didn’t salute the second lieutenant, who immediately called him to attention and went into a screaming tirade, informing him that Army regulations required all enlisted personnel to salute all officers when they meet. The lieutenant then pointed to a light pole beside the street. He said to the private, “You apparently need practice to improve your saluting, so I want you to pretend that light pole is me, and I want you to go up to it and salute it 100 times! Do you understand my orders?” The private yelled, “Sir, yes, sir,” ran over to the pole and began to salute it time after time. When he finally stopped saluting, the lieutenant yelled, “Private, you only saluted 98 times. Give me three more!”
The private went back to the pole and saluted three more times, after which the lieutenant loudly asked, “Now, private, do you think you understand the regulation on saluting?” The private yelled, “Sir, yes, sir!”
Unbeknown to the lieutenant and the private, there was a major sitting in a staff car across the street, and he witnessed the entire episode. The major got out of his car and walked over to where the two were standing. The major said, “Lieutenant, you evidently need to brush up on your Army regulations. Don’t you know that an officer is required to return every salute that he receives? Since that light pole represented you, I’m ordering you to go over to that pole and return those 100 salutes,” which he did as the private watched.
That was an important lesson in that second lieutenant’s career.
Continued next week.