News: Strong leadership today may save lives tomorrow
Story by Master Sgt. Kevin Wallace
MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho – Leadership and the military are inseparable.
I’ve often heard a peacetime military can be sustained by strong managers, but great leaders are needed on the fields, skies and seas of war.
Some volatile situations have taught me that, in fact, leadership and discipline are just as important in peace and training, as they are in war.
With research, I’m sure I can quote some very smart people who have said those very things. Instead, I’m going to relay a few experiences I’ve survived that, if taken to heart, may help fellow Airmen succeed in the upcoming readiness exercises and inspections.
The key is to make sure those you lead aren’t just inspection ready, but ready to survive any diverse real-world combat scenario they may encounter.
Last year, I deployed to an International Security Assistance Force combat camera unit in Afghanistan, and through varied leadership examples, I learned how important it is to establish military leadership and discipline at home station, before going head-on with a brutal enemy.
Attached to a team of soldiers from another ISAF nation, I left a forward operating base on a combat outpost resupply mission, Dec. 8, 2010. The mission was supposed to be routine and relatively simple.
My biggest obstacle was that I was the only English-speaking person on the mission and didn’t speak their native language. Knowing how vital communication is, I had my reservations. Still, it was a simple resupply mission and I’d been on more kinetic ones, what could go wrong?
While en route to the COP, our convoy struck an improvised explosive device and several soldiers were wounded. I was in the following vehicle and stopped to assist the wounded. The remainder of the convoy moved on to resupply the COP.
Within minutes, the 10 of us (with nearly half of us wounded) were ambushed by roughly 15 insurgents. We engaged them along the roadside, on the outskirts of a mud-hut village. The fight went on for hours and though I couldn’t understand what was being said, I could see disarray within our ranks.
We were running dangerously low on ammunition. Being overrun and executed seemed imminent. A team of Marine Special Forces heard our requests for air support, were in the area and responded to assist. Their arrival made us the outnumbering force, and shifted the tide of the fight. The enemy broke contact and I lived to fight another day.
The breakdown in discipline I saw there could have been very detrimental and I wish, even if for only a moment, I could expose all noncommissioned and commissioned officers to what I saw there, reinforcing their desire to grow into strong leaders – it’s vital!
As tough as that mission was, I’m proud to say it’s the sole example of disorder I have for the deployment. Contrary to what happened on that roadside, I saw strong leaders from the rank of Army sergeant to first lieutenant making the right and tough calls, and doing so with bullets whizzing by their heads.
After our COP suffered a coordinated assault from three sides Jan. 6, 2011, our platoon leader, 1st Lt. Nicholas Castello, White Platoon, Bulldog Troop, 7th Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment, decided we needed to reconnaissance the battlefield and find the enemy's infiltration routes and firing positions.
The next day, White Platoon, a half-dozen Afghan National Army soldiers, two Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, a fellow combat cameraman, and I set out on a reconnaissance foot patrol into ground the enemy considered their own.
We moved across fields and sought out positions with evidence of enemy presence. A good distance out, we came across a small building in the middle of a field.
Staff Sgt. Nicholas Lewis, a scout with nine years in the Army, displayed top-notch leadership as he led a fire team to secure the area. The building was empty but, again, we found signs of prior insurgent presence.
We tactically moved toward a riverbed and headed south along the river. As we came to a village, scores of inhabitants - men, women and children - mounted motorcycles and donkeys, and quickly headed out of town.
That's never a good sign.
Upon seeing that, Castello decided it would be best to hold up on the riverbed for a while and observe the village. Moments later, we were attacked with accurate small-arms fire from our flank.
Lewis was the first to respond and began laying down suppressive fire. He called some of us up on a firing line, while others kept watch across the river into the village and to the fields due north.
Meanwhile, one of the JTACs, Senior Airman Jose Cruz-Richardson, called back to Bulldog Troop and requested close-air support. He had Air Force fighters in the air but they were engaged elsewhere so our request was denied.
Without having the Air Force overhead, Castello needed to re-evaluate his plan.
After a quick discussion with Lewis and another scout, Sgt. Jonathan Sweetman, the lieutenant decided we would bound forward toward the direction from which we received fire, and continue to recon the fields and riverbed.
They divided us into three teams and we pushed forward. No one ever second-guessed the lieutenant’s decision. Likewise, we all trusted Lewis and Sweetman intimately.
We made a great deal of headway, and gathered intelligence from the battle space the whole way forward.
After the long patrol, we were visibly tired and soaked in sweat. We continued to tactfully move back to the COP, stopping by to talk to some village elders along the way.
The relationship White Platoon had with the elders is such that if someone new arrived in the area, the elders would alert Castello to their presence.
As we walked back, Lewis noticed a new face and thinking quickly, stopped the man. Meanwhile, Castello summoned an elder, who introduced the new gentleman and explained that his family had just returned to the village.
Under the terrorizing hands of the Taliban and other insurgents, many villagers fled the valley we operated in, and resorted to living in the mountains, without a river or valley to grow crops in.
I've seen those mountains and assure you they were no place to live. They were cold, infested with insurgents, and offered no fertile land or livable mesas. To live in those mountains, one would literally have to live in a cave, or build a mud hut on the steep mountainsides.
During their tenure in the valley, Bulldog Troop worked hard to return villagers to their homes.
That fight alongside the riverbed wasn’t the last I saw during my deployment. However, during every mission, I always trusted my leaders and even took the time to mentor junior soldiers dozens of times.
It’s true, leadership and the military are inseparable.
As military members, we need to continue to put the service of our nation before ourselves, grow as leaders and managers, and instill discipline in our ranks. Though some may not see the need to do so off the battlefield, I assure you by what I saw in combat, culminating discipline before the fight is essential.
Like most, I sometimes reflect on myself as an NCO. I put myself in check to make sure I’m living up to the legacies of the leaders who served before me.
Self-reflection is normal and healthy. Still, when in the presence of subordinates, we must always remain strong.
We owe our Air Force strong leadership and someday, an airman’s life may depend on the decisions you are making and the example you are setting today.