This week’s post is a guest blog by former Navy Lieutenant James Zumwalt served two tours as Commander of a Navy EOD Combat Expeditionary Support (CES) Platoon and Special Operations Force (SOF) Platoon during Operation Iraqi Freedom. After separating from the Navy, he served as a Congressional staffer on Capitol Hill and now resides in Navarre Beach, Florida, with his wife Katie. Please sign up for MilitaryMentors today if you have not done so just yet… what’s holding you back?!?
Years after I hung up the uniform–as our beer mugs clinked with those of former teammates at my wedding reception in New Orleans–my Senior Chief uttered these words to me. Shakespeare was right, we are a happy few.
War brings out the worst in mankind; and the best. As a Navy EOD Technician who served alongside the latter in Iraq–and hamstrung by a word limit on caring for others–that’s the most fitting summary I can muster. Combat drains the soul, so leadership requires emotional intelligence to take care of those in your charge while keeping the team on track, especially when controversy and politics rear their ugly heads. Thankfully, this aspect of leadership is uncomplicated. As war’s fog grew thick, the unencumbered focus of our energies was the removal of ordnance and death in a corner of the world long jaded by both. Amid the noise and haste of combat and a divided public back home, that’s all we had to worry about–the job, and each other. If a simple guy like me can lead giants of men while completing the daunting missions asked of us, clearly the basics work. Our phrase on those eight-man and four-man teams was ‘us against the world’, because that’s exactly what it was.
I despise clichés as much as the reader, and we’ve all been bombarded by them since our careers began. But ‘mission first, sailors always’ is unavoidably undeniable. With real reflection and honest assessment, these four words summarize the deeper notion that those in our charge would rather follow us into hell not for lawful orders, but for those ties that bind us happy and lucky few.
They try to teach us about it, but leadership exists beyond the rules driven home in our Academies. Sure, give displays of letting them eat first because that’s what the schools told us to do. But if you aren’t unconsciously willing to trade your life for theirs in a nanosecond, they are sure to see through the BS. In full disclosure Navy EOD is run by its NCOs, but they took care of me as a junior officer because they understood and knew the respect was mutual, the way it is when equals with different ranks go to war. That directly contributed to our success on the battlefield and helped me obtain the technical proficiency needed to be not just a junior officer, but a true Navy EOD Tech. In turn, they helped me become a better leader, which led to the care of each individual and accomplishment of the mission in an unpopular war.
I challenge the reader to understand a leader will always work for those in his charge, not the other way around. More importantly, this sacred responsibility to them never ends. Whether they’re in uniform, have moved on as veterans trying to find their way in the confusing chapter that follows military service, or are already in Valhalla they are and always will be ours. That is the eternal honor of leadership; a concept which frustratingly seems too evasive amongst today’s leadership. Frankly, it should be the easiest part of it all.
As we stumbled through the French Quarter during that wedding weekend, with the banter back and forth between us and my new bride getting her shots in too, I thought about the experiences and amazing feats that lovable group of knuckle-draggers shared during some dark times in Iraq. Some are still in, some have moved on, but as we navigate our post-war lives it truly will continue to be us against the world, together. A team’s success is as simple as that.