The Burden of Command

20120914-125426.jpgTwo weeks ago was the third anniversary of Pedro 66. Mike Flores, Ben White, and Joel Gentz are still gone but never forgotten. In the past weeks, as I anticipated the day, I reminisced about a couple things – doing a “backcountry” travel day with Flo and the guys up on Mt Lemmon in some truly awful snow conditions; Ben showing up at the 48th with a busted leg and me telling him to heal up because the unit needed him; and driving in to Shaw AFB the morning of June 9th, 2010, and hearing an NPR report about a helicopter shot down in Afghanistan.

But what’s been most on my mind is how something like Pedro 66 begins to fit into the narrative of my life and career. I’ve been in this business for 14 years now, and all my career I heard other officers talk about this thing called “the burden of command.” As it was explained to me, it meant all or some of the following:

– You’re the first to show up to work and the last to leave

– You’re the guy who takes the blame when things go bad, but get none of the credit when things go right

– A commander is aloof from his men and lives a solitary existence due to the distance required by professionalism

– It’s your tail on the line, so you do whatever it takes to protect your career

– The decisions you make could be the difference between life and death for your subordinates

To be fair, I’m in the Air Force, so that last bullet was always delivered in a fighter jock-specific fashion, and always received with a high level of skepticism. After all, the Air Force I joined in 1999 wasn’t doing anything dangerous but a few patrols over northern and southern Iraq. As a young officer, it seemed to me that this whole “burden” thing was more about sucking up extra office work.

Then came 9/11, and with it, a whole litany of experiences I could not have foreseen on 2 Jun 99, when I threw my cap in the air at the Thunderbirds overhead. I began to find myself on the ground, outside the wire, in strange places where someone might be inclined to kill me or my men. I was a leader, but never a commander, and it’s one thing to make a call that end your own life; it’s another thing altogether to stay behind and send your people to do something that might kill them all.

When I left the 48th in 2009, I had a talk with the men in the unit theater. Flo and Ben were definitely there. On the wall, to my left, was the Rescue Creed, and it ends with “These Things We Do, That Others May Live.” I reminded them of that last bit, which implies the possibility of a trade. Our lives for the lives of those in need. It’s not “Maybe we do these things, if it’s safe, not scary, and only if no one dies.” I wanted them to remember that last part, since the Air Force does a great job of reinforcing decisions made solely on CYA. But I’m not sure I fully grasped the whole idea. It is, after all, one thing to say, and another to do.

When Pedro 66 went down, my real education began. Obviously, they were not under my command, seeing as I was at a headquarters job and they were downrange. But the pain I felt when those men died was a reminder that this idea of sending men into a fight, this business of leading them; held consequences of a nature that must be felt to be understood. I was sobered. The Rescue Creed moved from a quote we used to shout when we were cold, wet, tired and hungry in training; to a sharp-edged reality resting in a cold light. That’s right, these things I will do. And the consequences will be mine to bear.

Last year, my education continued. While downrange, one of my men was wounded in action under my command. To the rest of the maneuver military, this might seem a “so what?” kind of deal. Happens all the time, right? But the rest of the maneuver military typically command their own; infantry officers command infantry, armor officers command armor, and special ops officers command their own operators. Due to our incredibly small footprint, Pararescuemen and Combat Rescue Officers have always worked for Rescue helicopter and Hercules pilots. Until a few years ago, no Combat Rescue Officer ever commanded a deployed squadron.

I’d sent out the men on a risky mission, a long ways away, to help Afghans hit by a suicide bomber. They were finally on their way home, two hours away still, when a call came on the radio from one of our helicopters that one of my men was a “Category A” or urgent surgical patient. No names, no further info. Let me tell you something. I’ve perched solo in some precarious spots across the globe. Hung it out there more than a few times on my own. But the loneliest place I’ve ever been was the seat I occupied for the next hour, agonizing over who it might be and what might happen.

Since that night, as my friend and team mate has undergone months painful surgery and rehabilitation, I feel like I finally understand the true burden of command. The true burden is the harsh reality that you, as a commander, are the end of the line. And not just for stupid, meaningless things like whether or not your troops are accomplishing yet another mandated web-training module or taking fitness tests on time. Their lives literally hang in your hands. The decisions you make might take the lives or limbs of those who look to your decisions. These things might happen on a successful mission, let alone what might happen on a poorly executed operation. And you need to understand that when bad things happen, you will carry that weight for a good long while.

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