1. General Background
Name: Mike Ettore
Branch/dates of service: USMC, 1974-98
Position(s) held during combat: Infantry Platoon Commander and Company Commander
Wars, conflicts or combat actions you participated in: Grenada, Lebanon and Kuwait
2. The role of the NCO in combat
Q. What do you think are some important personal traits and qualities for NCO's serving as combat leaders? (courage, physical endurance, ability to inspire, etc)
A. I think that NCO's need to possess many traits in order to be effective combat leaders, but I believe that above all, they need to possess a "refuse to lose" mindset. This kind of hard-nosed fighting spirit has enabled American NCO's to affect the outcome of many a combat action. There is an old saying and I may not be quoting it with 100% accuracy, but it says something to the effect that, "An army of lions led by a sheep will always be beaten by an army of sheep led by a lion." I think this is an accurate statement and I believe that the ideal NCO has to be a "lion" in the sense that his example and leadership are critical to mission accomplishment. He must understand that as he fights, so fights his entire unit.
I also think that an NCO has to be confident in his abilities and must be ready to step into roles senior to his when his unit takes casualties. Based on advice and training that I received from experienced combat leaders, I always trained my units based on the assumption that most of the officers and SNCO's were going to be killed or wounded at the onset of a battle or firefight and that NCO's would have to rise to the occasion and lead platoons and larger units if necessary.
Q. What can NCO's do to effectively train and support inexperienced officers, particularly new lieutenants, joining a unit in combat?
A. As a former NCO, I can honestly say that I always enjoyed helping to develop a new lieutenant and see that he got his feet on the ground. I think that an NCO should consider it his sworn duty to assist a new lieutenant in any way that he can. I know that some NCO's are rather intolerant of new officers, but I was taught to be just the opposite toward them. A wise old Sergeant Major, a veteran of three wars, once told me that lieutenants existed primarily to learn how to be good leaders and develop into officers capable of leading larger units later on in their careers. He saw a new lieutenant as a student who was to be shaped, molded and trained by Marines of all ranks, with NCO's and SNCO's shouldering a major portion of the task of seeing that the officer was well grounded in the basics of his profession.
I would recommend that NCO's recognize the great responsibility they have when they are entrusted with a new lieutenant, especially in a combat situation. Now, most new lieutenants will not feel as though they have been entrusted to the NCO's in their unit, because they have been trained from the first day of OCS to accept responsibility and "take charge." They are certainly "in charge" of the unit and are responsible for everything it does or fails to do, but most lieutenants lack practical experience and may never have actually been in charge of NCO's before assuming an actual leadership role in an operational unit. They have been advised to seek the counsel of their NCO's and senior NCO's, but, in many cases, they have never had the opportunity to do so.
I believe that new lieutenants respond best to NCO's who demonstrate maturity and quiet confidence. They will gravitate to these NCO's and will avoid those who seem to take delight in constantly reminding new lieutenants of how little they know, etc. The ability of an NCO to project this type of professional bearing is the very essence of the "art" of training new lieutenants. During my career, I found that the very best NCO's were able to train and educate officers in a professional manner so subtle and relaxed that the lieutenants often did not realize they were being trained and molded by their NCO's. During my career, most of the very best NCO's I served with or observed possessed this ability.
Getting back to the combat situation, I think that first of all, the NCO's should do everything they can to give the new lieutenant complete situational awareness of the current tactical situation and members of their squads and teams. Great emphasis should be placed on helping him get his gear squared away and ready for combat. Show him the tips and tricks that will help him do his job. Go over any unit SOPs and operational issues that will affect his role and help him master them. Ensure he is familiar with tactics and weapons currently being used by the enemy forces.
In other words, the NCO's should share with new lieutenants every piece of knowledge, perspective and "battle savvy" they possess. It's not only the right thing to do, it greatly increases the chances that the lieutenant will survive their initial combat actions and develop into an effective combat leaders capable of making sound tactical decisions (which will have a direct impact on the NCO's chances of surviving subsequent combat operations!).
Q. Some combat leaders, both officer and enlisted, are of the opinion that the NCO squad leader has the most difficult and critical job in a ground combat unit. They feel that even though the experience and effectiveness of senior NCO's and officers may vary in any unit, if the corporal and sergeant squad and team leaders are proficient, the unit will generally perform well. Do you agree?
A. I agree and I feel that NCO's are the backbone of most combat units. As a former NCO prior to becoming an officer, I was well aware of what well-trained NCO's were capable of if they were allowed to use their initiative and energy in support of mission accomplishment.
As a 2ndLt, I was fortunate to serve in an infantry battalion that was led by LtCol Ray L. Smith (retired as a Major General), an officer whom many Marines viewed as one of the finest combat leaders ever to serve in the Marine Corps. LtCol Smith placed great emphasis on the training of fire team leaders and squad leaders and he always said that, in his opinion, the squad leader had the most important job in the entire battalion. It took me a while before I truly understood why he felt this way.
