If “Time in Battalion” were the measure of who won the game of life then CSM Michael T. Hall would have won in a route. CSM Hall served over 21 years of his 32 year Army career in the 75th Ranger Regiment serving in every possible leadership position; including 4 years as the Regimental CSM. When you add up his time as the JSOC and USASOC CSM, Mike served over 28 years in the Special Operations community and was the longest serving USASOC CSM in its’ history. So the next time you have the argument with a fellow ranger about “Time in Battalion” or “Back when it was hard”, look around and make sure Mike Hall is not in the room.
It is often said that good CSMs must be able to remember everything and everyone. I don’t know if this is true or accurate; but I can tell you that in 2002 while he was walking through the C-JSOTF in Afghanistan Mike walked right up to me and asked how I was doing. Sure this may not be difficult if you serve with a Soldier throughout your military career; but after not seeing someone for over 13 years that is an impressive feat. CSM Hall was gracious enough to sit down and give me an interview that lasted over 3 hours. We talked about his life as a Ranger, leadership, the history of the Regiment and how Special Operations has changed over the last 3 decades. This is part 1 of that interview.
Thank you for the opportunity to do this interview and congratulations on your induction into the Ranger Hall of Fame (RHOF); is this something that you expected or was it a surprise at the time?
I knew I was nominated and received a call from Joe Mattison I think you know Joe and then a call came from the Ranger Regiment, so I am not really sure who did the nomination packet; I think it was the Regiment though. The RHOF had been mentioned and you kind of knew it would happen, just not when; I really did not follow it and then it just happened.
Did you expect to go in with General McChrystal, General Abizaid and I think there were a few other guys from your peer group?
I expected to go in with General McChrystal a bunch people had talked about that quite frankly, so going into the RHOF with him was expected. General Abizaid I was not expecting to go in with, really wasn’t sure when he retired or was eligible, he was one of those guys you figured was already in.
I think you mentioned in another interview that you have always been big on ceremonies, formal promotion events and the like; how was the ceremony and what were some the things going through your mind as the events unfolded at Ft. Benning?
I don’t remember saying that I ever liked being in formations, I never have been a ceremony or formation guy. Well that was a joke you actually said the complete opposite of that in several interviews; which was nice because most Soldiers I know never liked standing in formations and it is nice to know that some senior leaders actually thought about the Soldiers standing in formation out in the hot summer sun in the South.
Yea I have never been a formation guy. When I became a company First Sergeant in A Company 1/75 we had 3 or 4 company formations a day and the first thing I did was change that to 1 a day; if we had 3 a week I was happy. You know how it is when you are coming up if you have a company formation then the platoon has to be there early, the squad has to be there early and so on. Growing up the only person that said anything that really mattered to you or that quite frankly ever interacted with you was your team leader or squad leader.
One of the things about ceremonies is your standing there and listening to someone speak and you are wondering well who is this really for, not to mention if you have a ceremony you practice this and you practice that and end up spending hours doing something that could be accomplished with 1 or 2 rehearsals; especially in the Rangers you could do it once and when the time came for the event you knew they would get it right. You just don’t need to torture people, just tell them what the standard is and they will get it right.
On a personal note late in my career right around my retirement someone came to me and mentioned everyone knows you and that you are not into the big events, I get it. They said “this is not really for you but for the people in your career and life that want to recognize you and those that helped you along the way in your career”. You do really have to be conscious of others and realize they are standing out there. I think with the RHOF John Abizad went first then General Arnold and they have the same sort of feeling when it comes to ceremonies so they started it off right and it progressed from there. You always get nervous when someone walks up and pulls out a stack of notes and that did not really happen at the RHOF.
Tell us a little bit about your upbringing and life before the Army, I found that really interesting?
