Leaders go out the door first

This blog post is my 82nd one. The number 82 has a special meaning in my life. When I hear the number 82, I think of one thing…the 82 Airborne Division also known as the All-American Division. This year the 82nd Airborne Division is celebrating its 100th anniversary. The division was created way back in WWI. It is a famous unit with a storied history. It also has a special place in my family’s history. My father served in the 82nd Airborne after graduating from West Point. It was his first duty assignment as an Infantry Officer. Many years later I followed in his footsteps. I joined the 82nd in 1991 as an Infantry Officer. My first assignment was rifle platoon leader in Bravo Company, 1/325 AIR. After that role, I transferred to the Signal Corps and joined the 82 Signal Battalion. While there I served as a Signal Node Platoon Leader, Division Assault CP Platoon Leader. Yes – I was a platoon leader three different times. I finished my time at Bragg as a Company Executive Officer. These jobs were with the same unit, A Company, 82 Signal Battalion. The 82nd is a great unit, and I learned a lot while there. Lessons that have served me well over the years. For the next three weeks, I plan to share the top three life lessons I learned while serving as an All-American paratrooper in the 82d Airborne Division. Below you will find the first one.

Leaders jump first then others follow

Lesson one – leaders go out the door first. The 82d has a somewhat unique culture, full of traditions that have been created over the years. One tradition regarding their leaders is that they jump first during airborne operations. This tradition started back in WWII. What does that mean – leaders jump first. Basically, the most senior leader of any airborne operation will go out the door first, before anyone else. For example, if the Commander of the 82d (a two-star general) is part of a jump, he will jump first followed by the rest of the paratroopers. During WWII legendary commanders like Matthew Ridgway and James Gavin jumped and fought alongside their paratroopers. No cushy office for them. This act is not one of privilege, but rather of leadership in action. This tradition visibly shows all the paratroopers in the plane that you are willing to lead them by jumping first. The 82d expects danger when they jump into combat. Its leaders are expected to face this danger first. This tradition clearly demonstrates that the leaders are willing to do what they are asking their followers to do. It is a powerful way to show others that I am with you and fully committed, just like you.

General James Gavin getting ready to jump
General James Gavin getting ready to jump

Jumping into Puerto Rico

I learned this lesson firsthand while serving as the Division Assault CP Platoon Leader. My platoon’s mission was to support the Division Command Group with communications capabilities. We jumped in the radio equipment the Divison Commander and other senior leaders used on the drop zone during airborne operations. Many times we jumped from the same plane as the Division Commander. He would go out the door first, followed by his Aide, and then members of my platoon. For larger airborne operations that involved many planes, my platoon would be split into small groups and jump from several different aircraft. Usually, we would be one of the first to leave the plane so that we would land near the command group members. I remember one mission where jumping first was somewhat troubling to me. For this operation, we were jumping into Puerto Rico. The drop zone was not big so we jumped from C-130s. The Division Commander was in the first plane. I was in the second plane and would be the first jumper from that aircraft. Everything en route went fine. As we approached the Puerto Rico, the Jumpmaster gave me the command to “stand in the door”. That means I am positioned in the door, waiting for the jump light to turn green. When it does, you jump. Usually, you stand in the door for less than 30 seconds. As you stand in the door of a C-130 you can see out of the aircraft. When I looked out I noticed a potential problem – all water, no land. I am a good swimmer, but I certainly did not want to experience a water landing. I peered at the jump light – it was still red. Thank God. I watched and waited, hoping that the light would not turn green until we were over land. I kept waiting for what seemed like well over a minute.

The light finally turns green

Eventually, I saw land, then the drop zone, green light, and I jumped, followed by my fellow paratroopers. What I learned later was that the jumpmasters decided to put the first jumpers in the door earlier than normal because there was real concern that all the jumpers would not be able to exit the aircraft in time because the drop zone was so small. They did not want any paratrooper to miss the drop zone, and have to ride all the way back to Fort Bragg.

Mike Steele - 82nd Airborne Division Commander. He served with my father in Vietnam.
Mike Steele – 82nd Airborne Division Commander that I supported. Great man. He served with my father in Vietnam.

After the operation was complete I thought to myself what would have happened if the light had turned green while we were still over water. I knew the answer – I would have jumped. I would have done what paratroopers have been trained to do for decades. The light turns green, and then you jump. I could not turn to the paratrooper behind me and say why don’t you go first, it looks kind of dangerous with all that water. No – I had been trained as a leader in the 82d that you jump first, and deal with whatever happens next. You lead from the front, not from the rear. That lesson has served me well in many other situations. Sometimes when I find myself in a somewhat scary situation I think of my days in the 82d, and what it taught me as a leader. You go out the door first. Airborne.

For more about the 100th Anniversary, see this video below from All-American Week.

Dunkirk Reveals Human Nature

War is hell. We all know that – at least I hope we all know that. We are reminded on a regular basis about both the horrors and heroics of war. Bottom line – it brings out the best and the worst in mankind. We have many books, movies, television shows, videos and monuments all aimed at giving all of us insights about war, and what it is like. As you know, I served in the military, but I never deployed into combat. I did spend many years preparing for it, studying it, and learning about it. Based on what I know and have learned from others – we get unique insights into human nature by learning from previous wars.

Occasionally a movie comes along that reminds us how awful war can be. Dunkirk is one of those movies. It is a grim reminder that WWII did not start well for the Allies. In fact, it was a military disaster on all fronts. The Germans were able to conquer much of Europe quickly. I watched Dunkirk last night, and really enjoyed it. The director lets history tell the story and attempts to personalize it by focusing on a small group of individuals who are caught in the action – soldiers and civilians. The movie is intense, and I think it points out three things about human nature that are worth reflecting on after watching the film.

We are all selfish

The battle of Dunkirk focuses on the fact that a large part of the British Army was surrounded by the Nazis early in the war and needed to be evacuated back to England before it is annihilated. It is a dire situation. The movie does an excellent job portraying how bad things were for the British. The enemy is closing in. All the British are trying to get out of France, and the only way out is via the English Channel. There are not enough ships for everyone. Time is running out, so various characters in the movie start to take matters into their own hands. It is an “only the strong survive” type situation which leads to selfish behavior. It should not be surprising that people get selfish. It is in all of us – the will to survive. It comes out especially when the stakes are high. Putting other first is a difficult choice to make, and does not happen naturally. Usually our basic instinct is to take care of ourselves first. Something to think about anytime you are in a tough situation. Look for this behavior in others, and monitor it in yourself.

We can all be heroes

The evacuation of Dunkirk ended up being successful because of the extraordinary deeds of many average people. The British government send out a call for help, and many answered. The film focuses on one family who joins in the action and plays their part in the evacuation despite many challenges. The director does a nice job keeping these everyday participants anonymous during the action. He does not treat them like superheroes. They don’t have superpowers or any special abilities. They simply do what is necessary to get the job done. The same holds true for many other participants to include the Air Force pilots who fought bravely to keep the evacuation ships safe. Remember – heroes come in many shapes, sizes, colors, and backgrounds. Don’t be fooled by Marvel and DC comics – there is no real Superman or Wonder Woman. They are not coming to rescue us. Rather it is up to normal people like you and me to be heroic when called upon.

David Bowie was right - we can all be heroes.
David Bowie was right – we can all be heroes, if just for one day.

We can fight another day

When WWII begins – the Nazis are prepared. No other country really is ready and it shows. Dunkirk is a pivotal point in the war. The French are defeated, and England evacuates in order to prepare for a potential invasion. British leadership is forced to make some really tough decisions. They are outmatched, and they know it. They need a new strategy. They decide to do something a little different than normal – they celebrate their retreat from Dunkirk. Normally in military operations, any retreat is seen as a loss and should not be celebrated. But, British leadership realizes that the evacuation allows them to fight another day, and fight they will. The movie ends with Winston Churchill’s stirring speech that finishes with “we will never surrender”. Anytime I hear this speech – it inspires me. Also, it reminds me that some days you will lose. In fact, you may need to retreat, regroup, refit, and prepare to fight another day. Notice that I did not say quit, but live to fight another day. It is a perfectly suitable strategy in some situations.

If you have not seen Dunkirk – I suggest that you do. Below is a link to the trailer for the film. Hopefully, you get a lot out of the film like I did.