The phrase “stay in your lane” is military speak for “mind your own business.” It’s usually said when an enlisted man gets into officer business or vice-versa, or when one specialist tries to do another specialist’s job. In one particular case, it meant one battalion commander proving himself an ass.
On the ramp up for our mission in Iraq, my National Guard unit trained at Fort Hood. We were an armor division being reflagged as an infantry division.
I had been a company commander until the chain of command decided to break up my company and disperse it through the rest of the battalion. That’s when I was made the S-1 officer, a first lieutenant filling a captain’s position. The position is commonly referred to as adjutant and is responsible for handling personnel issues. The civilian equivalent would be human resources administrator.
I hated that position. The typical adjutant is the hardest working officer in the battalion. I felt like a fish out of water.
Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Hall, my battalion commander, had already told me he didn’t have time to teach me how to do my job, so it was well established I didn’t have the support of my chain of command. Besides that, the senior non-commissioned officer in my section, a staff sergeant filling a sergeant first class role, and I had our issues. To top it off, we were expected, as is usual for any of the military services, to perform mission miracles without the proper levels of equipment. Not even a roll of duct tape could fix our problems.
As a part of our training exercise, staff officers were tasked with preparing operation orders. Battalion operation orders, however, were based on brigade orders. We couldn’t do our jobs until the order was issued.
Nevertheless, LTC Hall wanted a preliminary order, an order that is issued before the actual order to give subordinate commanders (company level, in our case) a heads up about an upcoming mission. Of course, he had given us a deadline. I don’t remember the details of the particular mission – there were so many.
In trying to gather information regarding the operation we were pretending to prepare for, I paid a visit to the brigade adjutant’s office and started asking for information about the supposed order. They weren’t forthcoming with any information. In fact, I was told point blank that they wouldn’t release any details until the order was published. I did what any staff officer would have done in that situation. I paid a visit to the brigade operations office.
The operations office in an Army unit is the publisher of all operations orders. Each section sends their portion of the order to the operations office and they compile it then publish it. It works that way at every level of the Army.
One of the brigade operations officers was a captain who had been company commander previous to me in our regular garrison set up. His name was Paul Cerniauskas. He was a very approachable officer closer to my age and rank who had been helpful to me on a number of occasions. Based on our previous relationship, I sought to get some information. All he could tell me was the expected date the order was to be published. At least it was more than the brigade adjutant officers could tell me.
LTC Hall liked staff meetings. He had one every day, whether it was necessary or not. Under any other commander they would have lasted an hour. LTC Hall liked them long. The longer the better. It was not unusual to have a routine staff meeting run two or three hours.
When you are already expected to perform the impossible with limited resources and you spend half your day in a staff meeting instead of preparing the work you’ve already been assigned, it makes the stress levels rise a little higher. LTC Hall and I were not fans of each other as it was.
In one of our staff meetings, he went around the room and had each staff officer brief him and the company commanders on the progress of the preliminary order we were working on. It was all “busy work” and no one had any information. When it was my turn, I looked at LTC Hall and said, “Captain Cerniauskas in the S-3 office said the order would not be published until …” and stated the date Captain C had relayed to me.
LTC Hall’s response slapped me in the face like a cold, crisp hand.
“Lieutenant Taylor, stay in your lane.”
It was a typical response from LTC Hall. He liked everything done in a certain way, which was more often than not unstated. If you didn’t meet his unspoken expectations, he would cut you down publicly. He was known to belittle his officers and humiliate them on the spot. He had done it to me on several occasions. Building loyalty was not on his agenda.
I threw my notebook against the wall and rose to my feet.
“Do you have a problem with me, sir? Just say it.”
That’s what I would have done if I’d had the balls. Instead, I glared into his eyes, trying to figure out whether he was serious or just jacking me around. He squinted, the way a tiger would do just before pouncing on its prey. I wanted to jump the table and eat the tiger, a too-thoughtful musk deer who just wanted to get the job done and go home.
An officer against the war on principle, I felt stuck. I didn’t want to do a poor job and jeopardize the mission. That could cost lives. But I didn’t want to play games either. LTC Hall was concerned about one thing – playing king. He had his throne. I had my stool.
Eventually, LTC Hall would replace me as battalion adjutant. It was just as well. I hated the job.
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