Observation on Leadership

… “this officer will engage you as a professional and will respect you and your soldiers, but he will focus on the mission and will hold all including himself accountable to it.”

The Motor Sergeant’s Pride and Joy—or Not

Article: By Tom Rozman

It was a hot dry Central Texas summer.  The company’s new, by a few years, motor pool and maintenance shop office and bay near the far west end of Battalion Avenue made some difference compared to the earlier dust and gravel yards that preceded the concrete surfaces—but it was still hot and dusty.

The company was organized to the standard divisional armored brigade headquarters company table of organization and equipment modified to meet the mission assigned to its parent division (MTO&E)—then an experimental cavalry formation whose other brigades were organized as a prototype attack helicopter and an air assault (cavalry) brigade.  The division still had one air assault brigade operating in Viet Nam.

As a tank brigade headquarters company, the unit was a relatively small organization of some 120 men, a significant number of whom, perhaps 60 or more, were assigned to the brigade’s command group and staff sections.  The remaining soldiers manned the company’s headquarters, maintenance, supply, arms room, NBC (nuclear-biological-Chemical), and medical sections and elements.

Regardless the mission or activity level of the company, the company had a large ongoing burden of work and duty.  Its vehicle fleet, not including ¼ ton trailers to those for 2 ½ ton trucks, was assigned 36 wheel and track vehicles with a 37th special vehicle.  The tracked vehicles ranged up to 27 tons, most at 11-12 tons.  The weapons assigned ranged from the then issued service pistol, M1911, and M16 rifles, up to the M2 machinegun with some 140 weapons assigned.

These inventories combined with the engineer (tools and generators) and NBC equipment inventories assured a huge ongoing maintenance mission.  It was a never ending mission that sometimes required great initiative to sustain, particularly if Army budgets became constrained and replacement parts, as an example, became less available.  The latter, especially on low density parts that might not have any items in stock when ordered and had to be fabricated at a production plant with long delays to fill a requisition, could result in major equipment availability and unit readiness issues.

The company’s motor sergeant, a seasoned and “real politic” soldier of almost 20 years service was a sergeant first class of proven ability.  He knew how to get the job done—he knew how to be resourceful.  But the good sergeant was a professional and did his work to the standard.  And he took care of his hard worked maintenance section mechanics sub organized around tracked vehicle, wheeled vehicle, engineer equipment, recovery and spare parts management elements.

For these men work was continuous regardless the unit’s schedule, in garrison or deployed.  When in garrison there were scheduled services, cleaning and training.   When deployed to the field, which was almost every several weeks over the last few months, the section deployed and was constantly at work tending to equipment needing maintenance, recovery or evacuation to the direct support battalion.  In the hot dry months there was the huge amount of insidious dust that got into everything and in colder wetter months the “glue” like mud to contend with.

The recent heavy field schedule was taking a toll on the equipment.  The latest Army budgets introduced constraint in certain categories of spare parts.  The able maintenance sergeant found himself confronting tougher and tougher challenges to keep the fleet operational.  Two vehicles were proving particularly challenging.

To add to the difficulties, the motor sergeant’s rater and main support at the company’s officer level, the company executive officer (XO) had recently self-destructed.  The XO in this company, as in most mounted companies, also served as the motor officer.

An officer of lesser ability, the XO had nevertheless been helpful in some areas.  Unfortunately, he had also had a series of miss steps.  The straw that broke the camel’s back had been the discharge of his service pistol while serving as acting commander and pay officer.  The company commander was on leave.  It was payday.

Per procedure, the XO drew his service pistol and a clip of ammunition and with a driver and armed non-commissioned officer, proceeded in an open M151 quarter ton truck to finance at main post and drew the company payroll in cash.  He returned to the company and per company protocol established himself in the company commander’s office with his security NCO.  The first sergeant formed the pay line outside the closed company commander’s door.  On instruction from the commander, the first sergeant instructed the soldier at the head of the line to knock on the commander’s office door and request entry.  Early in this procedure, the XO was handling his weapon and it discharged through the lower door.  Shortly afterward, the XO was relieved of duty.

