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An Award for Leadership

Updated: Jul 22, 2021

Here’s another post from CPT Roland Pitts, an Army Adjutant General (AG) officer, who’s previous post entitled “Navigating Through the Course of Mentorship” remains one of our most viewed posts. Here he reflects on his time as a Battalion S1 and the all-too-controversial arena of the military awards systems. You may find an interesting perspective about how to view your own views of how you are awarded and reward others as a leader after this conversation is over…

As a Battalion S1, I have processed hundreds of awards and various types from impact awards, Permanent Change of Station (PCS) and retirement ranging from Army Achievement Medals (AAM) to Legions Of Merit (LOM). Awards are typically earned through valor, significant contribution to an extensive operation, or at the end of a tour of duty. Generally speaking, when a Soldier PCS’s, based upon their rank or position they typically believe they are due a particular type of award. For example, a Company Commander (usually an Army CPT) must receive a Meritorious Service Medal (MSM) after they pass the Guidon. But, I’d like to challenge this thought through a question – is this indeed the best award they can achieve/receive?

It was a Tuesday afternoon in the middle of summer in 2018. I was sitting in my office sorting through emails when an NCO came into the S1 shop with a look of confliction and frustration asking for me. Typically I would have my NCOIC deal with the issue, but I knew why he was here. His PCS MSM was downgraded to an Army Commendation Medial (ARCOM), and he wanted answers. Something they don’t tell you in the AG Captains’ Career Course is you also become an ad hoc therapist upon graduation. I took a deep breath to clear my mind then waved him over and asked him to have a seat…

He was quite upset. He ranted and raved about how he deserved a higher award. Periodically spitting dip in his bottle and flailing around his downgraded award recommendation form (DA 638), he proceeded to list all his accomplishments and accolades. He vented for nearly 10 minutes. I listened and waited until he was finished and his heavy breathing returned to normal. I told him I understood his frustration, but that I also would like to ask a few follow-on questions. He agreed.

I asked, “Would you rather have received the MSM or retained the respect and admiration from your Soldiers for years to come?”

“The Soldiers of course!” he replied.

Calmly I told him, “Well, I can attest that you’re a valued member in this Battalion. Everyone I know who mentions your name has nothing but good things to say about you. So yeah, maybe you didn’t get the MSM this time. But you earned something far greater than that award – the respect of your peers, subordinates, and seniors alike.”

In a look of bewilderment and acceptance, he muttered, “Hmm. I guess that makes sense Sir. I still think I deserve more, but my guys took care of me, so that is important.”

He left the office feeling better, though slightly disappointed. I tell this short story because we have a unique opportunity that most Americans do not have. We have the privilege to lead Soldiers. When they wake up in the morning, put on their uniform and head to a formation, America’s best are looking to us for answers. As Charlie Chaplin once famously reminded us, soldier are not machines. Our Soldiers are just like us and feel the same emotions we do. They laugh and cry, become angered at things or people, fall in love and experience heartbreak. The fascinating thing about this is your words can resonate with them and become emblazoned in their mind for years to come.

Indeed, awards are outstanding. Napoleon once quipped that “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” I am not advocating to get rid of them nor am I diminishing their value. What I am asking you to think about are the lives you impact before the award. The Soldiers you lead and the contribution you give will outlast some new ribbon. So consider the previous thoughts and story before you burst into your local S1 shop to vent.

I believe everyone who is reading this can reflect on a leader who said something or did something which truly resonated with you. Maybe it was your Battalion Commander who after hearing about your pending divorce gave you a few days off and recommended his marriage counselor because family is important. Or perhaps it was your Company Commander who got out of his warm vehicle and stood in the blistering cold to help load up a shed because the job’s not done and the temperature is unforgiving.

So yeah, maybe you didn’t get the award you wanted and you thought you deserved it. But receiving a Facebook message from a former Solider merely saying, “thank you for believing in me” is, in my opinion, the best reward you can ever hope to earn – the truth is, we aren’t in Napoleon’s military, are we?

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