In our first interview with CSM Mike Hall, one of the main takeaways I hope everyone realized is that no matter where you start or come from in life, as long as you work hard, give 100 percent effort, and make your focus improving those around you, your potential for success is limitless. Mentorship is important, but leading by example is really one of the stalwarts of getting those entrusted to your leadership to accomplish the mission, regardless of difficulty. Here we pick up our second interview with CSM Mike Hall, discussing his first assignment outside of the Ranger Battalion after over seven years in the Rangers.
How was your experience serving as a NCO TAC at the Citadel?
You know, I was really enjoying my time in 1st Battalion, had made SSG, had a really good lieutenant, good young NCOs, good young Rangers, and Stan Fox was the 1SG mentoring me. 1SG Fox had a great way of teaching you; if you had a question he would not just give you the answer, he would tell you how to get the answer and then you would come back and tell him what the answer was. So it was really a great learning experience and not just about being a NCO, but about life.
Then I was called up to BN HQ and was told they wanted me to go up to the Citadel and teach ROTC. Not so much anymore, but back then, ROTC slots were SF or Ranger slots and they were tied to units, but the good thing was when your rotation or tour was up, you went back to either your SF group or your Ranger battalion, so that was a nice benefit. It was not bad. It was in Charleston with just my wife and I; she was pregnant at the time, so I was getting a little break. Not having to be a part of the rigorous training schedule and the overall work load of a NCO in the Ranger BN while you are expecting your first child is probably a benefit you don’t realize until after the fact.
Were there any special influences or mentors while you were at the Citadel?
There was a guy named COL Bradin who was an 11th ACR guy, Vietnam veteran. He was very laid back, and I had never worked with or had regular interaction with senior officers before. He was really helpful with lots of things; I don’t recall one specific thing, but his advice and experience really helped shape me as I became a senior NCO. I don’t know if it was a requirement for the officers to complete a ROTC tour; many of them used it to get their next higher degree or take a little break. Doug Johnson, who I still stay in touch with, was a transportation officer and was Ranger qualified, and he did a really good job with the cadets. He had actually done a tour with combat arms, because back then many of the support officers did a stint in combat arms before they went off to focus on their specific career fields.
How were the cadets? I would imagine that because the Citadel is a military school, many of the students/cadets had a high motivation level and really wanted to learn.
Back then the Citadel was not a commission-producing school, and the percentage of guys that actually took a commission was around maybe 30 percent, I think. So a lot of the guys that went there were there just for a good education. I think that a very high percentage of the guys were motivated and the Citadel has a strong alumni base, which is always helpful when you move past college and start looking for a job. The Citadel also produced a number of great officers.
I think 3rd BN had a Citadel graduate as the BN commander back in the mid 1990s—General Ferriter. I saw him speak at a commissioning ceremony for one of the young men I helped mentor.
I think you are right. It is just so hard to remember all the commanders and officers over the years, but the Citadel is a good school and produced a number of really good leaders.
Let’s talk about task, condition, and standards. Where did that come from, and could you give some of the history behind it?
What I remember is KC Leuer brought that from Panama where he had started doing it and brought the concept with him to the 1st Ranger BN. I remember when I first got there; every squad and section had a 90mm ammo crate full of 5×8 cards with task, condition, and standards for just about everything you trained on. I don’t think it was initially a big Army thing; I believe that Wayne Downing took the concept with him to 2nd BN and then eventually it was picked up by the Infantry School and the Army. That is what I remember from the research I did.
The Infantry School first started rewriting the 350-1 and the subsequent additions in the mid-’80s. You know, platoon and squad manuals. They weren’t called ARTEPs back then. Those were directly from what the battalions were doing back then. Lt. General Tony Thomas, who was a captain in 3rd BN then, Ken Staus, me, and some others were pulled together to write those and then eventually they were sent over to the Infantry School.
That is really interesting because you would think that TRADOC, the Drill Sergeant School, or some other organization would be the place something like that would come from. There is probably a number of things the Ranger Regiment passed down to big Army, but I know much of what the regiment did in the past eventually worked its way through the Army and into permanent policy. So this was basically the grading standard for raids, ambushes, movement to contacts, etc.?
