When you transfer to a new Army position, you want to do your best to meet your responsibilities while contributing to the success of the unit. One way to move up in rank is to make sure to review lessons learned in your new unit. These reviews are available to new unit members, and a lot can be learned from these documents. Make sure to fulfill your job description while continuously focusing on meeting all your Army requirements and duties. Focus on the unit mission and think of ways the unit can perform better.
I would like to share some personal reflections on lessons learned and moving up in rank throughout my military career. These lessons remain valid for soldiers today.
I first learned of the U.S. Army as a boy of 6 or 7 from my father. I recall him sharing with me his experiences of World War II when he was a second lieutenant. He served as a battery gun commander in the 234th Anti-Aircraft Gun Battalion with service in the China-Burma-India and Western Pacific theaters. I vividly remember him sharing his experiences in the jungles of Burma, where malaria and dysentery were prevalent, along with typhus. These infectious diseases caused my father and the soldiers in his unit much illness and suffering. The tormenting symptoms of these diseases have remained in my mind throughout my life. I have never forgotten my father’s struggles.
Years later, when I began my medical school education at the Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., I discovered the dean of my medical school was a brigadier general serving in the U.S. Army Reserve. At first, I couldn’t believe it. I asked myself, “How could a dean of a medical school be a general in the Army?” Learning about my dean, who possessed M.D. and Ph.D. degrees, piqued my interest in serving in the Army. If Army service was good enough for him as a dean, it surely would be good enough for me.
After medical school and during my residency training, I raised my right hand and took the oath of commissioned officers. I was sworn in as a direct-commission first lieutenant in the medical corps in the District of Columbia Army National Guard. I realized I had to do the best job in my service to our nation. I was proud of both my father and medical school dean for serving as important role models for me.
Focus on the Mission
One of the first principles I learned as a medical officer was to focus on the unit’s mission. Having a firm understanding of the mission and the role you play as an enlisted soldier or as an officer are important responsibilities. The second principle was to do the best job in my position and in every position I served in. And the third was to always look for innovative ways in which I could contribute directly to achieving the unit’s mission.
One of my most memorable and personally rewarding experiences was my assignment as a doctor with the Army National Guard’s 20th Special Forces Group (Airborne). After becoming airborne qualified and serving with the 20th, I became aware of types of medical injuries soldiers sustained during performance of their duties. My role as a doctor was to medically care for sick and injured troops.
I learned that when a soldier is seriously injured, you must know how to medically stabilize the patient and call for medical airlift evacuation if necessary. These are basic principles required for medevac of soldiers. I learned quickly that medical personnel are needed in airborne training exercises and should always be ready to care for injured soldiers.
As a brigade flight surgeon in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard’s 28th Combat Aviation Brigade, 28th Infantry Division, I wanted to fully understand the division’s mission. Interestingly, subordinate units of this division included infantry, airborne, aviation and tank units. I needed to know what these respective unit missions were, as well as understand the types of threats and injuries members of each of these units could sustain. I was amazed to observe training exercises of these subordinate units. I learned about the potential hazards soldiers faced. While supervising three flight surgeons, performing flight physicals and evaluating pilots’ fitness to fly, I had the direct medical responsibility for a 1,000-man brigade.
I was also responsible for making decisions to take helicopter pilots off active flight status if they failed to meet medical fitness standards for flying duty. I learned early in this assignment that I had to put the safety of the unit above the flying status of individual pilots. More often than not, my decisions to take pilots off flying duty did not sit well with the pilots. However, during my service with the 28th, there were no aviation accidents.
Another lesson I learned was to always seek opportunities to excel and contribute more to my unit. I sought out chances to contribute by writing articles about specific Army problems or issues. I wrote about a variety of subjects on my own time. I researched topics and published articles in U.S. Army Aviation Digest on topics relating to Army aviators. I also published an article that appeared in Military Medicine, the journal of the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States. I had the delight of serving for more than a decade on the editorial board of Military Medicine.
