Sunday, March 29, 2009

Lesson of my stars

Me, graduating as a CC platoon sergeant with my USMAPS Dean's List and Commandant's List stars (pinned over the MI crest).

Last thing first: the moral of the story is "trust but verify".

Long story short: those two stars represent arguably (with my double A-grade performance in Beast Barracks) the zenith of my Army career. In Starship Troopers OCS pips fashion, I gave my stars to a private whom I believed was on her way to USMAPS. I wanted her to wear them and then return them to me when she was finished with them and, presumably, enroute to West Point. Since USMAPS is in Fort Monmouth, NJ and I was going home to New York City, and I thought she would be entering the following year's USMAPS class (or the next one after that at the latest), I believed I was going to see her and my stars again soon. Instead, I haven't seen my stars again, and as far as I know, she never attended USMAPS nor West Point. I don't know whether she ever applied.

The long story: when I was stationed at the K and close to my ETS, a new soldier - Barrera (she of the Annette Funicello eyes) - arrived in the unit. Supply. She was young, having joined the Army out of high school. Serious. Confident. Squared away. Studious. Goal-oriented. Reserved. She seemed the sort of soldier who meant to take advantage of the rich educational and developmental opportunities of the Army. Not all soldiers do, especially at a lax duty station like the K, which was not an environment that encouraged focus and sharpened ambition. Quite the opposite. I dubbed the K the 'devil's little playpen' due to the shenanigans that regularly took place there. While it was a good unit to ETS from for a specialist already looking past the Army to his next step as a civilian, I felt sorry for the privates for whom the K was their first duty station. I believed, and still do, that the hardships and high standards of my 1st unit were cornerstones for my subsequent success as a soldier. Unlike Camp Casey, the K worked to distract and corrupt privates and, if they weren't careful, set them up for failure down the line. The K was especially risky for an attractive young female soldier like Barrera who was away from home and family for the first time in her life.

In short, I believed Barrera had potential, but also there was a danger she would be set back by her surroundings. Moreover, I strongly believed in the Army ethos that the professional development of junior soldiers was a leadership responsibility. I had watched other soldiers succumb to the K. Earlier in my tour, I had even experienced one of my own soldiers falling into the trap; like Barrera, my troop was young, female, fresh out of AIT, and eager to achieve. But she became pregnant by a married sergeant in the unit and was sent home early. Barrera seemed more cautious than my soldier, but I had my doubts about how long her reserve would shield her in that place.

Therefore, in one of my last meaningful acts as a soldier, I took it upon myself to help Barrera set her sights on something better than the K: I recruited her to my alma mater of sorts, USMAPS. Just before I left Korea, I gave her my Dean's List and Commandant's List stars as a symbol of my belief she had the right stuff and would succeed as a cadet candidate.

In hindsight, I can't recall the evidence that Barrera was committed to applying to USMAPS. And, no matter that she seemed to have the right stuff, it's not as though I checked Barrera's background to discover for truth whether she did, in fact, have sufficient credentials for West Point; just because I was accepted to USMAPS unexpectedly doesn't mean I should have underestimated West Point's admission standards. The key point is I left the K believing she would make it to USMAPS, if not USMA, and I would hear from her again. I planned to provide her local support, if she wanted it, while she was at USMAPS. Whether she succeeded or failed there, was admitted directly to West Point, or even if she decided not to go through with it, I expected her to return my stars to me.

Barrera didn't arrive at USMAPS the next year nor the year after. I mailed her a letter, care of Supply, mentioning my stars. I didn't hear back from her. I even called West Point, which handles both USMA and USMAPS admissions, to check. Nothing.

Over the years, since it has become apparent that Barrera did not go to USMAPS and I will not be getting my stars back, I've reflected upon the episode. What's the moral of the story?

A. Is the lesson that I lost my stars over a quixotic delusion? Did I merely impose a role on Barrera in a paternalistic fantasy that had little-to-no basis in reality? Did I convince myself I was the hero in a tale of personal failure set right through a promising protege who, with my guidance, would succeed where I failed? Perhaps I was acting out a self-spun myth of my own influence and impact on things. Looking back, why did I believe Barrera was headed to USMAPS? Did she tell me she was going to do it? Did she fill out an application? Did she speak to the CO (who was himself a USMAPS and USMA grad) about it? I think she may have spoken to him, but I don't remember for sure. In the fantasy scenario, I'm guilty of projecting my fantasy onto Barrera, whereupon she would have been confused about why I was giving her the two pin-on stars (which were no part of the enlisted uniform) and perhaps unknowing of the expectations I attached to them. She wouldn't have valued the stars as I did and wouldn't have known to return them to me. The self-recriminations of the fantasy scenario dovetail neatly with the self-recriminations from my Traci experience of the same period. I learned painfully that Traci and I weren't on the same page; from there, it's easy to believe I missed the mark as badly with another young woman, Barrera.

