What would you say to your younger military self?

One Army officer reflects on his early days in the service and what he wishes he knew then

What would you say to your younger military self?

A cadet at the graduation ceremony for U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. listens to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates' remarks, May 23, 2009. (DoD photo by Air Force Master Sgt. Jerry Morrison)

By RallyPoint

The topic is nothing new; just another “what I wish I had known at X age” meant for people at or approaching "X". Age 22 was a formative year for me — I graduated college and joined the “real” world as a brand new 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, full of ideas and expectations. Some days I find myself wishing I knew then what I know now.

Tragically, no one can travel back in time. The best that I, or anyone else, can hope to do is attempt to provide a few words of wisdom to a younger generation.

1. Do not take yourself too seriously

When you are 22, just coming out of college and the Reserve Officer Training Corps, or a military academy, and then going into the Army, odds are you do not have many formative experiences under your belt.

The majority of cadets have only their cadre, their summer training experiences, whatever they picked up from four years of college courses, and whatever they brought with them from high school and their household. Though certainly a solid basis for forming opinions, it is not a lot in the grand scheme of things, despite what the individual may think. The early opinions that are formed tend to be seen in black and white, and are forged more from dry knowledge and raw emotion rather than experience and wisdom.

Because of this emotional attachment, it is difficult for a 22-year-old to see outside of themselves, to be humble and to accept different ideas and new lessons. It is inevitable that a young officer will run afoul of the opinions of another officer, NCO, or Soldier in their first unit. The 22-year-old officer will learn that it is not easy to change a person’s mind, that the commander/senior NCOs’ opinions carry more weight, and that their carefully thought out 22-year-old opinions might be wrong.

It is a hard thing to admit when one is wrong, to remain humble when someone of (technically) lower rank corrects you, or to accept when another person refuses to change their opinion. Regardless, these are experiences that will repeat themselves over and over throughout a career. A 22-year-old officer should not take themselves so seriously that they miss out on the chance for the personal and professional growth such experiences provide.

2. No one takes care of you like YOU

Every officer has a branch manager and some semblance of a chain of command who is more experienced and responsible for mentoring the younger officers. In a perfect world, branch and the chain of command would unify their efforts to provide a sensible, coherent road map for the young officer’s future career. Unfortunately this is the exception, rather than the rule.

First, the branch manager has a job to do — they must work within the current manning cycle and whatever guidelines have come down from HRC. A branch manager’s job is to make the Army happy, not any one junior officer.

Second, a chain of command comes in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes has links missing. Senior leaders in that chain cannot help but be prejudiced by their own experiences, or lack thereof. They tend to reside within the box drawn for them when it comes to professional development, and prefer to work with branch when it comes to future assignments. The combination of these variables can wreak havoc on the careers of the uninitiated. Ignorance on the part of the 22-year-old officer, however, will not protect them.

But a young officer who remains ignorant does so by choice, especially in this information era. One handicap a young officer has starting off is a lack of knowledge of what the Army has to offer. Therefore, a 22-year-old officer should lay out their goals on a tentative timeline and constantly revisit and reassess them.

The Army Career Tracker provides a useful tool in this regard. DA PAM 600–3 lays out every possible career and the milestones that should be met in following them. An officer who does not have an adequate mentor can seek one out, even as they pursue a path of self-development.

Furthermore, a young officer should not be afraid to build a relationship with their branch manager. A young officer should make themselves a living, breathing person through consistent, intelligent dialogue and they just may go the extra mile to provide a desired assignment. A 22-year-old officer must take care of themselves as much, if not more than others, and they should recognize the system for what it is and not place blind faith in it.

3. Be an asset wherever you go

It is almost certain that at some point, an officer will get an assignment or duty station that they do not like. A 22-year-old officer’s very first experience in the Army could fall under both of those categories. Echoing the advice from #2 above, branch is simply looking for people to plug into positions for which they are qualified or have received training. There might be some semblance of consideration for individual preferences, but in the end the Army is going to get what it needs, where it needs it.

From there it is very easy for any officer to become sullen and disillusioned, and to begin considering alternate career fields. It is important to admit that the Army is not for everyone, let alone a full career in the Army. But a less than ideal assignment or duty station is no reason to give up.

Once the reality of the situation has become manifest, the young officer needs to analyze, assess, and focus their energy. As with most things, the quality of the experience directly correlates with the quality of effort put into it. A 22-year-old officer who wants to finish out their first term and be done must remember that potential employers generally do not want someone who becomes sullen and despondent when the going gets tough. A 22-year-old officer who wants to make a career of the Army must remember to play the long game. Taking what appears to be a less than ideal assignment can set one up for a better one later.

Regardless, experiences gained at a less than ideal assignment can pay huge dividends in the future, as they shape the young officer personally and professionally. In both instances, the 22-year-old officer should use the experiences to make themselves and their organizations better. The very idealism and energy that fills a young officer can help galvanize an ailing unit, and the crusty, inert veterans populating it. The 22-year-old officer must be prepared to be an asset wherever they go, so that they can take pride in worthwhile service, craft a good reputation, and help make the Army better as a whole.

4. It is a human endeavor

The Army is made up of all manner of people, from all walks of life. Officers, NCOs, and Soldiers can be from any race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc. Each person has their own motivations that cause them to serve, and that motivation comes in varying degrees. Not everyone wants to be a general officer or CSM, or a tabbed out black ops warrior, or to even finish their first enlistment.

Some people game the system for their own personal comfort and gain. Everyone thinks their own branch or duty position is vital to the Army as a whole and that all others are subordinate, irrelevant, or obsolete. Everyone has different styles of leading and following. Some people know what the right answer is, but get the question wrong on purpose. This can be a rude awakening for the young officer.

But the young officer must remember that one size does not fit all, and it takes all sorts of people to make an Army. Every single soldier, regardless of rank, or what happens during their tenure makes an initial commitment to serve which separates them from 99 percent of the U.S. population. People with different motivations need to be motivated differently. Learning empathy and different methods of leading can make one’s own style stronger.

Every person who believes their branch is the best and most vital is right — a young officer should take every opportunity to learn about different functions and career fields because the Army functions as a team at all levels. Those individuals who turn out to be less than ideal still impart their own unique, valuable lessons despite their need to be shown to the exit (and most likely it will be the young officer’s job to show them the exit).

The 22-year-old officer must not expect cookie-cutter Soldiers, nor attempt to force people too hard into a particular mold. Leadership is an art precisely because it involves working with imperfect, unpredictable people. The Army is strong because of those people.

This list is far from exhaustive. It does not necessarily apply exclusively to any one rank or age group, and is meant to be relative. Hopefully it is general enough to apply across the board while still touching on what I feel are fundamental issues.

Communicating one’s experiences can be invaluable to future generations — browsing through a history book shows this to be true. Regardless, if this one list has a positive effect on one person’s career in the present, then it has done its job well enough , which in the end is all one can ask for.