Leadership Lessons From Scout Alfa 33

Morning Briefing


W. Michael Phibbs

In folklore and romanticized movies the Army scout would come over the wide expansive plain and walk up to his commander and point, “The enemy is over there!” He would then turn, with arrows still protruding from his back, and fade into the distance only to reappear when danger lurked again.

In truth an Army scout’s job is not romantic and not a job for the solitary soldier. For the uninitiated, Scouts go miles out in front of the regular infantry companies. They find the enemy and report back to their commanders. They work as a small team and this requires incredible leadership abilities to get the team to be self-reliant and perform at these high levels.

Alberto had spent almost decade assigned to “regular strait leg infantry line platoon” and his transfer to another division didn’t surprise him; every three or four years everyone gets moved. As a team leader, he knew his craft: digging fighting positions, ranging targets, and a whole host of other seemingly mundane tasks which occur when a 45 man company goes into the bush. But all of that was about to change.

“Welcome to the Scout Platoon, Alberto,” said the Sergeant Major as he slapped him on the back. For an instant Alberto was elated. No more digging foxholes up to my neck at two o’clock in the morning. Then it hit him. If a scout needed to dig then it was too late. He was used to fighting with numbers of men, not sneaking around, finding targets, and relying on artillery to save him if he ever needed to evade an enemy. Scouts have always been highly prized prisoners. Hell, most scouts never made it to captivity and were simply killed where they were caught.

Regardless of Alberto’s rank, he was green to the ways of a Scout Platoon. He was told by his both his Platoon Leader and Platoon Sergeant that he would initially be under a junior NCO while in the bush. Until he proved himself that is. The platoon had been assigned to run scout missions for a battalion exercise somewhere in a jungle the next week. He only had a few days to ensure he had his equipment and to meet his new team. When First Sergeant Smith introduced Alberto to his new platoon, Alfa 33, all of the members seemed to stare at him disapprovingly. A Specialist named Ramsey pulled a map out of his pocket and unfolded it. “Word has it you are a “Strait leg” from a line company. Pointing to his map, can you get me from this spot to that spot without getting me killed?” “When was the last time you called for artillery or air strike?” “Never” replied Alberto. “Bullshit, he’s not leading me”, came from back of the pack. Alberto’s heart sank as “Welcome to the Scout Platoon” echoes in the back of his head.

Over the next year Alberto listened and learned. He learned quickly, because he had to in order to survive not only the “enemy” but further disfavor from the rest of the platoon. Learn or leave in a scout platoon was as synonymous as up or out for an officer. Movement to contact was no longer the name of the game. Scouts go out in five man squads look, listen, find the enemy, report what you find up the chain, and if all possible return alive where now his mantra. He started from the bottom, even as a sergeant, he began by carrying the gear; knowing at first, it was more important to the team to carry the gear than make decisions only his rank qualified him to do.   He watched the specialists and sergeants closely to discern not only the decisions they made, but the thought process behind it. Early on, he would be asked to create the navigation path they would follow on a mission. The first time he presented his plan he was immediately rebuffed, “That is a path a line company would take, the path of least resistance. That path would get us all killed.” A member of the team would then explain how scouts plan navigation plans to conduct missions. How staying at a distance, taking your time, and paying extra attention to the clues left around you provide a better picture than getting too close.

Alberto was not the most talented scout to ever enter the bush, but he could reasonably apply what he was learning. He did have a gift of making friends. He willingly helped out others, even of lower rank, not because he was sucking up, but he generally cared about the people he worked with. He took pride in knowing when someone else succeeded that he had played a part, even if it was sufficiently small. When Specialist Elridge arrived to the platoon he went to the bottom of the pack. It was his turn to carry the extra gear, to walk to the company command post and bring back supplies. Most people felt relieved to move up. Alberto took pity on the new guy. When Elridge was told to walk half a mile back to the command post to get water and MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) Alberto jumped up and said he was going to help. First Sergeant Neirman said, “He needs to learn to follow orders and carry the weight.” “He also needs to learn how to serve and help others,” replied Alberto quickly catching up to Elridge.

Fast forward one year, while the sun rained down high into the triple canopy of trees, a down pour of rain still fell onto Alberto’s head. Alfa 33, team 1, was in their positions, and the other sergeants were huddled next to the new Platoon Lieutenant, when the RTO, Radio Telephone Operator, turned to the group, “They changed frequencies and never gave us the new extract. We are now on our own.”

“Well what do we do now? We are already 10 clicks in front of them.” said Fitz, the now the newest sergeant in the platoon. “I’ll tell you what we are going to do. We are going to do our jobs,” said the lieutenant. “We have our target list. We will check them out, and then we are going to look on the dumbest place to put a command post and go there. I bet they will be sitting there all nice and comfy.”

“Alberto, I’m sending you there,” the lieutenant said, as he pointed at the map. “It’s about 7 kilo’s out and   should take you two days to do it correctly. We are going to hit these spots and meet you at this point,” moving his finder up and over the grid lines to the bottom of a ridge line bordering a swamp. “Crap that is a long way with a lot of moving parts” was all Alberto could think. “You are going the furthest and therefore I will let you pick your own team,” said the lieutenant. “You got it, Sir” was all Alberto could say as he began to feel the depths of his self-doubt.