Yeah that is exactly what it was. Now it wasn’t as detailed as the old SQTs and I am sure that there was some detail added to it, but you know the original task, condition, and standards came from KC Leuer. Really just another thing that the BNs were doing as part of daily training that worked its way down through the Army and eventually became what we know as one of the Army stalwarts today.
That is not to say that others weren’t doing something similar, but those 90mm ammo crates went everywhere with you and they were perfect for when we went to the field. That type of uniformity and attention to detail was and is a constant for the Regiment.
What were some of the differences you noticed in 1/75 when you went back there in 1985?
The biggest awakening was the haircut; I was kind of aghast and wondering what was up with this extreme high and tight. Of course Regiment had formed while I was at the Citadel, and I think policy letter #1 that Gary Carpenter wrote was the haircut. Someone may contradict me, but I don’t think 1st BN had a written haircut policy like that; at least I had pictures of me without a high and tight.
So with the regiment forming, I guess RIP and ROP were in full swing?
They had moved it from the BNs up to Benning. I was a little taken aback because I was an SFC when I came back to 1st BN and they told me I had to go to this RIP thing. I think I said something like, “Wait a minute, I already had over seven years in BN, why do I have to go to this RIP or Beret certification thing?” Back then, Captain Mike Wages was the commandant; he was an old Vietnam veteran NCO who took a commission. Steve England was the 1SG.
As a matter of fact, Mike lives about 20 miles from me now. It did kind of bother me that I had to go through it because RIP was for everybody, and being an SFC I meant you were a senior NCO. Back then when you made the jump to senior NCO it was a fairly big deal. I had kind of been brought up with those guys and it was kind of annoying to have to put up with the same crap that privates were going through, but they were pretty accommodating. It was just different back then. New. I did all the physical things that were required, but they didn’t put me through all the stuff that the privates or others that didn’t have time in battalion were going through. Of course that stuff was important for a young Ranger because you had to prepare them for what they were going to experience when they got to one of the BNs.
There were some funny things too, because you had NCOs from all the battalions and they would teach a class saying “This is how it is going to be when you get to BN,” and I was like, “No, that is not how it is going to be.” Much of what they taught was accurate, and rang true, as what they teaching were SOPs, but it was just kind of funny or interesting back then. Most were 1st BN staff, since much of the regimental leadership was from 1st BN, which is probably why 1st BN had a little easier time assimilating into the Regiment.
It is funny that you talk about SOPs and what was taught in RIP. To this day, I still do many things that were taught to me in RIP. I am not sure it was an SOP, but I still tie my boots the way the RIP cadre taught me. What Ranger history did you write about in RIP?
I did not go through what the young/new soldiers in RIP were going through, so instead, 1SG England or Captain Wages came to me and mentioned they were working on this project to rewrite a bunch of Ranger history. So I took on that project. This worked out very well because I love history and I grew up in the battalion, so Ranger history was a big big deal. So I sat in the barracks reading and writing. That was my big project when I went through RIP.
Was the obstacle course behind the TAC shed set up when you had to go through RIP, and was it called the Downing Mile back then?
You know I am not sure. We did have an obstacle course/run at 1st Battalion; but it started out being called the Burma Mile or Merrill’s Mile. I can’t remember now. We had built one back at Ft. Stewart and then when we got to Hunter, we built one as well, but it was just not used as much because it wasn’t convenient. I think because so many of the instructors came from 1st BN, they built one right there on the hill behind where the old RIP was—the TAC office I believe? I just can’t remember if it was called the Downing Mile back in ’85. I know the one we first built back at Stewart was the Burma or Merrill Mile. Back then, the primary Ranger lineage was from Merrill’s Marauders, and SF still had the lineage and history of the WWII Ranger BNs. Interestingly, I think it was General Grange that pulled all history/lineage back in; I could be wrong but I am pretty sure it was Grange that made that happen
Can you talk about how you ended up as the B CO 3rd platoon sergeant?
I had 2nd platoon in A Company, and we really had a good group of NCOs—just a great group of soldiers. Anyway, I had a 1SG who I didn’t respect very much; now that doesn’t mean he was wrong, and quite frankly I probably carried myself in the wrong way at times too. It kind of goes back to the Citadel a little bit and when I was told it was my time to go for a while. I think I had gotten burned out and I was at the point where people couldn’t tell me anything.
