Where are we at right now? Have I hit that old man status where the grumblings of my once upon a time platoon sergeant are now my own? Technically, yes. I like to think I’m a little less conditioned by the kool-aid than he was, yet here I am two decades later grumbling in my own right. His seemingly disgruntled demeanor felt like a personal attack in my youth, but now I understand it to be a man twenty years into a life I couldn’t hope to understand until I had walked in some of the same dirt he had. I catch myself trying to remember the way I saw the world when I was 19 and connecting it to the unvarnished world now laid out before me. I see a starkly different image of the leaders I looked at in awe and what I see now. I reflect on the cyclical rise and fall of brave men vs. weak men, of trends, generational values and cultural bedrocks. Have the leaders actually changed in time, or have my eyes just lost the rosy tint I used to view the world through? I think it may be a bit of both.
My wife doesn’t understand how I view the world. There are few I can connect with in the raw manner in which I was put together throughout my adult life. I observed a generation of men and women assembled in a vacuum; free from the politics of the people who sent us to war and solely focused on what our military leaders told us to do. We watched our peers become legends before our eyes. We saw men and women give their all to protect the lives of their friends, going so far as to knowingly sacrifice their own to ensure the people they called their family would make it home safe. Some of the best of us came home, left the military, and moved on with their lives. Where are the best of us who stayed in? Why are more of our heroes not in charge of us now? If we live by ethos such as integrity, duty, and honor, then why do we seemingly have so few leaders anymore that we can hold up and give our respect and honor to? They surely exist; likely leading their troops with reserved humility, putting others before themselves, and committing themselves to giving more than they would ever ask. The best leaders I’ve ever known made it a point to know you personally and to unselfishly encourage your growth in everything you did. I literally can’t count how many examples of selfish careerism I see anymore, blotting the horizon in stark contrast to the great ones I remember in my youth.
There’s a biblical parable of a man who loses a sheep. Luke 15:3-6 says “Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 ‘Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.”’ This definition of leadership has always stuck with me. The shepherd doesn’t forget about the lost sheep all while saying to himself, “well, it’s just one sheep. I have ninety-nine others, so no big deal.” To the contrary, he goes looking for the lost one; battling the elements, wildlife, and whatever other dangers lie in his path. So who is leading our soldiers when a young woman, Vanessa Guillen, disappears on post with all of her personal effects still left in her work area, and the equivalent of a courtesy patrol sent out to look for her is the only answer the command can muster? Is life so hectic right now that we can’t drop everything and dedicate every man and woman to looking and searching for her? These questions are obviously facetious, because you obviously can, and it’s your duty to do such a thing. I’d be hammering on CID’s door every single day asking, “where’s my soldier??! Find my soldier!!” I would raise the issue all the way up the chain of command flag pole, contact the news and take every measure possible to find out why my soldier disappeared in one of my buildings. I would bury my career over it. Why? Because she was entrusted to me, in my command, and placing the welfare of my troops above my own has been infused into the blood that runs through my veins. There is simply no other option.
Unfortunately, more incidents are coming to light; not just on Fort Hood, but other installations as well. We have the recently found body of Gregory Wedel Morales who was declared AWOL days from his end of service obligation almost ten months ago. It’s simply easier to brush him off as an afterthought by declaring him AWOL than it is to look for him. It appears he was only found due to a tip that came in because of the spotlight being cast on Vanessa Guillen’s case. Dakota Stump went missing on Fort Hood in 2016, and after the command declared him AWOL, in part due to a completely bungled job by military law enforcement, he was later found a hundred meters off the road, rotting away in plain sight from a command who claimed they had “conducted an exhaustive search.” The search was hardly exhaustive, and in the end, it became clear they were trying to save face by sending the entire squadron away on detail while they recovered his remains and personal effects in an effort to prevent anyone notifying the family until they could properly spin the situation to avoid bad publicity. Story after story has come to light of soldiers who were neglected by their commands because it was easier to brand them AWOL than it was to commit resources to finding them.
As I write this out, with my head very muddled in thought, I question whether this was always the case, or if this is a symptom of a machine built for war with no war to be fought. Did our heroes rise up to meet the challenge of the global war on terror, just to go away when they were no longer needed? Are we merely left with the remnants of what was left, opportunists at best, and we’re subject to their rule until the next crisis gives birth to another generation of standard bearers who live by the values they swore to uphold? I believe we’re probably somewhere in the middle; men and women who exist in circumstances which give rise to the character they possess and whose actions outweigh the filth of the leadership who betray them. Then again, there is always the cyclical rise and fall that has defined humanity for ages and continues to rise and fall with change.