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Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I. Send me!"
Isaiah 6:8

Key Note Speach at the Annual Georgia Tech ROTC Ball


It is an absolute pleasure to be your guest speaker tonight. As I understand it, the NFL football players, political leaders, more senior military officers, and the homeless guy around the corner were unavailable tonight, so that’s why I get the honor! Thank you Lt Asher!

In all seriousness, I am probably one of the few Georgia Bulldogs who loves Georgia Tech as well. I can’t say whether the same sentiment would hold true had I attended UGA as an undergrad- I suspect not- but since I’m there as a grad student I hardly bleed red and black. My ties to this institution, though of relatively short duration are, nevertheless, strong.

Tonight is about you- not about me. But in order to understand my point of view, let me tell you about myself for a moment. I graduated from West Point in 1997, and was commissioned as an Armor officer. I’ve led soldiers at the platoon level-twice, and was a company commander for 2 years and 3 days. Of that, 6 months was in combat in Iraq. I’ve jumped out of airplanes, graduated from Ranger school, and done all of the fun things that the Army has to offer.

As many of you know, I was Tyler Brown’s company commander and roommate in Iraq. I met Tyler in the spring of 2004, when our units were training for deployment from Korea, when his rifle platoon was attached to my tank company. I don’t mind telling you that I was immediately impressed with him. I suspect that many of you have heard stories of how wonderful of a person he was…I can personally attest that he was that and much, much more. Tyler was one of the finest soldiers and men that I’ve ever known.

The night that he was killed, I was one of the last people he talked to. We had lifted weights that morning, and I had helped him prepare for his final mission, which was an intelligence gathering mission in our new sector. I was about a mile away when he was shot, and was directly involved in the medical evacuation attempt as we struggled to save his life. I cried when we found out that he had not made it through surgery.

During my 6 months in Iraq, led my company on dozens of raids and through numerous firefights, and was wounded twice. The first time was by an RPG fired at my tank during a firefight. That RPG killed a wonderful soldier named Dennis Miller, and wounded me. 2 months later, I was critically injured during another patrol by an IED that exploded under my Humvee.

I spent nearly 5 months in the hospital, undergoing more than 40 surgeries and using more than 120 units of blood. For a long time, doctors were not sure that I would make it, and spent a great deal of time preparing my family for the worst. I later found out that the same surgeon who did Tyler’s surgery also did mine- and lessons learned during that attempt were used to save my life. In more than one way, Tyler is the reason I’m standing here today.

I was joking a moment ago about the “other” guest speakers you might have had. Perhaps the one reason that I’m a little better than the homeless man that declined is that I’ve walked in your shoes- I’ve sat next to a pretty girl at a formal event and wondered where I would be next year at this time- or the year after that. So what I’m going to do tonight is give you a vision for the future, and talk about the attributes you’ll need to navigate your future challenges successfully. Those attributes are Leadership, Character, and Courage. If your first thought is “wait, those are all points on the same line”, you’re right- and you’re probably already ahead of the game.

Most of you entered military service after 9/11, and none of you are oblivious to the world around you. That said, you are about to enter a world of persistent conflict- a world where serious men, with serious evil intent, intend to do you and your country harm. Whether you fight a “conventional” war on the Korean peninsula or somewhere else in East Asia, a “counterinsurgency” in Iraq or Afghanistan, or some other type of war in some other place, the first critical tool is Leadership.

Leadership matters:

Some of you may already have been to war. You have seen first hand the effects of great leadership, or the effects of poor leadership, or perhaps both.

One of the most common questions that new 2LTs have is “how on earth does a 23 year old straight out of college lead anyone?” That’s a good question. Let me attempt to enlighten you on that point.

Mutual respect is at the heart of excellent leadership. You already know that sergeants don’t respect lieutenants for their rank- instead, lieutenants earn either respect - or derision – from their men through their actions and attitudes.

