Last month I completed what was only my fifth annual training period in my twelve years of service in the National Guard. It’s a figure surprising even to myself, until I remember that those other seven years were blanked out by deployments or Army schools, such that I now have over three years of active federal service. For being a “weekend warrior,” I sure have put in a lot of time.
This AT was optional too, but in my new role as a warrant officer, I felt like I had to step up get integrated with the section and the unit. Plus, the S-6 actual was unable to attend AT, meaning that without me, the section wouldn’t have an officer. That meant that my role would be to serve as the S-6 – a job normally held by a major – and I would be walking into the mission essentially cold, having participated not at all in the planning or preparation for the event. It also meant that I would be taking the one role that I explicitly cited as a reason not to become a commissioned officer as my first job as a warrant officer. Talk about karmic re-balancing…
I was nervous in the days leading up to AT, which was to be expected when taking on a new job, especially a management position. But there was an additional layer of apprehension, brought on by my long months of warrant officer training. You see, for many months my head had been filled with incredible volumes of propaganda about the special nature of warrant officers, our special role in the Army, and our transition to become more like conventional commissioned officers. After hour upon hour of bombardment by instructors and senior warrants, even the most cynical old troop couldn’t help but buy into the myth. But would I live up to it? After all, I don’t drink coffee and I can hardly grow a mustache.
But in addition to the warrant officer career college’s psychological warfare campaign, the soldiers of the Army at large subscribe to and perpetuate the mystique of the warrant officer, a collective idea of the all-knowing and omni-competent chief who has been everywhere and done everything. This aura of respectability has its advantages, certainly, but it also makes for a heavy burden of expectations. Additionally, unlike new second lieutenants, who are expected to be cute like babies and just as helpless, new warrant officers are assumed to be fully-formed and fully-functional, despite mainly having skills in filling out forms and stenciling shirts.
At any rate, nerves or not, I arrived on Fort McCoy in fine spirits, though we were immediately whisked to the
forward operating base base camp, where we would live in a simulated deployed environment for fifteen days, in the fictional nation of Atropia. The rest of my team was already on the ground, having arrived early in as part of the mysteriously-named group known in the Army as “ADVON” (which is allegedly a conjunction of “advanced echelon,” though this is borderline nonsensical and nobody knows it anyway). In true commo section fashion, they had been busting their asses all week laying the groundwork for our unit, so I was fortunate to step into a machine that was already humming along nicely.
During the next two weeks, I worked perhaps harder than in any other two week period of my Army career. The fascinating part is, though, is that I can’t tell you exactly what I did. As a member of the staff, I attended a lot of meetings, wrote a lot of emails, responded to a lot of questions, posed many more. I ran interference for the team, I gave orders, took orders, I briefed the commander, I promoted synergy. But every time something was broken, I had to look on helplessly – “go fix that, I have to go to a meeting” – and thus I was harried by the suspicion that I was getting over somehow, not pulling my weight in our epic struggle for the Atropian people. Of course, that wasn’t true; somebody has to do staff work, and the NCO in charge had to do NCO stuff, so it was up to me to do all the talking and PowerPoint-ing and note-taking.
It was also a period marked by two firsts: it was the first time that I was undoubtedly, unequivocally the boss (rather than informally or by delegation). It was also the first time that the majority of my work (the vast majority – 95% or more) was non-technical in nature.
Maybe this is a feeling that surprises no one but me, but it was a fascinating and liberating experience to be where the buck stops in my sphere of influence, to be the ultimate decision-maker for my area of responsibility. That’s not to say I was any kind of a big honcho on the ground; even within the scope of the exercise, I was barely an errant blot of toner on the massive org chart, so buried under layers of command were we. But when the executive officer (XO) came to me with a question about commo stuff, or asked for a decision about the same, I didn’t have to consult with anyone, or ask for approval. What I said, went – for better or worse. When the commander asked for the S-6’s input on something, that meant me, not my boss or my boss’ boss. It didn’t mean that I had all the answers, or that I made the right decision all the time, but it did mean that I could hardly bitch about our course, because it had been my words that had set us upon that course.
This did mean that almost all of my work was non-technical, thus invalidating a large part of the propaganda campaign about warrant officers being technical experts. The first few days found me struggling with this transition, sometimes literally laying my hands on a piece of equipment before stepping away and handing it to someone else. I must away – PowerPoint calls! Though, it eventually became a nice change from my usual posture of being elbow-deep in computers for days at a time, responsible for every stray keystroke and strand of wire and misplaced file slung by the entire unit.
Maybe the succinct description of my role at AT – and going onward, my career at large – is that of an entropy reducer. I try to make order out of chaos, to make harmonious the frenzied actions of those around me, and to reduce wasted effort. A futile effort, perhaps; and Sisyphean in nature anyhow considering the impending heat death of the universe, but if anyone can stop the second law of thermodynamics, it’s a warrant officer.
(I’m sending that one in to the warrant officer career college for inclusion in the WOCS curriculum.)