Above: U. S. 6th Infantry Regiment (Mechanized), 5th Battalion
The Challenged Company Executive Officer
Article by Tom Rozman
The mechanized infantry battalion assigned to the first brigade of an armored division stationed at a large Central Texas army post had recently reorganized. Based on experience and initiatives taken by units and the army operating in Viet Nam, the Army had determined to organize combat support companies in its maneuver battalions. In keeping with this Army wide development the battalion formed a combat support company from certain of its headquarters company assets,
The new company formed a new company headquarters and took under command the scout, heavy mortar and anti-tank platoons previously assigned to the battalion headquarters company.
Per the Army provided modified tables of organization for the new combat support companies, the battalion had reformed its headquarters company around specified administrative and staff, vehicle and engineer equipment maintenance, supply, signals, and chemical elements and assets. Both companies were manned from the initial headquarters company personnel base with vacancies being filled by replacements and new arrivals from the Army’s training base and personnel replacement system.
Priority for personnel per Army guidance if temporary shortages developed in the process of forming the new company would be to the new forming combat support company. In the case of the battalion, an officer shortage developed during the organization/reorganization process.
The new combat support company’s commander, who had previously been the headquarters company commander, found himself with a full compliment of officers—a captain company commander, a 1st lieutenant executive officer and three 1st lieutenant platoon leaders. The new headquarters company commander, a 1st lieutenant scheduled to be promoted to captain in three months, when the dust settled, found himself with one company officer, himself, the medical, signals and support platoons being temporarily led by their platoon sergeants until lieutenants were physically in their platoons or assigned. His company executive officer position was vacant as well.
This was not a comfortable position for the new commander to be in with the company to run and gell in its reorganized state and the battalion commander, battalion executive officer, and other officers of the battalion headquarters and staff to support and contend with.
The company’s executive officer position vacancy exacerbated a tough officer situation in the reformed headquarters company. As noted, other officer positions were vacant. The medical platoon was awaiting arrival of a replacement medical service corps officer as platoon leader. A similar situation existed in the signal platoon different only in that the new signal officer, recently arrived, was on station but not yet with his platoon. The support platoon was about to have assigned a new fairly experienced lieutenant from one of the line companies to lead it. That platoon with its fueling and ammunition responsibilities along with ongoing maintenance of the trucks, needed that new lieutenant’s full attention and rapid mastering of his duties.
To add to the company’s challenges in consolidating the recent reorganization, a busy mission schedule was right around the corner. Riot control training and possible deployment to a major city on the west coast, as a minimum, deployment to a riot control field training exercise was assured. A major division reorganization with following organizational field testing over several months would follow. This work set the stage for a several week all unit de-duding of the vast gunnery range impact area on the post preparatory to a major division on division opposing force exercise of several weeks intended to evaluate the divisional reorganization. With this aggressive mission schedule on the horizon, there was no time to waste in getting a solid team of company officers in place as soon as possible.
The headquarters company commander was well regarded by the battalion commander and though the loss of many top personnel and four officers to the new combat support company was a bitter pill, the new company commander moved forward in the consolidation, manning and training of the reorganized headquarters company. A senior lieutenant and as noted about to be promoted to captain, he had the battalion commander’s confidence. In that light he had obtained assurances from the battalion commander that the next infantry lieutenant to arrive in the battalion would be assigned to headquarters company to serve as the company executive officer.
An aspect of the company commander’s leadership would manifest itself over the several months that would follow after the assignment of the new company executive officer. The commander had assumed command from his predecessor, a captain who had returned the previous year from Viet Nam. There apparently was a perception and basis to the lieutenant’s self-generated about to display animosity.
The captain who relinquished command of the headquarters company and assumed command of the new forming combat support company was a West Point graduate, a parachute and ranger qualified officer, who had also graduated from the Infantry Mortar Platoon Leader’s Course at the Infantry School who already in his service had considerable experience. His selection to form the new company using an already experienced company commander was a logical and prudent course of action by the battalion commander.
Adding weight to the battalion commander’s determination, experience wise the captain was a battle tested veteran who had led an airborne infantry 107mm mortar platoon in Viet Nam, an earlier airborne infantry platoon in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina and who had served on an airborne battalion staff as the plans, operations and training officer for air operations in combat as well. The captain had demonstrated his command competencies while commanding the original and very large headquarters company for almost half a year. Additionally, he was an officer who had several years of enlisted infantry paratrooper service in the 82nd Airborne Division before appointment to the Military Academy. The captain was an ideal choice for the job of forming and leading the new company.
