Tom Rozman: The Lesson

The Lesson

A leadership vignette in a series by Tom Rozman

It was early morning that summer at Ft. Hood, Texas.  The commander of Company A, 1st Battalion, 13th Tank had ordered his platoon leaders to rendezvous with him at his jeep outside the company orderly room.  The platoon leaders included a platoon leader from Company A, 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry, a mechanized infantry unit.  The infantry platoon leader had been assigned to the tank company’s operational control for the next six months.  The resulting armored heavy team would operate as a U.S. ground force supplemented by air attack units from the parent cavalry division’s air cavalry brigade.  The team was a unit of the division’s 1st brigade, a divisional  armored brigade of two armored battalions and a mechanized battalion.

The purpose of the newly formed ground force would be to operate in scenario after scenario against a reinforced battalion ground force configured as a Soviet tank regiment.  Scenarios would be conducted in daylight and during dark hours and many would run for days at time and back-to-back.  With exception of weekends, the units would be operating continuously in the field.   The scenario force on force results would be used as informing data to help determine Army organization oriented on a possible European conflict confronting Soviet ground forces.  The Army recognized as it came out of the Viet Nam experience that a future situation might very well be against the massed armored forces of the Soviet Bloc.  To deal with the armored vehicle disparity alone, a force multiplier was essential.  The Army believed it might have one answer in form of the attack helicopter concepts that had been developing in Viet Nam.  Thus the exercise would evaluate ground and air attack equipment and organization in various combinations and scenarios operating with an armored ground force against a Soviet configured opponent.

But on this morning at sunrise, the company commander had a more prosaic but vital purpose that would be revealed to his lieutenants.  As his subordinates understood the gathering they were going on a commander led reconnaissance of the maneuver box they would be operating in for the next several months.  But the commander had a much more important purpose in mind.

Ft. Hood is a vast installation located in Central Texas.   It had been established during World War II as an anti-tank force training center.  It was some 27 miles north to south and perhaps 24-25 miles east to west.  A huge permanent cantonment  capable of billeting two armored or mechanized infantry divisions and corps level units  was sited on the south rim of the reservation.  There was a recently deactivated Air Force base adjacent to the southwest corner of the post with full newly built barrack and administrative accommodation and an air base footprint that included a runway and aircraft support facilities capable of handling the largest aircraft in the inventory.  An intelligence brigade had been recently assigned to the vacated Air Force barracks and facilities.

North of the cantonment were two 7-15 mile wide strips of land along the reservation’s east and west  boundaries.  There was a several mile wide artillery impact area sandwiched in between the two flanking strips of territory down the middle of the huge area north of the cantonment.  These two extended maneuver boxes would be the “sandboxes” for the test scenarios.  A substantial creek, the Cowhouse, cut through the center of the maneuver/gunnery range area roughly west to east emptying into lake Belton, a dammed impoundment on the reservation’s east side.  The Belton Lake headwater bisected the eastern maneuver box requiring fording during high water periods.

Most of the projected scenario activity was to be in the western maneuver box.  The terrain was essentially rolling relatively dry Savannah type ground and foliage.  The drainage pattern of intermittent creeks and the Cowhouse, which usually had a water course except in the driest periods, had carved the rolling terrain into ranges of low flat topped hills or mesas.  Often the hills and some of the bottoms had thick low growing cedar type foliage that could be dense and almost impenetrable.  As well, low growing live oak stand also presented.

The hills often had steep sides and could rise 30-70 meters above the valley floors.  The bottoms of creek beds could be treacherous due to rock that filled them and the multiple channels that had been formed, especially when they became torrents during wet seasons.

The mostly dry conditions of summer often meant that the whitish gray clay of much of the flat areas could form into a choking powdery dust if traversed frequently by tracked vehicles. The “rooster tails” of disturbed dust could rise hundreds of feet into the sky, a tell tale sign of movement visible ten and more miles distant.  Tactical unit commanders learned quickly to stay on ground least prone to emitting such a signature.

