First Person Singular

(Matthew Girard)
Sunday, May 4, 2008

I LEARNED EARLY ON, when I was a platoon leader during my first tour, that leaders have to set the example. They have to exact discipline. I always woke up every day assuming that every soldier in my outfit wanted to do well. And it's the leader's job to ensure that they do well.

My first platoon, I'm not so sure I was a good platoon leader. At the time I did. But you learn at each posting. You get more mature. You get to see different things. I think the first time it hit me was when I was a company commander in 1982, as a captain, when I had to give my first Article 15, which is punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. And I had a young soldier that kind of messed up a little bit. He had a family, two kids, and here I was a young 32-year-old captain, and I was judge and jury. What type of punishment was I going to give this man? Whether I was going to take a stripe away from him, which meant he'd lose money, which meant his family would lose money. And I can remember sitting there as I listened to him explain to me why he made a mistake. And I asked myself, "I wonder if I failed as a leader or if the leaders below me did everything they should have done to ensure that this soldier didn't make the mistake -- and didn't think he could get away with something?" I let him off easy. He ended up being a good soldier. I let him off because I wasn't sure, in my mind, whether we set the right conditions for his success. It reminded me that we're all human beings.

I grew up in the '50s and '60s, and, you know, there was more punishment than there was counseling. And I think I may have been a better father, having been platoon leader and company commander. So, when my kids didn't do well, I always asked myself: "Okay, did I tell them exactly what I wanted? Did they fully understand?" And then, when they made a mistake, I'd say, "Okay, did they really mean to do this, or was it just because they're 16 years old and immature? And how do I get them to understand why I don't want them to do it again versus just saying, 'Don't do it again.'" By the way, today, both of them are leaders in our Army. They're both captains. One's [deployed] as a company commander in combat for his fourth tour. They both fly Apache helicopters. I don't know if I was a role model, but I know that I was a leader.

-- Interview by Cathy Areu

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