Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Veterans Day Reflection: Binding the Past & Present

Yesterday Blogs of War ran the following short piece I wrote in honor of Veterans Day:

On June 5, 2014 I visited Fort Bliss’ Highlander Field in El Paso, Texas to watch as the 4th Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment, of the 4 Brigade Combat Team, of the First Armored Division (Old Ironsides) said farewell to its commander Lt. Colonel Ronny Johnson and welcomed its new commander, my friend of over two decades, Lt. Colonel William Adler.

The battalion is known as "The Regulars” because in the battle of Chippewa in the War of 1812, while wearing the uniforms of American militia, they surprised the British by pressing their attack rather than collapsing. The British general supposedly yelled, “Those are Regulars, by God!”

The story may be a myth. The only witness was the 4th battalion’s commander, future President Zachary Taylor. But myths exist to show us deeper truths. Regular is synonymous with ordinary, even dull. But in this context it is high praise. It means that they were professional soldiers.

A battalion consists of 300-1000 soldiers. Coordinating several hundred people to perform complex and timely operations is no small feat. Achieving this feat under the harrowing conditions of combat is a challenge of the highest order. There must be no illusions. This is what the military does. Both the brigade commander and outgoing battalion commander stated, "The battalion's mission is to be prepared to deploy globally to kill the enemies of the United States."

To carry out these missions successfully, to be professional soldiers, to merit being “Regulars” is a mark of excellence.

In peacetime, soldiers prepare for war, practicing their craft. Hopefully, their skill will deter enemies, but history suggests otherwise.

Procedure and training guide the hand and sharpen the mind. Great business leaders cite the importance of mission in motivating people to achieve. How much more true must this be, when the business is one of dealing and suffering death?

The change of command ceremony, albeit brief, reaches deep into time to nurture this sense of mission. It is a living reminder to the unit’s soldiers of the unit’s traditions, past and honor - the sense that they are marching in a long line of history.

When the incoming and outgoing commanders reviewed the troops they were following a tradition established by Alexander the Great. At the end of the ceremony the soldiers paraded off the field, this reflected a newer innovation, from the Middle Ages.

At the heart of the change of command ceremony is the “passing of the guidon,” the unit’s colors. For Roman legions, medieval knights, and musketeers a unit’s standards showed the commander’s location so soldiers could rally to their leader. Now the standards serve a less practical, but still essential purpose of symbolizing the unit's honor. The announcer explained, "The commander may die, but the colors continue."

In the modern Army, personnel move to new units at regular intervals. In a few years no one currently associated with the Regulars will still be a Regular. Yet the unit will continue. If the battalion commander is the head and the command sergeant major is the heart – the colors are the unit’s soul, the ineffably quality that makes something unique and allows excellence.


Allow me to add a few personal notes. I met Bill (Lt. Col. Adler) and his wife Alice as an undergraduate at Emerson College over twenty years ago. They are just fantastic people. One tiny example, as I was driving to the Change of Command Ceremony, I received a text from Alice, making sure I was ok and wasn't having a problem getting there. She was on point for one of the biggest moments of her husband's professional life (and which is a pretty big deal for her too). She had people and an reception to organize. But she found time to check in on me! I'm pretty sure I would have forgotten me under those circumstances, but I'm not Alice.

At the party that night, I was treated like a visiting celebrity - even though the day was about Bill. 

Bill, a thoughtful, smart guy, is achieving his life's dream. Commanding a battalion is the sweet spot. It is the highest level of command where you are still in touch with the troops and personnally engaged in the action. He wanted to be Army when we were in undergrad when the rest of us wanted to be directors, radio DJs, and stand-up comedians. For most of us, dreams collided with reality and came out worse for wear. But Bill made it!

Finally, the picture above is from Reyes Photography, but Alice Adler is a terrific photographer.

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