Tuesday, May 28, 2013

After Memorial Day - Helping and Hiring Veterans Who Are Still With Us: A Warrior Profile

Many of us spent the weekend reflecting on the memory of the men and women who have served our nation in the military and who did not return home alive or whole.  I attended a very moving service at Harvard's Memorial Chapel hosted by the Harvard Veterans' organization.  Col. Everett Spain led us through a litany of Harvard men and women who have paid the ultimate price for freedom - from the Revolution to Operations Enduring Freedom  and Iraqi Freedom.  Across the nation, parades were held, speeches were given, wreathes were laid and flags were flown.  It was altogether fitting and proper that we should do so in their memory.

Now that the Memorial Day weekend has passed, it is time to turn our attention to the veterans who remain with us, many of whom are struggling to find the right place to serve and to work when their time of service as active duty military has come to an end.  I am working closely with a large number of men and women in this category.  I will use this space in The White Rhino Chronicle from time to time to draw your attention to specific veterans, and in doing so, ask you to work with me in exploring opportunities for these men and women to find their next place of service in the private sector, social sector or government service.

Today, I pleased to make you aware of a gifted U.S. Army veteran who is transitioning out of the Army and into the Private Sector.  I have asked Colonel Dowd to tell part of his story, so that readers of The White Rhino Chronicle might begin to grasp his unique qualities that could easily be translated into a leadership role in a business.

I asked Colonel Dowd to select several stories that describe leadership challenges he has faced during his Army career.  I am pleased to share those stories with you today.

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Fort Rucker Training Battalion

I commanded a helicopter training battalion at Fort Rucker, Alabama from 2003 to 2005.  During that time, we flew more helicopter hours than any battalion in the Army and, for the vast majority of our operations, flew safely and effectively.   We did, however, endure a challenging four-month period during the summer of 2004.  At this time, were well into the Global War on Terror (GWOT) and the Army had been forced to change some of its assignment policies.  Normally, I would have a cadre of instructor pilots (IPs) for whom this was a third or fourth assignment, having thoroughly honed their skills in the field.  It was important to have senior, experienced IPs because a new flight training regimen called for students to conduct the bulk of their training in large, complex combat aircraft rather than in small, simple trainers.  This put a premium on instructor experience since he or she would fly “single pilot” with raw recruits.  In 2004, because of the new assignment policy, we began to receive IPs for whom Fort Rucker was only their second assignment, their first being combat in theater.  This created two problems:  first, the new IPs were inexperienced and second, they were used to the frenetic, harried pace of combat in which everything has to be done extremely quickly.  This resulted in a spate of accidents, most minor, but three of which resulted in significant damage (but thankfully, none in deaths).  As the leader I had to develop a way to cope with an inexperienced cadre while at the same time maintain the demanding pace of training, training that had to be of particularly high quality since many of the graduating students were going directly to combat.  My staff and I developed several approaches.

The first step was to make a concerted effort to convince the new pilots that their new environment did not require the urgency that their recent combat experiences had demanded.  I personally met with each of my pilots on a regular basis to assure them that, though it was important to use our time wisely and move our students through training as efficiently as possible, timeliness did not have the “life or death” nature that it did when they were, for example, conducting medevac missions or airlifting supplies into a battle.  If training got behind, no lives were at risk, no missions would fail.  Driving this home took repeated and constant coaching.

Second, I decided to forego training my own set of students for a time and instead begin a “quality control” program during which I would ride in the back of randomly selected training flights.  This was a bit of a sacrifice for me as I found that I enjoyed teaching young men and women the science and art of flight. (In fact, over the course of my career I found that, a bit to my surprise, the thing that came to me most naturally and for which I earned the most positive feedback was teaching.  I returned to the United States Military Academy to teach in the mid-1990s and then taught senior officers at the Air War College, as discussed below.)  The purpose of these rides was to coach my pilots directly, encouraging them to slow down and reduce the risks they had been taking.  My intent was not to look over their shoulders to critique every aspect of their instruction, but instead to help them set a focused, measured pace.  Obviously, I was not able to accompany every flight, but the knowledge that I was out there among them, encouraging them to resist the temptation to rush to meet every timeline associated with the flight training, seem to make a difference.