As a leader moving up in rank, I learned to understand the importance of the health and welfare of soldiers under my command. One way I distinguished myself was to take on more responsibilities to lead medical personnel in caring for soldiers. I have always looked for challenges that contribute to expanding the skills of subordinate hospital unit leaders. I would always seek out opportunities for my soldiers to learn. As commander of the Maryland Army National Guard’s 136th Combat Support Hospital, I supervised two hospital deployments to West Germany.
I also led and supervised a 32-person medical team on a medical readiness training exercise to Ecuador’s Amazon River basin. This team evaluated and treated more than 4,000 patients with a variety of diseases and illnesses. As the leader of this exercise, I was aware of the indigenous illnesses and diseases my troops were subjected to in this jungle region. This foresight prepared me for several emergency medevacs I would have to make to higher medical headquarters in Panama.
I have learned that as a leader, you must always motivate and inspire soldiers to accomplish their missions. This motivation should be based on the highest standards. Every soldier also should be comfortable and encouraged to provide ongoing feedback. The strength of a military organization, whether it is a squad, platoon, company or division, is based on leadership. Strong leaders command resilient units.
The deactivation of the 136th Combat Support Hospital initially was scheduled over a 36-month period. For the benefit of my soldiers, I made the decision and recommended to higher headquarters that we complete the deactivation process in 24 months. My recommendation was accepted because this action benefited my soldiers. It allowed soldiers to quickly identify potential transfer units, turn in equipment and transfer to other military units within 24 months. The 136th Combat Support Hospital’s smooth and uneventful deactivation was predicated on solid leadership.
I moved up the ladder throughout my career, ultimately achieving the rank of major general and the position of deputy surgeon general for the Army National Guard. In this position, I was responsible for advising the Army surgeon general on the medical readiness, deployability, health status and access to care of more than 350,000 Army National Guard soldiers.
Another strategic initiative I was intimately involved in was the 90-day rotation pilot for reserve component doctors, dentists and nurse specialists during the Iraq War. Following the successful pilot study, the assistant secretary of the Army approved and implemented a 90-day personnel mobilization policy.
As a senior Army medical officer in DoD, I had the duty to represent the Army surgeon general at the funerals of combat medics and Special Forces soldiers killed in Iraq. These were sad and tragic moments for the families of these soldiers.
From these experiences, I learned to sympathize and comfort the families of these soldiers. Participating at these funerals was one of the most difficult but honorable tasks of my military career.
As I reflect on my career, beginning as a first lieutenant in the Army National Guard, I had no idea at that time that I ultimately would attain the rank of major general. In every position I served in, I always looked for additional opportunities to benefit my unit and contribute to the Army. I always sought out challenging assignments or duties and performed well when given an opportunity.
Learn From Mistakes
I want to say a word or two about failing to meet or achieve a military goal. If you don’t achieve your goal, acknowledge your mistakes. Dealing with defeat is hard, but you can learn from your mistakes. When we process our failures with a desire to improve and do better, we can come back stronger and meet even greater challenges in life.
I remember leaving the 20th Special Forces Group when I was a captain because I relocated to another state. The thought of not being able to put in the extra time to complete the Special Forces Qualification Course was not easy. However, I left Special Forces with the mindset that I was going to continue with my military career and do my best in whatever unit I served. I did so and ended up serving in the highest levels of our military and government. Failing in a personal goal can make you stronger if you let it. Never lose your focus. Learn from your mistakes and move on.
Focusing on unit mission, doing the best job and seeking innovative ways to contribute are lessons learned to achieve unit—and personal—success.
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Maj. Gen. George Alexander, M.D., U.S. Army retired, served as assistant surgeon general and deputy surgeon general for the Army National Guard in the Office of the U.S. Army Surgeon General. He earned his medical degree from Howard University College of Medicine, Washington, D.C., and completed postgraduate medical specialty training at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston.