The Supremacy of Trust: Reflections on Combat Leadership During the Iraq Surge

The Army Press recently published one of my essays, “The Supremacy of Trust”, in an edited volume entitled “Mission Command in the 21st Century: Empowering to Win in a Complex World”. The essay explores the process by which trust is built in organizations through the lens of my own experience as a young paratrooper serving in Iraq in 2006-2007. The following is an excerpt from that piece. You may find the full text at

“Training rapidly progressed from individual to collective events. Although this process culminated with a brigade rotation at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, the defining moment of the company’s pre-deployment training occurred during the platoon evaluations. Each platoon executed this arduous three-day event, which included over forty miles of dismounted movements under full combat loads over thousands of vertical feet of mountainous terrain, extended movements to contact through multiple objectives, a platoon raid executed on an abandoned Nike Hercules missile site, mounted patrolling, and an air assault. Many Soldiers, upon arriving back at their barracks, literally collapsed from exhaustion and had to be forcibly roused and carried to their rooms.

The impact of this single training event is scarcely describable. Tough, realistic, and brutally difficult, the platoon evaluations brought every Soldier in the company to the brink of physical and psychological exhaustion, a point where further exertion seemed impossible. Yet throughout, despite the physical difficulty of the training, the men sustained one another. They carried one another’s loads, bandaged each other’s feet, shared their meals in dogged silence, and carried on. Having survived the ordeal, they realized with quiet satisfaction that they were elite, that they had achieved something together that individually none would have contemplated attempting. The experience of shared hardship united leaders and led in an indissoluble bond of trust. It was there, in March 2006, that Baker Company became the cohesive team that would fight and prevail on the battlegrounds of Iraq.”


Why do you do it?

Steven Bowen recommended this video to me today, and I was blown away by it.  Like him, I’m not a fan of Eastern philosophy, and much of what Mr. Watts believes I wholeheartedly reject.  Nonetheless, the content of this video is outstanding, and it’s worth a watch.  We owe it not just to ourselves but to the world as well to ask ourselves what it is we are here on this earth to do, and then to do that thing.  We must not live our lives guilty of the “quiet desperation” that Thoreau so abhorred.  We need instead Carlyle’s “Great Man” that is “always as lightning out of Heaven; the rest of men waited for him like fuel, and then they too would flame.”

Hope you enjoy this video.  I did.

If I will the Ends, I must will the Means

“He who wills the end wills the means also, and the means must involve some risks, and even some losses.”                                                              – Jean Jacques Rousseau –

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

I want to achieve something significant in life.  I want to overcome obstacles and surmount barriers.  I want to fight for something.  I want to know that I have expended my energies in a worthwhile cause and held nothing back.

Must I not then realize that I must sacrifice?  That nothing good comes without work, that nothing great was ever done under the sun without effort?  Those whose stories I admire most, who did great things during their time on this earth – Xenophon, Paul, Bonhoeffer, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Shackleton – these individuals suffered to do what they did.  They bled, they sweated, they were in danger of their lives, they knew torture and defeat and starvation and despair.  Yet they drove on and they did what they were born to do.

If I will an end, I must necessarily will the sacrifices and the difficulties that I will have to endure to achieve that end.  I must be willing to accept risk.  I must be willing to bear loss.  If I would reap, then I must sow.

Youth is the time for any extraordinary toil – Socrates –

“Youth is the time for any extraordinary toil.”  – Socrates –

President Barack Obama awards the Medal of Honor to former Army Capt. William D. Swenson of Seattle, Wash., during a ceremony in the East Room at the White House in Washington, D.C. on October 15, 2013. (U.S. Army Photo by Sgt. Mikki L. Sprenkle/Released) Read more: Photo courtesy of

President Barack Obama awards the Medal of Honor to former Army Capt. William D. Swenson of Seattle, Wash., during a ceremony in the East Room at the White House in Washington, D.C. on October 15, 2013. (U.S. Army Photo by Sgt. Mikki L. Sprenkle/Released)  Photo courtesy of

Youth is not the time for idle dreams or foolish fantasies.  Youth is the time for ambition, hard work, and learning from failure.  Youth is the time for making the sacrifices necessary to turn dreams into realities and fantasies into facts.  Youth is the time for extraordinary toil.

We who are still young have an obligation to put our shoulders to the wheel and continue to propel this nation forward.  Regardless of the challenges we face as a people, regardless of the decisions our elected leaders make, regardless of the enemies who have chosen to array themselves against us, we must drive forward and prevail.  We are chosen not by fate, or coincidence, or conspiracy but rather by the fact that we were born and draw breath.  Because we live, we must strive.

Yet we must realize that nothing great was ever accomplished by one man acting alone.  Even when heroes stand they do so on the shoulders of the masses who made their feats possible.  There would have been no Socrates without the democracy of Athens.  There would have been no Dickens without the literate masses of Great Britain.  There would have been no Caesar without the disciplined legions of Rome.  To succeed we must do more than be willing to serve – we must be willing to follow and, when the opportunity arises, to lead.  The man in the picture above understood this.  He became a hero in service to his fellow man, both American and Afghan, in one of the fiercest battles of our current war.

The world awaits the willing heart.  Those who choose to work hard, to put in the long hours and the sleepless nights, they will be the ones whom later generations call blessed by “good fortune” or “fortuitous circumstances”.  The time is now, while you are young, to create your own fortune.  The time is now, while you are young, for extraordinary toil.

Thank You, America

Photo courtesy of Michael Ocampo @

Photo courtesy of Michael Ocampo @

I stood in front of my church today wearing a WWII paratrooper costume and dutifully stared at a camera for twenty minutes while nearly two thousand people cheered.

As I stood there I wondered to myself if they would still cheer if they really understood why I’ve spent the last nine years in the military.

I was not drafted.  I volunteered.  I volunteered knowing that there were conflicts raging in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I volunteered for the job that I thought would get me closest to the fighting.  I fervently hoped every day for years that the fighting would not end before I got a taste of it, that there would still be battles to fight and victories to win when my time came to wear the uniform.

Every year I hear people talk about the sacrifices military members make and the difficulties they endure and I feel a sense of guilt, as if I am taking credit for something which I have not actually experienced.  I went to war because I wanted to.  I saw combat because I deliberately put myself in a unit that I thought was likely to see action.  I was well paid, well equipped, and well trained.  I saw things that were terrible, it is true, but it was my choice to be there.  I wanted those experiences.  It was the reason I enlisted.

There are times when I want to tell people to please, stop cheering, don’t act like I’m a hero.  I wasn’t forced to do anything I’ve done.  I haven’t made any sacrifices.  You folks paid me to have the adventure of a lifetime, and now you treat me as though I am a victim.  I should be the one thanking you.

And so today, on this Veteran’s Day 2013, that is exactly what I am going to do.

Photo courtesy of DVIDSHUBS

Photo courtesy of DVIDSHUBS

Thank you, for providing me with the opportunity to prove my manhood.  Like many of my peers, I enlisted during a time of war because I wanted the chance to prove my mettle against a real enemy, a foe who legitimately was trying to do my harm.  To that end I was willing to endure endless nights, and an empty belly, and aching muscles, and the relentless heat of an Arab summer.  I was young, and foolish, and I wanted to prove myself a man.  You gave me that opportunity.

Photo courtesy of DVIDSHUBS

Photo courtesy of DVIDSHUBS

Thank you, for making me a leader.  When I first enlisted I had the conception, common in my generation, that anyone who wanted to be a leader just wanted to exploit and control other people.  Now, having led men in two theaters of combat, having graduated the world’s toughest leadership course, and having learned the vital importance of leadership in every field of human endeavor, I realize that I was wrong.  Leadership is what makes mobs into militaries, peoples into nations, and potential markets into businesses.  Leadership is what liberates the masses of humanity to do their greatest work.  And thanks to you, I have become a leader.

Photo courtesy of DVIDSHUBS

Photo courtesy of DVIDSHUBS

Thank you, for making me hard.  When I first joined, I did not know what real suffering was.  I did not understand hardship, did not deeply relate to pain.  Now I do.  Now I can look back on the things I endured in training and in combat and know that I am strong, that I am an overcomer.  Now I can remember the pain and tragedy of life in the war torn countries I fought in and feel real compassion, unalloyed by naked sentimentality, for those who are truly suffering.

Photo courtesy of llee_wu @

Photo courtesy of llee_wu @

Thank you, for giving me a chance to recreate myself when my time at war was done.  You did not have to pay for my undergraduate and graduate degrees, but you did.  My benefits were enhanced many-fold while I served, and since I left active duty I have used those benefits to the fullest.  I could have been left to fend for myself when my time at war was done, and it would have been a fair deal.  You didn’t owe me anything, but you chose to pay for my college anyway.  Thank you, for giving me a chance to become in peace what I was in war.

Photo courtesy of Bod Jagendorf @

Photo courtesy of Bod Jagendorf @

Thank you, for thanking me.  For despite everything I have written, I do appreciate that little children think men like me are heroes and that my pastor cares whether or not I end up in hell.  For you could have done otherwise; you could instead remember the lives I have taken, or that I fought out of a selfish desire to prove myself, and you could despise me for it.  Instead you choose to thank me, and for that I thank you.

Every year on Veteran’s and Memorial day I see these outpourings of love and respect for myself and my fellow trigger-pullers, and I feel in myself a return of the same sentiments.  Do you love and respect your servicemen and women for their service, America?  Then let me tell you that we love you in return.  For that reason, because you do not forget and you give us so much more than we deserve, you will never find yourself without a shield of willing young men and women to keep your flag free and your shores untrod by the invader’s boot.

God bless you, fellow citizens, and thank you.

4th BDE 25th ID Memorial.  This was created in remembrance of my Brigade's 2006-2007 deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  I has inscribed upon it the name of 54 of my fellow paratroopers.

4th BDE 25th ID Memorial. This was created in remembrance of my Brigade’s 2006-2007 deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I has inscribed upon it the name of 53 of my fellow paratroopers.  Each died nobly doing something that they had volunteered, of their own free will, to do.

Humble Yourself

Photo courtesy of Patrick Barry @

Photo courtesy of Patrick Barry @

“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”   – James 4:10 –

Leadership for a Christian must include a constant watchfulness.  Leadership, power, and the exercise thereof can have a powerful narcotic effect, numbing our hearts to the true source of our authority.  If it is true as Paul said that all human authority ultimately comes from God, then we as leaders must never allow ourselves to forget that we hold our positions as a sacred trust.  Only insofar as we humble ourselves before God and remember that everything we have and achieve is directly through him can we faithfully fulfill the trust that we have received.

Hope you have a restful Sunday.


Transforming Our Perspectives

I wrote a bit yesterday about challenging our perceptions of what leadership is and what it should look like in our own personal lives.  The same applies to the way we look at our followers and the people around us.  I have rarely seen a better illustration of this concept than that in the video above.  Remember, Leader, that what you see is only very rarely what you get.  If you don’t dig deeper, if you rely on appearances or “common knowledge”, you are setting yourself up for failure.