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10970 Karmin McKay: “Generals, RSM’s and Troopers are people just like you”

Generals, RSMs and Troopers are people, just like you.

Article by 10970 Karmin McKay 

“A general is just as good or just as bad as the troops under his command make him.”

– General of the Army, Douglas MacArthur

“We have good corporals and sergeants, and some good lieutenants and captains, and those are far more important than good generals.”

– General William Tecumseh Shermano

Most people want to say YES. If not, we as a species would have died out long ago. The same with Generals and RSMs. Soldiers tend to say yes especially when you outrank them. Many of the generals and RSMs are really nice people and are actually kind despite their work appearance to you as an OCdt or junior officer. Meeting and talking to a general could lead to trouble and they are to be avoided. Even CWC’s can get into trouble during a visit to see a general or the College RSM.  RSMs seemed to all yell loud from far away and spent most of their time looking for young officers walking on the grass.

I counted the College RSM as a friend during my last two years at RMC. I learnt that he also liked me when I hosted him in Germany in 1978. His wife even knew that I was in Germany he said as she had told him to look me up.  I also had a great relationship with my first Regimental RSM, with the Army HQ RSM and with the Navy CWO that worked in my section in NDHQ. The CFB Montreal Base RSM did not like me at all (in another article).

I had the privilege to work closely with many superb generals (6 CDS in all, all Army) early in my career and later newly promoted generals that knew me very well from our previous service together. I did not seek the jobs requiring me to interact with generals as a daily routine but was, much to my dismay, assigned to them. It was much easier to report to a major, pass him my finished work and then have him carry the football and get knocked down.

Soldiers are just like you. They have ambitions, emotions and on occasion faults. They like you hope to be promoted and many will work with you again years into the future. Treating them fair and as a leader not as a friend will pay off in dividends in the future for both of you. Treat them poorly and you may not know it but you can and may be blindsided years later by one or more of them. Binos or pistols have been known to disappear. There are several in the weeds of Wainwright. I bought and used my own shoulder holster to have my pistol with me rather than hanging from a web belt.

RSMs first. I was on the college rifle team while my mountain climbing bud was on the pistol team. Our coaches were the college drill staff. The college RSM would drop in once a week to speak with his staff while we shot. He would often spend time with us. I wrote an article which had his face used as a target with bullet holes in it that was published by the college newspaper. He really enjoyed it and we soon talked much more and often. Only in the rifle range, not on the square in public. We had the same relationship with the drill staff. Mostly comrades, not getting yelled at on the square. In fourth year, I was a senior cadet carrying a rifle. I knew that after grad that I would be doing sword drill. I asked my Squadron cadet leaders to do sword instead of rifle drill and was denied. Okay round two. I raised the same issue with the RSM in the rifle range. He agreed with my logic that if RMC was to prepare me for service in the Army, I should be competent with sword drill before grad. The next week the fourth-year cadets that would carry rifles on grad parade started sword drill. He later came to Europe for a week and as it happened, I was the only cadet then in Europe that he knew. We spent many evenings together reminiscing. He had also worked with my Bde Major. Our Army is small.

My first regimental RSM loved hunting and I wrote about how being the Lahr game warden influenced his attitude to me. I was no longer just a snotty nosed knows nothing Lt in training. He was a great RSM as well. I did not have an RSM to work with in Gagetown. I had a fantastic SSM.  I wish I had used him for guidance more often. Hint. I was working very late on Christmas Eve while working at FMCHQ. As I left the base, it was dark, cold with a strong wind and a blizzard. I saw a soldier walking down the sidewalk in his great coat. I pulled over and told him that I would drive him to his destination. He was going to the Montreal subway which was beside my apartment building. He was the Army RSM. I only saw him on the occasions when I needed to speak with the Army Commander related to sensitive information. Having his support when I had an issue with another RSM was helpful.

Generals. My first real interaction with generals was in a staff car in Germany in 1976. Previous to that, my closest interaction started with a large carp a bud and I caught with our hands through the ice in Navy Bay. It eventually ended up tail placed first into the Commandant’s private toilet. It had a sign around its neck that said heads up and swim along. Its picture is in a yearbook. The commandant liked the prank and as the story goes, he brought his secretary in to see it and she threw up from the smell.

