How to Defend the Dream (To the USMA Class of 2013)

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Dear Class of 2013,

CONGRATU-FREAKIN’-LATIONS. After 47 months of literal blood, sweat and tears you have finally made it. (I know the blood, sweat and tears thing is a cliche’, but I think we also all recognize that all three are involved to different extents throughout a cadet career. Gross but true.) It seems like only yesterday you were stinky little new cadets marching your way into the Corps and now you are stinky little lieutenants in the United States Army (just kidding. It really is exciting). You were at the top of the heap and the top of your game at West Point (even if you struggled—because we all did in our own way—you at least figured it out enough to graduate) and now you are back to the bottom of the totem pole in the Big Army.

There was a great article floating around a few weeks ago about effective leadership as a lieutenant, with the most memorable lesson being, “don’t be a douche.” But seriously. (You can read it HERE if you missed it.) Just as none of us would have graduated without working together (cooperate and graduate is no joke if you ask me), I firmly believe that we butter bars should stick together instead of trying so hard to outdo one another. This isn’t actually an entry about how to defend the dream, but in the spirit of cooperate-and-defeat-the-negative-LT-stereotypes, I give you a few of the lessons I have learned in my first year as an officer.

KEEP THE BOXES

You are going to move a lot in the next year. You’ll leave West Point and go wherever it is you’ll go for grad leave, and then you’ll leave there and go to BOLC, and then you might go to a follow-on school, and then finally you’ll end up at your first duty station. That is a lot of moving.

Last year I moved in May, then in July, then in December, then again in January this year, and now in May. One thing that made it easier was having a lot of suitcases and tubs and trunks to pack stuff in. AND I used several of the boxes that I labeled and shipped off last May because they were still in good enough shape to help me move stuff from one place to another. Packing materials can get expensive if you go through enough of them, so help yourself out and salvage what is salvageable and reuse it while you move three-plus times over the next year.

Also keep your receipts for gas and weigh your car heavy and packed to the brim and also empty as can be, because the travel office at your gaining unit will use them to defray the cost of a DITY (formerly the do it yourself move, now a PPM, or personally procured move) since they tax it at about a bazillion percent.

THERE IS NO RANK AMONG LIEUTENANTS

When I first got to my unit, the 1LT XO was the acting commander. I had this stupid internal crisis where I was like, “Do I need to salute him? Do I have to call him sir?” Because I thought maybe it was a thing where you saluted him and used rank because he was the commander. But there’s not. So luckily I did not salute him and we call each other by our first names and it’s not a big deal and nobody in my unit ever figured out that I was naïve enough to even wonder if I needed to salute my XO.

There is another 1LT in my unit, however, who makes a big fuss about differentiating between first and second lieutenants. Wrong-o, Miss Thang. Granted, I respect that she’s been commissioned for two years longer than me, deployed for eight months, and has more experience. But am I going to call you “first lieutenant?” Am I going to appreciate it when you emphasize that I am a “second lieutenant?” No. I am not.

Just be aware that there are some first lieutenants out there with a chip on their shoulder. Don’t let the bastards get you down; they’ll get promoted soon enough and go away to career course or to rot on staff somewhere as junior captains.

YOU DON’T ALWAYS HAVE TO TELL THE WHOLE TRUTH

I know it’s about more than ratings and OERs and other stupid stuff, but sometimes in order to take care of your job and your Soldiers, you have to put on a face for certain individuals. For instance, when your rater or your senior rater asks how it’s going, they really mean, “Are you ruining the maintenance in this brigade? Are you totally lost? Are your NCOs helping you? Are you as clueless as you look?” and not, “I’d really like to hear about your goals and dreams and help you find the perfect job in the Army.” Granted, some commanders honestly do want to know about your major and your academic and personal goals. Other commanders consider you a collected set of statistics that they can gather from your ORB and don’t really care about your grad school aspirations or if/when you plan to start a family. I know West Point jammed it into our heads that leaving out any information is lying by omission, but seriously – some people just don’t want to know the truth, especially if the truth about your aspirations involves opera and novel-writing instead of Airborne School and battalion command (oh wait, that’s me, isn’t it?). Sometimes it sucks, but parts of the job are a game, and you’ve got to know when to play along.

Seek mentorship in other places if you end up with someone in charge of you who is like this. Some of the best help I’ve gotten has been from people in the ’09 year group who are starting to get the hang of this whole Army thing and are willing to point you in the right direction for grad school options and duty assignments that won’t show up in your normal career progression unless you seek them out yourself.

PEOPLE WILL ASK YOU RUDE/INVASIVE QUESTIONS

In normal society it is considered impolite to ask people their age or weight. In the Army, people want to know your stats. I am considering making a trading card for myself so I can just hand it out when people start asking me if I’m married/if I have kids/how fast I can run/when I was born/where I grew up/my shoe size/if I’ve had all my shots. I also had this idea that if I kept a low profile and didn’t wear my class ring, people wouldn’t think I was a douche. Unfortunately, “what is your commissioning source?” has been demanded of me more times than I can remember. The reactions have varied, and I have rarely correctly predicted what they will be.

For a while I was distressed by all the stereotypes and preconceived notions. But you can’t let it bother you; it’s a waste of time. Some people don’t like women/men/white people/black people/short people/tall people/West Pointers/officers and that’s just the way they are. Some of the best advice I ever got was from one of my former sponsors who retired as a colonel last year after over thirty years of service.

