This article is an installment of The Everyday Warrior series, featuring advice, key interviews, and tips to live a life of impact, growth, and continual learning.
In 2014, I deployed back to Afghanistan, this time as a Special Forces Company Operations Sergeant. In the Special Forces world, company operations control an area of operations, or AO, and the six SF Teams within it. We primarily manage assets, coordinate operations, and provide material and logistical support to war-fighting Green Berets. Company Operations are referred to as Special Operations Detachment Bravo, or the B-team, for short. Let me be honest here, the B-Team is staffed with experienced operators who would rather be on Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA), where the action is.
Why wouldn’t they? If done right, the B-team capitalizes on the expertise of these senior operators to make sure the A-teams are taken care of. The expectation is that senior operators can predict what the ODAs need and be proactive in pushing assets instead of reacting to requests. The hard reality is that the Operations Sergeant—me, in the case of this deployment—spends a lot of time wrangling guys into staying put, where they’re needed. The B-team operators feel it’s their job to find any way possible to get out on operations—any and every operation.
In addition to the collection of always-hungry-to-leave B-team Green Berets, the SF company manages all the support staff. Non-SF qualified soldiers take care of everything from vehicle maintenance, supply, and the always-important chow hall. Soldiers need to eat!
I’m sure when you started this article you were hoping to read about our nations elite warriors flawlessly executing operations against the enemy. Sorry, we’re heading down a different path. I’m going to tell you a remarkable story about an Army cook who made a lasting impact on 88 battle-hardened Green Berets. I would keep reading if I were you, it’s worth your time.
The “hero” of our story is a young sergeant named Brian. SGT Brian was not an imposing soldier. He was a little on the short side, a little on the skinny side, quiet and polite. What SGT Brian lacked in physical stature, he made up for with his impact.
I started the deployment with SGT Brian cooking for my B-team. We had the biggest population, close to 100 people, and SGT Brian had the most experience. Of all the benefits to being in Special Forces—better training, great equipment, more control of our operations—sadly the food while deployed to Afghanistan was not one of them. What I quickly learned was SGT Brian was an expert in his kitchen and could make magic happen. What I learned next has stayed with me ever since.
SGT Brian knew what his responsibilities were and found every way possible to maximize his impact from his role. I was a little taken back when he asked me if he could start attending the daily operations briefing. I was excited when he manipulated his schedule to find ways to have hot food ready as units were leaving and when they got back in the wire. I was impressed when he found ways to mentor subordinate soldiers at other camps to do the same thing where they were. SGT Brian always looked for ways to make an impact. He prioritized his immediate responsibilities, then improved every aspect of his role. He learned the schedules of everyone in the camp and found ways that gave everyone access to good, hot meals when they needed them, not only at traditional mealtimes. SGT Brian built relationships, made friends, and improved the lives of those he served, and made one part of my job and my life a little nicer considering where I was.
And then my boss sent him away…What the hell?
I knew it was the right thing to do. I just didn’t want it to happen. We all saw how SGT Brian’s impact had improved our situation. The stresses of sustained combat operations were starting to take their toll on the A-teams in the fight and sending our “morale officer” to help was absolutely the right call. SGT Brian went from site to site on a four-week rotation and every time he made a difference. When it was time for him to rotate, teams produced every excuse as to why he had to stay. They tried every sob story available to them and attempted to manipulate operations to support their efforts to keep him. I was impressed with their creativity, but SGT Brian was always sent on to the next camp.
It’s safe to say most soldiers want to test their grit in combat. Cooks don’t get that chance often. It’s also true that space on a combat patrol is limited, and leaders are very selective about who they can and will take. A true testament to SGT Brian’s impact was when teams started to ask if they could take him on patrol to help him earn his Combat Action Badge, an award that Soldiers get when they are in direct actions against an enemy. I’m not sure how many cooks in the Army have earned the CAB, but my Special Forces Teams made sure he got the chance to earn his. In our world, there’s no better way to honor someone than to be willing to take them into the fight.
I learned a lot from SGT Brian on that deployment. He set the example for everyone around him and did it in the humblest way. He could have run his chow hall like everyone else, but he choose to be better. He lost a lot of sleep by working the odd schedules to make sure those around him were cared for. He sacrificed his personal comfort and never asked for anything other than ways he could help. SGT Brian was the best example of servant leadership I’ve ever witnessed.
SGT Brian taught me three lessons that I like to share:
1. Be impactful from any position
When we think of leaders, we’re typically drawn to images of historical leaders who, from positions of great power, change the world. When I think of being impactful, I think of Mother Teresa, working tirelessly to help those with nothing. Through small acts of kindness and limitless effort, she found ways to be impactful. She could have taken her notoriety and gone anywhere but she chose to stay, in the humblest of conditions, and continue her work. We can all make an impact from wherever we are. How many of us remember a teacher or a coach that impacted our lives? Influential people look for ways to inspire others. They find ways to give to those around them.
2. Prioritize those around you
What do you have to give? Everything, but the most impactful is your time. Take time to give someone a hand. Take time to be a listening ear. Take time to help someone who’s falling behind. Take time to get to know someone. When you prioritize those around you, you make an impact. Small ripples build over time, ultimately creating shock waves. Look for ways you can give at work, with friends and family, and in your community. There are always opportunities for you to prioritize others. My father-in-law ended up on the local news because he would bring in neighbors’ trash cans from the street. No one asked him to. He just saw a need and made the time.
3. Look for ways to be better
SGT Brian didn’t announce that he planned to make such an impact. He didn’t do it in search of praise. He just looked for ways he could be better at his goal of taking care of others. The first thing he did on the deployment was clean and reorganize his kitchen into a work place he was comfortable with. He started small and just looked for the next thing he could do. I remember when he asked if he could attend the operations briefing. I asked him why and with a shrug he simply said, “I want to see where I can help.” It takes time but getting better is a compounding endeavor. The more you do, the better you are. The more opportunities you take, the more impact you make. There are always efficiencies in whatever we do. When we combine our attempts to be more efficient with better ways to be helpful, our impact grows.
During my 2014 deployment, several amazing things happened. Acts of bravery, courage, and fortitude spotlighted the efforts of my teams. I was honored to write several awards for valor for well-deserving Green Berets. The award I was most proud to write was for SGT Brian. When the award was presented, his impact was evident by the volume of cheers and applauds.
I’ve told this story in every organization I’ve been with. The story of a young U.S. Army cook who just wanted to help and, in doing so, made a lasting impact.
SGM (Ret) Joshua Johnson is a 32-year veteran of the U.S. Army Special Forces and now serves as the Sr. VP of Leadership Development for Talent War Group.