I was the aide de camp for a 3-star armour general from NDHQ in October 1976. My Bde commander (infantry) and the 3-star from NDHQ were on the way to visit the Air Base in Baden and I was riding with them. My alarm bells started ringing when they started discussing my phase 4 disaster with more than half the course failing after 9 months of expensive training. I was dumbfounded that the infantry  Bde Commander even knew about it. The three star was ADM Pers so it was fully in his area of responsibility.  A light bulb went on in the 3 stars head and he asked me if I had been on the course. I hadn’t even finished saying yes sir when he stated that I was to write him a memo telling him exactly what happened on the course. I was not to tell anyone else nor was I to show the memo to anyone else. He never gave me an address. I was his aide, I was to find it. I told my CO, said I would write it and ask him to review it prior to sending it by snail mail. He stated that that was a good idea and I did.

My conclusion for the 3 star was I did well because I knew how to read a 1:50,000 map well.  Those that had never had map training before got lost and failed because of it.  Between grade 11 geography, 4 years army cadets and 2 years in a recce reserve unit, I could teach map using.  We received no map training in armour phase 2 or 3. Suddenly good map using was essential to passing phase 4. A tank moving cross country can have six degrees of motion. So imagine the hull moving to the right, the turret moving left and down etc. And after 5 minutes of that all the small different woods look the same.  Attacking the wrong woods caused many failures despite conducting a good attack. There are many other lessons from this event besides me disobeying a direct order from a 3 star. I was ordered to not follow the chain of command. I would be breaking the trust and loyalty to my CO if I did not tell him. Had I known (bothered to find out what an ADM Per was) instead of just understanding that he was an Armour 3 star, I might have been able to prepare for the question in advance. HINT

In another article, I mentioned that due to my big mouth at the mess that I commanded a parade for the Army Commander. Army HQ had more RSMs than privates. More Sgt Majors than Cpls. You get the idea. The previous parade commander had not conducted rehearsals. More than 200 showed up for my parade rehearsal. I commanded the parade as a Capt with four captains commanding 4 guards of 45.  Each guard had 4 ranks. I wanted to keep it as large as possible with troops on parade with the minimum size of separate marching units and minimum rehearsal.  We decided that the troops marched better with the larger ranks. Our aim was to provide a good march past with minimum practice because I certainly needed a good parade. I wanted nothing to do with leading a parade of 2 companies of three platoons when one large company with 4 platoons would work. That was what my gaggle of 10 RSMs and I came up with. I had RSMs in WO positions. I had Sgt majors in Sgts positions. Just as we were finishing our final practice and the parade RSM and I agreed that that was good enough, a beat-up station wagon screeched onto the runway (parade square) and the CFB Montreal Base RSM jumped out and started yelling and screaming at everyone. He wanted to take control of the parade. I let him continue yelling until I had had enough. I walked up to him to get his attention. After he saluted me, I explained who I was, what my RSMs and I were doing and that we were happy with our status quo. We did not require his assistance and to please leave us alone. He sure burnt rubber leaving. I thought nothing more of it. WRONG.

Later that day, I was told to go see the general that I usually met with daily to discuss ongoing operational items. My job required me to skip my chain of command often. Much to my dismay, he asked me if I had thrown the Base RSM off his own parade square. I told him my side of the story and that I had not thrown him off the parade square but merely asked him to leave. I was told not to do it again and they never asked me to command a parade again.

The parade was an outstanding success. I was told more than once that it was the best parade that they had ever seen at Army HQ. Why? It turns out that the Base RSM was often rude to the FMCHQ RSMs in their mess.  They really enjoyed my interactions with the Base RSM and its results. They put their heart and soul into making the soldiers march well. They proved that just like the little red train going up the hill, we could not only do it all on our own but do it well. Motivation can cause soldiers to do things that they never imagined. Not just on the parade square but in combat as well (Vimy Ridge is a good example).

I first met another general when he commanded 5 Bde. I had written the exercise for his Bde CPX in my first job at FMCHQ. One of my roles during the exercise was as the Corps counterattack division commander. As such, my plans and orders superseded his staffs and his own. As an acting 2-star general, I had planned a visit to meet and speak with the real general. I had given his staff my schedule and time that I wanted to meet the real general. He was late and I left in my vehicle just as he arrived. We waved to one another. I had worked with his brother in Germany who also later became a general.