Finally, while coaching and quality checks were good, what my IPs really needed was additional training.  However, there were no funds or aircraft allotted for training IPs beyond the generic instructor pilot they received.  This training was designed mainly to prepare IPs to instruct aviators in the field, which was in some ways much different from training students at Fort Rucker.   In the field, they would work with experienced aviators to hone their existing skills, while at Fort Rucker they instruct brand new students who know nothing about flying.  My IPs needed specific training tailored for the unique challenges presented by Fort Rucker training.

My requests for additional training time for my inexperienced IPs were turned down.  There was simply  no additional funds for allowing this.  We developed an innovative approach, taking  time and funds “out of hide” to develop a “green platoon” or training organization through which all first-time IPs would progress before being allow to train students.  This required careful planning, a thorough review of available resources, close coordination with maintenance personnel, and a readjustment of student-to-instructor ratios throughout the battalion.  In the end, we were able to carve out a first-class training organization that gave my IPs the additional training they required.

These measures were effective.  The battalion’s safety record improved quickly and dramatically.  The Army often fails to quickly adapt to changed circumstances, institutional inertia and bureaucracy encouraging a reliance on the “tried and true”.  This was a good example of bucking that trend, as my staff and I were able to quickly develop an effective solution to a significant problem by circumventing normal channels and being imaginative with the resources was had at hand.


After attendance at the Air War College, I knew that would be sent to either Afghanistan or Iraq.  One of the positions that interested me was “Advisor, Minister of Defense, Afghanistan” and I volunteered to fill it.  I prepared by taking the Air War College’s Arabic elective (I knew that Farsi was a better choice, but the closest the AWC had was Arabic) and I also studied Farsi through the Rosetta Stone program.  I spoke to many who had served in Afghanistan and developed a long list of books and websites to study in preparation for this deployment.

Upon arrival in country in June 2008, I traveled from Bagram Air Force Base to a base in a Kabul suburb, arriving in the dead of night after an hour-long, surreal trip through the Afghan countryside.   Every aspect of my initial experience in Afghanistan was disorienting:  the terrain, the language, the extreme heat (117 degrees was the high that day), the food, the odors, and so on.  But my discomfiture was just beginning.  I soon discovered that the position I thought I was going to fill had long been occupied.   Instead, I was going to a position that had been vacant for some time, even when other qualified Colonels had arrived in theater.   I soon discovered why. 

My new job was to be the primary advisor to the Chief of the Afghan General Staff and their only four-star general.  While my US two-star general boss was in theory his advisor, I was to have daily contact the Afghan general, communicating the US general's advice and recommendations to him.  A Tajik in a largely Pashtun Afghan government, the Afghan general’s incumbency in this highly visible position acted as a counter-balance to the powerful Pashtun Defense Minister.  My Afghan general was the quintessential Mujahidin:  a protege to the famous Massoud, the "Lion of Pansjir", he had fought the Soviets and the Taliban with cunning and charisma.  He had a reputation as a superb tactician, knowing the men and terrain of Northern Afghanistan like no other. He was bold, aggressive, dynamic, a guerrilla fighter without equal.  His men adored him and his leaders trusted him. 

Unfortunately, he was wholly unsuited for his position.  He had no education beyond some high school, no formal military training, no travel beyond Afghanistan, and no experience with large organizations.  As the Chief of Staff of the Afghan Army, he was expected to build, train, and lead into combat a force that had more than 100,000 soldiers and airmen (the Afghan Army Air Force was also his responsibility) and that cost the NATO allies billions of dollars.  He was a superb small unit leader but had none of the management or grand strategy skills that would be required.  He had resisted the counsel of his previous advisors to empower subordinates, develop and publish a coherent schedule of his activities, develop long-range plans and communicate them to his leaders, develop and stick to budgets, instill and monitor supply accountability, assign manageable tasks with reasonable and feasible timetables and then hold subordinates accountable for achieving them, and so on.  These all flew in the face of his instincts and experience.  Empowered subordinates might turn on him, long range plans make no sense in a world where getting through the winter was the main order of business, published schedules could be compromised, and clear communications left no room for necessary obfuscations.  In fact, the Afghan Chief of Staff came to see his US advisors mainly as a source of special favors, such as landscaping for the defense ministry grounds and a private gym for VIPs, and not as a source of wisdom for how to run a large and growing Army.   My two-star US general, also relatively new to his position, decided that he was going to change this.  And this was the reason that the position of the Afghan Chief of Staff’s advisor had remained vacant: those arriving before me had maneuvered away from what was likely to be an impossible job.  It was left to me to fill the only position left vacant at the end of the annual summer turnover.