To add to the “pleasantness” of the terrain, midsummer temperatures could range for days at a time at 116 degrees Fahrenheit plus or minus a few degrees.   The dark olive green of the vehicles absorbed the sun’s heat and turned the interior of armored vehicles into low grade ovens cooking the troops inside.  The vehicle surfaces became so hot mid day that one could not touch them with an unprotected hand.  The good news, it was a dry heat.  The soldier just needed to be aware of hydrating and commanders needed to stay focused on water resupply.

The company commander loaded his assembled four platoon leaders into the rear of his jeep and ventured forth into the  western maneuver box.  As the sun rose it was apparent it would be a beautiful sunny day.  It was still early enough in the season that the heat of summer had not arrived.  The excursion promised to be a “pleasant” one, if a little on the windy side for the lieutenants riding in the back of the open jeep.

The reconnaissance started pleasantly enough as a bit of an excursion over the square miles of pretty rolling open land of the maneuver box, more so as the sun and blue sky brought out the foliage and ground colors.  The air was clear and cool.  A good day for a ride.

The lieutenants had their maps out and studied particular features as the company commander pointed them out and gave relevant insight.  The lieutenants were all 1st lieutenants but due to Viet Nam Era accelerated promotion all recently promoted with roughly just over a year of commissioned service.  Two were commissioned from the Virginia Military Institute, one from the Reserve Officer Training Corps program at the University of Tennessee and the fourth had graduated from West Point.  The company commander had graduated from West Point two years before his fellow alumnus.

The little command reconnaissance after some time seemed a nice little jaunt through the Central Texas country-side.  Eventually the vehicle started up a long low slope  toward a sort of peak that the ground sloped away from evenly from on all sides.  The company commander mentioned it as he emphasized to the lieutenants paying attention to their maps—which they were not doing in the most focused way at the moment.  The company commander noted the feature as Antelope Mound, annotated as such on each officer’s topographic map.

As the jeep approached Antelope Mound from the south, the company commander indicated to the driver to steer toward the left slope of the mound.  The terrain took a long pretty rolling quality north of the mound and the foliage was still green adding to the attractive scene.   The picture ahead was a lulling one.

As the jeep came a little north  of the mound’s peak, the driver made a violent 90 degree right turn, the lieutenants barley hanging on in the rear and the company commander motioned violently to the left and downward.  The four lieutenants were suddenly staring over a precipice that the jeep driver seemed to literally have his left wheels on the edge of.  They were looking down some 150-200 feet to the Cowhouse Creek below over a vertical cliff,  the creek seemed under foot.

The lieutenants grabbed their maps and sure enough—suddenly “many” contour lines became one.  In a few short seconds, four armored force lieutenants had burned into their brains the “Siren of Antelope Mound” a beautiful disarming lady that as an unassuming armored vehicle crew approached from the south became in an instant the face of death.

In fact, about a year before, and before the four lieutenants had arrived at Ft. Hood, a tank crew had fallen victim to the siren.  They had driven over the cliff suffering multiple fatalities.

Given the number of operations anticipated in the vicinity of the mound, day and night, the company commander knew that it was vital that his platoon leaders, even when greatly fatigued, needed to have the nature of Antelope Mound deep in their brains.  He planned to lose no soldiers on his watch.

The lesson was effective.  Over six months of constant maneuver, much in the area of the mound, no mishaps or miscalculations occurred.  The lesson had been learned and learned very well.

From a leadership standpoint we note a clear example of a hands on leader who led by example and took the time to study mission and all of its aspects.  He made the time to develop an effective leader development strategy to bring his subordinate leaders to perfect understanding of one of the most critical life threatening dangers they would confront and it was effective.  The lieutenants internalized the lesson and applied the knowledge well.  No lives were lost.

Some 16 years later the captain and the 1st lieutenant, both as lieutenant colonels, would spend a dinner at the captain’s quarters in Vilseck, Germany where he was commanding an armored battalion.  The captain would retire after a very successful Army career as a colonel.  The lieutenant retained great respect for this officer and still does.   He was a highly competent leader with whom soldiers were first along with mission.