The door to the First Sergeant’s office swung open and Top – all five-feet four-inches of him – exclaimed in his unmistakeable Alabama drawl, “That new commandah is gonna bring a fahr to this heah place!” rubbing his hands together with a broad, toothy smile as disturbing as Jack Nicholson’s face coming through the bathroom door in The Shining. “He’s a damn scunion bringah!”

I had no idea what a scunion* bringer was, but it didn’t sound good. To a new second lieutenant who was lucky to find the motor pool for Wednesday afternoon motor stables, our new company commander was already intimidating enough without an added layer of ambiguity. Once the First Sergeant had settled back into his normal self, I had to ask: “Top, what’s a scunion bringer?”

“Oh, y’all gonna find out, L-T! Y’all gonna find out real damn soon!”

There’s a new sheriff in town

Broad-shouldered and thick-chested, Clem Ward never so much as smiled as he labored through his change of command inventory. If a tool set layout wasn’t executed to perfection, he simply made note of the hand receipt holder and walked away without conducting the inventory. His battle dress uniform was immaculate, perfectly pressed with crisp creases, his sleeves rolled tightly around arms so think they looked like they belonged on a professional wrestler. His jump boots carried a showroom shine, bright enough to reflect the harsh Kentucky summer sun. His eyes never showed a hint of emotion.

His recruiting poster appearance was impressive enough, but the “take no prisoners” attitude that he brought to the inventory signaled a sea change in leadership style. In the wake of his change of command, gone were the “good old days” we had known under his predecessor. Lieutenants were systematically charged for lost or missing property. Leaders who failed to perform were shown the door to the company headquarters. He didn’t just set the example, he expected others to follow it.

There was a new sheriff in town, and Clem Ward was laying the scunion on anyone who couldn’t toe the line.

What I Learned from the Scunion Bringer

In time, he would ease us all back from the edge, and I would learn that he was more coach than poster boy, more teacher than disciplinarian, more mentor than scunion bringer. From him, I would learn many lessons, many of which remain with me today. We couldn’t have been more different, and as a young officer I often found myself struggling to understand his decisions even as I admired their efficacy. In Clem Ward I found the model leader that would guide my professional development through the formative years of my career, and the wisdom and patience to be a better husband, father, and human being.

The scunion bringer proved to be more philosopher than “Hell on wheels.” He didn’t always say a lot, but when he did, he’d share a piece of himself that hung in the air for a moment, then was gone. To some, they may have seemed too cliché to capture. But to me, they made all the sense in the world.

You only get one chance to make a first impression.

Whether you’re walking into a new unit for the first time or interviewing for a job, put your best foot forward in everything you do. It only takes seconds to set an impression that lasts a lifetime. Make every one of them count.

If you’re going to do a job, do it right.

Take pride in your work. When assigned a task, put the effort into it to produce the very best outcome possible. If you own it, make it yours, and do it right.

There is no substitute for tough, realistic training.

The best way to prepare your troops for the uncertainties they will face is to make their training as difficult and challenging as possible. Patton said it best: “A pint of sweat will save a gallon of blood.” The tougher and more realistic you design peacetime training, the easier it will be for them to make the transition to war.

Set the example in everything you do.

If you set the bar, everyone else will strive to follow your lead. Give your troops someone to look up to, someone they can trust to follow. Give your peers someone they can look to with respect. And give your superiors someone they can rely on no matter what the situation.

What you leave behind is the greatest measure of your success.

Whatever you are assigned to do, leave it better than when you received it. Never be content to “tread water” in a job, push to leave a positive legacy for those who follow after you.

Parenthood doesn’t come with do-overs.

You only get one chance to be a father or mother to your children. Take time for them, even if it means coming back to work after they are in bed.

Always pay attention to the little things.

The Devil’s in the details. From how you account for property to how well you care for your equipment and your people, the little things matter. Put in the extra time to ensure you get them right.

Never mess with the voodoo, man. That shit is real.

To this day, I have no idea what he meant by this, but I never forgot it, either. I’m sure it was important, though, or he wouldn’t have said it.

Take the time to gather the facts.

Never rush to judgment. There are two sides to every story; take the time necessary to hear both of them. Before you take disciplinary action, make sure you have all the relevant facts. It matters.

Lead, follow, or get out of the way.

While Patton may bear the attribution for this quote, Clem Ward personified it. We’re leaders, first and foremost. When in charge, take charge, and don’t look back.

 

*scunion [skuhn-yuhn]: A term used in the late 1960s during the Vietnam War to signal inflicting distress, injury, or destruction, as in bring scunion. “Those gunships brought scunion on that ‘ville!”

 

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.