My boss told me of his plan to “turn the Afghans around.”  He wanted me to turn aside unnecessary requests and, at the right moment, aggressively push on my Afghan the reforms necessary to succeed in a position of such responsibility.  He instructed me to, for the first two months or so, make myself part of the Afghan inner circle.  I was to travel with him wherever he went and by whatever conveyance he used, whether it be by battered pickup truck or ancient Russian aircraft.  I was to dress as he did, moving about without all the normal US protective gear.  I was to learn his language.  In the end, I was to earn his trust and confidence.   These I did and more.   I traveled with him to the “roof of the world”, a pasturing area for nomads in an extremely remote area on the Chinese border where I must have been the only American within 500 miles.  I helicoptered with him into an outpost under besiege by Taliban as he flew in to rally the troops, encouraging them to hang on until reinforcements arrived.  I rode with him on the dangerous “Ring Road”, joining him in braving IEDs in unprotected vehicles.  I picked up Farsi, achieving a 200-word vocabulary that was growing daily.  I worked hard to earn his trust by living the way his staff lived, taking the same risks and enduring the same conditions.  But I failed to win my Afghan general’s trust.   There were several reasons for this. 

I was markedly different from my predecessor.   He had been a short, instinctive, aggressive, vocal Marine officer who had been an infantryman and a combat veteran.  The Afghan general was able to relate him in ways that he could not with me,  a tall, thoughtful, relatively quiet Aviator who had not before seen combat.  The Marine had also delivered for the Afghan general, obtaining funds for landscaping improvements to the ministry’s grounds.  In accord with my boss’s orders, I was not aggressively pursuing approval for his requests, which now included laundry facilities and a VIP gym.   Then, when I began to share with him our thoughts on how he might improve his inept, corrupt staff that was failing to help him execute his unbelievably heavy responsibilities, I could see that he became increasingly uncomfortable with me.  Crisis came when, while en route to a NATO conference on allied strategy in Afghanistan, my boss tried to communicate the strong sense that major changes in his staff’s operations were required.  He countered by stating that the problem was actually with his US advisor—me!—and that he thought it best that I be replaced.  This stunned us both, but turned out to be a very clever and effective gambit.  The Afghans are nothing if not survivors.  Though my boss initially resisted this blatant deflection, he was forced to make it by his boss, the NATO four-star general, when the Afghan four-star appealed to him directly.  

Why would I include such an episode in this narrative?  While it appears on the surface to be an episode of failure, it represented one of the most important and useful experiences of my life.  It has made me a better person and a better leader.  To this point, though no “water-walker”, I had never before come close to failing in an Army assignment. Before, no matter how difficult the circumstances, I had always succeeded, always accomplished my mission, and certainly never been fired.  This was a humbling and traumatic experience that, in the end, taught me some good life lessons.  Coping with this difficult experience taught me perseverance and resilience.  It drove home Kipling’s famous verse that reminds us that we should  “… meet with Triumph and Disaster; And treat those two impostors just the same.”  I leaned on my faith that had long taught me that things are not always fair in an unfair, fallen world.  It also made me more tender towards subordinates who struggled; perhaps in the past I had been hard on those in difficulty, jumping to the conclusion that success inevitably results from good honest effort. Taking the sting out of this episode, my boss gave me one of the finest efficiency reports I have received.  While he was forced to remove me, he believed that I had done extremely well in an impossible position.   He saw my commitment, effort and drive.  He confided in me that it has been, in retrospect, an impossible situation and that he knew that others had shied away from tackling this difficult assignment.  In the end, though a painful chapter in my military career, it made me a better man and Soldier.

Air War College Faculty

After returning from Afghanistan, the Army assigned me to the Air Force’s Air War College (AWC) at Maxwell Air Force Base.  I was assigned as a member of the faculty and taught a variety of subjects, including leadership and grand strategy.  During this two-year assignment I had several challenging and rewarding experiences.