I grew up pretty much on welfare or assistance most of my life, just had a pretty crazy family life. My father left when I was very young maybe 3 or 4 and I never had any contact with him; wouldn’t even know him if he walked up and stood behind me on a bus. Never stayed in touch or had any contact with that side of the family. Then when I was about 5 or 6 my mom married a man named David Williams and he became my step dad. He was a welder, a very talented man, smart and he was a great athlete in school. He did have a few problems though he was a womanizer and had a drinking problem. We grew up pretty poor but really did not know it; kind of like when you hear a person talk about how they grew up and they just do not remember it being that bad. Did I go to bed hungry probably, I don’t know. There were a few instances when you realized where you stood in the social culture but it wasn’t something you thought about; you just never missed what you didn’t have and I never noticed anything until maybe high school. You would go to a friend’s house and kind of be like wow that is pretty neat; but it was something you just never thought about. You know there are some people that remember everything about their childhood and can recall everything; I have just never been like that. There were a couple of coaches here and there that had an effect on my life; I just don’t have a strong recollection of a lot of the events young in my life. Don’t know if that is just all the concussions or probable concussions, 35 years of jumping out of planes or just your mind not wanting to remember the painful things. You now if your mind could truly duplicate the pain of doing say a 35 mile road march you would probably never do it again. Instead I think you do something painful or live something painful your mind kind of has a way of saying you know that was really not that bad; maybe that is a personality trait of Soldiers who serve in Special Operations. They just have the ability to minimalize or forget something that is painful and that is how they keep being able to do those things again and again. I am not a doctor or anything but that is kind of my theory.
Well I would imagine being a CSM as long as you were and the units that you lead having the ability to figure out what makes people tick or getting the best out of them is a major key for success?
Yea especially with the military you meet such a diverse group of people it really broadens your experience and you definitely learn from the Soldiers and people you interact with. You really need to have an ability to read people and realize that so many people do different things in order to get where they are. You really learn from those around you, how they react in situations etc. I don’t think anyone tells you hey write that in the book you just learn it along the way. So much in business and even the military today they talk about getting a formal mentor which is important; but really many of the important things you learn are just in your daily interaction with people, life experiences and how they react in situations and even more so in high stress situations.
How did you decide on the Army instead of the other services?
It is interesting because I actually wanted to be a Marine grunt that is all I ever wanted to be. I had an uncle on my step father’s side of the family who was a Marine in WWII and he would get drunk and tell some of his stories so that kind of stuck with me and I think that a lot of the movies from WWII were about Marines and they kind of sensationalized the war. They also had a nice uniform so I guess those are the kinds of things that stuck out when I was younger about the service. I actually went to the recruiter’s office and talked to the Marines, just wanted to go in and do my time then get out, I had actually signed up for the Marines. So leaving you know all the recruiting stations were all right next to each other and you had to walk by the other recruiting offices. There was an Army Major siting outside in his khakis smoking a cigarette; probably trolling for recruits. The Army had started trying to transition to a professional service, I think the draft had ended and the Army was really pushing the message of join do your time, then get out and use the skills you learned to get a good job or go to college. Like a lot of things the government does they have a good plan; but not such a good plan for implementation. Thinking back now it was almost like they were recruiting against themselves since they were telling you to join up and be a professional Soldier; but just come in and do a short stint. Thinking back I also think that it was hard to transition from an Army built by the draft to a volunteer force because if you wanted a professional Army you couldn’t pay someone who enlisted the same amount that you paid someone who was drafted. So you know the Vietnam War had ended the Army was not real popular, people weren’t proud to be in the Army, I had uncles that had been in the service but they wouldn’t tell people they had served; so it was probably real tough to find folks that wanted to be professional Soldiers.
So this Major starts talking to me saying “so you want to be a Marine, we’ll let tell you what is better than being a Marine and that is an Army Ranger”. This was 1975 and no one really knew much about the Rangers. He showed me a couple of videos of Soldiers jumping out of airplanes which I think was actually the 82nd. He said you know when you jump of an airplane you get this piece of chalk and when you jump out of the airplane you take this piece of chalk and you swipe it across the tail of the airplane; which is funny because when I was in airborne school I was thinking that if you are not careful you could really lose your head. He also showed me another video which I think was Ranger School, I believe that back then Ranger School was actually an enlistment option. So he showed me these videos and basically I said sign me up; I wasn’t a lot different back then than I am today where I just made my decision and moved on. It did work out in the end but just not the way he told me, I had actually signed up to be an Infantryman in the 24th Infantry Division; I don’t think he lied to me as much as he just didn’t know and I probably heard what I wanted to hear. You know back then it was so different since in many cases you could just walk across post and tell someone you wanted to join their unit and a phone call was made and it was done. Even when I got to Battalion it wasn’t uncommon for the Sergeant to tell someone to go find a job and they would go to different units on post until they found a job. There was just a lot less paperwork involved back then
So you weren’t assigned to 1st Ranger Battalion out of Basic/AIT?