In consequence, an XO in one of the brigade’s mechanized infantry companies who had been noted by the company commander during his handling as an extra duty of the “recorder” function for several company related soldier “unfitness/unsuitability” elimination boards (recorders functioned in essence as a government prosecutor for these actions—there were not sufficient Army Judge Advocate Generals Corps (JAG) officers to perform these duties so line officers were assigned on a rotating basis).  The company commander was impressed and identified the 1st Lieutenant as the officer he wanted as the old XO’s replacement.  He followed up with the brigade commander.

The officer the company commander had identified had not only been the XO of a mechanized infantry company but also the XO of the brigade’s mechanized battalion’s headquarters company as well and a mechanized infantry platoon leader.  By reputation and with what he saw at the elimination boards, the company commander took the extraordinary step of lobbying the brigade commander to have the lieutenant reassigned as the new brigade headquarters company XO.

The motor sergeant knew something of all of the above but with what was developing and the situation he had been working with under the old XO, he had too many unknowns to feel comfortable with what might develop.  The new man was rumored to be a West Point graduate, a factor that could be a positive if he was a leader that “worked with subordinates.”  The rumors were generally good in that respect, but his fellow maintenance sergeant in the new XOs current mechanized infantry company did share information that gave room for pause.

When the new XO had been assigned as the line company’s XO, the maintenance section was experiencing some discipline and troop accountability challenges and large tool shortages to its common one, two and three tool sets.  The looming heavy field schedule demanded that the maintenance section be brought under discipline and up to establishment in its tool sets.  The XO pursued these objectives reasonably but firmly and on more than one occasion had taken necessary strong measures.  He, working with the maintenance sergeant had restored the section to mission capability and it had performed magnificently in the demanding field schedule that developed, one being a first post Viet Nam multi-week division on division opposing force maneuver exercise.

But the colleague was clear—this officer will engage you as a professional and will respect you and your soldiers, but he will focus on the mission and will hold all including himself accountable to it.  As the brigade headquarters company motor sergeant reflected on these comments, there was thought to what being held to standard could mean.  But the officer also seemed to value attacking the mission as a team.  That could be a very good thing—especially if he respected you as a professional.

In this light, the two most vexing lingering issues, there were many others and always new ones, but most could be handled, were keeping the extra-MTO&E M34 6X6 van truck that the current brigade commander used in the field as an office, a brigade artifact hand-me-down from previous commanders, and the company’s M578 light armored recovery vehicle’s operational status.  The latter was a readiness reporting item and it was down.

The recovery vehicles fan tower frame was cracked.  A new assembly had been ordered with the highest allowed priority.  But, the M578 chassis, even though at the time a chassis not only for the recovery vehicle configuration but the 8” self-propelled howitzer and 175mm self-propelled gun systems still in use by the Army’s division and corps artillery, remained a low density system, often with only a few on post.  And a cracked fan tower seldom occurred.  Consequently, no replacement fan towers were found in stock.  The assembly had to be fabricated and the budget and other situations were extending the the time to fill the requisition.  The only possible opportunity might be the unique mix of and number of units on the installation that used the chassis, more than any other U. S. Army installation at the time.

The post, a huge cantonment with large contiguous maneuver training and range firing areas, had two divisions and several corps units garrisoned on the installation.  There were some 56 battalions stationed at the post of which some 10 battalions and separate companies were equipped with systems based on the M578’s chassis.  Some 50 of the chassis were assigned to these various units.  It might be possible that a serviceable fan tower might be available in one of the units.  In the interim, recovery was being handled with the section’s 5-ton wheeled recovery vehicle and if heavier assistance was needed, a request to one of the brigade’s battalions for support, the mechanized battalion having  five M578s and the tank battalions having one each and 8 M88s heavy recovery vehicles.

The M34 chassis van 6 X 6 truck was an older truck system introduced in 1950 as the Korean War began that evolved into the standard truck at the time, the M35.  The significant differences were the engine,  hydromatic transmission system, a rounded engine cover bonnet and single rear wheels instead of the duals found on the M35.  The truck had been phased out of the active army by the late 1950s, and had been transferred to Army National Guard troop program units.  A program was in progress that was replacing the Guard’s M34s with the M35, concentrating the M34s from National Guard units across the U. S. at the installation for rebuild and transfer to the Turkish Army.

