Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Sergeant Major King: Leading Troops Without a Fighting Chance

The year was 2003 and I had been in Iraq for about six months.  I was Convoy Commander of a 22-vehicle convoy headed from Tikrit, Iraq to Doha, Kuwait.  My mission was to reach Kuwait and establish a supply route for the 4th Infantry Division.  Since Iraq was a recently occupied territory, it was critical to establish a supply pipeline with the already established Kuwait, which was teething with supplies brought in from India and Europe.  Easy enough.  There was just one problem.  A Sergeant Major (SGM) was assigned to my convoy and was trying to call the shots.

I was a Captain, which is the rank of a fairly young officer.  In most cases, a Captain would relish the opportunity to be part of  the leadership including a Sergeant Major, which is the highest rank an enlisted soldier can achieve  This title also indicates that the solider is the most experienced and combat-ready soldier in the unit.  However, this Sergeant Major, whom had never been deployed in his 28 years of service was trying to call the shots and was using strict army doctrine as his guide.  I was however, using the experience I had gained in three months as a combat convoy commander.

I mean at one point, he yelled over the radio that the convoy was moving too quickly on Highway 1, one of the most dangerous roads in Iraq.  Now I knew that Army doctrine dictated that vehicles travel only 35 miles per hour on convoys.  The trip from Tikrit, Iraq to Doha, Kuwait was about 400 miles, which could take as much as 12 hours at 35 miles per hour.  However I was nervous that we would be ambushed by the Fadayeen and felt that we should travel as fast as safely possible (about 55 miles per hour).

So guess what I did?  I yielded to the SGM with 28 years of service but no combat experience.  I let him call the shots and we were lost for 16 hours until I took over the convoy.  Of course, me and the Sergeant Major exchanged some words and damn near had a fist fight but that's right, I completely took over the convoy and found some Marines who led us to a safe route.  We then made it to Kuwait, where I was able to establish the supply pipeline for almost one thousand soldiers.  We returned to Iraq with zero casualties.  My six months of combat experience had bested the 28 years of Army doctrine the SGM had.  The point of this little story?  Read about it after the jump.

Recently, the Urban Politico Team forwarded me an article about a Sergeant Major (SGM) named Teresa King, who is currently in charge of The Army Drill Sergeant School, located in South Carolina.  Apparently, SGT is catching slack for her tight adherence to Army Doctrine.  Most of her criticism was because she doesn't have combat experience.  Some of it was because she was a woman.  Some of it is probably because she's black.  At one point, the elite training school even suspended her, claiming that she created a "toxic environment" where she refused to accept anything less than the standard regarding regulation weight and training standards.

Before we jump into my analysis of whether SGM King was wronged, let me first acknowledge what she has accomplished.  To a young recruit, a Drill Sergeant is a god:  they know all, see all, and can do all.  They have perfect bodies, impeccable minds, and know every Army regulation that exists.  They sing Army cadences with perfection, can motivate a recruit far past his own will, and instill a fear in recruits beyond what their own fathers had.  Soldiers praise them.  In short, Army Drill Sergeants are elite and all soldiers remember who their drill sergeants are many years after training.  To be a Drill Sergeant is a privilege.  To lead Drill Sergeants is an honor.  SGM King has done both.  Trust me, this is no easy feat.  A female leading the Drill Sergeant School is like a female coaching the Baltimore Ravens and teaching Ray Lewis how to hit.

Basically, SGM King trains the trainers who prepare today's soldiers for eventual combat.  Ok, so what's the issue?  Well, SGM King was suspended pretty much because her standards were too high.  I'm sorry did I say to high?  I meant because men just can't seem to follow women in the military.  Now, many of her critics argue that she can't lead because she has no combat experience.  Now remember my story above with the knuckle headed SGM?  That situation occurred because a high-ranking enlisted soldier refused to listen to a young officer.  Now, would that situation have occurred if the SGM was a woman?

Before I answer that, let me give you some statistics.  The Army is comprised of 14% women but only 8% have reached the rank of SGM.  Yes 8%.  That means 92% of the top enlisted leaders are men.  With those statistics, it is clear that women have to compete in a daily environment tougher than combat can provide.  I can tell you first hand that most women don't even get considered for top positions and it's a fact that women are barred from combat positions.  Now back to answering the question.

If the SGM I dealt with was a woman, the situation probably would have still occurred.  Why?  Because a well trained SGM will butt heads with a highly motivated Captain any day.  It doesn't really matter what their sex is.  Soldiers (including high-ranking ones) shouldn't be judged on their sex or race, rather they should be judged on what they do.  Case in point - SGM King is Air Assualt and Airborne qualifed, which means she has specialized training jumping out of planes.  This is a big deal in the military and is a critical combat skill.  The SGM I dealt with had none of this training and I had one (Airborne Hooooah!). Hmmm, so, why did the Army Drill Sergeant School feel the need to suspend her?

Well, apparently, her superiors tried to sabotage her, claiming that she created a "toxic" environment at the school. They encouraged trainees to file complaints and tried to highlight any mistakes she made.  Now I can tell you first hand that, in the military, when a superior has it out for you, there is not a whole lot you can do.  Since the military is not a democracy, they can marshal forces against you and make the smallest mole hill into a  mountain.  That means a few complaints could easily be magnified and get you fired.  That's pretty much what happened here.  A few of the trainees complained about her.  You know who those trainees were?  The ones that failed.  You know what they complained about?  That her standards were too high.  Man get the eff out of here!  Standards to high?  You mean the same standards the Army has mandated that you follow?  Sounds like the trainees need to man up.  Pun definitely intended.

Now I am not the one to scream racism just because things don't go my way.  And I generally look at those who quickly cry racism or sexism with a careful eye.  But I do know that you get many extremes in the military.  You have extreme sexism, racism, nepotism, and just about every other "ism" you can think of.  This is partly because the military lags behind civilians when it comes to most things.  This is also because the military culture is smaller and more strict than civilian life to ensure the proper level of discipline for combat. So when I hear SGM King point to racism and sexism as the reason for her bogus suspension, I have to support her because I know how military culture is.  Seriously, in the military, a hard-nosed man is called a "tough leader".  A hard-nosed woman is called a "bitch."  A white male who charts his own path or adopts an unorthodox style is called, "a maverick."  A minority soldier who does the same is called, "incompetent."  This is widely practiced in the military but SGM King said, "No more!"  Good for her.

I must tell you that although SGM King was suspended, she did get her job back.  But only after she had to file legal actions and call for congressional intervention.  The military is full of tough guys but as soon as you grab congress or any other civilian oversight authority, military leaders run for the hills.  And it shouldn't have to get to that point. SGM King should not have been suspended in the first place. My opinion is, if she meets the Army standard, maintains her integrity, and properly prepares soldiers for combat, it really shouldn't matter whether she has combat experience or not.  But that's not how it works.  In the military, you go as far as your superiors allow.

Unfortunately, the military is the last frontier when it comes to equality for women.  Currently, women can not join combat arms branches (Infantry, Armor, Field Artillery, etc) and can only serve supporting roles in combat.  Women still get unfairly criticized in leadership for doing the exact same things men do.  Unfortunately, change is extremely slow in the military because the mind sets of its highest leaders are still influenced by outdated southern perceptions of women and minorities.  Change will come but probably not today.  As for now, SGM will keep kicking ass and pissing male soldiers off.  SGM King, I salute you..


1)  How do you feel about female soldiers in combat?

2)  In your occupation, do you see females in leadership treated differently than males in leadership?

3)  Do you think giving SGM King her job back was enough to remedy this situation?
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