Or B., is the lesson that I hurt myself by being foolish and careless with valuable personal property? After all, why trust her with my stars at all? I barely knew Barrera. Why give anyone possession of something important to me and with no obvious value to anyone else? Someone who soon would be out of touch, literally on the other side of the world. They were my stars. I earned them. They should have stayed with me, period; right?

For a long time, I thought the answer was A., B., or A. & B.. Today, I decided the answer is C., or the correct lesson from my lost stars is "trust but verify".

I believe any tangible evidence that Barrera would apply to USMAPS was, in fact, weak. But at that time, there couldn't have been stronger evidence: I wasn't at the K long enough after her arrival for there to be more and it was far too soon for Barrera to do much in the way of applying for the next USMAPS class. We did talk about USMAPS and I believe Barrera expressed affirmative interest, at least as much as there could have been from a young soldier newly arrived at her 1st duty station in Korea and just introduced to the radical notion of becoming a USMAPS cadet candidate over a year later. I think our company commander was warm to the idea as well, but I disremember what if anything he did about it while I was still there. Did he counsel Barrera on it? I don't recall.

Realistically, even if every indicator was positive at the time, it would have been premature to conclude Barrera would stay committed to West Point. Too much could happen, or fail to happen, between the then-present and now-past. So, why did I give her my stars? Because I wasn't going to be there to shepherd her and I feared the K's degradatory influence on otherwise promising young soldiers. Giving her my stars, I reasoned at the time, would provide her a tangible reminder of USMAPS-as-goal in my absence. It wasn't much, perhaps, but I thought it was the best I could do to continue encouraging Barrera to go to West Point - short of going to PLDC, making my 5, and re-enlisting to stay in Korea (even if I had made Sergeant, though, I most likely would have been transferred away from the K). I took the chance hoping - trusting - that if Barrera ended up not going, she would at least give my stars back to me.

So, I'll disagree with my inner cynic and self-doubter that, A., I lost my stars over a quixotic delusion. I'll say, rather, I acted with good intentions and a real, if preliminary, basis for believing Barrera was interested in applying to West Point. I may be guilty, however, of projecting my level of appreciation for the West Point opportunity onto Barrera. Its value seemed self-evident to me but I'd been a cadet candidate and cadet; she wasn't yet, and I was unjustified in assuming she valued the opportunity the same way I did.

B. is a better answer, because I do want my stars back and I should have been more reluctant about giving them away. But B. is incorrect because it fails to account for the principles that led me to lend Barrera my stars. Leading soldiers means giving of oneself to them for the good of the collective whole, and I would have been immensely proud and honored had Barrera eventually worn them as a cadet candidate. I want my stars back, but I'm not selfishly consumed with keeping them to myself like Gollum chasing the One Ring. After all, whereas the stars represent a high point of my success in the Army, the Army in turn represents higher values. By handing my stars to Barrera, I honored the Army values.

C., "trust but verify", is the right answer because it suggests a balance of thoughtful common sense, personal care, and principle. In other words, could I have stayed true to principle, trusted her commitment to applying to West Point, and encouraged Barrera without risking the loss of my stars? And, if I was set on doing the Starship Troopers OCS pips thing, was there a better safer way to give Barrera my stars?

Yes and yes. I'm afraid I am guilty of conflating the goals of encouraging Barrera to apply to USMAPS and encouraging her to succeed as a CC. If I had recognized them as distinct and sequential stages, I may also have recognized that giving her my stars where and when I did was too early and out of context, which rendered the gesture ineffective and, therefore, a poor risk. I could have periodically written her letters or e-mails, instead, which probably would have been more effective encouraging Barrera to stay focused on West Point than a one-time transfer of easily misplaced pin-on stars that meant more to their ex-CC/cadet owner than they possibly could have meant to someone who had only just heard of USMAPS. If she responded to my letters, I might have known at what point she decided that West Point wasn't for her. Second, if I wanted Barrera to wear my stars as a CC, I could have given them to her after I had verified she was definitely coming to Fort Monmouth. I could have even handed them to her in person after she arrived at USMAPS, when my stars would have motivated her in the proper context as a CC. She would have appreciated them under the right circumstances, and I could have trusted they were in the right place and serving the right function, and reasonably accessible.

It's good and right to act according to principle and to have faith in people and encourage them to be better. Selflessness is a noble trait, no less than a core Army value. But I have to accept that it's also (equally as? hmm) important to take care of myself and protect the things I value, especially when other people may not value those things the same way. The key is balance. I trust my intuition, but I need to be more careful with the impulses that usually are the first actionable forms associated with my intuition. Those impulses have not all been unproductive, but they have proven to be less reliable on the whole than my intuition. I have to learn to follow my intuition by screening the accompanying impulses and apply thoughtful consideration in order to determine the most sensible course of action, such as writing letters of encouragement rather than handing over my precious stars too soon.


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there any reason why you've used her real last name, instead of using a fictitiuous name for her?

3/30/2009 1:57 PM  
Blogger Eric said...

Hm. How do you know that the last name is real or not?

3/31/2009 5:25 AM  

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