Reflection at ALC

No one is more professional than I. I am a non-commissioned officer…

As I am writing this, I am almost half-way complete with Advanced Leadership Course in Fort Knox, KY. It feels like the same whirlwind of events always lead up to an Army school like this. First, you find out you’re going. For some, that’s months in advance. For others, there’s not much notice. As I outline some of this process leading up to the school, understand how difficult this can be for “weekend warriors” like me.

First, you find out when and where you are going. This is good for your military career. It’s a stepping stone toward a promotion. This also creates the situation that requires you to notify your family and civilian employer, and neither take the news well usually. Especially when you’re married with children, telling your spouse he or she will be managing life solo for weeks or months is not what they consider good news at all. Even the most military-friendly employers often find it difficult to be happy for you, after all, the bottom line will always trump your military career.

Once the news is broken, you start preparing. Besides the pile of paper work you must put together to take with you for in-processing, you must hit other milestones leading up to your departure. Passing an APFT, meeting height/weight requirements, getting things printed, signed, completed, etc…..these are just military checklist items. You also must make sure paychecks line up, bills get paid, your family is set up for success, and your work is covered on the civilian side.

I felt so guilty about being away from my job for a month, that I worked it out so I could have a computer and access to my fleet in order to help try to keep things running as smoothly as possible in my absence. It’s in my DNA to be like this. It’s also something the military has instilled in me. I wish I had the same kind of remote ability to make up for not being home.
Competence is my watchword…

I’d like to think I’m good at what I do. Both on the civilian side (in the transportation field) and at home as a family man, and of course in the Army. It’s been important to me since a young age to try to be the best at everything, and when I’m not, to learn from those who are better and try to pass them.

These NCO schools bring that out in us. After all the doom and gloom of preparation, we find ourselves in planes, trains, and automobiles en route to our schoolhouses. We arrive and suspiciously eye everyone up as we in-process. For anyone in the military, you know exactly what I’m talking about. There’s this paradox of scrutiny taking place in which we immediately start analyzing the competition, while weeding out the dirtbags that might drag us down.

Upon being in-processed, round two of this analysis takes place when you’re assigned rooms. At this school, we are two to a room, with two rooms being connected, so we essentially have four soldiers in every room. For the first time in my military career, all my roommates are stellar soldiers with whom I’m proud to serve. They’re not just good guys, but we seem to all share the same expectations of cleanliness, duty, and brotherhood. I would hate this experience if this were not the case. We are all competent, yet competition takes a backseat to brotherhood. It’s the precise chemistry needed to make all four of us better than we were when we showed up. That’s the whole point of these schools.

All soldiers are entitled to outstanding leadership. I will provide that leadership.
As soldiers, there is this switch we find ourselves constantly having to turn on and off. For example, when I’m home, my wife and I wake up almost every morning super early to go to the gym. We take turns not wanting to go sometimes, so the other one always takes charge and makes sure we’re there. It’s a team effort. My wife is amazing, and many times she’s my leader. She requires that same leadership from me sometimes. My kids require it from me. While I’m here, I still wake up early and work out. I usually go for a run, and without my wife to give me that extra push I need sometimes, I require much more on self-discipline. However, there have been a couple mornings in which the sole driving force getting me out of bed to make that run happen is the sound of my roommate getting ready for his. This is leadership in motion. Soldiers need this. Families need it too.

Ergo, the geographic challenge begins. True, I shake out the cobwebs and hit the ground running every morning, but I’m not at home to be that guy for my wife. When I’m home, I practice fasting. I only eat after 5pm. I only eat one meal a day. Here, I eat three times a day, because I basically must due to our schedule revolving around meal times, and the fact that we essentially must do everything together. While I feed my face here three times a day, I do no cooking and don’t have to clean up the mess, but I’m also not helping with any of that at home.

My attention is 100% devoted to the Army while I’m in class, to myself outside of class, and to my family when I get a chance. Their lives don’t stop just because I’m gone, so I do my best to catch up with them between my wife’s work, my kids’ school, and my homework assignments. Try as I may, I feel like it’s never enough, and the pressure is beyond words. The thought of failing or disappointing my family might be the sole source of any anxiety I encounter. My wife has talked about this. She flips her switch to photograph weddings – everything at that point is all about the wedding – then afterward it’s flipped back and she worries that her absence was a hardship or missed opportunity with her family.

I have the courage to roam the battlefield fearlessly, but I remain in a constant state of concern that I’m short-changing my family. I picture a balancing scale…on one side is drill pay, school money, Tricare, and retirement income…on the other side are dance recitals, choir concerts, helping with homework, and just being there.

This is what I mean by flipping the switch. Although my living situation is stellar as far as Army life goes, when we’re in class we’re on a mission to prove ourselves. When we’re out of class, we flip that switch and go back to be the best spouses and parents we can be, only to flip that switch again to knock out any out-of-class assignments, then flip it back to take care of our personal needs and prepare for the next day.

It’s exhausting, but hard to complain about when we’ve left behind significant others who are holding down the fort in our absence, and our coworkers who cover down for the same reason. We all make sacrifices.

