13 December 2012
It is common to form a bond with the Soldiers you serve with, but none is as important as the bond that is built between the Platoon Sergeant and the Platoon Leader. That Senior Noncommissioned Officer is the first look that the young LT has when he joins his unit. Fostering a good working relationship versus butting heads with each other can make or break a platoon. Even if that young officer is hard headed, it is the role of the Platoon Sergeant to show him/her what right is. It is our job as Senior NCOs, even more now that I am a 1SG, to guide these young LTs into becoming future Company Commanders. As a former Command Sergeant Major of mine once told me “You can NEVER give up on a LT, no matter how terrible he is. Just remember, he will make Captain and if he decides to stay in long enough, he will become a Company Commander.”
I have been very fortunate to have three of the best young LTs a Platoon Sergeant could ask for. I still keep in touch with them and it’s nice to see that two of them have moved on to have successful Company Command. Lee Tate, Willie Spencer, and Jimm Spannagel were the three guys that helped me become successful during my time as a Platoon Sergeant. We knew our jobs and had one common goal, the most important, to make our Platoon the best in the Army.
I only worked with LT Tate for a few weeks, if that, as he was in transition with LT Spencer. Just returning from our first tour in Iraq, the platoon was in transition with guys leaving the unit and getting fresh guys from basic training. This is exactly what I was hoping for when I took over the job. Coming from the Battalion Master Gunner job and working for the Battalion Commander, I got to pick which platoon I was going to take. The choice was easy, Charlie Company 3rd Platoon. I brought with me a couple of stud NCO’s (both are now in Special Forces) and we hit the ground running. We soon changed our platoon call sign to “Crusher”. It was a great time, but due to me being only a Staff Sergeant (Promotable) and 1-4 CAV shutting down, a Sergeant First Class (a higher rank) came in and took my platoon. I was devastated. I had lost my job and had done nothing wrong.
I had no idea that this would be the best thing that has happened to me in my military career. I spent the next six months as the HQ Platoon Sergeant waiting for the next Platoon to open up. It was tough, spending gunnery as the HQ PSG while I watched my former platoon go shoot and train. I wanted to be with them, they wanted me to be with them, but the powers that be decided otherwise. We returned from gunnery and the rumor was that the Battalion was going to make some Platoon Sergeant changes. The one that interested me the most was my battle buddy, Kurt, was headed up to Battalion. That meant that his platoon was going to be open. I was CONVINCED that the platoon was mine, hell, his platoon was convinced I was going to be their next Platoon Sergeant.
Then it happened a few months later… The 1SG called all the Platoon Sergeants into his office and told us all that some changes were going to happen. He looked at my buddy Kurt and told him what we all were expecting; he was headed up to run the S2 shop at Battalion. Awesome! Then the 1SG said “SFC Young is going to take your platoon, Kurt” and I about flipped out. It took EVERYTHING in my military mind not to flip the desk over and wreck shop. I remember it like it was yesterday. I interlaced my fingers and squeezed almost hard enough to break the bones in my hands while I stared at the ground in-between my boots. Yeah, I was feeling sorry for myself, but damn it, I wanted that job more than anything I have ever wanted in my career. As I was staring at the tiles on the floor, 1SG then added “Gib…. You are taking over the Scouts.” My mind immediately went from “I’m going to choke someone” to “What the hell?”
The Scout platoon was a different Military Occupational Specialty (or MOS) than I was. But it didn’t matter. One of my claims to fame was that I had ZERO disciplinary related incidents the year I was a Platoon Sergeant, and the powers that be decided that the Scouts needed a change of atmosphere. The 1SG told me that the information was close hold and that the Battalion Commander would tell me when the change was going to happen. I went back down to the motor-pool and that’s when the Battalion Commander found me. He told me that the senior leadership had gotten into some trouble, coupled with two Soldiers being busted bringing drugs across the border from Amsterdam, and he wanted me to go in with LT Spannagel and “Fix” his Scouts. I told him it would be an honor and he replied with “I haven’t told the guy you are replacing yet, so don’t tell anyone you got the job. I will let you know when they are yours.” We left for gunnery that night and the next morning I was summoned to the Battalion Commanders office. I reported, and without looking up from his desk he ordered “The Scouts are yours, starting now.”
