Leader Guilt

bg5Guilt can manifest in interesting ways within the life of soldiers. We are mostly familiar with survivor guilt among soldiers and their battle buddies. However a lesser known type of guilt is leader or commander guilt. Leaders from the rank of PFC to General Officers can experience leader guilt. It is the guilt that arises from having to make decisions in battle that ultimately winds up costing fellow soldiers and subordinates their lives.

In April of 2007 and having been in Ramadi since January, we received word of the first of five movements to contact against a known enemy. Our command element had all changed over to a new Battalion Commander (BN CDR), XO, S-3 and CSM. The BN CDR had never lost a soldier in combat.

Our first movement to contact took a few days to execute. The element of surprise was of utmost importance. Two nights into the movement, a young soldier came to see me. They had him working in the S-1 section, “pushing paperwork” as he called it and was certain that he would never see combat if things continued the way they were going. He asked if there was anything he could do to demonstrate to the command that he was ready to actively work within his MOS of 19D (Cavalry Scout). I encouraged him to stay the course, complete all his tasks and not to whine or complain because the new command was tired of hearing the new guys complaining. I asked him if I could pray for him and he said yes. He was not particularly religious but welcomed the idea. I prayed 1 Corinthians 16:9 over him and asked God for guidance and protection.

The next night, while shooting the breeze with some soldiers by a camp fire we had built; our new CSM came up and told me that it was pretty cool the relationship I had built with the guys. The more he and I talked the more “the guys” felt uncomfortable and one by one went to find something else to do. Before long it was the CSM, a Platoon SGT and an E-5 (the E-5 was the CSM’s driver). We talked about everything from the soldiers’ girl friends to the mission and how we thought it was going to go.

Our next phase of the mission which was the engagement itself was to kick off at 0300 hrs and it was already 2300. So, I made mention that I would be hitting the sleeping bag soon. The CSM spoke up and said “before you do and since you have a great relationship with these guys, is there anyone who is standing out to you as a squared away soldier.” I took this as an answer to prayer and mentioned the name of the soldier who had come to see me the night before. I told the CSM how I thought he was ready to be out front. The CSM said, “You know, I was thinking the same thing a few days ago as I looked at who we have. If, God forbid we need to back fill current guys he was one on the top of my list. You are a good Chaplain, we think a lot alike.” Now I have never been one to argue with a compliment, but I was really hoping that the standard for a “good Chaplain” was not that I think like the CSM.

We successfully engaged our target a few hours later with minor equipment damage from very old tank mines; one reported concussion and no other injuries. By morning we had taken over a small village using Bradley Fighting Vehicles and other up armored military vehicles. Not sure what the casualty rate was among those we engaged but it was quite interesting to see entire displaced families walking down the road to look for another place to live.

The next set of details is covered more thoroughly in my book: “From Hide and Seek to Marco Polo: My Brother’s Shoes.” In conjunction with the May offensive and the number of guys lost, one of them was the soldier that came to talk to me back in April.

03-ch03-chaplain-at-fallen-soldiers-crossThe offensive and recovery of personnel and materiel took a day and a half. However, immediately after rendering initial honors and on our way to Mortuary Affairs with the remains of two of our soldiers, I started planning the memorial. When we arrived at the Mortuary, the CSM came up to me and said, “I know what you are thinking because I am thinking the same thing. It is NOT your fault this soldier died.” As we stood over his remains, I wondered, whose fault was it? I could not help but to think that if I did not offer up his name as being a good candidate for a mission platoon that he would still be alive.

Once we returned, the BN CDR, the CSM, me and the S-3 sat down to discuss the memorial. The BN CDR looked right at me and thanked me for honoring our soldiers and then he said, “I need to speak with you after this meeting. I need help drafting a letter to the families.” My heart sunk! An hour later, I met him in his make shift office which used to be some Iraqi family’s living room and he said to me, “These soldiers are the first combat losses I have experienced.” And with a tear in his eye, “What do I say to these families?” I said, “Sir, I am not real sure right now but we can work on it together.” He wrote the letters and I proof read them. Then the real hard part came. He wanted me in the room with him as he called each of the families. Before he called, he asked that I pray with him. The day before the memorial, he called each family.

Once all the calls were complete, he asked for time to be alone and shared that not only were these soldiers his first losses but that he will forever carry them as his personal responsibility. Right then it hit me, what I am feeling for one soldier he was feeling for all three and for the wounded (including some who lost limbs). Being at the top is a lonely place and the higher you go the less people you have to share your issues with. This is true for all leaders that send soldiers into harm’s way.

I am thankful for the time and service I experienced with all of the soldiers I have deployed with. I am even more thankful for the Fallen I have honored. It was and is a privilege for me to be with leaders in today’s military as they have to make the hard choices of battle.

Recently, I had some pictures developed from that January 2007-April 2008 deployment. Of the seven rolls of film only 20 pictures developed. One of them was of the soldier mentioned above. He had volunteered to lay on a stretcher for a mock mass casualty exercise and I captured his picture as my Chaplain Assistant wrapped his “injuries”. I plan on framing the photo so I can continue to remember to pray for his family and all the leaders in our military that will have to make similar decisions in the future.

FallenSoldier2In conclusion, I have realized that God is big enough to handle my questions, doubts and fears. God is no less because of the choices we make. Therefore, his Mercy and Grace are always sufficient. I trust my God with the souls of all who I work with and understand that placing blame is the job of the enemy of this world. The bottom line is this awesome soldier died serving this great country and fighting an enemy who refused to back down. Several days later, we mounted an offensive to the same area and removed the threat from that location without further incident or loss. We are finite, God is infinite!

“For there is a great and effectual door open unto you, but there are many adversaries.” 1 Corinthians 16:9

Mijikai Mason
Disclaimer: The thoughts and views published on the Veterans to Christ blog are those of Mijikai Mason and in no way are meant to represent the United States Army or the Armed Forces.

Bio: Mijikai Mason is an Ordained Southern Baptist minister and Chaplain in the United States Army. He has been in the Army for 26 years both as an enlisted Soldier and now as an Officer. He has been stationed at various bases in the United States and in United States Army Garrison Schweinfurt, Germany. He holds an undergraduate degree in Religion from the University of Mobile, a Master of Divinity degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in Theology and Evangelism and a Master of Arts degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from Webster University. Chaplain (MAJ) Mijikai Mason was selected by the Army in 2013, to become a Family Life Chaplain and began his service in this field starting 15 May 2015. He is the Deputy ESC Chaplain and Family Life Chaplain for the 593 Expeditionary Support Command at Joint Base Lewis McCord. He has deployed four times: Desert Storm (1991), Iraq twice (2005-2006; 2007-2008), and Afghanistan (2012-2013). He has a total of 42 months deployed in combat and logistics operations. Mijikai and his wife, Ashley, have been married for 17 years this May and live near Joint Base Lewis McChord, Washington with their four daughters.