The Best Defense

JOs, I was sympathetic, but now I'm not. Just take care of your people and move on.

By Capt. Amir Abu-Akeel, U.S. Army

Best Defense guest columnist

I've read the JO retention debate with quite a bit of interest. Initially, I found myself nodding in agreement with the disgruntled officers, but have since come to re-evaluate my stance.

Many company grade officers approach the issue of the military through a narrowly focused, emotionally tinged lens: "It's too big for me to fix, so why should I stay," or "my civilian friends don't put up with this, why should I, and more importantly, my wife." In most cases their observations are correct. The military is indeed too big to fix singlehandedly, and it asks a lot more of people than civilian jobs, but this view lacks nuance and context.

Junior officers need to understand that they aren't going to singlehandedly right American foreign policy. Even senior officers have little individual sway over issues. It's not because the system is broken. Nowadays, most policy decisions are made on a consensus basis. Contrary to what people think, the team-first mantra of the military encourages agreement between ranks even in the presence of a clear chain of command. Leaders don't make decisions in a vacuum; they listen to the arguments made by their subordinates and peers. Commanders render judgment only after their staffs have beaten the courses of action to death. At the company level, if my first sergeant and I needed to hash something out, we closed the door and talked to each other (often yelled), until someone's opinion made more sense. Tom's book Fiasco makes the same case: President Bush didn't declare war on Iraq; the American security establishment did. JOs have not been in long enough to see this team dynamic play out frequently, and therefore tend to individualize their problems. If you try to take on the big green machine alone, it will beat you down every time.

JOs also need to stop fixating on how they alone will finish the Syrian war, or end government corruption, and instead focus on the responsibilities that really matter: the care of their soldiers. It can be as simple as giving subordinates time off on a Friday afternoon to be with loved ones, or it can be as difficult as serving as a Casualty Assistance Officer. My personal favorite has always been to fend off a random tasker from higher (usually some CSM or division staff officer with a "bright" idea). Strategy is important, and a JO will go far to comprehend the bigger picture, but the soldiers in their immediate care are the priority, and that alone will consume the majority of their time. Aesop's fable about the astronomer rings true here: "Hark ye, old fellow, why, in striving to pry into what is in heaven, do you not manage to see what is on earth?" Child's tale, but hey, it's still poignant, and relevant.

As for considering the career goals of a spouse, I have heard more gripes than solutions. HRC has always been a problem. The organization has close to a hundred-thousand officers to manage. Throw in the excessive branch parochialism and the congressional regulations that restrict officer management, and it's surprising the command hasn't suffered a meltdown. Adding the requirement to manage the careers of spouses would probably force the AG Corps to jump off a cliff en masse. That's not to say we can't improve the lot of spouses. Creating comprehensive geo-bachelor BAH schemes and offsetting professional certification costs is a good start, but the pie-in-the-sky ideas people have been bandying about are unworkable, especially in the face of a giant RIF.

I don't write this to belittle anyone's issues with the armed forces or the security establishment at large, because there are many, and they are serious. But at the end of the day, the military, for all its awesome might, is an organization run by people, and therefore subject to all their human strengths and weaknesses. Show some patience and enjoy the simple pleasures that come from caring for your Joes. You won't get that direct satisfaction in many other places.

Captain Amir Abu-Akeel is currently an operations officer with the 52d Ordnance Group (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) in Fort Campbell, KY. CPT Abu-Akeel previously commanded the 788th OD CO (EOD) and the 202d OD CO (EOD). His bachelorhood has been ensured by two combat deployments and four PCS moves in the past six years. The views here are his own and don't represent any government agency, yet.


The Best Defense

Here's a reason for Army to get back to basics: It isn't good at remembering them

By Capt. Michael Carvelli, U.S. Army

Best Defense guest columnist

It is true that the U.S. Army does not follow its own doctrine, and it continues to do so even at the misfortune of soldiers. The stark lack of critical tasks degrades even the best of units as they plow through their deployments. It is not complacency, as most senior officers and NCOs consistently suggest to their commanders and first sergeants. It is laziness and the belief that "we are good." Wake up: You are not as good as you think!

This is my third deployment to Afghanistan, this time as a company commander. The lessons about being prepared have been taught to me in school and during my time as a platoon leader. They are hard remembered lessons, several times taught through my own failures or from an almost disastrous experience. However, I am determined to continually remember these experiences and ensure those under my command make every attempt to know them as well.

At this current point in time, the Army has digressed into creating a CONOP -- a unique misinterpretation of the Concept of the Operation paragraph contained within the Operation Order (OPORD). At all levels, from division down to platoon, leaders believe that a Microsoft PowerPoint slideshow containing multiple images, sketches, and a verbose explanation sufficiently replaces an OPORD. In fact, it replaces the entire planning process itself at the cost of detailed planning, war gaming, and rehearsing.

I make this request: Please go back to the basics. Set an operational endstate with respect to enemy, friendly, terrain, and civilian considerations; conduct pre-combat checks and pre-combat inspections; and conduct rehearsals.

Ask these questions: Why are we here? Do we have what is needed to conduct the mission? Have we thought through the important aspects of the mission to ensure we are achieving the endstate and have the correct tools and equipment to reach it?

We, as a collective organization, have broken all tenets that are taught in our leadership schools, professional military education courses, and written in our own doctrine. First, span of control is three to five. My current battalion operates with nine companies. That is only to conduct route clearance. We are not even a real maneuver unit. Secondly, the creation of the Company Intel Support Team has replaced the entire function of the battalion intelligence section (S2). We create our own named areas of interest, layer on the various types of intelligence (human, signal, imagery, electronic, etc.) and attempt to target the enemy without a defined situational template (SITEMP). Lastly, brigade commanders have withheld the approval authority for platoon missions. There is even general officer approval for company and battalion missions. So much for ingenuity, delegation of authority, and confidence in lower level commanders.

The lack of pre-combat checks (PCCs), pre-combat inspections (PCIs), and rehearsals in forward deployed units is astounding. PCCs and PCIs are the first step in assuring that your subordinates are prepared for their mission. Are their sensitive items tied down? Extra batteries present? Optics and night vision operational? Weapons clean? Schools preach these, but I watch the leaders around me fail to apply these lessons.

Rehearsals are sessions in which a unit practices expected actions to confirm the plan, reveal unidentified coordination measures, synchronize the overall plan at key points in time and space, and update all aspects of the plan. Most units show up 20 minutes before their departure time, make sure everyone is present, tell them what they are doing today, and leave the base.

My first sergeant and I have "thumped" each of our platoons for their lack of attention to detail concerning PCCs and PCIs. They have all had to construct a Platoon Standard Operation Procedure (SOP) for vehicle load plans and rehearse the reloading of ammunition to the gunner, conduct rollover and fire drills, and practice every SOP they have developed. Almost every time, each platoon has changed or enhanced their SOPs solely through their rehearsals on the base. We are actually achieving progress! Although it is quite painful and creates more gray hairs than I wish to admit.

I express this frustration in the hope that someone reads it and realizes that they, too, are not as good as they think. Above all else, this sobering idea has captured the essence of my company's issues and has put us on a path to success.

CPT Michael Carvelli is an engineer officer currently deployed in Afghanistan. He has deployed in conventional and special operations units. This article represents his own personal views and not those of the Engineer Regiment, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.