No not at all, people were going to Airborne School and I was like hey I am supposed to go to Airborne School. The chain of command I think tried to help, but I didn’t go to airborne school and I was disappointed but kind of like I mentioned about growing up you just didn’t know what you were missing so you didn’t think about it. I ended up at the repo depot at Fort Stewart and a couple of 1SGs and some other NCOs showed up and said they were looking for volunteers for the Rangers, so a couple of us went outside and talked to them. Once we told them we were interested we went right into the 5 event PT test, back then you did PT in your fatigues, there was no preparation you just knocked out the PT test and after that we went over to the 1st Battalion area.
I started out in HQ Company since I still had not been to Airborne School and spent about a month there before I went off to Airborne School, then was assigned to A Company when I came back from Airborne School.
Was there a RIP or any type of selection process back then?
No I think RIP started around 1978. In that time period they broke up weapons platoon into the line companies and they made an anti-tank section, mortar section and a recon section, so they had extra Lieutenants, my Lieutenant a guy name LT. Parrish he was the first Commandant of RIP which was still at Ft. Stewart and then when we moved to HAAF in 1979 they got their own barracks and training area; but there was no RIP when I got to 1st Battalion. Actually until I became a little more senior we did not know much about what was going on with RIP; you were just kind of in your platoon and did not pay much attention to the other things going on. Sort of like I talked about your team leaders and squad leaders were the guys that told you everything and were where all your interaction was back then.
We always hear how hard it was back in the day; so what was serving in A Company 1st Battalion Rangers as it was called back then like as a PVT? In the 1970s, what was a typical training week?
You know the living conditions were definitely different; but we were lucky back then they were re-activating the 24th ID and they were living in Quonset huts. We had a brick building with 2 man rooms but we had 6 people in them. The rooms were so tight that you couldn’t open your wall lockers at the same time. Everything you owned civilian wise had to go in 2 cardboard boxes that were about 18 inches deep by 24 inches wide by about 36 inches long and if you got deployed they probably just shipped it to your home. I think there was only 1 guy that was married in our whole platoon and that was platoon leader. There were no stereos or TVs, some guys had transistor radios but that was about it. Everybody went and did everything together whether it was chow or going out drinking or whatever; you just spent all your time with your platoon or squad buddies.
A typical training week was on Sunday night or Monday morning you did sustained Airborne training and jumped into Ft. Stewart, I think there were about 7 or 8 drop zones on Ft. Stewart back then. So you would jump in and do raids, recons and ambushes etc. sometimes with blanks; not a lot of live fires back then and wherever you ended up was where you walked back from and whatever time of the day it was, was when you did it. Sometimes that would be at night and sometimes that would be in the middle of the day; time of day or distance didn’t really matter when you were done you walked back. It is interesting because I don’t remember a lot of heat casualties back then, they might have happened but I don’t remember them. You weren’t allowed to drink water on your movements back then. Your team leader or squad leader would tell you not to drink water because your canteen would make a sloshing sound and the snipers would get you. I really became a believer in water discipline back then and it’s probably where I get my belief in water discipline today.
PT back then was a lot of running. Platoon PT was really tough back then mainly because we had a really tall PL who could run like the wind; squad PT wasn’t bad, but platoon PT was tough. Company PT was pretty tough too when 1SG ran all the enlisted. Back then we had Julius Gates as the 1SG and he was a strong runner; he would run until about 75% of the Rangers had fallen out and then he would run in place or do gorilla drills till everyone caught up. Battalion PT wasn’t bad unless Wayne Downing ran it, he was the S-3 back then I think. When General Downing ran BN PT it was real rough. I think Wayne started doing the Ranger Creed at BN PT, they would call you up by position with no warning; something like rifleman A Company 3rd platoon 2nd squad and you better get it right or there would be a price for you and your squad, yea Wayne Downing was the one that really pushed the Ranger Creed at BN PT.
