note: This originally appeared in War Council, a fine blog out of
West Point. I am running it here with the permission of the author, who is in
Afghanistan, and of the blogkeeper.
By Lt. Scott Ginther, U.S.
Best Defense guest columnist
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.
You're not going to be the greatest Platoon Leader
-- 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.
You may not be the greatest, but you're the most
-- 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
"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."
Don't be tougher than you have to but don't be
-- 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 ruse and not respond to
you. Be YOURSELF.
Most of the time you'll have no idea what you're
-- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Stop the division between "good" cadets and "bad"
-- 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.
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
Since when did Microsoft Xcel become a leadership
-- 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.
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.
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.
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.
NCOs 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
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.
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.
1LT Scott Ginther (USMA '11) 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. This
is an unofficial expression of opinion; views expressed are those of the
author and not necessarily those of the U.S. Military Academy, Department of
the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.
Maj. Kamil Sztalkoper/DVIDS