I was in Germany as an umpire for the first two months of 1986.  A few weeks after I returned, I was voluntold that I was to be the new SO3 Ops. I believe that the marks are still in the floor from when they dragged me down to my new office.  My next interaction with him was in my next position as the Army SO3 Operations. The Army HQ duty officers reported to me. I got a call on a Sunday night requiring urgent action and went to work in the HQ. An ice dam was threatening to flood a city in Northern Alberta and combat engineers were needed to blow it up. I completed my staff check and called the general at his home around 10 PM. I informed him that I was about to write a tasking message ordering him to send a troop of engineers from Quebec to blow up the ice in Alberta. Some of you may be thinking why Quebec to go to Alberta? Just what the general asked and why I called him. Why not the engineers from Alberta or Ontario? One unit was exercising in California and the other was in Texas. The plane from Trenton was getting ready to pick his engineers up.  Through 2 operational interactions, we already knew each other. He then became my BGen in FMCHQ. He was an excellent mentor to me, and his assessments got me promoted.

One of the troop leaders that I served with in 1976 eventually became a 3-star general. He loved his motorcycles. No matter his rank or position, he loved his Harley. He drove it to work when he was a Lt in Germany and as a BGen and the CTC Commander. He also drove it to work as a 3 star when he represented Canada at NATO HQ. He was also the same outgoing friendly but serious man as a Lt as he was as a LGen. He remains a good friend. He also attended the same course that I did in the UK. His claim to fame as a LCol was being in the national press for the descriptions of both male and female long underwear when managing the Clothe the Soldier project. He was a change leader in my opinion. He made it to the LGen rank despite driving a motorcycle to work and having had advanced technical training. Advanced technical expertise is much more important to leadership today than it was in my time. Tech training was thought to be the kiss of death as far as a promotion went. A year in school and then 3 years manning an office tech job was 4 years away from operational duty and good unit PERS. He was the only 3 star of the six officers in my Regiment (76-77) that were eventually promoted to general rank. One can get promoted fast by being good and not changing who and what you are. Be yourself, you will be much happier.

My skiing partner on my French course was a Col that was promoted to BGen while on the course. Two years later he assumed command of Foxhole U across from RMC and I became a student of his in 1985. He interviewed me on day 1. His parting words were: “Don’t try to change for this course. We know who you are (he meant he knew who I was as I had never met any of my syndicate DS before)”. And his order was one of the ones I enjoyed the most. I enjoyed the course and helped many of my peers do likewise. I was the course entertainment officer and did my best. (more in other articles).

The last physical piece of work that I completed before I retired was to teach a Navy CWO (RSM) how to use paint in Windows to colour the inside of a circle. A friend of mine from the class of 75 retired on the same day and time as I did. I went over to say goodbye as I was moving to Atlanta Georgia the next day. As we spoke, a 3-star general popped out of an office and stated “Major, I sure would like a coffee”. My friend fetched the coffee. It sure is a good thing that he never asked me for a coffee. At least I did something high tech as my last official action in the Army.

I worked with three generals in my first tour and then later worked with all three again after we were all promoted. Many majors from my Regimental tours also became generals and I worked for them again. The same with my tour at FMCHQ. I could not even escape from them even while on my French course. Most are logical, rational, mean well, and really have our soldiers well being at heart. I worked hard to avoid those that were not my fans or that I did not respect.

In NDHQ (90-91) I had a cabinet with many fancy toys that were on trial: binos, NVG, GPS, thermal imagers and other items. I believed that having the decision makers using my items and liking them would speed passage of their purchase. I lent, for trial a pair of binos (signed for on a temporary loan card) to the CTC Base Commander who later became CDS. I hunted with him in Germany when he was a Major. My first CO and I were meeting with the now MGen on the 24th floor of the UN building as he was the UN leader for all deployed UN forces. He told me to rip the temp loan card up because he was never returning them. I had already retired and it was not my problem.  We left that meeting and were walking downtown NYC when the CO suggested that we go into the same hotel that Kevin stayed at in Home Alone 2. We sat down and my company then paid for the drinks and oysters for my self, my first CO and my first Commander CFE and FMCHQ who had been sitting by himself when we arrived. He was the general who doodled. (Title of another article). I listened and learned while the two generals told stories. My CO had been one of his Bde Commanders when he commanded the army.

I also issued NVG, GPS and the same binos to another senior officer I respected that was deploying to the desert to command a UNMO observation mission. He needed them far more than my cabinet did. I retired before he returned. So an officer at a much lower rank has the ability to assist or hinder a superior if they wish. An army 3 star general that was submitting false expense accounts was busted by a MCpl that reported him. No fancy retirement parade for him.

I earned the trust of several generals in my tours. I was not afraid of being shot delivering them a message. I also tried to offer a solution when delivering the message. When we later served together again, I already had their trust and was treated accordingly.

