Leading Our Soldiers after They Lose One of Their Own

Army, January 2008 | Go to article overview
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Leading Our Soldiers after They Lose One of Their Own


To: Junior Officers

From: Junior Officers

"Private Paton was killed by a sniper. Shot through the neck. He was a good kid and always had a smile on his face. He was very close to my Soldiers, and they took it real hard. My Soldiers were so angry and were asking me, 'Why are we helping these people? They are just shooting us and killing our friends. Why are we doing this?' I had to deal with my Soldiers being down-and-out-coming up to me and crying. I had never seen my soldiers crying before."

This leadership challenge was experienced by LT Matt Burch, a platoon leader in Iraq. Like so many other junior officers, he has led his Soldiers through the emotional aftermath of losing a comrade in war. We shared Mart's story with other combat-tested leaders and asked them, "What would you do?" Listen in as they share their insights with a desire to help others be more prepared for this type of leadership challenge.

Mike Dick

B and HHC/1-64 AR, 2/3 ID

This did happen to me. SGT Kelly S. Morris was one of my team leaders and was killed by a sniper who shot him through the vest above the plate with armor-piercing ammunition. SGT Morris died in the arms of his squad leader.

Some salient thoughts:

1. The unit needs to take time to grieve. We needed to pull back and talk it through, explaining that there are good people and bad people everywhere; for example, cops get shot in New York City, but it doesn't mean the whole city is terrible.

2. Give your men and yourself time and permission to grieve. I cried, and I did so at the memorial service in front of my troops. They did, too. The next day, we cinched up our chinstraps and drove on.

3. Units need to develop rituals to cope-memorial services, and other things. One of my squads sat down one night and carefully burned SGT Morris' bloodstained gear while they stood at attention. They then brought out a guitar and sang some of his favorite songs. It was their way of saying good-bye.

4. Leaders need to step up and help clean up the mess-literally and figuratively. Soldiers should not have to clean out their own bloodstained vehicles; instead, maintenance and medical personnel should take care of this, and unit leaders should assist. Leaders need to use a critical incident debrief team (with combat stress control and chaplain) to help the squad and platoon.

5. Commanders and first sergeants step up at these points and set the example-they grieve but carry on. Soldiers must know that their humanity is encouraged and respected, but at the same time, grief cannot be allowed to debilitate the unit.

Stacy Gervelis

3rd PLT, 272 MP CO

As a leader, you have to deal with this on numerous occasions, and not just when a Soldier is killed. However, the best thing to do is have the chaplain, the combat stress team and the counselors ready to talk to your platoon to deal with the crying and the emotions people have when a Soldier is killed. They are the experts and very helpful.

As a platoon leader, you need to sit down with your squad leaders and platoon sergeant and see what their feelings are and make sure they are on the same page as you when you talk to your platoon. Also, make sure they are not making comments like, "Why are we helping these people?" in front of the Soldiers. After talking to your NCOs, sit your entire platoon down and explain to them that the actions of one sniper do not reflect the sentiments of the entire country. Then go over the rules of engagement so they understand, and wrap up with letting the Soldiers know you have an open door and that the chaplain, combat stress team and others are always available.

It's very important to address these feelings before they get out of control and you have Soldiers shooting civilians. Do not ignore the side comments people make; they generally tell you what the true sentiments of the platoon are. Making sure your Soldiers distinguish the enemy from the civilians is an ongoing battle in a nonlinear battlefield.

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