As word passed around the platoon that they had been left behind, the lieutenants resolve to accomplish the mission, and the gravity of the long range recon assignments, the other platoon members began to look deep inside. Some of the squads were stronger than other. Alberto was now good, but he needed people who were great to pull this off. As Alberto’s self-doubt crashed down upon his shoulders, Jones came up to him. “Heard you need a navigator.” Jones was the best in the battalion for creating navigation plans. He never got caught and never got lost, not even in jungles with few terrain markings. Philips simply walked over with the radio packed, “Got the internal ‘platoon freques’ and the batteries are still holding up.” Elridge came up and threw a small stick at Albeto’s chest, “Well, someone has to be on point. God knows where you will end up without me.” “Well, you’re going to need someone to carry your crap. You’re almost 30 and kinds of fragile,” said Dobson.

“Thank you” was the only thing Alberto could say. “Hell, you bailed us out when you didn’t have to in the past; we are only returning the favor, said Jones. “Thanks again,” Alberto said. “Now let’s start planning. Each had their part to play in planning their mission. Over the past two years, Alberto learned to let everyone develop their part of the plan; he simply needed to ensure everything was covered and all the pieces fit. If some part of the plan didn’t seem right he would ask for clarification. When Alberto asked Jones about a TRP, target reference point, on the map, Jones explained why he chose the point. It made sense perfect sense. Philips was packing more communications gear then necessary. Alberto told him that since they had no comms with the company that they only needed the equipment to stay in contact with Alfa 33 and Alfa 36. Leaving the other equipment would save 14 pounds. Over the course of two days, saving 14 pounds would mean a lot.

At 1830 hours, the group headed out. The years of being assigned to a line company know paid dividends to Alberto. He knew the signs to look for. Infantryman walk in lines because is easier to follow a path, instead of walking in wedge formations which means everyone goes through their own little hell breaking brush. Companies leave trash while walking in the woods, they knock over things, and generally “We’re over here” signs everywhere. By early morning they were in position.   As planned, they would split into two groups. Each group would work their way in a 180 degree loop. They would scout out the area, mark their observations on maps, and then regroup on the other side. The key was to stay at a distance: look for through holes in a the vegetation to glimpse small windows of what was occurring, listen for voices, sounds of vehicles, people digging, and cursing. From there they would call back a “Sit Rep” (Situation Report) and move back to the link-up point with the rest of the platoon.

That evening, both groups linked up in a swampy section on the other side of the ridge. “Legs” hate getting wet, which makes swamps a great place to link up because “Legs” are less likely to look for you there. They combined the information and submitted their “Sit-Rep” before moving out. Four hours later they linked-up with the rest of the platoon. They barely had time to rest before they were off again. The Lieutenant saying, ”I found the dumbest place on the map to put a Command Post.” Moving his fingers over the map and stopping on top of a ridge with three roads converging, “We’ll go there first.”

Six hours later the group walked unchallenged right into the command post. The Lieutenant had been wrong. He was off by 50 yards on his estimate of where the command post was located. The area where he had pointed was full of briars. The Command Post was placed in the wood line with more space to set up, and less briars. As they walked in, the Battalion Commander said it was great to see them, and asked how they found the Command Post. The Lieutenant simply requested to talk in private. A short while later, a battalion artillery section could be heard unleashing shells to destroy targets, and groans from “Leg soldiers” were heard as they were told to get up and prepare to move for an early morning attack.

The Lieutenant walked back from his private meeting and said, “Let’s move to someplace safe and get some rest.” Just like the myths of old, the Scouts came in, reported their findings, and slipped away back into the cover of nature. When they finally stopped, Alberto said to the Lieutenant, “Sir, I wanted to thank you for your confidence that I could do the mission.” The Lieutenant, simply looked up, “You’re a Scout right? It was your turn. If I didn’t think you could do it, you would have left here months ago.” As he turned to walk back to his team, Alberto heard “Good job,” come from the Lieutenant.

A month later, Alfa 33 had received orders it was going to deploy to the Middle East. The platoon was told to expect new members that afternoon. All had been transferred from “Leg Units.” “Fresh meet” said a senior member of the team. “Alberto, this time you get to see what you looked like when you showed up.” Alberto grinned. As Sergeants McRoy and Upton, along with Specialists Garcia and Smith, walked into the Alf 33 bay area they were immediately bombarded by questions they had no chance of answering. Alberto knew it was simply a test and welcoming aboard ceremony. Later that evening, Alberto found Sergeant McRoy sitting on a bench outside of the company compound. He looked shell shocked. Alberto walked up to him, slapped him on the back, and said, Welcome to the Scout Platoon. You ready to get started?”

Leadership Reference Points:

  • When you move from one assignment to anything new you will feel anxiety.
  • There will be new things to learn, but it was the same way when you arrived in your old job.
  • You probably will not be the expert.
  • Watch others, see how they make decisions, and apply the lessons where you can,
  • Learn to serve others. You never know when it will pay dividends.
  • Trust your people to do their assigned part. If they can’t do it then train them or move them out.
  • Look at your company’s strategy. If it is obvious to you, then it may be obvious to your adversary.
  • Help others build skills, and trust them to accomplish tasks that they may feel reluctant to accomplish.
  • When you see something wrong, tell someone. If you have to tell a superior bad news, do it in private.
  • Remember, most things are not as bad as they seem. A pat on the back can go a long way to building success for your team’s future.

Photo: Morning Briefing from http://www.zdnet.com

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