I believe that J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy should be required reading for Sergeants and Lieutenants. Before reading an FM or TM, before learning how to do land navigation or assault an objective, these young leaders must internalize the burden of responsibility and devotion required in an effective non-commissioned officer and commissioned officer relationship. All success in the military hinges on it.
Where there is a platoon leader, there is a platoon sergeant. Where there is a company commander, there is a first sergeant. Where there is a battalion or brigade commander, there is a command sergeant major. Throughout all staff sections there is an “officer in charge” (OIC) and a “non-commissioned officer in charge” (NCOIC). These are coveted titles for it means that these persons, this team is the bearer of responsibility, together.
When Frodo leaves the Shire, he leaves with Sam. Frodo carries a small ring, a trinket that looks like it weighs merely ounces. Sam is burdened by a massive pack of food, pots and pans and various sundries presumably to keep both of them alive for the journey. Their burdens are similar and different. Both are heavy, and both take their toll on each. And the journey from the Shire to Mordor cannot be complete without both men (hobbits).
Sam watches out for “Mr. Frodo,” the friend whom he watches deteriorate under the weight of his burden. Sam is simply held to the standard of his “promise” which he made to Gandalf to never leave his side. Even as Frodo attempts to take the burden on alone, and not cause further grief to his teammates, Sam sacrificially runs into a life threatening situation to fulfill his promise. Frodo rescues him, and they move along. Sam protects Frodo with a fierce loyalty, and works diligently to care for both their needs. Frodo stumbles under the weight of his burden, and Sam volunteers to assume responsibility for it, though he cannot. It was meant for Frodo to bear, and Sam only assumes this responsibility when the success of their mission is threatened, returning it to Frodo once the threat has passed.
If non-commissioned officers (NCOs) are the backbone of the military, it is because they not only provide uprightness (standards), but also because they connect the head with the feet, protecting the fragile spinal column and all of the nerves that enable system to gather and process information. That OIC can create that perfect powerpoint slide reflecting the perfect work that the NCOIC is doing, because the NCOIC is doing it. Both are necessary, both accomplish the mission. Both care for one another, and look out for each other.
But it is not always a happy union, for they see the world in different ways. They will clash and disagree, and there has to be room for disagreement and an open forum for discussion. Both must set aside their own personal pride, respectfully, and place the mission first. And both must give input as to how they see the world and the mission, and both will leave the discussion with different tasks and responsibilities to accomplish, for the mission.
Chaplains are not ready for chaplain assistants, and vice versa. Chaplains are often accustomed to being the sole worker in the church, from janitor to secretary to preacher and counselor. They don’t know how to delegate well and not feel guilty about assigning work, for they view their assistant as a parishioner as well, and they wish to not burden them either. Just as Frodo attempted to run off and complete the mission alone. Chaplain assistants, by and large, have joined up because they believe in the mission of the chaplaincy. Most that I have seen are ready to pounce on every great idea the chaplain may blurt out over dinner, and do it quite well. The good ones are doggedly protective over their chaplain and the mission, and may have to be reined in, just as Sam had to be pulled back from attempting to stab Aragorn at the Inn of the Prancing Pony. The effective chaplain will allow their assistant to bear an equal share of the burden. The effective assistant will take on the burden and tell their chaplain to rest.
It is amazing to see how effective a Unit Ministry Team can be when they begin to fire on all eight cylinders. And it looks just like Frodo and Sam. There are misunderstandings, but they push through, for the sake of the mission. There are differences of opinion, but they compromise for the sake of the mission. They respect each others’ strengths and cover over one another’s weaknesses. And, above all else, they never allow water to seep into the crack to form ice and break the rock that holds together the morale and spirit of the unit. An OIC & NCOIC should never be seen to be in disagreement in public. They should maintain unit integrity, in their two person unit, and present a united front.
I can honestly say, that beyond a shadow of a doubt, I have been schooled in chaplaincy during the past year, by a bulldog. I have been taught to relax (though it will always be hard to do) and not overthink things. I have been made to stop and laugh, to watch an inspirational movie at just the right time, when he sees that my heart grows faint within me. I have been shown that I can express an idea and watch it grow into reality even faster than I imagined.
My bulldog is a stickler for standards, but won’t ever tell me to pull my hands out of my pockets. Sometimes I do it just to prove that I don’t like to play by the rules. He can see and bring out the best in everyone, with greater skill and dedication than some very high level “leaders” I have known. I am much better for having known him and served alongside him. He puts up with my quiet attitude and moodiness. He says he has a hard time figuring me out, though in truth there really wasn’t much to figure out. We can both overthink things.
I hate to leave him, but know that he will continue the mission seamlessly when I am gone. He is deserving of higher ranks and accolades than I can bestow on him, and I hope to serve with him again in a different place. My eternal gratitude for keeping me alive and sane, Mike. Only you know how hard that really was.