The motor sergeant had worked on these trucks early in his career and had been able to take advantage of several sources for parts, one being the current rebuild for military assistance transfer program to Turkey.  He was able to currently keep the truck operational but, it was over 20 years old without a known rebuild and though there were some provisions for an historic vehicle—it was not MTO&E authorized nor supported for spare parts and its continuance operationally was in question.

The first day on duty, the new XO was introduced to the motor sergeant by the company commander during the company commander provided tour of the company area and the brigade headquarters.  The sergeant and the lieutenant scheduled a meeting for the next morning.

The next morning the long service sergeant first class and the lieutenant of some seven years service as a reserve enlisted man, U. S. cadet at the Academy and as a commissioned officer got together.  The new XO had grown up in the Army before joining it and had full respect for the professional non-commissioned officer.

The motor sergeant took the lieutenant on a tour of the shop and bay facility, the company’s fleet and motor park and some of the units and locations the company did business with.  He introduced every man, in whom the lieutenant took great interest.  The sergeant became aware as the time passed that the lieutenant’s approach was to engage him as a professional relying on his experience, expertise and judgment unless  something indicated otherwise.  He came to the conclusion early that the lieutenant would not ask him to do other than what he himself was prepared to do and they would not operate outside the system.  He also sensed that the lieutenant would be loyal to him in the rough spots.

A relationship of mutual respect developed quickly and good that it did.  A challenging field schedule was on the horizon and there were pre-inspector general and readiness reporting areas that needed full focus.  The XO launched on a full court press program to fine-tune all of the company’s support areas, with emphasis on the areas most needing improvement.  The maintenance area for that reason and the coming field exercise was one of the highest priorities.

The motor sergeant sensed his direction from the XO and moved to proactively ramp up his servicing and pre-checks on all wheeled and track and engineer equipment, particularly the generators.  He insured his recovery operation would have what it needed to meet mission.  He confirmed spare parts stockage levels.  The company’s maintenance operation was well positioned over the next seven weeks to support mission.

But the crown jewels of the M34 van and the M578 fan tower loomed as challenges. The brigade commander wanted the van for the coming exercise and it was down and the fan tower replacement remained.

Regarding the latter, constant “ear to the wall” determined that an artillery battalion of another command had been delivered a fan tower it did not need and had it on station.  The motor sergeant and his counterpart in the artillery unit had served together in the past and as it developed the company had some critical parts needed by that unit.  The sergeants worked an arrangement that could be supported and the M578 was brought on line with a new fan tower.

The M34 situation continued to fester but eventually parts were located through the M34 refurbishment program on post.  But it was clear, the use of this vehicle needed to end–on several levels.  The vehicle was employed on the most current field exercise shortly after which the brigade change of command occurred.  The company had already changed command.   The XO had made the case to his new commander that the M34 was a liability on several levels not least being safety.  Shortly after the change of brigade command the M34 was retired and disposed of.

The XO had come down on levy for Viet Nam shortly before his brigade assignment.  Five months after assuming duties as the XO, the lieutenant bid farewell to the soldiers and NCOs of the company and thanked them for their hard work.  As a team they had performed very well and the company was considered one of the most effective headquarters companies on the post.  But the lieutenant held his most sincere praise for the motor sergeant.  He submitted him for a Commendation Medal and made a point to thank the sergeant personally and privately for his hard work and professionalism.  The motor sergeant was one of the finest NCOs the lieutenant served with over his lengthy career.

As an observation on leadership from this vignette—there are competent and able subordinates.  Learn quickly who they are and give them space to lead.  Leaders must deal forthrightly with problems and resolve them.  At the same time, if a problem may take more time to resolve, a leader will always have an alternative way of getting the job done.  Always build a team.  A smart leader who builds an effective team creates leadership depth to continue the mission if removed from the operation.

Note: the author served as a company motor officer in three mounted (armored or mechanized units) companies, commanded a mounted company, was the XO of a mounted battalion over its maintenance operations, and was acting commander of a forward deployed mounted battalion for several months.  During that time he had the privilege of working directly with five motor sergeants, four battalion motor warrant officers and three battalion motor officers.  He found these soldiers to be some of the hardest working and most dedicated soldiers in his experience.   The NCOs particularly, when supported properly, could literally make maintenance miracles happen.  These were some of the finest professionals he encountered in the service.