Monday, February 6, 2012

Breaking Track

During my time in Iraq I learned a couple of valuable lessons. One I will title "Breaking Track."  Breaking Track is what tankers do when they have to replace their tracks. Why bring this up?

For those of you that don't know, the Army (and all the armed services) is basically split in 2 groups, enlisted and officers. The enlisted is the "dirty hands" group.  They perform a lot of the activities in the military that some would consider "blue collar." The officer side is the "white collar" side. The thinkers and strategists. One side is not better than another, just different. And both sides are necessary.

During the deployment, I often would try to help my crews to do maintenance. The crews would grease bearings, clean weapons, check on fluid levels, etc. The reason I say "try" is that more often than not, I would grab a grease gun, a wrench, or a weapons cleaning kit and start working. If I was lucky I would be able to help for about 5 minutes. More often shorter, much shorter. The reason is that the soldiers of my platoon would come up to me, grab the tool I was using and say something along the lines of "Don't you have some paperwork to do?"

So, I would hand over the tool and (in the beginning) skulk away. Often I tried to sneak back into the area to help, only to get caught like a pup sticking his nose where it didn't belong. A tough lesson, since I wanted to show my men I knew how to get dirty and work, as well as the fact that since my life depended on the equipment, I wanted to make sure everything was okay. Instead, what my men got out of it was that I didn't trust them. That I needed to be there with them the entire time because I needed to ensure everything happened. Not the right message to send to your team.

Eventually I learned to let the men have the time to do the work, without "management" over their shoulder. I could make visits, I could offer suggestions, even inspect the final product; but I couldn't turn a wrench, and they definitely didn't want me there the entire time...

Until it came time to break track. The job is dirty, difficult, and very very time consuming. At that time it was any available hands to work (including me). You see, the tracks are under tension, so you need to take these massive clamps to take tension off the bolts, then you have to break the bolts (not easy when they've been in place for a hundred miles or so). Once the bolts are broken, you pull off the brackets, loosen the clamps, and then drive the tank off the tracks. Then the fun begins. You have to loosen individual bolts in order to replace the treds (if you aren't using a new track). As the treds are replaced, you need to look at each bracket, and either hammer them back into place, or replace them. Once all the repairs are made, you drive the tank back on the tracks, use the clamps to add the tension, then re-bracket and tighten the bolts. Average time per tank... 6-8 hours of really hard, back breaking work.

When it came time to break track, Unlike some other officers, who stood back and watched, staying clean and proper, I was right there with my men, swinging a sledge and torquing a wrench.

The guy with glasses is me, a very young me
 I was just as dirty as my men, and they learned that I didn't shirk from hard work. Any my platoon loved me for it.

So what is the lesson? Most times, you need to trust your team. Give them a mission/objective and then step back (or out) and let them do their job. You can check status and you can offer suggestions, but let them do the work. That shows trust in them, and they get a sense of pride in it. However, when the most difficult jobs/tasks/whatever happen, get in the mud and help. The team will respect you even more because you are there when the times are tough. They might even show their appreciation in weird ways that will make you smile for years to come.

My platoon showing their appreciation

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