Friday, July 9, 2010

Issues with Commander & Team

My team came back from a week's training in the north that saw us sneaking past Druze villages, traversing the Hula Valley (including a memorable crossing of the Jordan River) and clambering through trees and up 'n down football length cliff-sides. Unfortunately, a few sour run-ins with my boss and some peers left me with a different takeaway from the week.

The trouble started on Saturday night. Returning to base from Jerusalem, I took a bus to the closest town and then jumped in a cab. One confused cab driver later and I ended up at the wrong entrance to the base. When my commander swung by to pick me up, he did not seem to care that I had made it to the (wrong) entrance well before the deadline. Furious at what he described as (a) my late arrival and (b) my failure to inform him in advance that I may not make it in time, he gave me a piece of his mind and then suspended me from the next 36 hours of active training.

Frankly, I thought his anger and the punishment were misplaced given the circumstance. The real issue, however, merits more attention. According to my commander, my failure lies in failing to recognize that a soldier's duty is to immediately inform his supervisor about all challenges. My understanding had been that that it is preferable to resolve a problem on my own before running to report it to the boss.

Our different perspectives were obvious by our choice of metaphor. I reasoned that as a 25 year old with ample experience of living on my own, it was preferable to clean up a mess before running to inform daddy that the milk has spilled on the floor. But if your officer orders you to take out target X and then something occurs that makes you doubt your ability to succeed, my commander replied, you are obligated as a soldier to report the problem before anything else. Because if you shoot and miss, he concluded, the responsibility is mine and not yours. Decisions, in short, are not to be made by little soldiers like me. And so we come back to Saturday night. If I am not sure how best to return to base on a Saturday night, so the reasoning goes, I need to communicate the problem to my commanding officer before attempting to take care of it on my own.

I wasted no time in embracing my commander's position. Regardless of what I may think, the merit and authority of his words left me with no alternative. The problems that came to light this week between me and my peers, however, require a more confrontational response. And so at the weekly open forum, I opened my mind and let loose.

First I made it clear that I never willfully misunderstand Hebrew instructions. One of the guys had accused me of using my weak Hebrew as a cover for simply not paying enough attention to instructions. The accusation stung. No one in my unit knows what it is like to struggle with oral instructions, I told my wide-eyed audience, and just because I increasingly do not advertise my troubles does not mean they have disappeared.

Language issues were the least of my troubles. Being treated as the confused American, viewed with a mixture of pity and humor, never taken seriously even when I am in full command of the situation--that is the real issue I unloaded on my fellow soldiers. Maybe I am being unfair in requesting that my peers acknowledge my persistent gaps in the language while also respecting my ability to perform as well as any of them. Perhaps it is simply too much to expect from a bunch of teens working in a high stress environment. Then again, maybe that is why I am here, someone to challenge them to be more than age or circumstance suggest.

"Take me for who I am," I implored my peers. "Do not treat me as a mascot. Because that is not what I am here to do. Trust me, there are far funnier Americans. I did not enlist, did not sweat to get here, to be a silly punching bag for cross-cultural confusion. Allow me to be me."

UPDATE: My appeal to the guys had the desired effect. No drama yet definite signs of improvement. And nothing was lost, quite the opposite in fact, in the feelings of friendship between us.

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