Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Shortly after becoming a brigade commander, I was driving home at the end of a training day feeling self-satisfied with my new command. When I saw a rain-soaked soldier walking toward the train station, I stopped to pick him up.

As we rode along, I broke the awkward silence. “So, what do you do in the brigade, Specialist?”

“I work down in the motor pool. You know, turning wrenches,” he replied. Then he asked, “What do you do?”

With a haughty chuckle, I replied, “Why, I’m your brigade commander.”

The soldier thought about this for a moment, then followed up with another question. “So, do you work for the first sergeant?”

I paused for a moment, taken aback. Then I responded, “Yeah, that’s right,” and left my deflated ego by the side of the road.

This odd conversation clearly showed me the importance of senior leaders in the lives of our soldiers. Like it or not, the young patriots who lay their lives on the line to defend our nation are far more influenced by their spouses, parents, buddies, dogs, squad leaders ... and yes, the first sergeant ... than they are by their senior leaders. Yet senior leaders make the decisions that determine soldiers’ challenges, their risks and even their sacrifices. More importantly, the effectiveness of the force depends on the trust soldiers have in senior leaders to make wise decisions in accordance with the Army Values that we all share.

Reassessing My Role

I often recall this conversation because it was also the beginning of my realization that as a brigade commander, I would never be the inspirational, direct military leader who grasps the colors and shouts, “Follow me, soldiers!” Later in my career, as a joint task force and dual-status commander, I would lead personnel I had never met, who belonged to a different branch of the military and probably would never even know my name.

My role was to command a force through indirect strategic leadership, not the face-to-face motivation, guidance and direction with which I was so familiar as a company and battalion commander. Although I supported the principles of creativity, flexibility and initiative in subordinate commands, I still harbored a belief that effective command and control was best served by my precise, detailed orders issued through the joint task force staff. Each state’s National Guard headquarters prepares a joint task force in the event of emergency.

Which brings me to April 15, 2013.

At 2:30 on that sunny spring afternoon, I was driving away from Boston as a routine security mission along the 26.2-mile Boston Marathon route wound down. Moments later, my BlackBerry buzzed, and I heard the measured voice of Massachusetts National Guard Lt. Col. (now Brig. Gen.) Mark Merlino:

“General, there have been two explosions at the marathon finish line. There are several confirmed fatalities and widespread injuries.”

What happened next spins in my memory like a video in fast-forward, but I believe I responded by rattling off the priority of tasks we learn as junior leaders. However, there was no need for me to give direction to Merlino, who was a veteran of multiple combat deployments and knew how to respond in the aftermath of an IED detonation. In fact, he had already initiated the actions that I rattled off as my mind raced to grasp the impact of the situation.

I immediately called the Massachusetts adjutant general, Air National Guard Maj. Gen. L. Scott Rice, who approved my request to stand up the joint task force and activate additional troops and resources. Then the cell grid went dead. We were without effective means of communication.


Members of the Massachusetts National Guard await orders in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.
(Credit: U.S. Army/Cadet Matthew Feehan)

Soldiers Spring Into Action

While I desperately attempted to communicate with task force staff, 1st Lt. Steve Fiola, 1st Sgt. Bernard Madore, Staff Sgt. Mark Welch and others charged into the smoke and carnage of the blasts at the finish line, pulled away debris, administered combat lifesaver aid and rushed victims to the nearby medical tent. There were no orders to do so. In fact, these three Massachusetts Army National Guard soldiers were not on duty at the time.

Massachusetts Army National Guard Col. George Harrington was at work in his civilian office when he heard the blasts, which killed three and injured more than 260 participants and spectators. He immediately headed for Boston Common, which became the task force’s assembly area. A photo of him in a business suit, towering over the throng of troops as he directed accountability and security measures, is burned into my memory as a modern-day symbol of the minuteman ethos. But no one told him to leave work and take charge in the chaos following the blasts.

Our explosive ordnance disposal soldiers instantly coordinated with their counterparts in the FBI and state police to defuse suspicious packages and begin the grisly task of mapping bomb fragments and human remains across the blast area. I don’t know who decided to link up and coordinate ordnance disposal operations, but it was the right decision.

Later that day, I looked on as a young sergeant and her squad directed throngs of onlookers away from the blast area, which was now a secure crime scene. I had to smile as she gently reassured passersby that they were safe while firmly insisting that they move along. I don’t think I had ever seen such an agile balance between compassion and determination. She understood that a little caring goes a long way when dealing with people who are shaken, anxious and frightened. I don’t believe we issued orders to treat the people of Boston with empathy and reassurance. She just did it.

During the next few hours, we struggled to regain communications with subordinate units. But during those hours, I learned to command by sending out brief, succinct guidance through whatever communication systems were available. I had no means to issue the detailed orders and instructions with which I was so familiar.

Executing Mission Command

During the following week, soldiers and airmen performed hundreds of acts requiring initiative, strength and good judgment, and they largely did so in the absence of direct orders. Like the young sergeant securing the blast area, they did their job, and they did it with compassion and respect. It came as no surprise to me that the surviving bomber was brought to justice mainly due to information provided by citizens. The civilians who provided intelligence trusted that military and law enforcement personnel were the “good guys,” whose sole mission was to safeguard their community.

When it was all over, I was often asked, “What made the response to the Boston Marathon bombings successful?” It took me a long time to realize that the effectiveness of the task force’s response was due to a common understanding of the mission and situation, disciplined initiative—even by our most junior personnel, cohesive team execution, clear command intent and broad orders (albeit necessitated by communication failure). Most importantly, our success was due to the willingness—up and down the chain of command—to accept risk, based on the deep trust that soldiers would do the right thing and leaders were knowledgeable and capable. In short, we succeeded because we executed Mission Command.

Support Army Values

So, what should a wise senior leader do to prepare their force to respond to no-notice challenges? While contingency plans, standard operating procedures and battle drills are important, the short answer is that building trust within the force is critical. The best way for trust to thrive and grow is to support and enforce Army Values. A team that’s committed to loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage is a force built on trust. When that trust is tempered by the heat of tough, realistic training, it’s stronger than steel.

Just as the fine edge of a bayonet needs frequent sharpening, trust must be reinforced and maintained. Leaders at all levels build trust by being visible, sharing hardships, recognizing achievement and leading by example. But they also hone the cutting edge by enforcing standards, particularly when individuals don’t live up to Army Values. Administering discipline can be difficult, but a commander’s most important job is to establish and maintain good order and respect. Soldiers who adhere to Army Values expect those who don’t live up to the values will face consequences. If leaders do their jobs and earn the trust of their soldiers, then soldiers will strive to earn the respect and trust of their leaders.

We know that no plan survives first contact with the enemy, and the fog of war always obscures the battlefield. However, I learned that Mission Command gave our force the flexibility to adapt, adjust and overcome unexpected challenges during a no-notice—some might say unimaginable—disaster. And I also learned that, in the end, the most lethal weapon we have in our arsenal is trust in each other.