You can’t survive ALC unless you survived BLC. You can’t go to SLC unless you weather the storm that is ALC. Learning to flip this switch effectively is what makes good leaders. We can’t just be good leaders, but we must also develop the next batch. That happens at these schools too. We all take home tools to do it better next time and make it better for the next guy. That’s what it’s all about. Military families that achieve this aren’t just producing good NCOs for the Army, they’re also making better people for society. They’re making stronger families; the world needs more strong families.

I will exercise initiative by taking appropriate action in the absence of orders. I will not compromise my integrity, nor my moral courage.

Time and time again, I find myself disappointed in folks who don’t seem to put in the same effort I do. Even though these people are out there, there are way more people trying to do the right thing. Good people hold other good people up.

I remember in basic training, integrity was defined as doing the right thing even when nobody is looking. That’s a pretty good definition. Don’t get me wrong, I love to have fun. The definition of fun is different for everyone though. As much as I love finishing the day with my love over a cocktail and our favorite shows, that’s not allowed here. As we all sit in our rooms each night, it becomes clear that if we decided to partake, nobody would ever find out. We all agree though, it’s not worth it. The risk outweighs the reward, so we drink water and drive on. Some folks struggle with that concept – and I’m not even talking about addicts – just people with poor judgement and a lack of discipline.

In this scenario, my value is my family. I perceive dishonor on the military front as the same as dishonor to my family. That makes it easy for me to make good decisions. Not everyone has that strong family dynamic though, and their values can often be a gateway to trouble. This notion transcends the concept of right and wrong, reward and punishment, or even honor and dishonor. The idea that we can hold ourselves to a higher standard is contagious, and when we exhibit these qualities at our units while attending drill and annual training, others follow suit.

I will not forget, nor will I allow my comrades to forget, that we are professionals, non-commissioned officers, leaders!

My morale compass works most of the time. I am not perfect, and I make plenty of mistakes. I try to help others learn from mine. My recent passion for personal finance reform has made me a go-to guy for such advice. My seventeen years of trying to hurdle a college degree has made me an expert in Army school money. However, while at this school, I’ve had to lean on my battle buddies for help with Army acronyms, understanding the active-duty component better, and many other things. On our last exam, three of us made a 100, and one of us made a 98. This was not an accident, and nothing we accomplished individually. We shared study tips, and we helped each other out. We hold each other accountable, and by performing well, we drive each other. Are we competitive? Sure…but we’re professionals and celebrate our success as a group. It’s truly all about the team.

My team back home drives on without me. My wife is the gold standard. She runs her own business, takes care of our children, holds down a household…it’s amazing. All the military success I have encountered doesn’t hold a candle to what she does in my absence. I don’t envy it though, I cherish it – because it’s all about the team.

Summary

Tonight, I finally got to watch the end of a movie I’ve started a thousand times and never finished. Into the Wild, in case you were wondering. As I watched, I found myself identifying with the main character. I have my moments where I’m a true introvert. I can be curious about the world and appreciate the lessons we can learn independently in the state of nature. We all need alone time. While I get some version of that here at this military school, it makes me realize that I must afford my wife opportunities like that to. These schools bring out the best in us, and it has less to do with the curriculum and more to do with the experience. I think these schools make those we leave behind stronger too, but in addition to being better leaders and ensuring the future of the Army is in good hands, we must give that same attention to our families. It’s a balancing act. It’s imperative to understand that balancing it all might be impossible, but the effort is what counts the most. I can assure you that a lack of effort will always ultimately result in failure, even if that failure is delayed. Effort keeps you in the game. Effort comes even after the results are in, when we make commitments to do it even better next time.

Before I left for training, I had to spend two days at the armory prepping for school, drawing equipment, and basically just getting all my paperwork ready to go. One of my last nights in town, my wife and I treated ourselves to a date night. It was just the two of us, and we stayed in a local swanky hipster hotel that we just love. We ate out, had some drinks, watched TV – and more than once took a moment to be thankful for that alone time. Sure, the outside pressures of life were still there, but we willingly hit the pause button on all that stuff and gave our relationship attention.

I had no idea at the time, but together we were getting a little better at flipping that switch. For less than 24 hours, it was about us and nobody else. The next day, it was about everyone else but us.

My wife taught me the intro to this lesson, and I’ve pondered this topic for days while training here. This lesson is worthless unless A) we continue to do things like that and B) I share this lesson with everyone else.

ALC for me consists of flipping that switch multiple times a day. For now, it’s between my family, Army, and my civilian job. Not long ago, I had school to juggle too. If we didn’t keep ourselves busy like this, life would lose its luster. If we had unlimited time to do whatever we wanted instead of whatever we needed, those valuable times we get to do what we want would lose their significance. It takes perspective to realize it, and it takes a sense of duty to behave accordingly.

My take-away from that movie tonight was that happiness is meaningless unless its shared. It applies to our family relationships, and our military careers (more specifically our duty as leaders). We share by contributing, teaching, mentoring – and at home mostly by loving.

You won’t find an instruction manual for this concept. Nobody will order you to take inventory of these things. Expectations will exist without ever being expressed. You must be diligent and serve with a purpose. Not a bad life lesson after 13 days of ALC.

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adamfrancisduffy

Husband, dad, soldier, veteran, transportation manager, musician, and now a blogger and podcast host...sharing stories, experiences, and debates.

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