I grabbed my bags from Charlie Company barracks and walked down to the Scouts. And that’s when I met the greatest officer I have had the honor to work with, Jimm Spannagel. He was basically given the same task as me, fix the platoon. It was our job to take 35 of the most ruthless, wreckless, out of control Soldiers in the Battalion (that was the perception at the time) and turn them into one of the most lethal platoons in the Army. And that is what we did. I like to think that through the gunnery density at Graff, after gunnery in Graff, and then during training in Kuwait, we did just that. But to be honest, I think the Scouts influenced Jimm and me as much as we influenced them.
Jimm and I clicked, that is the bottom line. And looking back, I think one of the contributing factors was that we supported each other’s decisions as if they were our own. No bickering or hurt feelings, just support. Another key factor is that we didn’t have “lanes” that we stayed in. Many times a dysfunctional platoon leadership relationship can be peeled back to reveal that either the Platoon Sergeant or Platoon Leader believes that the other is over-stepping their bounds and doing something that they are responsible for. I hate the idea of “lanes” and think that it should be a mutual thing. Yes, NCOs should focus more on morale, discipline, and welfare while the Officers plan, but bottom line is that it’s ultimately the Platoon Leaders platoon. The Platoon Sergeant should let that Platoon Leader be involved in everything and, short of destroying the platoon, support him in all his decisions. Don’t talk the officer out of all the bad decisions he is going to make, just most of them. Let him see the consequences, let him FEEL the consequences of his bad decisions so he doesn’t make that same mistake again on a larger scale when he is a Company Commander.
With Jimm, I didn’t have this problem. It seemed he never made a bad decision and he supported me 100% with anything I wanted to do. You see, the Scout Platoon Leader is hand selected by the Battalion Commander out of all the Platoon Leaders in the Battalion. It is called a “Specialty Platoon” and is given to the most squared away LT, and that was Jimm. Out of the two years I was the Scout Platoon Sergeant, I disagreed with Jimm ONE time. Really! Over many beers, many discussions, I can only think of one time I didn’t agree with him. After his last visit to my house a few months ago, he told me that he likes to tell people about our PSG/PL relationship and how we never disagreed. I had to break it to him; there was this one time….
It was a week prior to Ramadan (a notorious time for increased attacks) and we were working out of our Joint Security Station a few kilometers south of Ramadi. Jimm would spend hours behind his computer studying link diagrams of insurgent cells and Al Qaeda and develop plans to kill/capture them. Hell, the Battalion intelligence shop loved him because he made their job easy. He knew the enemy better than they knew themselves. That’s why I supported him on every mission that we executed…. Except one….
All the NCO’s were in the Command Post and getting briefed for our mission the next day. We were headed south across the desert in search of a camp where a known terrorist was going to be. The problem was, the desert is HUGE, we didn’t know exactly where this camp was, and we only have 10 trucks with no air support. This meant we could potentially be driving for hours across the blank desert, all 10 trucks on line, keeping visual contact with each other. I hated those missions with a passion.
I woke up the next morning only to step outside into a dust storm. It was bad. Visibility was about 50 meters and I was sure that we were going to call off the mission. I walk into the CP to see Jimm putting on his kit and getting ready to go. “Jimm, I recommend we scrap this mission, we can’t see anything. With this dust storm, the most area we could cover is about 500 meters on line versus the 5 kilometers we would see if it was clear” I stated. Nope… We were going. Over and over I tried convincing him. And after about 10 minutes of bickering I could tell it was a dead point; he was determined to go. I was pissed that he wasn’t listening to me. I almost pulled the “I’m not going, I have admin stuff to do” and stay on the JSS, but like a good PSG, if my Platoon was going I was going.
We mount up on our trucks and roll out south. After about 45 minutes of looking at brown air and trying to maintain visual with the truck next to us, the unexplainable happens. A single car was driving right towards us (IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE) and stops. Jimm gets out with his security element, talks for a minute, and gets back into his truck. “Follow that car. They are taking us to the camp”. No F’N WAY! We arrive at the camp and sure enough, the target is there. What I thought was going to be a long boring drive across the desert, the same drive that I argued with Jimm not to take, was genius! We not only got the target, but he led us to a complete cell of terrorists. From that day forward, whatever Jimm wanted to do, he got my 100% support. And no, we NEVER argued again.