At the Intersection of Values and Hardship

by Austen Boroff

Under certain circumstances, profanity provides relief denied even to prayer.” Mark Twain summarizes the crux of the leader dilemma I found myself in while deployed to Iraq: when is it acceptable to compromise important organizational values to lessen the hardship of an extreme operating environment? The issue arose at the crossroads of a continuous workday in a harsh environment, a new leader assuming responsibility, and the escaping element that music provides.

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Army Pfc. Matthew Wilson arrives at a tactical assembly area to relieve personnel and resupply ammunition during a mission supporting the Iraqi army’s 9th Division near Al Tarab, Iraq, March 18, 2017. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Jason Hull

Hardship

In October of 2016, I joined a M777A1 howitzer firing battery six months into a nine-month deployment to Northern Iraq. I was the unit’s first woman platoon leader. Soon, I found myself internally struggling to make a simple decision that necessitated a change to the daily norm. Removed from the typical garrison environment and placed in a position with coarse living conditions, I found myself contemplating the unnecessary and wrongly accusing my gender instead of my own insecurities for internally faltering on a simple decision.

Our mission was to provide lethal and non-lethal fires in support of coalition forces retaking Mosul. At our location there did not exist pre-established areas where my unit and I would live and work; we created our own establishment on the side of a desolate mountain using concrete walls, wood planks, and our own or contracted machinery. There were about 150 Soldiers that occupied and maintained six howitzer positions located about an hour and a half convoy away from any other element and our next higher leadership.

Large deviations in daily temperature ranges and an abrupt season change brought continuous rain in an unwaterproofed environment. Soldiers remained in full gear throughout the day and slept under the cover of concrete bunkers. Showers were few and far between, and portable latrine maintenance originally was irregular or nonexistent. Enough time in country remained before excitement about the prospect of redeployment could ensue, but too much time had passed for the mission itself to maintain its original drive and focus. Halloween was the start of more holidays that reminded the Soldiers that they continued to be away from their families.

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The deployed environment unintentionally provided Soldiers a level of comfort with the chain of command not normally afforded without constant interaction and communal living. In theater, there was little difference between work and private space which was shared constantly. The urgency of the situation created bonds not normally experienced when working on post stateside.

As comfort rises, one perhaps naturally moves away from a more professional climate. In such an environment, music was a reprieve in which we would all partake regardless of leader presence. It was background noise that removed the foreground of our immediate and isolated surroundings, which normally echoed with gunshots and explosive bangs from the village below.

Music was played on a distant speaker as Soldiers ate meals. We would play it in our operations tent at night, while lifting in groups in the outdoor “gym in a box,” but most often, while playing cards. We bided our time between missions cajoling each other at skills in these relative games of chance, and developed a closeness where perhaps we were not always as professional as we could and should be.

Conflict

About a month after my arrival, my platoon sergeant approached me about a new policy he wanted to enact, and for which he needed my support: the banning of all “unclean” music. He worried that the platoon’s transition from a deployed to garrison environment would be cumbersome, and the prevalence of this music had been steadily increasing.

Of course, it was the correct call to make. The Army Values were clear. In no modern workplace is it socially acceptable to play a sexually explicit or derogatory song out loud for bosses, coworkers, and subordinates to hear, much less to sing along to. It is not conducive to the environment that the Army is moving towards. What statement does the even passive approval of racially charged or gender demeaning songs seek to convey?

Strangely, I felt odd. Although supportive after our conversation, why did I not say something earlier and instead, why did I wait for my platoon sergeant to speak up? As I reflected, excuses crossed my mind. I was a brand-new platoon leader. I had not been a part of the team from the start. I was a fresh face that seemingly did not fully understand the trials and tribulations of the past six months of long nights, an oppressive Iraqi summer, and substandard living conditions. Music was a way that the Soldiers could vent. It was how they rewound and relaxed amidst an all too threatening environment sans standard workday. And now, their new female platoon leader would support and own this policy that would take that away from them.

Perhaps I naively did not want to upset a nonexistent balance between acceptance and authority, or worse, because I wrongly perceived this change was only because I, the female outsider, arrived. I selfishly feared that the Soldiers would see me, or women in general, as a negative addition to the team; the notorious lady that crushed their spirits because she felt “uncomfortable” in what was their habitat, and not the habitat of the interloper – me.

Unfortunately, I found that moves towards professionalism can breed disdain towards the perceived recipient of change. Buried resentment may exist within the organization stemming from the belief that the organization is changing solely for a minority of personnel, and not because the change is a greater shift towards a professional workforce or to recruit the best talent regardless of gender.

Finding a Balance…or Not

My platoon sergeant was right, and my perceptions were irrelevant. This was not about me—it was a leadership decision and that leader happened to be me. We had to realign ourselves and create a more professional work environment. Our leader climate could not condone words and thoughts that directly antagonized and degraded Army values. It would be clean music or no music at all.

TLC and Creed could be just as riveting as the most vulgar of tracks. We would own this policy; it would not be a platoon sergeant directive, but rather a platoon leadership decision rooted in our collective core values. We would return from deployment with a foundation for continued professionalism. Although there did exist initial pushback from leaders within the platoon, this small amendment created a larger culture shift that we envisioned for “rogue” platoon.

In retrospect, I am embarrassed that the support for my platoon sergeant and our “music policy” did not come easier to me. Leadership isn’t about perceived notions of friendliness or the ability to compromise at the expense of the organization. When it comes to ethics, that “gray” area, when removed from the situation, is usually not as vague as one would think. It is cut and dry, and if the answer is more difficult or awkward, it is because he or she already knows the correct response but has yet to muster the internal courage to carry out what must be done.

Austen Boroff is a graduate of the United States Military Academy, class of 2014. She served as a Fire Support Officer, Fire Direction Officer, and Platoon Leader with the 101st Division Artillery. She currently is serving as an Engagement Officer for the Field Artillery Proponent Office. You can contact her via Linked In, Austen Boroff, or Instagram @ay.boroff.

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  • Brad Dunn

    A very interesting and honest article. The arrival of fresh eyes in all deployed situation brings opportunity to assess. A similar situation occurred to me as a Sgt. In that case a newly arrived soldier asked me why a particular work practice was allowed here but not at home. It had snuck by the command team because we were focusing elsewhere. Thanks to his bravery in raising the issue the practice was stopped and we were better for it. Enjoy your ongoing leadership journey.