LtCol Smith was a veteran of intense combat in Hue City. During this
battle, he took command of a rifle company as a 2ndLt when his Captain was severely wounded. Naturally, if he was in charge of the company as a 2ndLt, one can guess who was in charge of most of the platoons and squads. That's right.....corporals and sergeants! This and other combat experiences led LtCol Smith (and many other combat veterans) to conclude that in any prolonged combat operation there would most likely be a high casualty rate among officers and SNCO's and that NCO's would have to step up and assume vacant leadership positions. He constantly emphasized this to the battalion's officers and SNCO's during our weekly Professional Military Education (PME) sessions and field training. The result was a very well trained, professionally competent group of NCO's that performed well during subsequent combat operations.
Subsequent to my experiences in this battalion, I always placed great emphasis on the training and development of NCO's. I, like many others, believe that the team leaders and squad leaders are the heart and soul of a combat unit and "as the NCO's fight, so fights the entire unit."
Q. Describe the best NCO combat leader you have known. What qualities did he possess that enabled him to be a more effective leader than most of his peers?
A. I was fortunate to serve with a few NCO's who I felt were exceptional combat leaders. Each of these men possessed rock solid leadership skills and their men respected their abilities. They demonstrated exacting attention to detail; they closely supervised the "little things" like ensuring their men cleaned their weapons, preventive maintenance of communications gear, etc. They made sure that their teams and squads went into combat with fully capable equipment because they knew how important this was to mission accomplishment.
They each were very competent tactically, to the point where if their platoon leader or platoon sergeant became casualties, they were very capable of stepping in and assuming the duties of either of them. Some will say that any NCO should be able to do this, but most experienced leaders know that some NCO's are simply more capable of performing at the higher levels than others. The NCO's I am thinking of were men who were absolutely capable of stepping up to the responsibilities associated with the next level of leadership and tactical responsibility without causing the slightest degradation of unit effectiveness. They all possessed what I call the "refuse to lose" mindset and they had infused this winning attitude into their teams and squads.
3. The role of the senior NCO in combat
Q. Senior NCO's perform an extremely crucial role in combat operations. What personal traits and characteristics do you view as critical for senior NCO's
A. I think senior NCO's have an exceptionally important role in a combat unit. These leaders are often some of the most experienced men in a unit and have the responsibility, whether specified or implied, to ensure that the leaders junior and senior to them can operate effectively as a cohesive unit. Senior NCO's have the benefit of years of experience and they typically possess knowledge that can only be gained from extended time in operational units.
I feel that the very best senior NCO's possess great patience, foresight and the ability to share their knowledge and experience in a manner which allows other leaders in the unit (junior or senior to them) to benefit from it. I found that those who were most effective at this usually adopted a "mentor" type of personality rather than portraying themselves as someone who knew everything or lorded their knowledge over others who were less experienced. They were very effective at teaching and guiding other members of the unit, regardless if the person was a new corporal, their company commander or one of the platoon commanders.
Q. What can senior NCO's do to effectively support and train inexperienced NCO's joining a unit in combat?
A. I would imagine that joining a unit in combat is difficult for any person, but more so for someone who is going to serve in a leadership position. If I was in the position to make the decision and the tactical situation allowed it, I would require that NCO's joining the unit be put through a short familiarization period. I would put them under the supervision of a senior NCO who would cover some of the most critical aspects of the roles the NCO's were about to assume.
For instance, if we were fighting in a tactical environment in which mortar and artillery support played a large role, I would ensure that the NCO's received some refresher training in calling for and adjusting fires, etc. The bottom line is that I would do my best to ensure that incoming NCO's were "brought up to speed" as much as possible prior to sending them to their teams and squads. In my opinion, senior NCO's should play a major role in accomplishing this.
Q. What can senior NCO's do to effectively support and train inexperienced officers, particularly new lieutenants, joining a unit in combat?
A. Most of what I wrote in my previous answer also applies to this question. In the case of officers in general, I think that senior NCO's should do whatever they can to quickly give them good "situational awareness" of the men, morale, tactical operations, etc.
For new lieutenants, I would take it a step further. I would ensure that the senior NCO has at least one "heart to heart" conversation with the lieutenants about leadership and the reality of the situation at hand vice what they may have learned in OCS, ROTC, etc.
In other words, the senior NCO should explain the reality of what the lieutenant is about to see when he joins his platoon. I have heard stories of new lieutenants joining combat units who were initially too focused on garrison related things like haircuts or shined boots. While these things are important in the proper context, a new lieutenant should be reminded that his platoon has been in the field for weeks or months and that while their appearance may not pass a stateside inspection, they have performed well in combat.
