By Brian Reed, MTI Contributor
In December 2006, I had the honor of taking command of 1st Battalion 24th Infantry – a Stryker Infantry Battalion of approximately 600+ Soldiers – based in Fort Wainwright, Alaska. Together with my Command Sergeants Major (CSM), Ray F., we led the Battalion for the next 3 years, which included a 12-month deployment to Diyala Province, Iraq from September 2008 to September 2009.
I caught lightening in a bottle with Ray. I didn’t have much history with him prior to us becoming a command team. We had a chance meeting when he was working on the Division staff, but that was enough for me to realize that we saw the world the same way, and we had good chemistry. In short, when the inbound CSM was diverted, I made a play to bring Ray on board as my CSM. It was easily the best (and most important) decision I made as a battalion commander. Getting the right people on the team matters! He made me a better commander, leader, and person.
Defining Challenges (and Opportunities) to our Leadership
Two significant events immediately shaped our command tenure.
The first was that the Battalion was coming off a 16-month deployment to Iraq. The unit was originally scheduled to return to Alaska in August 2006, but the President’s decision to “surge” forces into Iraq resulted in the entire Brigade being extended for 4-more months. Because this decision occurred during the redeployment phase, many Soldiers who were already back in Alaska returned to Iraq. When the unit finally redeployed it was in the dead of the winter in Fairbanks, Alaska, and we had already begun to receive new Soldiers who were inbound to the unit. The environmental conditions of a Fairbanks winter – extreme cold hovering in the -10 to -30 range and long, dark days with only 3-4 hours of daylight – dramatically impacted Soldier, leader, and family morale and energy. Everyone was tired…very tired. Equally problematic was that the Battalion personnel strength swelled to well over 1000 Soldiers assigned. With the influx of new Soldiers and the delayed departure of about 30% of the unit, we quite simply did not have enough living space for all our Soldiers. This resulted in Soldiers living in sub-standard barracks rooms and sometimes putting 4-5 Soldiers in a room designed for 2-3 Soldiers.
Poor morale, overcrowding, sub-standard living conditions, and not enough to do for all the Soldiers led to misconduct, indiscipline, and, in some cases, criminal behavior. At one point, we had a rifle company leading the Army…the Army…in drug offenses. It was not a good look; and the Division Commander made that clear to us. Ray and I thought we would be fired for sure if we did not get a handle on this. Sitting around the small table in my office one morning after Physical Training (PT), we discussed our way ahead. Over time, the normal rotation of Soldiers out of the Battalion settled some of our overcrowding problem, but there were primarily three things that helped get us on track:
- Accountability – Quite simply, we had a one and done policy. We chaptered (separated) Soldiers who committed drug offenses. Some went to jail for a short period of time depending on the egregiousness of the offense. We were public about this with the message being that we would not tolerate such behavior. However, we did treat each situation on a case-by-case basis. As an example, in one instance, we did not separate a Soldier based on the recommendation of the Soldier’s chain of command. This turned out to be the right decision as this Soldier is still serving today! Later, we instituted a program called “Alternatives to Drugs and Alcohol”. Platoon Leaders and Platoon Sergeants were responsible for developing an off-duty training schedule – primarily in the winter – that afforded Soldiers the opportunity to snowmachine, cross-country ski, downhill ski, ice fish, ice climb, snowshoe, etc. We wanted to make the access to these types of events easy, get Soldiers out of the barracks, and encourage them to engage in healthy activities instead of binge drinking and/or doing drugs. An added benefit was building greater platoon camaraderie. While not a perfect program, it did make a difference.
- Leadership at the Lowest Level – We worked hard to put the right leaders in charge all the way to the lowest level. This extended from Company-level down to the fire team level. Our selection criterium was not complicated – we needed leaders. We could grow technical and tactical competence, and over time we could grow leaders, but in the immediate term we needed people to step in and take charge. Our subjective assessment was based generally on a Soldier’s level of fitness, command/leader presence, personal example, and values. We were looking for the “best athlete”. We relied on company commanders and first sergeants to make the right choices. This was not an exact science, and in some cases, we swung and missed. The downside was that this created some turbulence in the formation as we moved leaders around. On the other hand, it was important to get the right leaders in place early, and before we deployed. The result was that we sometimes had very junior Soldiers leading fire teams, and even squads. As an example, we had a Private First Class (PFC W) leading a squad of 8 other Soldiers, most of whom were either of the same rank or junior to him. While the execution of the tactical task at the time was not perfect, PFC W provided much needed leadership. When Ray and I ran into him, we decided that we could not have a PFC leading a squad, so we made PFC W a Corporal and pinned an Army Achievement Medal on his chest for good measure. (As an aside, I ran into CPL W a few years ago. He was a Sergeant First Class, Ranger-qualified, and a Platoon Sergeant in the 101st Airborne (Air Assault) Division.)
