The S-3 who never lost it, no matter how tough a situation got
Article by Tom Rozman
In a service career an officer will encounter many leaders of ability and some not so much. Some leaders have that gift of knowing how to read their subordinates well assessing strengths, weaknesses and capabilities perfectly and deftly leveraging that assessment over time to optimize the subordinate in their role. Typically such gifted leaders have a sincere interest in their direct reports and members of their team and possess strong mentoring skills.
Such leaders take a sincere interest in their people beyond just performing the daily job. They tend to see their charges as longer term organizational assets to be developed to full potential. They are also role models upon which the developing leader will base much of their personal development strategy. For this reason alone it goes without saying that the master practitioners of these important, even critical, but not universal talents and abilities are vital beyond measure, especially in a profession where solid, even inspired leadership, may mean the difference between life and death.
Such a leader was the new S-3 (Plans, Operation, and Training Officer) of an infantry battalion. He was a “promotable,” an officer on the promotion list for advancement to the next grade, senior captain who had been serving as the brigade’s operations officer. He was a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute. His father, an infantry officer, had been killed in action in Korea while serving with the 5th Regimental Combat Team. He was tall at 6 foot one and presented an athletic appearance—he looked the part of the airborne ranger infantry officer.
The battalion’s S-3 Air, the battalion’s “deputy S-3,” had previously worked with the new S-3 in the field while detailed as the brigade’s liaison officer to XVIIIth Airborne Corps on a recent week long corps command post exercise (CPX) at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. He was impressed with the promotable captain from that experience. The S-3 Air had noted that the man never seemed to get ruffled—he was always measured and “thinking” in all situations. As well, he further noted that captain had a very effective way of generating a sense of urgency and led by example, even in the different world of battalion and brigade level plans, operations and training. He never lost it, no matter how tough a situation got, and he never abused subordinates verbally.
Several years earlier, the S-3 Air captain when a lieutenant had been the executive officer of a mechanized infantry battalion headquarters company at Ft. Hood, Texas. His company occupied the same barrack building as the battalion’s newly organized combat support company. The company orderly rooms were in the barracks. By coincidence, the combat support company commander, a captain, was a Military Academy graduate two classes ahead of the executive officer and well known to the latter.
The captain had been on the Cadet Brigade staff in his last year at the Academy and the then lieutenant had been assigned for a time to the brigade staff table in the cadet mess hall. A further coincidence, due to a family quarters shortage at Ft. Hood, both officers had rented apartments in the same apartment complex in Temple, Texas. They cooperated in a car pool to make the 30 minute commute to the barracks and back to the apartment each duty day.
The captain commanding the combat support company had returned from Viet Nam a year before. At one point in his assignment to the 173rd Airborne Brigade during his tour in Viet Nam, he had served as a 107mm (4.2 inch) mortar platoon leader. Several times during the daily work commute back and forth the two officers discussed aspects of the captain’s experiences in Viet Nam.
On several occasions during these discussions, the captain referenced his company commander in Viet Nam. He always referred to him as one of the best captains he had come across in his service, a first class leader from whom he had learned valuable professional lessons. The captain rated his old company commander as the best officer he had served under—almost reverent in his comments. From the comments and others, the captains old company commander had something of a legendary reputation.
To give context, the captain was a seasoned soldier. He had grown up in the Army, the son of a Regular Army officer, the latter a WWII combat veteran. He had enlisted in the army serving as an enlisted soldier for several years in a parachute infantry battalion in the 82nd Airborne Division. He obtained a Regular Army appointment to the Military Academy where he graduated high in his class. Ultimately, he would rise through the ranks to lieutenant general.
The lieutenant early had discerned that the captain was typically solid in what he shared professionally. The captain’s shared insights were excellent information to consider in approaching duties and career. But the comments about the captain’s old company commander in Viet Nam made an impression that the lieutenant did not forget.
In one of those odd twists of fate one encounters in a career, even in a dynamic large organization, we will cross paths with the legendary and the notorious. In this case, the newly assigned S-3 was the old company commander from the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Viet Nam that had been discussed those several years earlier at Ft. Hood during commutes from the Temple, Texas apartments to and from post. The lieutenant had wondered whether or not the reputation of the 173rd company commander would hold if met in person?
Thus began as it happened an association that greatly benefitted the S-3 Air professionally. The promotable captain proved the legend true. A skilled planner and inspiring leader who had an uncanny ability to provide just the right amount of guidance but let the subordinate have free reign to accomplish the task. He could sense when a subordinate needed assistance in the work and seemed to always provide it to the necessary level without doing the subordinates job or interfering with the subordinate’s development progress. He was a master mentor. And the subordinate early had the confidence that the S-3 had his back.