Finally, I would ask the senior NCO to have a talk with the platoon sergeant or NCO who will serve as the lieutenant's senior enlisted man. I'd have the senior NCO remind the platoon sergeant of his responsibility to mentor the lieutenant and keep him from making serious mistakes early on. I would definitely do everything I could to foster an environment of training and effectively integrating new lieutenants into the unit, vice one in which they are simply tolerated.
4. The role of the junior officer in combat
Q. Combat units will always contain young and relatively inexperienced lieutenants. However, inexperienced does not mean untrained. Most new lieutenants possess fairly solid basic level skills and capabilities, but they are generally lacking "time with the troops" and thus still have a lot to learn about the "real world." When joining a unit in combat, they will undoubtedly be thrust in the position of making decisions that could potentially cost men their lives. It's a huge responsibility, that much is certain. What advice can you give a new lieutenant joining a unit in combat.
A. First of all, I think it is critical that the lieutenant truly understands just how inexperienced his is, how much he has to learn and how quickly he must learn it. Assuming he "knows what he does not know" I recommend that the lieutenant take action to gain as much situational awareness as possible . The sooner he understands the tactical situation and the mission at hand, the better his chances are at having a positive effect on his unit. He should seek the advice and perspective of his NCO's and senior NCO's and while he should always rely heavily on their guidance, I think that it is especially important for him to do so during the initial days and weeks with the unit.
Q. What advice can you give a new lieutenant joining a unit in combat concerning what his troops expect of him? What can he do or say to gain their confidence in his abilities and judgment? Is there anything that he should avoid doing or saying?
A. I think the lieutenant has to realize that he is taking command of troops who have combat experience and that when he joins the unit they will be scrutinizing his actions closely. He should remember that they have probably seen several lieutenants of varying ability and effectiveness cycle through the unit and they will undoubtedly measure him against his predecessors.
Whatever methods the new lieutenant chooses to use to get to know his men, I strongly encourage him to remember to "be himself" instead of trying to live up to what he perceives his men's expectations to be. This is especially true when the new lieutenant is replacing an officer who was highly respected by the members of the unit. The new officer should not be overly concerned or discouraged if he hears his men mention the former lieutenant or make comments such as "Lieutenant Jones always knew when to call in air strikes instead of trying to use artillery", "he always got us out of trouble" or similar comments.
Comments such as these show that the men respected the former leader for his tactical proficiency and leadership ability. The new lieutenant should not attempt to become as competent as Lieutenant Jones was. He should simply carry out his duties to the best of his ability and remember to utilize the talent residing in his unit. In time, the members of the unit will begin to realize that the new lieutenant is actually as good as, and maybe even better, than Lieutenant Jones was!
Q. What advice can you give a new lieutenant joining a unit in combat concerning the NCO's and senior NCO's he will be put in command of? What can he do to quickly gain their confidence in his abilities and judgment? Is there anything he should avoid doing?
A. I recommend that he ask them many questions about the tactical situation. Asking more experienced men not only results in the lieutenant gaining important information and perspective on the unit's current situation, it demonstrates that he is willing to seek the advice of others. I feel that this can help the NCO's and senior NCO's realize that the lieutenant is acknowledging his relative inexperience and is depending on them for advice and mentoring.
Q. What advice can you give a new lieutenant joining a unit in combat concerning his relationships with other officers in the unit?
A. I recommend that he get to know as many of his peers as soon as
possible. They possess valuable experience and perspective, even if they themselves recently joined the unit, that can benefit him greatly and reduce the "learning curve." In my opinion, he should focus on tactical and leadership related issues.
5. Overcoming fear and self-doubt
Q. I think the question everyone asks themselves prior to actually participating in combat is "when my first combat action takes place, will I be able to overcome my natural fear of death and do my job effectively?" What advice do you have for leaders who have yet to face combat? What can they do to enhance their ability to perform well under fire?
A. I agree that every warrior, prior to facing combat for the first time, wonders how he will react under fire.
I think the pressure is greater for those in a leadership position (enlisted or officer) because they know that they will have to make decisions that will affect the outcome of the combat action and that these decisions will have to be made under stressful conditions that they have yet to experience. I believe that most of the pressure faced by leaders who have yet to experience combat stems from their genuine concern that they could potentially make mistakes or errors in judgment which cost men's lives.
I recommend that anyone who is trying to prepare himself to lead in combat to read everything possible on the topic. There are many fine books on combat leadership and the reflections and insights contained in them can enable the inexperienced leader to understand what many others experienced the first time they had to lead under fire. I also recommend seeking the advice of others who have combat experience of any degree and in any role, officer, junior enlisted, NCO, etc. I think that personal conversations with combat veterans can result in a great amount of "knowledge transfer" that can enable an inexperienced leader to benefit from lessons learned in battles that were literally fought before they were born!