- Operation Darby – We went to the field. It was clear to Ray and me that we needed to get the Battalion out of the barracks and the garrison of Fort Wainwright and get them to the field. We took the Battalion to the Donnelly Training Area (DTA) in March, several hours from Fairbanks. This afforded us the opportunity to exercise several things, not the least of which was to develop mental and emotional toughness in an Alaska winter and to hone our Arctic skills. There were several challenges we faced to make this happen, but these challenges became opportunities…opportunities to problem solve, lead through adversity, and train to standard. We intentionally chose Operation Darby as the name for the field training exercise because we wanted to focus on squad level tactics (Darby is the first phase of Ranger School and is centered on squad tactics). In many ways, Operation Darby became the turning point for the Battalion.
The second defining event was that the unit “reflagged” almost immediately upon redeployment. For several reasons above my paygrade, the Army officially redesignated the Brigade from the 172nd Stryker Infantry Brigade Combat Team to the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division. All the Battalions were redesignated as well, with 2nd Battalion 1st Infantry Regiment reflagging to 1st Battalion 24th Infantry Regiment. What this meant practically was that the patch we wore on our left sleeve changed and the Battalion colors and unit guidons also changed to reflect our new unit – the old colors/guidons were “cased” (or covered) and the new ones were “uncased” (or uncovered). Below the surface, it was the intangibles that didn’t change. Soldiers who fought, bled, and buried their buddies under the colors and insignia of one unit were told to leave that behind and now re-align under an entirely different unit. The transition was not easy.
The sound of the tear of Velcro-on-Velcro was deafening across the convention center as over 4000 Soldiers removed the 172nd patch and replaced it with the 25th Infantry Division patch. And just like that, the Soldiers of 2-1 IN were now in 1-24 IN. Unfortunately, the by-the-book, clinical, and unemotional manner by which we approached the unit’s reflagging was demoralizing for many of the Soldiers and leaders. Unintentionally, we announced to them that the former unit is in the past and that it no longer matters. Many were angry, mad, sad, and frustrated. The good news is that the unit is the people, not necessarily the patch, so we could overcome this.
As Ray and I thought about how to approach the situation, we had some flexibility in selecting our Battalion motto. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as we were able use this as an opportunity to shape the culture of the formation right from the start. We wanted to retain the greatness of both units and to honor the Soldiers who went before us. “Deuce Four” (1-24) had their own great history. 2-1 IN was known as the Legion. In short, unit history matters. We became “Deuce Four – The Arctic Legion”. Our motto was “Strength and Honor”. We took this from the movie, Gladiator. It was the exchange/greeting between the Legionnaires of the Roman Legion. For us, it became the anchor around how we wanted to lead, train, and fight as a Battalion. Strength and Honor were the core values of the Arctic Legion. Regardless of the patch on our left shoulder, the Soldiers were the Legion.
On the Road to War
Operation Darby (which happened about 3.5 months into command) was a turning point for the Legion. As Ray and I pushed the Battalion forward, we wanted to (1) build combat teams and (2) develop combat leaders. Fortunately, we had very strong company commanders and first sergeants, and field grade officers who understood training management and logistical resourcing to support our intent. Operating with my intent and vision, these leaders were able to move the Legion forward.
Excellence in combat is achieved before you cross the line of departure. There were 4 tenets to this that guided our philosophy in building lethal combat teams in the Legion: (1) Physical Fitness and Mental Toughness; (2) Marksmanship; (3) Maneuver Live Fire Training; (4) Care of Equipment
We wanted the Legion to be the toughest unit in the Brigade – physically, mentally, and emotionally. We agreed early on that we wanted to be Ranger Regiment-like in our adherence and enforcement of standards and our high training expectations. While we may not have had the budget to support training at the level of the Ranger Regiment, the goal was to be like the Regiment – the gold standard for infantry formations in the Army.
Physically, everything we did was with an eye toward being combat ready. Battalion level physical training events were conducted in full kit to replicate the conditions of combat, where we would need to wear helmet and body armor for 12-18 hours per day. “Lead by example, from the front” was Ray’s guiding leadership principle and he did just that. Soldiers and leaders were inspired by his example of fitness, toughness, and exceptional Soldier skills. I was inspired! We also planned and executed Mangudai events for the leader teams (PL/PSG, CO/1SG, BC/CSM) to foster team building and cohesiveness. Units doing hard things together are more cohesive teams.
Our training focus was to drill down on the basics beginning at the fire team level. Teams that take care of their equipment and maintain it properly, shoot well, and can execute under live-fire and near combat conditions make for better squads, better platoons, better companies, and a better battalion.
We believed that what separated good combat leaders from average ones were (1) aggressiveness, (2) being on point, and (3) knowing the enemy. To the third tenet, we built a robust Leader Development Program focused on understanding the environment, the history, the political and cultural dynamics, and the enemy of the area of operations where we would fight. We also conducted leader team training that focused on various combat vignettes where our platoon and company level leaders discussed how and why they would make certain decisions. The first two tenets were about mindset. I learned early on in my career that in combat it was important to maintain an offensive bias to gain and maintain the initiative, while doing this within our values. We could not be anchored to our combat outposts, which tied to the second point. I had a saying: “The war isn’t won on the FOB.” By that I meant that leaders needed to be out in the area of operations to understand the people, the enemy, the terrain – leaders had to “feel” the battlefield. Quite honestly, we did not do any deliberate training events to foster this. Instead, we tried to incorporate this mindset by how we talked to the Legion, and again, built into our Leader Development Program.
Hindsight is 20/20
As I reflect on my time as the Legion commander, there are 2 shortfalls that immediately jump out.
First, I did not prepare the unit (or myself) for the operational tempo of combat. Having deployed before, I knew what it would be like, but I did not even consider this in our ramp-up to war. In fact, in some ways, I probably pushed too hard in our pre-deployment workup. I do not believe that the Battalion was stressed or tired by the time we deployed. On the contrary, we were well trained and razor-edge sharp in our warfighting skills. That said, we hit the ground running and never stopped until we redeployed 12-months later.
Ironically, I would often tell my leaders that they “needed to take an appetite suppressant” when planning training. The desire to leave no stone unturned in our training workup would often mean that we wanted to fill all the white space on the training calendar. The bill payer was time off, family time, time to take care of personal business, or time to just sit around and relax.
Fighter management – how we managed rest and refit while deployed (especially with our leaders) – was not something we discussed at any point that I can recall. I know personally that I was exhausted by the time we redeployed at the end of 12 months. The lesson here is that to stay switched on 24/7 for 365 days is quite simply not possible, and that over time the inability to manage rest and refit degrades the fighting capability and performance of a unit. Leaders need to account for this.
While you are in theater, it is more difficult to build in rest and refit periods. The pace of operations and mission requirements will dictate the terms. Prior to deploying, however, it is not weak or soft to give Soldiers and leaders time off. A few years later as a Brigade commander I learned my lesson. When we were not deployed or in a training cycle, I would make every 3-day weekend a 4-day, as an example, or ruthlessly enforce the early release for family time every Thursday or Friday.
The second shortfall was my inability to be a good team player. While I do not believe this was catastrophic in any way, I was more concerned about what was best for the Legion and not the larger organization, i.e., the Brigade…and by extension, the Division. I had a hard time seeing (or refused to see) the larger picture at times, and how the Battalion fit into this.
If the operation was not best for the Legion, I often pushed back on my commander. I was more of a pain-in-the-ass for the Brigade Commander and the Brigade Staff than I needed to be. Often this was over very minor things like range usage or details and taskings. Looking back, I am embarrassed by my behavior. The irony is that a few years later I became the Brigade Commander, and I would find myself asking the Battalion Commanders how a particular training event or action made us a better Brigade.
From September 2008 through September 2009, the Arctic Legion excelled in a complicated and complex area of operations (AO) in Western Diyala Province, Iraq. A defining operation for us was a Battalion (-) air assault to South Balad Ruz to conduct a clearing operation against pockets of enemy resistance. From the time we received the mission to execution, the Legion had to turn on a dime. It was a three-day operation that required us to maintain an active presence at each of our combat outposts with enough combat power to project strength, while executing an air assault with the main effort of the battalion to find, fix, and finish enemy resistance in a historic enemy stronghold. This required split command and control, competing resources, and hasty planning, flexibility, and execution on the part of Soldiers and leaders. The only reason we could do this was because we were prepared. We put in the work before we deployed.
I played in the Super Bowl. The Soldiers of the Legion represented everything that is great about the American Soldier. Commanding an Infantry Battalion in Combat is the dream of every Infantry Officer…and I had the honor of doing that. I loved the Legion and our Soldiers, and I love them today. Not a day goes by where I do not think about those days and the lessons I learned about leading Soldiers. To command, lead, and serve the Soldiers of the Arctic Legion was a gift. I am better because of them. STRENGTH AND HONOR!
Brian Reed is a Soldier with 33+ years of active service as an Infantryman in the US Army.
********* Interested in being a paid MTI Contributor? Email firstname.lastname@example.org a current resume and 3 topic ideas.