“Wait…you were his platoon leader?”
I’ve received this particular question probably about a hundred times over the last five years, and roughly 95% of the time, it’s followed by a particular look of recognition, doubt, and horror, all combined into one washing over the asker’s face. As I recall the details of the story, and explain all the caveats, for those who know me and understand how the Army works, they can see how the pieces fit and how it all makes sense.
But more often than not, when you drop “my first platoon sergeant murdered 16 people in the biggest war crime since Vietnam” in casual conversation, it tends to throw the uninitiated for a loop. It’s because the Army has a particular culture with regard to leadership. In its most basic form, a leader is responsible for everything the unit does, or fails to do. Army commanders at all levels are routinely relieved for the actions of subordinates, even when it’s almost impossible to see how they could have prevented their behavior.
So, as a brand-new lieutenant, given the awesome responsibility to lead a platoon of infantrymen in combat, it’s hard to overemphasize the stew of mixed emotions you feel when you get to watch the President of the United States apologize for the actions of one of your subordinates in-theater.
On March 13th, 2012, two nights after the attack, while we were under a total communications and operational blackout following the massacre, I sat in our Village Stability Platform (VSP) Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) tent, next to the random Afghan war hound we adopted on a dusty, blown out couch, and watched Barack Obama give this statement.
All I could think of at that time was: holy fuck. How did it come to this?
So first, let’s get back to how all this started.
The September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks happened during my first semester of high school. As a freshman, I can vividly remember watching the grainy night vision device footage of Army Rangers seizing Kandahar Airfield. I told the kid next to me in Geometry class “I think I wanna be one of those Rangers,” to which he looked at me (at the time I was nearly 6 feet tall and about 130 pounds soaking wet) and said “yeah fucking right, dude!”
My English teacher was reading a copy of Mark Bowden’s “Black Hawk Down” and encouraged me to read it if I wanted to know something about the Rangers. This was before the infamous Ridley Scott movie adaptation had come out, and as I tore through it in about a week, I knew that these were the guys I wanted to be a part of. I went to my parents and showed them the plan I had made to graduate high school in three years, and enlist in the Army to be Ranger. I would be 16 at the time of graduation, would need to wait a month, and once I turned 17, with their signature I would be on my way.
“Not no, but hell no,” was my dad’s reply. My dreams of being a death-dealing Ranger were stymied for the time being. Back to the drawing board.
I remembered learning about the Air Force Academy when I was about 10, and how it was a college you could go to and become a fighter pilot. I tried to find out if the Army had that, and sure enough, there was a place called West Point that would let you get an education, and pop you out the other end as an Officer, at which point you could go into the infantry and do whatever after that. That sounded good, so I crafted my high school years to build a resume to get accepted. I needed to be the captain of a varsity sports team, so I politicked my way into being the captain of the men’s volleyball team. I needed to be the president of a club, so I invented one. I needed to get good grades and ace the SAT, so I went from getting D’s to straight A’s and took the SAT’s 5 times to get the score I needed. After all that, I still wasn’t accepted and spent a year in the deserts of New Mexico spit shining shoes and brushing up on calculus.
By the time I was a freshman at West Point, it was late 2006 and early 2007, and Iraq was on fire. Seemingly every day at lunch, a booming voice over the loudspeakers would announce the death of another graduate, and a moment of silence would fall over all 4,000 of us in the mess hall. It looked like a war that was going to last for 30 years, so wanting to be useful, I chose to major in Arabic and set my sights on being in the infantry. If I was going to Iraq, I wanted to be with guys that volunteered fully knowing they would be in combat, and I wanted to be able to speak with the locals I would be forced to operate with.
For the entire four years at West Point, four months of the Infantry Officers Basic Course, and 61 days of Ranger School I imagined what it would finally be like to step in front of a platoon and lead it. It had been drummed into me since day one that your first platoon sergeant would be your advisor, mentor, trusted confidant, and best friend when the times got really tough. I was so anxious about meeting my first platoon sergeant, it almost had the feeling of an arranged marriage, but one that I was looking forward to.
When I got to my battalion, within an hour of walking up to the staff duty desk, the Battalion Commander told me I was going to get a platoon the next day. I met my Company Commander, who told me a platoon had just opened up, and that I would be getting the highest performing set of Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) squad leaders, and the most respected platoon sergeant in the battalion. I could not have been more excited.
The next morning in the Commander’s office, I was introduced to Staff Sergeant Bobby Bales. Expecting a barrel-chested freedom fighter like he was described, I was slightly thrown off when I was looking down at a guy that looked like he was old enough to be my dad. He was in his late 30’s, kind of short, appeared to be a little overweight, and had a goofy smile.
Whatever reservations I had about his physical capabilities were gone after the first morning of PT. He took the platoon on a 6-mile run (along his favorite run route at Fort Lewis, a path we would take many more times after this), and once we were done insisted to continue smoking them until everyone else in the brigade was off the PT field. Initially I thought he was doing it just to see if the PL would fall out, but no, that’s just how he was. He drove the platoon hard in everything, because that was his personality.
Bobby had a reputation in 2-3 Infantry that was unrivaled. He had been in the battalion since the first Iraq deployment, in 2003. He had done three Iraq tours in the same company, holding a combat leadership position the entire time, never rotating out for recruiting or drill sergeant duty. After serving as the Battalion Sniper Section Sergeant for a year, he came down to the line for his platoon sergeant time. He was a senior E6 (Staff Sergeant). By the time I came to the unit, he had been the platoon sergeant for a year and had not been picked up for promotion by the Sergeant First Class board, something that frustrated him.
Everyone in 2-3 knew and respected Bobby. He had the right combination of everything you would want in a solid NCO. He was tactically and technically proficient, an expert on marksmanship and MOUT from his years of deployments and sniper training. He was physically tough, leading the platoon every single day in PT, maxing his PT test every time, and grinding through old injuries he had sustained as a college football player and from just being a dude in his late 30s.
Where Bobby really shined though was in how much he cared about his subordinates. He really believed in the power of leadership, and was fully committed to their wellbeing on and off duty. He was 100% invested in their growth and their safety. I could not have been more pleased with my good fortune at receiving a high performing platoon sergeant and equally impressive squad leaders.
When we got word that were slated for a deployment, I was elated. I was going to do what I dreamed of doing, lead men in combat, with a stellar platoon sergeant. It was a dream come true.
To be continued in Part II: Bobby and me and a semester abroad