Finding Courage

I was a brand new Detachment Commander, in a Civil Affairs battalion not far away from my home town. Up until that point,  I’d been serving in the Army National Guard, but in order to get promoted to Major, I had been forced to find another unit. It’s complicated.

We had just received our mobilization orders for Iraq, and were headed to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The Reserve Center was a beehive of activity: Our country was going to war, and we would play a part in it.

There was a young Specialist 4 who had called a lot of attention to himself. He was refusing to deploy with us. In the military, whether Active Duty, National Guard or Reserve, this is bad.

See also: Not good

Everyone from colonels and majors down to sergeants and privates were ridiculing him, calling him a traitor, coward, etc. His reason was that he didn’t want to put college on hold.

“This guy is potentially a cancer”, I thought.” Not only is he in serious trouble himself, his attitude could infect the rest of the unit. His Commanding Officer needs to square him away!”

Then I realized that was ME…

A Sergeant Major took me to one side. “Sir, we’ve all tried to convince him that he needs to change his mind. He will not budge. He’s one of your guys. It’s on you now.”

Wow.

I’d never in my 17 year career been confronted with a problem like this. I wasn’t exactly thrilled about getting deployed; I was a divorced father with 2 young sons, and I had just started a relationship. But I had taken an oath all those years before, had received years of training and professional military education. Now it was time to prove I was worthy of all that.

I walked into the room in which he was sitting, hunched over. I knew without even speaking to him: If he didn’t honor his commitment to his country, honor his contract, he was going to be miserable for the rest of his life. It was written all over his face.

I wracked my brain for the words to help push him off of the fence, and I found them.

“Specialist, I’m your Commanding Officer. I have the authority to punish you for what you’re planning to do. I really don’t want to go down that road, but I will if you force my hand.

“My National Guard unit-the one I just left-is the 27th Infantry Brigade. In past wars, they were a division and were federalized for active duty. In World War II, they fought in the Pacific. Places like Makin, Saipan and Okinawa. Bitter, unrelenting, savage gutter fighting. Two of its soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor, both posthumously.

“Those who made it home hold reunions every year, and our brigade soldiers were recently invited to attend. I’ve sat and listened to these WW 2 vets. The stories were humbling,and their terms of enlistment were the duration of the war, plus 6 months. That had to be the most open-ended commitment there was. No matter how long the war dragged on, they were in for the long haul. It was like that for those in the Korean War, too.

“During the Vietnam War, there were young men like yourself who were willing to go to prison for 10 years, or Canada for life, in order to avoid what you are being asked to do for 1 year.

“The decision you make right here, right now, will define your life. You signed a contract, probably to get money for college, but you have an even bigger responsibility to your country. Taking an oath means nothing, if you don’t intend to make good on it.”

Even though I was reminding him of his duty, I was also telling myself the same thing. Because I was also very scared.

So, he ended up going. We got split up, and he and others under my command got sent to another part of Iraq. Based on everything I heard, he did a great job and served with distinction. When I met up with him in Kuwait he walked up, saluted me, and shook my hand.

“Sir, I just wanted to thank you for what you did,” he said.

“No, it was all you, and a nudge from those who went before us,” I reminded him.

This was one of the proudest moments of my life.

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