So no Zonks back then?
No I am not really sure when zonks started. Banner day back then was vicious goodness gracious it was a real physical event. It was a lot of officer versus enlisted, so the officers had to be real careful. You didn’t want to hurt them, but you know, everything was combat this and combat that. The fire department would come out and soak the field for push ball and that ball wouldn’t move for a while and then all of the sudden it would roll over a bunch of people. The medics didn’t do banner day because they were too busy taking care of the injured, yea it was just real physical and like anything it would always escalate.
I remember reading that back in the day you had to have combat experience to get into the Ranger Battalion or be a squad leader and that the E-5 board was an all-day event with a PT test, a road march, weapons assembly etc., is that accurate or was that just ranger lore.
Yea that is pretty accurate. One thing you have to remember is everything you thought was the ranger standard was a lot of times just your squad, your platoon or maybe your company standard; even the haircut standard. When I was the RSM I can remember arguing with Hugh Roberts a 1SG in 2nd Battalion about changing the haircut you know from the high and tight. Hugh was adamant about you can’t change tradition and I said “no it wasn’t really like that”. So we went over to the 2nd BN HQ area and there were all these pictures of previous Commander’s and CSMs where no one had a high and tight, but they all had 2nd BN scrolls on there right sleeve. So a lot of times in your squad there was a standard but that didn’t really make it the BN standard.
I do remember in 1st BN the E-5 board was either an all-day event or a 2 day event, it kind of went through phases. There was a PT test, a foot march, I remember that they would take every weapon that BN had apart and then dump them out and you had to re-assemble them, you had to conduct Drill and Ceremony, the board was a real long board, so yea it was definitely an event. I think originally most of the NCOs had combat experience; the Vietnam War had not really been over that long, probably the same for the Captains. Most of the Lieutenants and obviously privates didn’t have combat experience since they hadn’t been in the Army long enough. I don’t know if that policy was dictated or not though.
Now that I think about it a little more you had to go to a company board to make PFC with the platoon SGTs and 1SG. This was right at the time that Ranger School was moving from a point system where you started out with a certain number of points, 1000 points I think and in order to graduate you had to have like 700 points or something like that. So you could go to Ranger School, finish and graduate but not get your tab, you would just get a certificate. Ranger School was more of a leadership school for those either already in leadership positions or those going into a leadership position, so most of the people who went where either NCOs or Officers. When the BNs came back I think they started letting privates go; but back then Ranger School wasn’t the end all be all. Again your world in BN was your squad, your platoon and your company. When I went to Ranger School I think you reported on a Friday I think, so that Thursday I was called in by my squad leader and he said Hall we got 2 slots; a Ranger School slot and a HALO slot which one do you want. Since I knew I would get promoted I took the Ranger School slot. Then it was basically there is a bus leaving tomorrow morning and you would be off to Ranger School. Going or not going to Ranger School was just not the big deal back then that it is today.
I do remember specifically that we did have combat arms SGTs that were not Ranger Qualified; but then again Vietnam had not ended that long ago and like I said all we cared about was the Scroll, that was what was important to everyone there.
You know the other thing back then, there was really no specialty platoons. If you needed a recon squad for something you were doing then you just took an NCO and some Rangers to form up a recon element. We also worked a lot closer with Special Forces back then as well. We had some similar missions back then like going in early and setting up an area; so we did work with Special Forces much more back then than we do today and that was before the 18 series MOS as well. People would actually go back and forth from the Ranger BN to Special Forces and vice versa quite frequently back then as well. I think that a lot of that stopped once Special Forces set up their own career field.
Were there any specific leaders or general things about serving in 1/75 early in your career that stayed with you as you progressed through your Army career?
Yea the first guy was a guy named Mike Brooks he was a country guy and interestingly he was not a combat veteran and a guy named Steve Rondeau who was also not a combat veteran. There was also a guy named Bishop who was a combat veteran and very decorated, he was our platoon SGT.