You know back then it was unusual to have six or seven years in BN; the burn-out rate was just really high. So I think that the same thing was happening when I was A Company 2nd platoon sergeant. I had been there a while, was pretty successful, and had just started getting to that point again where I probably wasn’t as open as I should have been. As you probably remember, I always did things a little different and had a little different attitude about some things. I was never really into the BS and just doing things for the sake of doing them; kind of like we talked about with D&C, formation, and ceremonies.
So the 1SG was a little more old school and my tolerance for some of that stuff was not very high, and looking back I should have been more respectful because he was the 1SG and I could have probably learned some things from him as well. So there was an incident where I was accused of telling the BN CSM something and it wasn’t true. It never happened. Even Dave Dalton, who was the BN CSM at the time, said it wasn’t true, but it didn’t matter. The damage was done. By that time, the relationship between the 1SG and I was fractured and we couldn’t work together, so I went over to B Company 3rd platoon.
Basically, I was fired for all intents and purposes, but I can honestly say I brought it on myself by the way I carried myself and some of my body language, etc. I do regret it, but luckily I learned from it. It is really a good lesson because I think everyone gets to a comfort level or knowledge level in their position, and when that happens it is probably a good thing to move around in order to avoid that type of attitude. Who knows? It is probably why the Army has you PCS every four years or so.
You know, it is interesting how that all worked out. I believe I was in Ranger School when all that happened. It would have been the summer of ’87. When I came back, there was a buzz in the platoon, and really the whole demeanor of the platoon was different. All the guys I hung out with were excited and had a bit of a new motivation level. Kind of funny how our company area was literally right behind A Company and I don’t think anyone had any idea how that all came about. I think the general thought was, well we had (I believe) SSG Helton in the platoon sergeant position, and it is an E-7 slot, so they filled it with you. Any interesting stories about jumping into Panama?
I think one of the most interesting stories was when everyone in the entire chain of command for A Company dipped Copenhagen, and when the alert came down and we all realized that this was real, we started focusing on the really important things, like how we would get enough Copenhagen for the mission. The real concern was, “Man, we don’t have enough Copenhagen.”
The fire support officer was on early leave or something; he was accounted for but he didn’t come in when everyone else did. So my company commander, Mark Ritter, got in touch with him and was talking in code about making sure he bought a boatload of Copenhagen before he came in. It was kind of funny since all the phones were monitored and the old pay phones outside the barracks area had guards on them. Of course Patton, the fire support officer, didn’t have any idea what was going on. But here we are, prepping for this combat mission, and the biggest concern is making sure we had enough Copenhagen.
Another interesting thing: This was December in Savannah, and the weather was miserable. It was rainy, and we were doing our rehearsals in this cold and wet environment, yet we were going to jump into a hot and humid environment in Panama. Everyone was soaking wet, so I had the platoon sergeants make sure that everyone brought in an extra uniform. We had all our guys change into a nice dry uniform before we took off. Little things like that I probably learned from some of my mentors coming up. It probably made a small difference for the soldiers not having to sit on a bird for hours in a soaking wet, cold uniform.
Now, the jump into Panama and the intelligence we would get en-route was fairly interesting. I believe the drop zone was about 30 seconds or so and my group was on a C-141 with only about 60 guys or so. Meanwhile, the C-130s were packed, so I am sure those folks were pretty miserable. A company had the tail end of the DZ where we were supposed to take care of a few hangars and the Panamanian Air Force assets; I was the last guy on my bird so I was right next to the communications and got fairly good updates.
I believe B Company Commander Tom Maffey, who retired as a brigadier general, was right there as well, and he was getting updates too. So I went to sleep like most people do on a long flight and Tom woke me up and said, “Sergeant, they found the Quad 50.” I remember saying, “Well that’s good, sir. Where is it?” He said at the tail end of the drop zone. I responded with something like, “Well that’s nice. I am the last guy out of this aircraft.”
Tom came back with, “Well I thought you would like to know, there wasn’t anything we could do about it and you know the regimental attitude about things where it is whatever, we still have a mission to do.” It was one of those nice-to-know things, but the best part was we were told that the AC-130 couldn’t take it out because of other priority missions. I decided to let everyone know so I stood up and woke up everyone else on the aircraft. I told them that we found the Quad 50 at the tail end of the drop zone. I am pretty sure I said something to the effect of, “We are going to clear this aircraft in record speed.”
When the green light finally came on—like I said, it was about a 30-second drop zone—and I came out and looked around, I was over the fire station, which was about midway down the drop zone. So I guess my little motivational speech worked. I am sure there was just a little combat adrenaline flowing because we did clear the aircraft in 15 seconds or so, which would have been record speed. You know with all the ammo, really really heavy rucksacks, and the low altitude we jumped from, I am not really sure even the jump masters did much; I’m pretty sure static-line safety was not a priority, but we all got out and didn’t have any issues, so the jump and overall mission was a great success.
I remember back in the late ’80s when you were told you had to go to PLDC or any other NCOES, it almost felt like a punishment—the whole ego thing involved when thinking “What are we going to learn from those regular Army guys?” Even today when I talk to relatives that are in battalion, the same mindset is prevalent. What are some of your thoughts about Army NCOES and what it has done for the military in general and specifically NCOs?
You know, I was one of those guys for a while too. I went to BNCOC as a buck sergeant, which was unusual. Back then, most of the guys in BN thought the same thing: “What are those guys going to teach us?” NCOES wasn’t as closely tied to the promotion system as it is today, either. You know, though, looking back, as I became more senior, I think I realized that much of what made the Army a professional force and so successful was NCOES.
So now I am a huge believer in NCOES. Looking back now, it was not so much the classroom environment that made a huge impact, but again, it goes back to personal interaction. Often what is taken away from NCOES by NCOs are the daily details; you know, having a room inspection, buffing the floors, etc. is not what will make NCOs good at what they do or successful leaders. What I remember learning the most from was the interaction with the senior NCOs, whether they were class TACs or other NCOs in the class.
Back then, you had both mechanized and light infantry in the same ANCOC, and obviously being in the Rangers pretty much my whole career, there was very little I knew about mechanized infantry. We would help each other out throughout the class. I would also say that NCOES brought about another big jump in my maturity. I think that when you serve in elite units, you can develop the opinion that unless a soldier serves in an elite unit, they are not as good as you. The reality is there are a lot of great soldiers in all types of units and all types of MOSs. I think I really learned a lot about people in NCOES, and I took that with me the rest of my career.
When it came to the SGM Academy, I did the correspondence course and then the two-week residence phase. I can still remember carrying those little yellow books with me to the field; there must have been 200 of them. The funny thing is, I think I only kept eight of them. When you went out to the residence course, you would sit in class, and quite frankly, I am not really sure the material was very helpful. I think I learned the most important things when we took breaks and the SGM course proctors would go out to have a smoke and I would have a dip. We just sat there and talked, and since many of them had been SGMs for a while, they had a bunch of knowledge to speak about. You could really learn a lot about being a good CSM from those talks during the class breaks.
The way you are shaped is you have your self-development, your education, and then your operational experience. As I look back, what I really learned from was not only my operational experience, but the operational experience of those soldiers in my NCOES classes when we all sat around and talked about stuff. One thing I can’t emphasize enough is the importance of NCOES and the experiences that were shared from all the NCOs. I know they talked about shortening NCOES during the wars, and I was against that. You can go back and forth on what you should teach and how—believe me, there were a lot of things that probably had no value—but you can’t replace all that experience that gets shared and passed along. It really is just an extension of lessons learned. The education of the NCO has had a massive impact on the success of the Army, and you could tell that in the wars because you were asking young NCOs to do a lot of hard stuff and they were successful in getting it done.
Almost every NCO I know talks about how they are going to change stuff when they make it to the most senior levels of leadership. When you were the regimental CSM, what were two or three things you really wanted to focus on in order to improve or change things?