To earn the respect of your soldiers, you have only a few tools:

Physical fitness is one- you can’t possibly be the most experienced soldier in any unit- there will always be someone with more experience. You can, however, strive to be the most physically fit. Why? Because your soldiers want to follow someone who they believe is tough and ready to fight right now. They want someone who can take more than his share of physical hardship and still be ready to perform. They want someone who can be wounded and continue to fight.

Another is tenacity- aggression in seeking solutions and never giving up. They don’t want a leader who throws up his hands at the first difficulty- they want one who overcomes any obstacle thrown up in his path and continues to pursue mission accomplishment.

Another is tactical competence. Soldiers are smart- they know when they are led by someone who can accomplish the mission. Strive in your training, whether ROTC, OBC, or Ranger School- to develop tactical competence. Don’t be afraid to learn from soldiers who understand warfare.

What your soldiers don’t want- or need- is another friend. It is a very common leadership mistake to be “friends” with your soldiers. Always be friendly- never be friends. Not only does it compromise your authority in the minds of your men, it also creates great difficulty in ordering your men to do missions in which they may be killed or maimed. I learned that lesson again when my friend Tyler was killed on a mission that I had designed and put into motion.

Over time, your soldiers and subordinate leaders will begin to respect you- only then can you exercise leadership.

One of the keys to Tyler’s success as a leader was that his men knew that he put them first- he always looked out for their welfare and cared for them both personally and professionally.

Tyler’s leadership held together a unit that would later struggle in combat- he held them together because they looked to him for firm, wise, and steadfast leadership.

The next key attribute that you will need as a combat leader is Character.

Character counts:

The truth is that the Army probably doesn’t need you in charge of a platoon’s tactics- the NCOs can handle that just fine. What, then, is your purpose? In many ways, the successful platoon leader is the “moral compass” of the unit.

Soldiers may not understand the ‘big picture’ of why we’re fighting and what exactly “American Values” really means- we’ve all seen this at Abu Ghraib, Haditha, and elsewhere. Those cases all share a common element: the officer- the moral compass- was either missing entirely or was ineffective in setting a moral climate. The officer must have the depth and breadth of character to not ‘go with the flow’ under trying circumstances…you set the moral tone for your unit.

If you allow even slight deviation from the law or from moral standards, those below you will become progressively worse, along the direction that you set by your low standards. At the end of this causal chain is where atrocities occur. Don’t ever believe the lie “Sir, it’s just a small thing.”

This is a serious commitment- and it is one that can’t be outsourced or delegated. Furthermore, it can’t be developed on the spur of the moment. The reason that the service academies and many other elite institutions (including this one) have honor codes is because they recognize that developing you morally is just as, if not more, important as developing you academically.

Combat is a searing experience- and one of the most wrenching tests of character yet devised. You sometimes hear stories of soldiers or Marines committing crimes overseas or upon their return, and those cases are often attributed to “the stress of combat”. That is only partially true- the whole truth is that combat does not change the character of the participants- it simply reveals it.

Develop your character now- and develop your ability to discern the character of others. The soldier who is unable to honor his commitment to his wife, for example, is very unlikely to be able to honor his word to you. The leader who is willing to tolerate small crimes or misbehaviors in training or in garrison is likely to be willing to tolerate large crimes in the crucible of war.

Some develop their moral character through the example of others- some through their faith in God- and some through critical evaluation of themselves. However you choose to develop your character, remember that, like physical fitness, there is no such thing as ‘stable’ moral development. Either you are moving forward or you are moving back. I encourage you to continue to find a way to move forward.

The third, and final, attribute for which you should strive is Courage:

Part of leadership, as I discussed a moment ago, is courage. Your soldiers need to know that you are courageous enough to lead an attack into a difficult objective, or to perform well when hot metal fills the air.