But the lieutenant assuming command of the reorganized headquarters company had formed the view that the captain had stripped the residual headquarters company of all of its talent. As well, the lieutenant, a college graduate from a mid-western university commissioned through the Reserve Officer Training Corps, was an obligated volunteer reserve officer on active duty for two years, unless he chose to extend on active duty and apply for Regular Army integration.
The battalion commander thought so highly of the lieutenant and his abilities that he had placed him in command of the headquarters company and was encouraging the lieutenant to integrate into the Regular Army and remain on active service. Unfortunately, in the event, the lieutenant had apparently formed an attitude that would play out over the next three months. He apparently had begun to harbor some ill feelings toward Military Academy graduates that did not bode well for any officer from that commissioning source that might come under his authority given the circumstances.
At this point, an infantry 2nd lieutenant arrived in the battalion. The new lieutenant had just completed the Infantry Officer Basic Course, the Parachute School and the Ranger School. The lieutenant was a West Point graduate.
During the new lieutenant’s welcome interview with the battalion commander, he was extended a “welcome aboard,” comments outlining the battalion’s mission, and a statement of the unit’s general situation. As the interview neared its end, the commander asked the lieutenant what duty he would first desire to have. The lieutenant responded that he would prefer a role as a platoon leader to gain necessary experience. The battalion commander reflected a bit, then informed the lieutenant of his new duty assignment. The battalion commander stated that the lieutenant’s first duty assignment would be as the executive officer to the headquarters company.
The commander stated that he was aware that this was an unusual first assignment for a newly assigned 2nd lieutenant but noted that the personnel posture of the battalion made the assignment necessary. He stated that the lieutenant would be assigned as an infantry platoon leader at the earliest possible time. (In these times, infantry lieutenants assigned to units in the Continental United States (CONUS) would typically spend some 4-6 months in a CONUS unit before reassignment to units in Viet Nam. Experience with a platoon was more than something “nice” to do, it could have life saving consequences.)
The lieutenant stated that he would have preferred assignment as an infantry platoon leader but accepted the commander’s assignment and rationale. He stated that he would perform his assigned duties to the best of his abilities.
The lieutenant’s welcome and meeting with his new company commander was from all appearances a good one. It seemed informative and included a tour of the company, which occupied several locations in the barracks complex the battalion occupied, and brief introductions to key company staff and battalion staff at the headquarters. What did become apparent as the meeting concluded and more so over the next several days, the lieutenant would be assuming many duties, and quickly, with minimum preparation, the exception being attendance at the week long motor officer’s course conducted by the division’s troop school.
Within the next two weeks the lieutenant was assigned as the company training officer, maintenance officer, supply officer, and nuclear, biological and chemical officer. All four areas had immediate key business and events pending. The lieutenant had no doubt he would have to heavily rely on the non-commissioned officers in these areas, especially as he was still getting his family settled in. (there were no quarters available on post nor in the local town resulting in the family of three having to rent an apartment in a nearby small city a 40 minute commute from post). As noted, the company commander had scheduled the lieutenant into a week long motor officer’s course before the month was out making for a very busy schedule indeed.
Duties wise, the lieutenant was drinking from a fire hose. Oddly, little substantial guidance was forthcoming from the company commander after initial duty assignments. The lieutenant thought this odd, but having grown up in the Army, enlisted in the Army Reserve serving as a Reserve Officer Training Corps cadet for a year before attending the Academy and noting that the company commander had only 18 months of commissioned service himself, he chalked the commander’s dearth of guidance up to that limited experience and determined to compensate as much as possible through personal initiative. The lieutenant got busy.
But, the lieutenant knew nothing of the situation around the reorganization or the commander’s ill feelings toward the combat support company commander. As it happened, the lieutenant had been on the same mess table at the Military Academy with the support company commander who had graduated two years before the lieutenant. They knew each other. By coincidence, the captain and lieutenant were renting in the same apartment complex and to defray costs of commuting, the two officers agreed to car pool to and from post.
Also by circumstance, the combat support company was billeted in the same barrack as the headquarters company. It occupied the two floors above headquarters company. The captain’s parking space was immediately outside the headquarters company commander’s office window.
As the weeks passed, the lieutenant was extremely busy. In addition to getting up to speed and mastering the array of duty assignments, completing the motor officer course, getting his family settled in, and negotiating the commute to and from post, at the four week mark, the lieutenant received an order to form a provisional infantry platoon. He would form the platoon from headquarters company personnel, train that platoon in riot control techniques, tactics and procedures and accept assignment of the platoon to the battalion’s Company C to bring that company to effective strength for possible deployment to a West Coast city for riot control duty.
