America's Best Leaders: U.S. Junior Officers, Military

Rising in the military ranks with a wisdom forged by war.

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U.S. junior officers serving in war zones

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While he was gearing up for the long trek through the high desert plains of southern Afghanistan, Capt. Sean Dynan made the rounds among his marines to make sure their sacks were pared to the bare minimum. How much heavy ammunition his infantry company would bring along on its journey was his call as well. If the soldiers brought too little, they could easily run out in the middle of their mission to rout entrenched Taliban forces. Too much and his marines were risking the injury that comes with carrying 120-plus-pound packs in 120-plus-degree heat.

Upon their arrival and in the midst of battle, Dynan was both warrior and diplomat, negotiating with local tribesmen and hearing grievances that spanned from security concerns to when businesses at the local bazaar would be up and running. After 10 years in the Marine Corps, Dynan is an old hand. This is his fourth tour to a war zone, including a stint in the onetime Sunni insurgent stronghold of Ramadi, Iraq, during the most violent part of the conflict.

Dynan's experience is typical of junior officers throughout the U.S. military. They have been called upon to serve in bloody and complicated wars on two fronts, many for more than half of their short careers. As a result, lieutenants and captains often have more combat experience than the generals who command them. "They are wise beyond their years," Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said about junior officers in an address this year to the Army War College. "We owe them our attention and our time." He urged their superiors to listen to them and called upon junior officers to question their superiors as well.

And they have. Indeed, the experience of junior officers has occasionally created strained relationships with senior leadership. Many have been frustrated by what they view as a lack of accountability at the highest levels of leadership. "It has created some tension," says Nathaniel Fick, author of One Bullet Away: the Making of a Marine Officer and a platoon leader in Iraq in the spring of 2003. "A private who loses a rifle gets into more trouble than a general who loses a war."

This stress has been compounded by the demands of repeated deployments on young troops and their families and made the accomplishments of those who have chosen to stay in the military all the more remarkable. Gen. David Petraeus, the former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, expressed admiration for the captains in the services, as well as concern about losing them, in congressional testimony earlier this year. In 2003, junior officers were leaving the military at a rate of 5.7 percent per year. In 2005, that level was 8.5 percent. Today, it is back down as a result of cash bonuses and education packages, but the Pentagon estimates it is still short roughly half the senior captains it needs.

The chief selling point that has kept many young officers in the military is the belief that they can make a sizable mark in the areas they command. Indeed, in two wars fought with too few troops, junior officers are often given great responsibility. Fick recalls that for a young platoon leader in a tough Baghdad neighborhood, it was a six-hour drive from the northern to the southernmost position of his area of operations. "We haven't seen that before in the military to quite that same extent. A young leader in the U.S. military can have an outsize impact today the way that a junior commander in Napoleon's army couldn't."

Fighter-leader. Being successful under such conditions often requires upending some old rules of leadership for young officers. The notion of the fighter-leader on the front lines, attacking beside troops, "is something I never saw anyone have a hard time with—never," says Fick, now retired and a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington, D.C., think tank. The problem is that in such a large area of operations, leading alongside one's soldiers isn't always possible or advisable. "It's pretty easy to look another human in the eyes and say, 'This is going to suck, but I'm going to be there with you,' " Fick says. "It's harder saying, 'I need you to do this, and while you do, I'm going to be sitting in the [command center] tent with a cup of coffee."