I worked for 10 months in the NDOC during 1990-91. My secondary duty of 4 days every 2 years turned into a full shift 5 to 7 days a week for ten months (usually on the weekend as well) and manning the Army STANO, RISTA desk alone when 2 majors were supposed to share the work. I got to see many generals and the civie equivalents in action while we were at war. The NDOC was commanded by a Navy admiral that smoked. NDHQ had very specific rules related to smoking. A simple cigarette could take more than 30 minutes to smoke when travel time and speaking with others time is added.  He smoked in the NDOC photocopier room beside my desk. He needed to be in NDOC during the war not spending 2 hours a shift commuting to smoke. More on NDOC and the Gulf War later in another article.

I was tasked to organize a late lunch and learn for the FMCHQ armour officers and RSM. I completed my recce and selected an establishment in downtown Montreal. The total initial cost was $5. The others liked that because they were married and had to watch their discretionary spend account while I did not. The cover charge was $2, the first beer $3 and the food was free. The RSM was in heaven. I told the dancers that he was our company CEO and to really look after him. He was a big tipper and I would be paying the tab as the evening went along for his beer and dances that I would order for him. I also convinced a LCol that it was his birthday and that the dancers would give him a special dance. He had been one of my phase 4 instructors. He was soon on stage surrounded by dancers and in 7th heaven. Then they had him stand up and wiggle a little bit with them. He proceeded to copy them as they wiggled until he was suddenly naked on stage. I saw a hand sneak out between the dancers legs and heard McKay, I am going to get you for this. The General laughed louder.

Soldiers. My first tank driver later became the corps RSM. He was also my gunner when we won the NATO tank gunnery championship. He was so good that he was accelerated promoted to MCPL from trooper over many others with much more seniority. I had retired and my first son decided he no longer liked welding school and joined the CF to become an armoured trooper. He was told that he was being posted to the Armour School in Gagetown. I called the now Corps RSM and asked for his assistance to get my son posted to our Regiment instead.  He replied that he knew someone that could do that. Suddenly my son was posted to The RCD.

Sure there were bad apples but not many. (Subject of another article).  Treat them fair. You are their leader not their best friend.  I was not a friend to my crew, but friendly to them. We were a band of brothers when on operations. We trained as if our lives depended on each other because in war, it would. Listen and understand their concerns and if possible, help them.  Try to understand their phobias. I thought one of my Sgts was a coward because he would not jump into the water to help rescue one of our troop members during adventure training. I am not afraid of water. He was, having almost drowned as a child. I then trusted him again to have my back in war. He was not a coward, just terrified of drowning. If you have a phobia try to keep it to yourself otherwise you will teased and harassed. Earwigs were everywhere in Germany. It was common to have 20 or more on inside the top of our tents we occasionally used on deployment. One WO spent hours trying to design an integrated earwig proof protection system for his camp cot. He never caught on that everyone was trying to catch earwigs to throw onto his sleeping bag and camp cot.

I had a problem Jr. NCO in my troop. I had defended him against my OC once. The next time I had issues with him, his wife had accompanied him for a financial counselling meeting. She was wound up trying to boss me around and it was my fault that they had spent to much money that they did not have. Revenge is sweet. My phase 3 course officer (also an ex cadet) was the new Squadron AO. I was delighted to inform him that I was bringing the two of them over to discuss the matter with him. Three years earlier he had the ability to fail me and now he was more or less an officer that I worked with as a peer.

I just happened to want to tackle anything and everything dangerous or not. Most others are wiser and more cautious. I was always chasing an adrenaline rush and the army is certainly a good place to find it if you have the right job. Some of your peers, leaders and soldiers are the same. Several of my soldiers wanted to become SAR techs. I helped guide them on their journey. There was no JTF then. SAR Tech was the goal for the adrenaline seekers. Try to understand where your soldiers fit on the risk-taking scale. Are they risk adverse or challenge it to the limits? Where do you fit on the same scale? Now try to mix and match the skill sets to get the best performance from your team. Good luck. TDV

3 Comments

  • 11088 Howard Hisdal

    September 22, 2021 at 5:46 pm

    You are a good story teller Karmin and hook your reader in to the end. I remember your Phase Four Armour training. I was in Phase Four Infantry and we were in M113 APCs (without yellow flags to make them tanks) doing “mechanized warfare” as the infantry support to your course’s armour commanded advance. Rick Hillier was on your course and writes about it as well. Much later in life, when I was doing my Reserve armoured troop leader course in Wainwright at the mid-life crisis age of 41, I came to understand that map reading in the Armoured Corps is a whole other level from map reading in the infantry.