I never saw or heard anything until the grenade landed right next to me.
I was able to grab it and toss it away from me before it went off, but it was too late – I’d been caught looking
the wrong way.
I wasn’t looking in the direction of the mission.
A cloud of red smoke billowed up around me and, off in the distance, I heard a man laughing. He yelled
“gotcha!” back over his shoulder as he disappeared over the small hill next to the one I was sitting on.
I was a young private in the Army Reserve sitting on a small ridge in the desert at Fort Huachuca, an Army
base near the border of Mexico about an hour’s drive southeast of Tucson, Arizona. I was fresh out of Basic
Training and was the driver of an M60 tank. I had been sent up to the edge of the ridge by my sergeant to
make sure nobody was sneaking up on our platoon of 4 tanks while we were stopped. We called this “OP”
duty – Observation Post – and it was super boring, because it was just a training exercise and there was never
anything to observe.
OPs got sent out every time the tank formation stopped for any duration of time for activities such as
refueling, setting up a defense or while the Lieutenant tried to figure out how he got lost again. The OPs were
always the most junior soldiers and we’d get sent out 50-100 yards to some spot where we were supposed to
look out for anyone approaching and then give adequate warning to the rest of the platoon. Absolutely
necessary, of course, but boring as hell during training exercises. Almost without exception we would walk out
to some spot, find some place to sit, then make a token show of looking out into the distance. Within 3-5
minutes we would get bored looking at nothing and then turn around and watch what everyone else was
doing by the tanks, which wasn’t much, but at least it was something. It was more comfortable to place your
back to the hill and watch your companions, who, even though they weren’t doing anything terribly exciting,
were people you knew because you had shared lots of time, stories and experiences together.
After a few minutes a leader would look up, notice the OP looking back at him and would gesture angrily at
him to turn around and face the right direction. The OP would sigh heavily and turn around for a few minutes
then get bored and turn back again. The cycle would repeat until he got relieved by someone else or pulled in
because the tanks were moving again.
There is a person called “Top” at the company level of every unit in the Army. A company, depending on its
mission, usually consists of a Captain, a handful of Lieutenants, and bunch of Sergeants and 50-75 soldiers.
“Top” is the First Sergeant – the highest ranking enlisted soldier at the company level – and in the armored unit I was in he had the
task of making sure we had everything we needed to carry out our mission: food, gas, mechanical support,
medics and, most of all, training.
I don’t remember Top’s name, but he got me good that afternoon. He caught me comfortably sitting on my
butt looking back down the hill at my buddies instead of keeping a watchful eye in the right direction. It was
embarrassing to get caught by him in this manner – all my friends and companions saw the smoke and knew
instantly what had happened. It was a matter of pride for us to not get “smoked” by Top and when I came
back down off the hill later I got teased for the rest of that exercise.
But I learned something that day: I learned that angry gestures, threats and fear aren’t very good leadership
tools. Those methods have a very short span of effectiveness. An excellent leader motivates people to look in
the right direction and be engaged in the mission. Top taught me the importance of leading from out in front
and that pride, passion and playfulness are far more effective long-term leadership tools.
It’s far too easy to listen to the siren song of nostalgia. To reminisce with others about who did what or how
“back in the day” we had so much fun with this or that. To pull up names from the past and spend hours
It’s too easy to paint the past with a rosy hue and think that things were so much better. When we do so and
paint over the struggles, fears and concerns we also paint over the boldness and perseverance it took to
overcome them. One can’t gloss over the sad times without covering up some of the joyful ones.
Turning our faces to the past turns our backs to the future.
Is it comforting to reminisce? Yes. Bonding? Absolutely. Reassuring? Certainly.
But that’s not where the mission is.
My goal? To look out in the distance and watch for the smoke.
That’s where the mission is.
That’s where the opportunity to serve lies.
That’s where the promise lives.
We get the opportunity to serve and lead with pride, passion and playfulness. We get to inspire others.
We get to help and heal and transform lives and lend our efforts into making the world a better place.
And all that is out in front of us.
What could be better than that?