“You don’t have the discipline to make it.”
Someone very important in my life told me, when I said that I was thinking about joining the Army in 2003.
It was not meant as an insult. It was just that from his perspective, I would not adapt to a stringent culture. Truth be told, I was not sure of myself either. Yet here I am, a newly promoted field-grade officer.
I climbed into a van on September 23, 2003 in Knoxville, TN. Lori and I exchanged glances through the windows as the van pulled away. I was leaving my bride and young son. The tears flowed as Knoxville faded. Leaving my family behind for the next several months was unthinkable. But Lori and I agreed that this would be the best thing for us in the long term.
I had enlisted as a 46-Romeo: Broadcast Producer weeks earlier. With a television background, this seemed the best opportunity for me to work in my field of expertise, during a time of mass layoffs across the industry. The plan was to serve for one enlistment, then use the experience to land a job in a newsroom. But for a leader who believed in me, I probably would not be in uniform today.
My first assignment was with the 14th Public Affairs Detachment at Fort Carson. The unit was set to deploy within weeks of my arrival. It was hard being the new guy in such a small unit. It had a very set culture. I was one of only two married soldiers… the only one with a child. In the first few months, my plan to get out after one enlistment solidified. It was becoming a challenging overseas tour. I turned down an $8,000 reenlistment bonus to extend my contract. Then a man named Scott Lang changed things for me.
Lang was Col. Lang then: my brigade commander. His headquarters support unit was also deployed to Kuwait. He found me in a chow line one afternoon and asked who I planned to sit with. Over the course of our lunch, he asked me about my plans for the future. He then very bluntly asked why I was wasting my time. I had a hard time imagining where that question was coming from. How does a Specialist answer that question from a Colonel who had seemed collegial moments earlier? What had I done? It turned out that he saw something in me that I did not. He further pressed on why I had not made an effort to become an officer. Grasping for something to say to such a senior leader, I asked “Sir, what do you look for in officers?” He responded with just one word: “you.”
My first encounter with a Major was at basic training. Our battalion executive officer at 1-34 Infantry Regiment “Leyte Dragons” exuded the demeanor of someone who preferred snake eggs for breakfast. The word from the drill sergeants was to steer clear of this steely warrior. I agreed.
As a new enlistee, Majors seemed so high above pretty much most of the population. I believed that there was no way I could ever rise to that level.
The best and worst leadership during my first assignment came from majors. I learned quickly the field-grade officers wield immense influence. The morale of us troops hinged on the demeanor of our nearest field-grade.
It was a major who taught me about crisis communication on my first tour. It quickly became a professional passion. Majors mentored me countless times as a captain. They taught me what operational planning looks like, and how to coordinate across joint-combined environments.
During my time on brigade staff, I heard the phrase “majors run the Army.” In time, I came to understand exactly what that meant over the course of six years on brigade and division-equivalent staffs.
Captains are tactical officers. They provide direct leadership. Majors do the behind-the-scenes work that keeps the machine going. They are expected to know everything, work longer than everyone and be the happiest about it. They shape the recommendations that ultimately become the policies directed by our senior commanders. Their reward for good work is harder work. They have to always be at the top of their game. A bad day is not an option.
It is tough to make the cut for this rank as a public affairs officer (PAO). Twenty-seven of my peers were separated from the 2007 public affairs year group when the Army downsized through the Officer Separation Board process. Among those who remained, the selection rate for Major was 59.1%, the lowest selection rate of any branch. Promotions are not something to take for granted as a PAO. It takes hard work. It takes passion.
I had some great leaders along the way. Retired and serving officers like Donald Reeves, Kelly Knitter and Tom Roth, Lt. Col. John Geis, Lt. Col. Alan Brown and Col. Shawn Reed… men like Brig. Gen. Matt McFarlane invested in me. There are many others who have poured into me over a 14-year career. Many of the Soldiers I have led also left their fingerprints on me and forgave my mistakes along the way. I will forever be grateful to the members of my staff at Headquarters Detachment, USARAK and the five men I served with in the Spartan Public Affairs Team. I wish they could have been there with me today as Lori and Brig. Gen. McFarlane replaced my shoulder-boards.
This is a time of celebration for us. I am the first field-grade officer in my lineage since the Revolutionary War. I am the first military officer period in the direct line of Spears that I am descended from. It also comes with a realization that the challenges will only become harder. More will be expected of my leadership abilities. I intend to prove worthy of the tasks to come.
My dad is the one who spoke those first words of doubt about whether I could make it as a Soldier. That was very unlike him. He was supportive of me in every other way throughout my life. This was the one area he doubted.
He was glad to be proven wrong, quickly becoming proud of what I was accomplishing as a soldier. He sort of re-lived his days as a trooper through my experiences. It renewed his pride in being a veteran.
I had to say “see you later” to dad last year, after an 18-month battle with cancer. I especially missed him today.
He was there at Fort Benning to pin my butter bars on in 2006.
He would be the proudest person on the planet right now to have been at the Pentagon today as his son became a major. I’m pretty sure he is aware and smiling from a distance.
About the Author:
Maj. Chase Spears is an Advanced Civil Schooling Fellow at Georgetown University.
Copyright 2017 Chase Spears All Rights Reserved