One example of courage is that displayed by a private named Tungol, a soldier in my unit, on the night of the 21st of June, 2005. Tungol was a quiet soldier, one who nobody would expect could be a hero. That night, he was riding in the back of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle through the mean streets of Ramadi, part of a 4 vehicle combat patrol. The lead Bradley was struck by an IED, lighting it on fire and forcing the crew to evacuate, along with the infantry soldiers in the back of the vehicle. It also wounded the driver and platoon leader (Tyler’s successor). When the soldiers sought refuge next to a cinder-block wall not far from the Bradley, they were immediately raked with machine-gun fire from a hidden position. Specialists Brian Vaughn, the medic, and Christopher Hoskins were killed immediately, and the team leader and two other soldiers were shot.

Tungol heard the commotion from the back of an adjacent Bradley. Knowing that no-one else was in a position to help, he raced through the machine gun fire to the downed men. Grabbing the most seriously injured, he brought him back to the Bradley and applied a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. Again, he raced through the street to grab another soldier, this time using his belt to stop the bleeding. A final time, he ventured into the street to grab another of his friends. This time, since he had no belt and no tourniquet, he used the cord on a radio hand microphone to create a final tourniquet. The lives of all three wounded soldiers were saved.

But courage can be much, much more than the kind displayed by Tungol. I’ve had many opportunities to talk about courage and about heroism at venues around the country, and people are always most interested in ‘classic’ military heroism- like Tungols’.

To me, though, the hardest kind of courage to develop, and by far the rarest, is moral courage. By moral courage, I mean the daily act of choosing the harder right over the easier wrong. You will be constantly bombarded- throughout your lives- by the chance to make wrong choices.

Courage, though, is the ability to reject the wrong choice in favor of the right. Even when people ridicule you. Even when you face scorn. Even when it hurts emotionally or physically. Even when you are rejected by your “friends”.

Leadership, Character, and Courage are all tied together- as I noted earlier, they are points on the same line. There is one thing that is absolutely critical about all three- I’ve hinted at it already- and that is that when the chips are down is not the time to try to develop those skills.

I’ve been in a number of firefights- none has lasted more than a few minutes. Imagine, for a moment, if I had waited to don my equipment and zero my rifle until the enemy first started firing. It is equally ludicrous to wait to begin developing the key attributes that I’ve discussed until they are needed. That is why this stage in your life is so critical to your future. You have the chance now to put into practice the skills you know you’ll need in the future.

One of the things about Tyler that was so amazing is that even when he was an undergraduate, he understood these things. He practiced leadership in his fraternity- rather famously- by getting his fraternity brothers to take etiquette classes, among other things. It was something that they wouldn’t have done otherwise, but he got them to do it anyway!

Tyler developed his character through deep reflection and his faith in God. On the morning of the day that he was killed, we spent time talking about what he was reading in CS Lewis’ “Mere Christianity”.

And Tyler’s courage was developed through years of practicing the “harder right over the easier wrong”. When the chips were down, he performed magnificently. Here’s the amazing part- I’m not even talking about combat. Tyler had the choice to either go to Iraq with the soldiers that he had been leading for over a year or to accept a much easier and safer assignment in DC with the Old Guard. And when the time for choosing came, he chose the right over the easy.

I suppose that it is possible that some may describe Tyler’s ultimate sacrifice as a ‘waste’. Everyone who knew him agrees that he was a man of unlimited potential- that he was “going to be somebody”. I agree with that- but the fact of the matter is that there is no higher calling or more noble profession than the one that you are about to enter, and that Tyler entered in 2001. This profession- and his sacrifice- illustrate perfectly the old saying “No Greater Love hath any man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” You serve a country that is greater than any one individual, and unselfishly offer your own sacrifice in service of causes bigger than yourself.

Soon, you will take the next step in a journey along a trail blazed by great men and true American heroes. I encourage you to take their sacrifice and example to heart as you determine the kind of leader you will be.

For more information on honoring Brown, call Ms. McMackin at (404) 765-4037.


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