You know everyone has a different experience but there were no goofy games, coming into BN the reception was fantastic. Mike Brooks sat me down and told me what the standard was and the expectation; which was nice because growing up I did not have a father. I did have some father figures in my uncles, but to get to BN and have a guy sit down with you and go over all that was expected that made an impact. His leadership style was not to scream and yell, it was kind of a quiet leadership where you wanted to do the right thing not only because it was the standard but because you didn’t want to let your team or squad mates down. You know Mike Brooks just treated people right; the way you wanted to be treated. I can remember writing home that night to my mom and I told her I felt like I just met my 9 or 10 best friends.
To give you an example after we did the counseling and reception he put an envelope on my bed with my mom’s address and a stamp and said “ok you have to write mom, you know she is going to be worried” and here was this NCO who already knew where I lived my address etc. and I could give you a ton of examples like that of the things SGT Brooks did. Remember this is the time frame before computers and all that so if you think about it he had to go and do some work to get that info and have that ready. At the time I really did not think much about it; but that kind of leadership and taking care of Soldiers really stuck with me.
Another thing I think I took away was you can’t force or tell people to do the truly hard things in life that you want them to do; you have to get them to want to do it. I think Mike Brooks understood that and if he wanted me to respect him he had to earn my respect; you know there were just so many examples I could tell you that Mike Brooks did where you went WOW. Earning the respect of your Soldiers or the people you lead is really a lesson I took away from Mike and that you had to keep peoples respect as a leader. I think that is really a life lesson. I think that kind of leadership wasn’t something that you read in a book or a manual. You didn’t fall out of a run or make a dumb decision because you didn’t want to disappoint Mike Brooks; when you were on a road march or movement you didn’t have to tell people to switch out equipment it was just expected because that was what SGT Brooks wanted. Working for SGT Brooks people just did what was right because it was right, not because they were told what was right. To me when you have that kind of leadership or relationship with your peers or subordinates then you are really going to accomplish positive things.
It is interesting that you mention quiet leadership or the quiet way, because when so many people, myself included look back on our time in BN you think about the loud and aggressive leadership that was so prevalent there. You were different because in the year or so you were our Platoon SGT I don’t remember you ever yelling or just crushing someone. I used to think man SFC Hall never gets mad.
Yea it is interesting the different types of personalities that each company took on. I remember from the day I walked in hearing B Company was the Gestapo company, they were just crazy. You know even at Ft. Stewart A Company and HHC were in one area and there was B & C Company on the other side of the grass and you would look over there and think man things are crazy over there. A Company was always considered the more laid back company and it kind of goes back to you only know what you know in your squad, platoon or company. If you look back at Ranger history and some of the guys who helped mold the Regiment, A Company had a bunch of them; especially 1SGs, guys like Art Cobb and SMA Gates.
You know coming up I really never had the long vision of staying in, I was always getting out and then I would re-enlist. I just wanted to do my job and when I did start thinking about a career and things my only goal was to be a rifle company 1SG in 1st Ranger BN. I never had any idea of being a Sergeant Major and that was in part because of the 1SGs. Guys like Julius Gates, he was a fantastic leader; he could yell at you without raising his voice. I think when I became a 1SG I took those examples with me and maybe even took them a little farther.
I would call people by their 1st name and that would really take them aback. You know I think it was Stan Fox who taught me that and he might have had the most influence on me as a 1SG since he was the 1SG when I became a Platoon Sergeant. Yea Stan Fox was another NCO that was a great leader. When I get on Facebook or email now and you hear from some old friends from back then they will say; I can still remember the first time you called me by my first name. I think people appreciate that and have the thought that wow the 1SG knows my first name; it helped people feel like they belonged I think. These were really the concepts and leadership ideas that Stan Fox and Mike Brooks kind of put in place when I was coming up or just becoming a senior leader.
You know I think we have reached the time you had allotted today. If it is good for you we can stop right here and pick back up with the next interview. Again I really appreciate you sharing this Ranger history and your time.