Be part of the solution.

That got its own line because I think it’s that important. My sponsor told me her TAC had told her this after she came back to West Point after CTLT at the beginning of her cow year wanting to resign. He said she could quit, or she could be an instrument of cure. Eventually she recognized that she would have opportunities to make the Army better. The higher you go, the more you control. That control gives you even more opportunities to demonstrate wise leadership as you grow into a competent, mature, level-headed officer. Don’t throw up your hands in despair too soon. Which leads into my next point…

REMEMBER HOW IT FEELS

This is sort of a “don’t forget the little people” kind of thing. Being a lieutenant is this weird in-between stage where you don’t feel like you have any real authority, but you actually have an impact on people’s lives. I have learned a lot in the last year about both my technical field and the Army as a whole from both formal schooling and independent research, but some of the most valuable lessons have come from just listening to people. And I’m not just talking about OPDs with sergeants major or generals, but from hearing the stories of other officers, civilians, NCOs and Soldiers who have been around the Army a lot longer than me.

Remember how badly it feels when you are shat on by someone with more rank or influence than you and never treat anyone the same way. When you are on the other side of the desk you will remember how it feels to be powerless, poorly treated, and disenfranchised, and will have the opportunity to do better than your predecessors. There is a lot of poor leadership out there—not just in the Army, but everywhere—so don’t let yourself get caught in the trap of punishing people for the crappy leadership of those who came before you.

People are desperate for someone to listen to them. I have seen people’s demeanors change from tired, frustrated and defeatist to if not upbeat, determined and ready to work—all because I stopped what I was doing for five minutes and listened to what they had to say. My sponsor reminded me that every Soldier you touch in a positive way will have a ripple effect. Just remember that you might not always see the ripples. As one wise old sergeant major once told me, “Being a jerk doesn’t make you a hard ass; it just makes you an asshole.”

“I’M A PLEBE; I DIDN’T KNOW!”

This is your one time to ask really, incredibly naïve questions and get away with it. People don’t expect lieutenants to know much of anything, so if you have burning questions, ask them. Or if you get really lost, ask for help. Lieutenants are usually lost anyway. I saw this most clearly during inprocessing.

At Fort Hood, you do most of your inprocessing at this hideous three-story building on main post called the Copeland Center. They give you a long checklist of places to go and things to do and paperwork to turn in to places that you didn’t know exist and send you on your merry way. The privates, who are pretty much as new to the Army as you are, are herded around New Cadet-style by an NCO who tells them exactly where to go and what to do. I was a little jealous of them at first, but then I realized that nobody cared about how quickly or slowly I inprocessed as long as I was finished within the designated time period. I also realized that nobody minded giving me directions or telling me to get lost when I was in the wrong place. In fact, most people saw so many ACU-clad bodies moving around their work space that they all blended together after a while. I asked the same woman three separate, stupid questions and she never seemed to realize that I was the same lieutenant. I know this because the third time she sighed and said, “Man, they really don’t tell you new officers anything, do they? You are the second person to ask me this today.” Either someone else who looks like me had the same question or she was just really confused. So if you’re worried about looking stupid while you’re still figuring things out, don’t be. I asked a lot of stupid questions for the next couple of days, finished inprocessing a day and a half early, and had the extra time free to do as I pleased.

Being a second lieutenant is basically a license to fumble through the Army for a few months. Having said that, I think it is also important to bear in mind that sometimes you must simply –

FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT

Most people are willing to assume the best about you unless you prove them wrong. Granted, they may tease you a little (one of my NCOs and I have a running joke about a silver spoon because he said that I was probably spoiled rotten as a kid and then at West Point…HA) and make some stereotypical LT jokes, but generally speaking, people have been receptive to my leadership when I am equally receptive to learning from their experience.

When I first arrived at my unit I felt totally lost and wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to be doing for much of the day. So I spent a lot of time just trying to look busy, because I didn’t want to build resentment against me for everyone else being busy while I was standing around empty-handed. And you know what? It worked out just fine. Another lieutenant told me not to sweat it because I’d be busy soon enough. He was right. Sometimes the transition time is awkward while you’re figuring out what you’re supposed to be doing, and before you know it you’ll have plenty on your plate. So when you’re not sure, ask around (even if you’re just asking the Google) and give it some time; you’ll figure it out. People will assume you’re busy and you’ll prove them right sooner than you think.

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I don’t know how many of you will see this since you’re all off frolicking in your adolescence in various corners of the great, wide world (as you should be!) but hopefully these short lessons will make your transition from cadet to butter bar a little easier. Maybe some of it seems obvious to you, but a few of these things I’ve learned in difficult or awkward ways and hopefully sharing them will help you to avoid the mistakes I have made.

I must extend congratulations to 2012 – we are no longer the most junior lieutenants in the Army! (If anyone else has any other helpful information or good anecdotes, please feel free to share them in the comments or send them to me and I’ll do another entry as a compilation.) And congratulations again to the Class of 2013 on making it through those 47 months in gray. Welcome to the green, now get out there and defend the dream.

You’re welcome for the rhyme.

Very Respectfully,

Kelley, Butter Bar

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