In my novel, “Off Switch,” which addresses both PTSD among soldiers and veterans and the pandemic suicide rate that is FINALLY getting more attention in the media, I address two issues in particular which are leading to the staggering rate of suicide, currently reported as 22-each day, though those numbers would be much higher if the DOD actually included the Army Reservists and National Guardsmen who commit suicide in their count as well.
These two main culprits I address are severe substance abuse, mismanagement of medication the Department of Veterans Affairs and Army hospitals call it, and toxic leadership.
The first issue is quite self-explanatory, but the second, not so much. In laymen’s terms, toxic leadership involves abusive leaders- both physically and emotionally abusive- though we mostly see it in the form of ‘hands off, no physical evidence provable’ emotional abuse, like constant hazing, even in combat zones where it is uncalled for and does NOTHING to promote the mission.
This often leaves scars- a sense of anti-authority- in the abused service member that is long to fade, if it ever does, which in turn leads to the inability to trust and extreme alienation from others.
However, there are great, competent, motivating leaders within the ranks of the U.S. armed forces who have sacrificed not just their enlistment terms, or one weekend a month and two weeks a year to do the right thing as far as leadership goes, but who have committed their entire being to this cause. One such leader is First Sergeant Byron Humphrey of the United States Army.
I first knew First Sergeant Humphrey as ‘Drill Sergeant’ Humphrey back in infantry school and AIT at Fort Benning, Georgia. I had enlisted in the National Guard at the ripe age of thirty three and was actually thirty four by the time I made it to basic, and in spite of my years, which should have led to a more mature insight that often brings calm in spite of oncoming storms, I was terrified! I knew it would be hard, but I feared that because of my age, that my prime was well behind me and that after the Army ‘broke me down’ in the first half the cycle, there would be nothing left to ‘build back up.’
These fears intensified when I laid eyes on the rock of a man who was to be my platoon’s Drill Sergeant. He entered the foyer once we’d marched to the reception area, jaw tight, eyes level with the horizon. His chest was bulging though he was making no effort to stick it out. His shoulders were broad and as square as his jaw, and he had an air of confidence like I’ve rarely seen. I remember thinking I’d made the biggest mistake of my life, and that no; I hadn’t enlisted at nearly middle age, because this decision, for me, was going to make the mid-point of my life age 17. I was going to die.
And then he spoke.
“I’m not a screamer,” he said when he first addressed us. “I don’t yell. I don’t punish people for crimes they don’t commit. We are at war, and within one year of the time you leave here, ninety percent of you will be in either Iraq or Afghanistan. It is my job to train you and instill in you the necessary skills you’ll need to come back. Follow me.”
As he led us to our bay, where we would begin learning the rules and start our training, my fears subsided, but my respect for this man who I’d just met was elevated. This was not the screaming, red faced dictator type I’d seen on movies like “Full Metal Jacket.” Was I in the right place?
Over the course of the next 14 weeks I would watch as Drill Sergeant Humphrey put his money where his mouth was. Not only did he train us beyond a point which few of us thought we could go, but he was right there training with us. He too was in his thirties, yet he could run circles around every man in our platoon, many of who were nearly half his age, do more pushups and sit-ups than any of us, and shoot any weapon we shouldered better than the best man among us. He was a super soldier, while at the same time performing all the required tasks and responsibilities as the super leader he also was.
He remained true to his word the entire cycle. He didn’t scream unnecessarily. He didn’t punish people when there was no need. He motivated the incorrigible, quickened the obtainment of maturity in so many of the youth, and helped old geezers like me find gears we never knew we had, which enabled us not to return to our primes, but get closer to them than any other means I would have imagined possible.
Sure, there’s always “that guy.” And we had “that guy” who challenged Drill Sergeant Humphrey. He had grown up, fatherless, in the inner city and had been involved in gang activity, and at the age of 18, the Army represented this young man’s last stop before the train reached the station.
Yet, even in dealing with this young man, Drill Sergeant Humphrey kept his cool, was reserved, and didn’t yell and scream and punish the group for anything stupid this individual was doing.
