Making the evals mean something

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The noncomissioned officer evaluation report (NCOER) is the bane of our existence.  I’m sure Big Army magically gets it right, but it is not uncommon for our Guard unit to spend at least one or two drill weekends each year doing nothing but trying to get caught up on delinquencies.  I’m convinced there’s no good reason for it, although there are certainly contributing factors (like compelling soldiers to use their own computers with finicky Windows-only software to process them).

What follows is an example of how theory and practice diverge, how my own thinking on the matter has changed over time, and some thoroughly unoriginal thoughts on how I teach my NCOs to game the system (and incidentally become better NCOs at the same time).

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Dear Ferguson: a primer for protesting with the National Guard

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I went with the first link, which was the Christian Science Monitor, but it’s all over the news:

Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and activated National Guard forces in Missouri Monday, saying the state must be ready to protect residents if violent protests follow a grand jury decision on whether to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black teenager in August.

He said the role of both police and the Missouri National Guard will be to maintain safety and protect the free-speech rights of citizens.

I heard a lot of commentary about this on my drive home from work.  One of the Seattle radio personalities opined that it was a good thing because the Army was trained for things like this, unlike the Ferguson police.  I laughed and laughed.

The reality is: sort of.  Ferguson, if the Guard shows up to your party, the rules have fundamentally changed, and you need to understand how.

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Celtic Dragon Trinity Knot leather notebook cover

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“Celtic Dragon Trinity Knot” design courtesy of Samantha Keener, DeathShiva on DeviantArt and @GamerDeathShiva on Twitter.

2014-11-13 16.10.01

I have made quite a few notebook covers for others, but this one is mine, to replace the SSG cover I made a few years ago. That one was refinished, buffed, and passed on to a good NCO to carry until he gets promoted out of it; he can pass it on to someone else then.

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Random reminisces of the military career that wasn’t

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Not in my future

I had a brief flirtation with ROTC at Central Washington University in early 1998, lasting a few busy months before the program and I came to a mutual understanding that a military career was not in my future.

This was a good thing, though it didn’t seem like it at the time. I would have been a mediocre (at best) commissioned officer.  The real damaging part was that they were unable or unwilling to simply tell me that my services were not required (and I’d cut off my metal headbanging hair for nothing!), but instead fabricated a pseudo-medical excuse that made me believe I was ineligible for military service at all.  The net result was that I didn’t even try to enlist until after the Iraq invasion, when (I reasoned) I had decent odds of slipping slight medical irregularities past the gatekeepers.

I will hit twelve years time in service with the Army National Guard in a few months; over eleven of those have been on active duty (as opposed to one-weekend-a-month).

I don’t think about ROTC too often; it was a brief prequel episode to my career, a sort of interlude in my college days.  But there were some moments.

Branching out

We had one NCO floating around, not a regular cadre member and his name tragically forgotten, with a sharp British accent and a truly disturbing level of enthusiasm for the United States Army.  “Mr. Nelson,” he would exclaim.  He only exclaims or yells in my memory.  “How shall you branch when you graduate from this institution?”

And Cadet Nelson, a nice kid who didn’t blink twice at my long metal hair before helping me sort out what was what, ventured a reply to the effect that he should like to become an armor officer.

Armored death boxes!?” this NCO erupted with mixed amazement and disgust.  “Why would you want to die in a burning tank, Nelson?”

I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when/if I graduated, but I suddenly decided that armor was probably not it.

I had Transformers. . . But she had motivation.

I was in long enough to take several military science (ha!) classes.  There were only a few people in class, among them a “non-traditional student” (read: old lady in her late 20s) who was only in the class for what her academic adviser had promised would be an easy A.

In class one week, we learned the basics of rifle marksmanship (theory only) and learned to disassemble and reassemble an M-16 rifle.  [It’s hard to imagine this being allowed on a college campus just 16 years later.]  I had never been exposed to firearms larger than a pump action BB gun before, but I was pretty good at the taking apart and putting together.  We had little competitions after some practice, and I was usually a good 10-15 seconds faster.  Our older female compatriot was frustrated.  “How are you so good at this?”

I shrugged.  “I had Transformers.”

Fast forward to a little shooting range simulator, employing a Super Nintendo with a “rifle” controller and associated special hardware; think Duck Hunt on steroids.  It was alleged to be pretty close to the real thing in terms of accuracy and precision, though I had my doubts even then.  Still, we lined up and gave it a swing.  I met with indifferent success.  Our older female classmate hit 40/40 every time.  “So how are you so good at this?”

“You’re shooting at targets.  I’m shooting at my ex-husband.”

“Captain Anthony. . .  Captain Anthony. . . Captain Keith Anthony.”

