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Tom Rozman: A Battalion Commander’s Determination

A Battalion Commander’s Determination

9th in a series by Tom Rozman

A battalion commander in a forward deployed combat battalion in Europe was reviewing a non-judicial case with the battalion sergeant major. The case was to be heard that afternoon.

One of the battalion’s line company commanders was preferring charges against a staff sergeant in the company. The case involved several charges against the non-commissioned officer (NCO) concerning alleged failure to perform his duties as a subordinate leader properly as instructed to include several related allegations.

The company commander was well regarded by the battalion commander as a mature, reliable, steady and thoroughgoing professional. He was one of the battalion’s strongest officers. As well, the company’s first sergeant, who would be present at the proceedings was considered one of the best senior NCOs in the battalion.

As the sergeant major and the battalion commander reviewed the charges, they seemed straightforward enough. They were well stated and met the criteria for the charges being preferred. What was odd as the sergeant major and the commander considered the available information, the staff sergeant up to this point had been considered a good NCO and no previous disciplinary action had been preferred against him.

Additionally, the battalion commander was relatively new in his role and was working through some 12 cases that had not been resolved prior to the previous commander’s departure. The new commander, due to previous assignment however, did have a good sense of the battalion and its personnel. One specific question the commander had to the sergeant major before entertaining the hearing with the company commander, first sergeant and the NCO being charged was, given the relative seriousness of the charges, with no apparent preceding history, why were charges being preferred that could if applied lead to a reduction in rank, at the very least a suspension of a reduction with monetary penalties? A second question suggested itself–had the company commander made any effort before preferring such charges with the effect they might have on the NCO’s career to make an effort to counsel the NCO on any identified deficiencies with a following corrective strategy being attempted?

The apparent precipitate nature of the charges and the potential severity of punishment that could result was a concern. The nature of the charges were such that no single precipitate act or behavior had occurred that would warrant such charges without some previous work by the commander having occurred to correct the NCOs alleged deficiencies.

Relative to this stated concern, the sergeant major was at the same loss as to why the charges had been preferred as they were. At this point, the only recourse was to initiate the hearing. The commander, company commander, the first sergeant and the NCO were ushered into the commander’s office. The preferred charges were read with the supporting evidence for bringing the charges. The commander directed several questions to the company commander to expand on the charges and evidence. The NCO was then given the opportunity to present on his behalf.

After the NCO’s presentation, the commander had several questions of the sergeant and his chain of command. To this point in the proceeding the battalion commander was detecting that the charges had a somewhat arbitrary character as no preceding behavior or conduct or attendant corrective work were apparent prior to bringing the charges.

At this point, the commander had several concerns. One was to protect the fair due process of the NCO. Second was to conduct the proceeding in such way that the company commander and first sergeant were not damaged if the commander found that the charges as preferred could not be supported. As noted, both had good reputation and were not noted for taking such precipitate action without proper preceding measures being taken.

At this point, the commander determined to recess the proceeding and confer with the company commander and first sergeant separately. The sergeant major was party to this conference.

The commander then asked the company commander to share again the circumstances of the charges and specifically discuss any attempt to have worked with the charged NCO on some form of progressive, constructive remediation attempt before bringing charges of this nature in a non-judicial punishment format. It should be noted that the company commander was asking for a reduction in rank adding to the battalion commander’s concern that no preliminary effort to work with the NCO had been attempted.

The new commander was also confronted with several other considerations. The battalion had a reputation for being a tough, demanding unit that performed extremely well. Discipline was maintained at a high level, and weak performance or failure to perform was not tolerated. The commander had to consider the culture of the unit as context in any decision or determination that would be made.

The discussion and information shared by the company commander did indicate a development in the NCO’s conduct that warranted some concern, but no effort had been made to work with the sergeant to address the issues and concerns at a lesser level of sanction as a preliminary to the proceeding. The commander brought this point to full focus with the company commander. He then asked the company commander what would an appropriate strategy be before bringing the full weight of the non-judicial system to bear on the NCO with the impact it would have? The company commander recognized the precipitate nature of the proceeding and though he still expressed concern that strong action was necessary in his view, he accepted that a more graduated approach was perhaps a better way to proceed.

At this point a determination was made by the commander to suspend the proceedings, the company commander initiating a program with the NCO to remediate the conduct issues that had occurred. The NCO was invited back into the battalion commander’s office. The commander then continued the non-judicial proceeding. The NCO was informed that the charges would be dropped but that the company would initiate a program to address the conduct of concern.

The postscript, the subsequent career of the NCO in the battalion was a good one. The commander, an excellent officer, remained one of the battalion’s strongest company commanders. But the proceedings did set the tone for future battalion level non-judicial proceedings. They were not arbitrary nor were they precipitate. When a soldier was brought before the battalion commander, the command doing so could show a good faith effort to work the issue before resorting to the more stringent level of discipline.

There are clearly times when a leader has to assess the correctness or appropriateness of actions or recommendations by other leaders in a leader team. As well, the leader must consider the context and following through of that questioning as it will affect ongoing leader relationships—especially if a course of action recommended by another leader is not adopted. But the leader should never accept a recommendation or action that is wrong. That said, the corrective should be constructive and as much as possible not compromising of other leaders on the team.

Previous articles by Tom Rozman:

Tom Rozman: The AWOL M16

Rebuilding a University ROTC Cadet Corps and more

Supporting a National Guard Mechanized Infantry Company & more

Reorganizing a Mechanized Infantry Company

No Time for Platoon ARTEPS in a Mechanized Battalion

Tom Rozman: The Reward for Doing Well

Tom Rozman: Leadership Approaches That Get the Job Done

Tom Rozman: Reconstituting an Overseas Platoon on a Mission of High Sensitivity