One thing that I found was, about the time you got good at the job you were doing, you were promoted or moved into another job. Something that I really wanted to do was take all the regimental SOPs and rewrite them all, but I wanted to have the squad leaders and platoon sergeants currently serving in those positions do it. What SOPs serve for really can be defined two ways for me. One is standing operating procedures—they served as an accumulation of lessons learned and to prevent people from making the same mistake twice—and the other is stupid operating procedures. Quite frankly, many of the SOPs were the latter.
To me, SOPs should be all about combat readiness; but some of them were written with a peacetime mentality in mind. Sure, you had to have the admin things, but in the Ranger Regiment, our job was to be ready for combat. We started a committee with squad leaders, platoon sergeants, and some first sergeants, depending on their experience level and the subject. So we rewrote all the tactical SOPs, battle drills, the classified stuff, and the admin stuff as well. They were rewritten with the team and squad in mind, because if the team and squad can get their job done, then usually everything else falls into place. The goal had to be to give the squad leader the power to get things done, and if they were written by the soldiers doing that job, then again, things would fall into place. Of course you had to have and give senior military leader judgement, but the overall focus was with the squad leader in mind. That was really one of my main goals when I became the regimental CSM.
Did you get much pushback from some of the senior leaders in the regiment when this was going on?
No, not really a bunch. General’s Leszczynski, McChrystal, and Keen, my regimental commanders, were really supportive. One thing I think they and most other good commanders understand is what the NCO brings to the table; they truly understand why NCOs exist. There was a little resistance from some of the staff because they thought that the SOPS were just fine, and there was a little resistance from some CSMs mainly because you were grabbing people that were subject matter experts and there was probably a little concern in losing their best people from training events.
My thought was that we had to have the best leaders doing this project so that we made sure we got the best product, and if that meant that a team leader had to step up in the absence of a solid squad leader, then so be it. That is what much of the regiment is all about: having the next guy step up. As long as that squad leader did his job, then the Alpha team leader would be ready for the squad live fire you might have coming up. I just made the point that this project was vitally important because it was going to have an effect on the whole regiment, and if history was any lesson, then it could quite possibly have an impact on the whole Army.
I will also say that this project was not about Mike Hall, this was about creating changes to the way the regiment did their business. The soldier at the squad and team level was most likely the best person to help bring that change because they were the ones accomplishing the missions. Many other organizations adopted these SOPs, equipment, etc. and the legacy of this is really a credit to the regiment. This was because the changes were made by the right people at the right time—a big part of what I think the Abrams Charter was about when the Rangers were reformed.
We also took a great deal of time on the Ranger Standards, and we made sure that things made sense. Sometimes units can fall prey to doing things like task, condition, and standard just because that is what it says to do. One of the things we tried to do was look back one or two generations, back in the manuals, to see what people before us were doing. Although the way wars are fought might change, what likely won’t are the fundamentals. One of the things you had to do was separate tactics from fundamentals.
When we did research, we found that, although how you might set an ambush in certain types of terrain is different, the actual fundamentals of the ambush were the same. It was important for everyone to know and understand the fundamentals. This is where you get back to the importance of the first-line leader and making sure they understood the tactics, had the ability to make changes to a tactic, but most importantly, they understood the fundamentals so they could make the correct changes or decisions whether they are based on enemy, terrain, or whatever. Keeping in mind that the squad leaders you are asking to do this often have to do it in high-stress situations where lives could be lost.
To me, the most important thing you get out of training is training leaders, teaching them to react to the situation that is present, how they make that decision, and to ask if they are following basic fundamentals with the decisions they make. Even when we set up all these as close to real training objectives as possible and we run through them for days, odds are you aren’t going to see that exact objective for real. You may see something close, but when the target is for real, everyone knows things will just happen.
That is the key value you want to get out of your training, to have your first-line leaders have the ability to think quickly and make a tactical decision based on what is in front of them at the time, but to do it using the fundamentals that should be drilled into everyone from the newest private to the most experienced NCO. When you look back at how Ranger Regiment missions were planned and rehearsed, every soldier going on that mission knew what the end-state goal was. The purpose of this was to ensure that regardless of what happened, the mission could be accomplished. I think that is probably one of the things that separates most other military units from a unit like the Ranger Regiment.
Thank you again for sharing so much of your time for these interviews, Mike. As a fellow history buff, I really find the past of the Ranger battalions fascinating.