We were supposed to go rappelling the next day.  I was mildly terrified, but I wasn’t about to admit that, so I was just trying not to think about it.  I ran into Cadet Nelson somewhere–the library?–and he matter-of-factly told me that the training was cancelled.  “CPT Anthony shot himself.”  CPT Anthony was my instructor for Leadership.  He was a pretty nice guy, quiet.  We’d just been talking the day before about the books we read for fun.  He didn’t seem to have many local connections or a family around, but I didn’t really know him.

I don’t know why, but I just assumed he had shot himself in the foot or something.  “Really?  That’s rough.”  It didn’t click.  Jim clarified that he’d left a note simply saying “I’m sorry” and had eaten a pistol round, and I realized that the big deal here wasn’t that I was getting out of rappelling.

Fast forward a few days. I was a little too cool, too cynical for military ceremonies, and I wasn’t really part of this crowd, but I was trying to be so they’d pay for my college, so I went.  I think I still had long hair, even.

They called roll, and the other cadre members sounded off.  Then they called it out.

“Captain Anthony.”  A long pause.

“Captain Anthony.”  A longer pause.

“Captain Keith Anthony.”  And it struck home that he really wouldn’t be answering, and I just about lost it for this guy I barely knew and now would never know better.

They had a counselor come talk to us about grieving and we had a series of stand-in instructors for the remainder of the quarter.  I got the impression that everyone was going to pass Leadership whether we did anything or not.  This was a small battalion, perhaps two dozen cadets total and only half a dozen cadre; I think the death really shook people, but he hadn’t seemed to be close to anyone.  I look back now as a senior NCO and wonder what, if anything, could have been done.


I still have some random FMs and documents from that stint fifteen years ago.  When I did eventually enlist, I understood the rank structure and unit structure, could disassemble/reassemble a rifle, and had a few other odds and ends tucked away in my brain.  I was not exactly overawed by ROTC-produced officers–I’d seen the sausage being made, you see–and I had my suspicions about the other ones.  And in the end, it worked out.  I wonder now how much of my motivation since then came from a desire to prove that cadre wrong, to demonstrate that they made a mistake in not giving me a chance, but the reality is that if the potential for military leadership was there in 20-year-old me, it was very well hidden.  I think I make a far better NCO than I ever would have an officer, and I’m cool with that.

Should have handled that differently: a tale of fail

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Preface: I hate the phone

I don’t do phones very well. I spent two years as the Readiness NCO for my National Guard company in 2009-2011, running things the other 28 days per month, and I like to think I did a fairly decent job of it, but I came to loathe the telephone (and a lot of other things and people not germane to today’s discussion).  In my current job, my cell stays in the car and the office has only two phones for about thirty people.  In short, I don’t talk on the phone for days or even weeks at a time.  My cell plan is a cheap prepaid one, with unlimited data and unlimited texting, but only 100 minutes per month; I have only used all of those twice in three years.

So believe it or not, I am literally out of practice in using the phone, such that a phone interview is not exactly playing to my strengths.  I had one a few weeks ago, and though I thought it went fairly well, there was one question in particular that has been bugging me.  I didn’t answer it terribly, but I could have done it better.

Which was the theme.  The gentleman on the other end asked me (paraphrasing a bit) to describe an occasion where I wish I’d handled something differently, and what I had learned from that.

What I said

I gave a perfectly legitimate but not very interesting example from Afghanistan.  It was your standard low-level drama of two people who loathed each other, forced to live in extremely close proximity under unpleasant (combat) conditions for 11 months.  Kind of like a sitcom when you describe it that way, except that there wasn’t much funny about it.  Fun fact: a significant portion of my journal was devoted to plots to murder my assistant team leader and dispose of the evidence.

I talked about how in retrospect I would have tried to be a great deal more patient and meet him more than halfway; getting the mission accomplished without fratricide was more important than what was fair.  It was clear we were never going to be friends, but I could have swallowed my pride a bit more and worked with him better despite it.  I’ve learned a great deal since 2006 about “managing” people placed over me, and I think I could do it a lot better now.  (I also have thought quite a bit since then about hiding bodies in a desert environment.)

The problem is that this anecdote is necessarily vague (not wanting to put anyone to sleep by providing the full context) and eight years (!) old now.  OEF VII has an immediacy for me that is hard to convey to a stranger over the phone; it still seems super relevant to my life, but probably not to someone who wasn’t with us.  It’s bugged me since then, because I have other examples which are much more recent and don’t even require talking around OPSEC considerations.

What I should have said

In retrospect, I should have used a much more recent example from my current work environment, albeit undoubtedly not in this much nauseating detail.
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