The S-# Air was fortunate that the new S-3 had these abilities and qualities. The battalion had a challenging program ahead. The brigade was busy working into its reorganization and readiness training to meet its now year old mission to provide a heavy brigade force package to XVIIIth Airborne Corps. Not only was it training aggressively with current organization against corps contingencies, it was completing reorganization into a modified table of organization and equipment separate mechanized brigade that would ultimately become the third brigade of a newly activated mechanized division that would assume the XVIIIth Airborne Corps mission.
Among other challenges near term, the battalion remained an infantry battalion until it was issued its armored personnel carriers and began retraining as a mechanized infantry battalion. Not only did this demanding mission loom on the horizon but in the interim, the battalion and brigade were constantly challenged with employment of an infantry battalion in an essentially mechanized brigade in the increasing frequency of command post exercises, tactical exercises without troops and field training exercises now occurring almost every three to four weeks. Planning and execution were constant. This work was essential against the XVIIIth Airborne Corps’ ability to be ready to execute its various mission contingencies.
The greatest challenge in the employment of the infantry battalion was devising means by which the battalion could be provided the needed tactical and operational mobility to operate effectively with the tank and mechanized battalion. Beyond the foot mobility of the infantry unit, the only organic mobility available to the battalion was the its limited number of 5 ton and 2 ½ ton trucks which if concentrated and employed could not move the battalion’s maneuver elements at one time and if applied to such task compromised the battalion’s logistics.
Additional wheeled assets existed in the brigade’s support battalion but these as well had other claimants for employment. Other transportation assets were available through non-brigade units and all were tapped at various times for certain exercises. But responsive enhanced ground mobility remained a challenge.
A second mobility venue was developed and applied as much as possible. The new S-3 from his experiences in Viet Nam was a well versed veteran of the air assault capabilities that had been developing in the Army since the work of the 11th Air Assault and 1st Cavalry Divisions at Ft. Benning 10 years earlier and since in Viet Nam. The S-3 Air had worked with the concepts and applied them in the 1st Cavalry Tri-Capability Division at Ft. Hood and in the 2nd Infantry Division in Korea.
In fact, because the army had no other tactical mobility means such as a light armored vehicle (LAV) type alternative system in the inventory, the battalion’s only enhanced mobility capability beyond its own feet and limited number of organic battalion trucks could only be scratched out and stitched together from “soft skinned” unarmored truck assets and airframes from any source made available.
The brigade’s organic aviation assets were also slim to none having only a small aviation detachment. But there was an independent medium lift aviation company assigned to the installation with an appreciable number of UH1Hs sufficient for the battalion to develop enhanced tactical and operational mobility capabilities.
The S-3 Air’s work was cut out for him and became demanding not least of which was the carving out of a relationship with the aviation company that was reliable and met the growing need training wise and in any later operations. This was not easy as the aviation unit had an already busy dance card. It wasn’t looking for more opportunities to excel. But the S-3 Air, well supported by the S-3 went to work.
Bit by bit, greatly improved relationships with the aviation and truck units were developed. Soon the battalion was planning and executing air assault operations as part of the increasingly intense maneuver and field training program which included deployments from Ft. Benning to Ft. Stewart, Georgia. The battalion’s tactical and operational capabilities were greatly improved and the battalion became an increasingly valuable maneuver capability for the brigade.
This result was much the product of a very effective partnership that had developed between the S-3 and the S-3 Air. Both offices had a developed sense of the capabilities needed, where to obtain them and how to employ them. But no small amount of the success was due to the S-3’s leadership style. His engagement and support of subordinates tempered by competence and even tempered approach to even the most difficult situations always produced results that moved the unit forward in its mission capabilities.
The S-3 Air would later reassign to the brigade’s mechanized battalion where he would later assume command of a mechanized infantry company. Years later the two officers would reconnect and spend some time together at a conference when the S-3 was serving as the division commander of the 7th Light Infantry Division. He would later be promoted to lieutenant general and retire in that grade. The S-3 Air would retain the utmost respect for the S-3’s qualities as a leader.
The S-3 Air in subsequent assignments often reflected on the style and approach of his mentor with good effect. The clear take aways regarding effective leadership style was that the S-3 exhibited a range of qualities that generated success, most notably his competence, his effective balance of guidance with allowing subordinates the space to work effectively, his personal interest in his staff, and his loyalty. There were other qualities of value but these made the difference in generating a high performing infantry battalion plans, operations and training staff. The S-3 was perhaps the most effective practitioner of auftragstaktik the S-3 Air had come across in his career.
A postscript—the hard work of the two officers along with that of many other officers and non-commissioned officers regarding the battalion’s development as a capable combat unit would bear fruit some years later. The battalion would reorganize as a mechanized infantry battalion. The brigade, the 197th Separate Infantry Brigade (Mechanized), with a completed separate mechanized infantry brigade modified table of organization and equipment would deploy to the Middle East as the third maneuver brigade of the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division, a unit of the XVIIIth Airborne Corps for operations in the first Iraq War. It would perform well in this role.