Rather, he delegated authority with the wisdom of a corporate CEO or a competent Commander in Chief. He took another soldier, one who was very serious, very disciplined- the exact opposite of this young man- and paired the two together as battle buddies. Oh, the laughs we had over that, when “Private Serious” would take “Private Dirt Bag” down to the foyer when our grueling , 16-hour days were through, and put him through more, private, battle buddy instruction; drill and ceremony, memorization of weapon mechanics, etc. By the end of the cycle, “Private Dirt Bag” had become one of the most squared away soldiers in our platoon, and “Private Serious” had learned to lighten up and laugh, and the two of them had become great friends.
Drill Sergeant Humphrey had never raised his voice.
I’d come from a strong athletic background, having been a state champion miler in high school and running track and cross country in college, but those years were a third of my lifetime behind me, and I thought I’d never see anything remotely close to them again.
Drill Sergeant Humphrey did not see things this way.
He motivated me, pushed me, and pulled the magic back out of me that I thought had long ago died. As a result, I lead not only my platoon in PT but the entire brigade during my cycle. I scored a 360 on the final PT test, which has a maximum score of 300, of basic training, having done, in two minutes, 95 pushups, 100 sit-ups, and then running a timed two miles in 11:30. Yes, my body did these things at the age of 34, but it was Drill Sergeant Humphrey’s motivation and leadership style that made my mind realize it was possible.
At the time, the highest physical training scoring soldier in basic training was often rewarded with a trip to airborne school for their performance. There were two slots available for this in our platoon and I remember how happy I was thinking that I would be going to airborne school and fulfilling a lifelong fantasy of so many who have ever served; jumping out of planes and earning my wings. However, the Army didn’t want to “waste the slot” on me because I was a National Guardsman. I understood their position. I would not be going to an airborne unit. I would never jump again. I would become only what we call a five-jump-chump.
Drill Sergeant Humphrey, when informing me that I might not make it to airborne because of my guard status, looked me in the eyes and asked me if I really wanted it, and if I promised to work as hard there as I had in basic if he could pull it off. I told him yes, and he spent endless hours over the next few days, in lengthy meetings with people way above him in rank, and he finally got me the slot to airborne school.
He told me, “It isn’t about what unit you are going to. It’s about what you did here at basic, and you kicked a##!” I went to Airborne School, I became a five jump chump, and I got my wings. And this is not so much because I “kicked a##,” but because my leader also kicked a##. He not only motivated me to such a high level of performance, but he also went to bat for me when I needed him.
I’ve stayed in touch with First Sergeant Humphrey, first minimally and professionally as my short lived, one enlistment career in the military progressed, I’ll always remember the times he checked in with me while I was in Iraq to make sure I was okay, and a little more personally now that I am a civilian once again. When I found out he’d made it to the rank of First Sergeant, arguably the most respected position, enlisted or commissioned, in the entire Army, I was not surprised and I was as happy for him as I’ve ever been for myself when good things have come my way.
First Sergeant Humphrey has deployed more than half a dozen times. He lost his best friend in Iraq. The grueling life of the full time combat soldier who is always on a constant deployment cycle has taken drastic tolls on his personal life and has cost him a marriage. He could have chosen the saner, more stable, and certainly the safer lifestyle of the civilian sector at any of the numerous times that he has been up for re-enlistment, yet he has stepped forward, repeatedly, in spite of his personal losses, to lead the way for others.
I’ve drawn on many of the lessons I learned during those 14 weeks under Drill Sergeant Humphrey’s care at Fort Benning. I remembered the lessons during the tough times in Iraq, and I’ve drawn from them in the private sector since. The biggest lesson First Sergeant Humphrey has taught me is that your age, your competition- none of the circumstances around you- matter in determining the outcome of your situation. It is your will; the indomitable will that is within each of us. We just need to learn how to pull it out.
First Sergeant Byron Humphrey taught me how to dig deep and find my will, and he continues to do so for others as a First Sergeant in the United States Army. There is no doubt in my mind that the day will come when he is doing the same for the First Sergeants under his leadership when he becomes a Sergeant Major!