Having recently returned from Afghanistan, I was regarded as the resident “subject matter expert” on the conflict there.  At first, this surprised me.  Surely at this respected educational institution there would be academics with expertise in this area or at least other service members who had recent, relevant experience.  It turned out the civilian faculty members had no Afghanistan expertise or experience whatsoever and, though the Air Force did have officers on the faculty who had recently been to Afghanistan, their jobs had not given them daily, close-up experience with the situation on the ground there.  So I become the de facto expert.  This brought with it some interesting challenges.  When our grand strategy course got to the modern era, we needed someone to present a two-hour lecture on the history, politics and culture of Afghanistan and the NATO strategy there.  That duty fell to me.  I researched, wrote, and rehearsed this high-profile presentation for several weeks.  Given that I was an inexperienced instructor and lacked some of the lofty academic bona fides possessed by my colleagues, I was concerned about how my lecture would be received.  By all accounts it was a tremendous success, as evidenced by the immediate reaction, the written peer and student reviews, and perhaps more importantly by the fact that this lecture came to be in great demand.  In the next six months I was asked to present it to a church group, a trade group, an AWC alumni group, and at a 50th anniversary reunion where the guests of honor included Vietnam War POWs. 

Based partially on the success of this lecture, I was asked to spearhead the Air War College’s inaugural Grand Strategy Program, a seminar of hand-picked officers who would pursue a more in-depth and rigorous exploration of the history, development, and application of Grand Strategy.   The AWC is organized into small 10-12 person seminars that work together through a standard AWC curriculum.  Over the past few years there had developed a demand among some students, many of whom had already earned advanced degrees, for a more demanding, more flexible course curriculum.  A civilian professor and I worked together to produce a pilot program loosely based on Yale’s famous Grand Strategy Program.  We developed a challenging reading list, recruited professors willing to provide instruction above and beyond their normal course loads, invited a series of interesting guest speakers, and required the students to produce a series of much more demanding and extensively researched essays.  The inaugural AWC Grand Strategy Seminar was a huge success, based on feedback from participating professors, AWC administration and the students themselves.

Also while at the AWC, I led two Regional and Cultural Studies (RCS) groups overseas.  The RCS portion of the AWC curriculum requires small groups of students to study a particular region of the world to better understand its culture, economy, politics and defense circumstances for six weeks.  Then, after this period of study, the group would travel to the region for two weeks to study the subject first-hand.  These trips can be particularly challenging since each group must arrange its own travel, lodging, and itinerary.  This is not a big deal in some of the so-called “tame” regions such as West Europe or South America, but can be quite daunting in such areas as my choice of West Africa, where grinding poverty and a lack of development present perhaps the most complex challenges of all RCS trips.  On my first trip we visited Ghana and Sierra Leone.  On the second, we visited Liberia, French Guinea, and Sierra Leone.  The obstacles we overcame there were extreme weather conditions, exotic illnesses, complex travel arrangements including UN helicopter, ferry, overland convoy, small propeller plane, and privately owned skiffs for hire.  These trips were designed to produce groups of senior officers who better understand the intricate and subtle folds of the political and cultural terrains of these regions and who have the confidence and savvy to cope with the challenges posed by some of these areas.  It was extremely satisfying for me to guide these students as overcome all the obstacles they faced.  

I include this story because, as noted above, it turned out I am pretty good at teaching.  Though I do not necessarily relish public speaking, I find that can face this challenge and succeed.   Many of the students I taught at the AWC had been working at the tactical level for the first fifteen or so years of their careers.  They had been working so hard and pursuing excellence so vigorously that they did not have the time to consider the big picture.  I enjoyed tracing the arc of some important theme through history, helping the students to understand how seemingly disparate events and historical figures interacted and the mistakes military minds make in mistaking tactical battlefield success for victory in war.  Forgetting that success in war is the exertion of the will on the enemy, not necessarily capturing this or that landmark and not producing a certain number of casualties.

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I am grateful to Colonel Dowd for his service to our nation.  I am also struck by his extraordinary moral courage in being willing to do the right thing even at the risk of his own advancement.  If you know of a company that could use this kind of passion, integrity, decisiveness, flexibility, creativity and energy, please contact me so that I can put that company in touch with Colonel Dowd.  He would prefer to keep his family living in the Southeast U.S., but will consider other appropriate leadership opportunities.

Contact me at: achase47@gmail.com

Al Chase