Q. Fear affects men in combat in many different ways. Combat leaders face several types of fear; fear of failing to accomplish the unit mission, fear of making tactical errors that cause their men to be killed or injured and fear of personal injury or death. What advice can you give on controlling and overcoming fear in its various forms?
A. Personally, I feel that there are two types of fear associated with being a combat leader. The first type is associated with the trepidations and self imposed stress a leader may experience prior to the actual combat action. This is when he will ask himself many questions such as "is my plan a good one.....am I forgetting anything, etc?" I believe that the vast majority of leaders in this situation are stressed primarily by their concerns that they may make errors in judgment or tactical mistakes that can cause avoidable casualties among their men. I have spoken with a good number of experienced combat leaders and many of them said that this type of fear and stress never really goes away. Many of them said that they learned to overcome it by becoming proficient at their job and having confidence in their abilities to lead their unit and accomplish the mission while minimizing casualties.
The second type of fear is that which actually happens during the combat action; the normal human fear of death or personal injury. Experienced combat leaders I have spoken to generally agree that it is not uncommon for members of combat units to exhibit signs of fear to the point that it can begin to affect their performance and in some cases, the performance of the entire unit. All of these combat veterans believed that it was the responsibility of the unit leaders to lead by example and inspire their men to overcome their fear. Most of them commented about the "contagious" effect that public displays of fear or pessimistic behavior or comments can have on a unit. They felt that it was the leaders responsibility to minimize this behavior within their units and to the personal example of leaders can play a very positive role in getting men to focus on the mission at hand.
As I have said previously, I have very limited combat experience, but I feel that for the most part, once a combat action begins most leaders are too busy trying to do their jobs to dwell on being scared or fearful for their own personal safety. I believe that if properly trained and mentally prepared to lead, react and make decisions under stressful conditions, most leaders will perform effectively during their initial combat action.
6. The effects of casualties on unit morale and effectiveness
Q. Combat operations typically involve casualties within the participating units. Much has been written and said about the effect that seeing their buddies wounded or killed has on the members of a combat unit. What are your personal experiences in this area and what advice can you offer to combat leaders so they may better control or minimize the potential damage that casualties can produce
A. Once again, I do not possess a great amount of first hand knowledge with casualties, especially when one compares my level of combat experience to that of some of the other folks here on CombatLeadership.com. That said, what I observed when my unit or an adjacent unit took casualties was very much along the lines of what more experienced combat vets had taught me to expect. I saw different men affected in different ways, especially if they had been close friends with those killed or wounded. I saw some men withdraw and keep to themselves, others were very vocal in expressing their feelings and others simply went about their duties looking a bit depressed.
I had been taught by my early mentors that when a unit experiences casualties, the small unit leaders can minimize the effects of casualties on the remaining men by keeping them focused on the mission at hand and getting their minds off of the fact that one of their buddies or a well respected leader, etc., has been wounded or killed. Men much more experienced than me had always told me that it is critical to get the men working together as a unit as soon as possible and to get their minds "back in the game." This was sound advice which I can honestly say worked well in the units I served in or personally observed.
7. The Combat Leader-General Observations
Q. Combat leaders come in all shapes and sizes and they range in effectiveness from superior to inferior. Based on your experience, what are the traits, characteristics, personalities, leadership styles, etc., that you feel are shared by most effective combat leaders. What about the ineffective combat leaders you have observed? What did they seem to have in common?
A. Most of the effective combat leaders I have known:
-Were strong willed and confident in their ability to lead
-Were emotionally steady and decisive, especially in situations of
-Were competent in the fundamentals of their profession (weapons
employment, small unit tactics, land navigation, etc).
-Led from the front and shared the dangers and hardships that their
men were exposed to
-Knew how to effectively utilize and employ supporting arms assets
-Were physically tough and could endure prolonged periods of little
sleep, food, creature comforts, etc.
-Were able to inspire men under the most difficult of conditions
-"Knew what they didn't know" and were not afraid to ask for help or
-Put mission accomplishment and the welfare of their men over their
B. Most of the ineffective combat leaders I have known:
-Were often lacking sufficient knowledge or competence in the
fundamentals of their profession
-Were indecisive and often let emotions guide their tactical
-Avoided or gave the appearance of avoiding the same dangers and
hardships their men were exposed to
-Were often ineffective in the employment of supporting arms
-Were prone to publicly complain about difficult living conditions
or lack of creature comforts
-"Did not know what they did not know" and were often too arrogant
to ask for help or did not even realize that they needed help
-Were prone to appear more concerned about their careers, personal
awards, etc., than mission accomplishment or the welfare of their