The platoon trained and prepared for air loading and deployed to the air base contiguous to the installation to load aircraft. In the event, the battalion did not deploy to the municipality it was allocated to but instead was deployed on an exercise to an urban training area on post (a repurposed WWII army hospital complex) where, with full riot control gear, snipers with sniper rifles and scopes, the units of the battalion confronted rioters who used among other training aids, plastic bags of flower thrown at the troops to simulate excrement and other material. The Central Texas weather was already heating up in April so the exercise was good for long sweaty days.
Over the weeks, the lieutenant, especially during commutes with the captain, began to piece together the unfortunate situation with his company commander. It provided another reason why his commander was perhaps less than effective with guidance and engagement in addition to level of experience.
The lieutenant believed strongly in loyalty and as the information about the reorganization developed, was careful to avoid any discussion about the internal company with the captain. As the picture formed, the lieutenant realized he was in a situation, just with the captain’s car parking outside his commander’s office window, that under the circumstances, would likely prove difficult. In that regard, he made the determination to perform his duties as professionally as possible, to learn as much as he could professionally and maintain the best possible relationship with his commander.
On a Friday two days from the end of the second month as the executive officer, the lieutenant was informed by the battalion commander after a battalion officer’s call that he would assume duties as a platoon leader in Company A. The mechanized infantry platoon was supporting a high visibility Army initiative. He was ordered to report to the battalion operations officer after the officer’s call to receive further instructions. At this meeting, the lieutenant learned that he would be reporting to the platoon at 0530 the following Monday for deployment with the platoon to a field site. The platoon had already been released for the weekend.
The lieutenant then received a short evaluation meeting from his commander covering the two month rating period, the minimum for an officer evaluation at the time–later extended to three months. The evaluation reflected the concerns the lieutenant had developed on learning the nature of the situation with the company commander. As it happened, the lieutenant’s efforts to fend off an evaluation disaster had borne some fruit.
The lieutenant took stock and assumed command of the Company A platoon. Over the following nine months that platoon would perform its mission extremely well gaining much reputation. The lieutenant would then assume the duties of the executive officer of Company C .
From a leadership and following events aspect, the headquarters company commander apparently had too bitter a taste in his mouth regarding continued service and saw his opportunities outside the service. He did not follow through on the battalion commander’s encouragement to integrate into the Regular Army.
This personal conclusion was borne out by several inappropriate and unsolicited comments he made to the lieutenant on providing a copy of the efficiency report to the lieutenant. It may have been that the separating officer had never had the intention of an Army career. He may have always intended to return to civilian life at the end of his two year service obligation, seeing more personal opportunity in that direction. However, his conduct under the circumstances was unfortunate for a new officer who had little control over the situation. It was inappropriate conduct for any leader.
The lieutenant learned a great deal through the experience about leadership along with the heightened sense of the destructive, unnecessary internal politics and rivalries that could develop between groups and categories of officers in a unit, greatly impairing mission effectiveness. He determined from this experience to treat all soldiers with dignity and respect and in the case of officers, never let the commissioning source color his dealings with a fellow officer.
As well, the lieutenant had a natural inclination to apply the mission approach—but balanced to a thorough knowledge of the officers or non-commissioned officers and soldiers involved. In the lieutenant’s mind, every soldier was a valuable resource. He learned that any success he enjoyed would always be a direct product of the success of his subordinates…the fellow members of the team. His job was to make every soldier a success understanding that at times, counseling and discipline were necessary. This approach served the lieutenant very well over a long career.
The lieutenant also took away from the experience that no matter how difficult the situation, remain professional and perform your duty to bring the organization to the highest levels of mission capability. Even on the worst day, there will be a new day tomorrow to take it on fresh, and there will be a tomorrow. With good research, analysis and planning accompanied by effective team building, training, mentoring and delegation, soldiers respond and typically do very well. Soldiers want to do well and be recognized for it. Engage the soldiers and show them you are prepared to do what you are asking them to do and they will perform beyond expectations—but they are human and the officer must sense that humanity and build on it.
The lieutenant gained a great deal from a difficult experience. The lessons he learned paid dividends for years to come, most notably in the treatment of direct reports and their mentoring, counseling and evaluation.
Interestingly, the captain of Combat Support Company would proceed long into his Army career. He retired as a lieutenant general.
A note: the battalion commander, the battalion executive officer, three of the four primary battalion staff officers and three of the five company commanders of this battalion were not Military Academy graduates. Academy graduates were a minority in the battalion and not the most influential officers. However, the only anti-academy bias the lieutenant encountered was that demonstrated by his company commander. A fact that spoke well of the other officers and one that was noted as the lieutenant worked through the situation. As well, the lieutenant’s father was an officer directly commissioned from the ranks in combat in WWII who completed his active career as a lieutenant colonel. His brother was at the time an infantry lieutenant commissioned from a university Reserve Officer Training Corps program. The Lieutenant had total respect for officers from other commissioning sources.