11/22/2012 12:47 am ET Updated Jan 21, 2013

Army Lessons Learned and the Vote

A civilian friend recently attended a U.S. Army promotion ceremony where a Lieutenant (LT) was advanced to the rank of Captain (CPT). Commenting on how much he enjoys attending such events, he added, "It's like witnessing the decisive moment when a leader is born." Promotions and promotion ceremonies have a mystical quality. Recalling cinematic displays of patriotism, national and global greatness, promotion ceremonies have an endearing effect on the person being promoted as well as on the people in the audience.

Getting promoted in the Army is a statement that says, "You are more than good enough." It's the promoting party's recognition that "what you've done is an indication of what you will probably do, and we, the promoting party, have trust in that probability, and trust in you for the future." As a Sergeant First Class (SFC), I can say firsthand that getting promoted does indeed feel great. However, the good feeling fades quickly as the complex burden of leadership makes itself known. One might think of this burden as consisting of trainings, inspections, meetings, reports, equipment valuations, requests, deadlines, conflict resolutions... I think you get the picture. However, the actual burden of leadership centers on decision making. Consequently, getting promoted leads to moments when one must accept and understand that his or her decision will affect more than himself or herself, and that the aforementioned trust is in one's ability to think beyond oneself. Sometimes you'll have months to make a decision, other times only seconds. The Army attempts to instruct its members in decision making through a mentally rigorous course known as the "Military Decision Making Process" (MDMP). Shortly after course completion, the real world steps in, and with it the tougher, more lasting lesson of outcomes.

For me, long before being promoted to SFC, the lesson of outcomes came when I was appointed as the Team Leader on a training mission in an unforgiving desert. Equally unforgiving was the scrutiny of two Observer Controllers (OCs), under whose watchful eye this mission and my leadership were to be conducted. A few days into the mission, several of my team developed blisters on their feet from the long moves between points, and those blisters became painful, bleeding sores. With many miles to go, my medic did what he could with what he had, but my options for preventing additional loss of their mission capability were to stop moving (which we couldn't do), or to wear something other than the standard-issue combat boot. On the eve of the final push to our objective, and knowing that we each had specific alternate clothing items in our rucksacks, I made the decision to let the men with blisters wear their sneakers instead of the boots. It was a leadership decision that maintained team mobility and individual mission capability. It was unpopular with some, but team cohesion held as the sneaker wearers were reclassified by the OCs as "Wounded in Action."

On that final push, less than 10 miles from our objective, a drone flew overhead and released a gas agent. We immediately donned our protective masks and started moving rapidly to get out of the area. After about an hour of shuffling in the desert sun with that damned mask on my face, I was informed that my team may have gotten beyond the contaminated area, but before giving the "all clear" for us to remove our masks, I had to test the surface area and air for biological/chemical agents. The scenario said that I didn't have the special equipment to test air particles, and I didn't have the special tape (like litmus paper) that would react to the presence of biological/chemical agents. As the leader, my challenge was to find a way to test the air without these items and to continue on the mission. The OCs looked at me intently, waiting for me to make what the three of us knew to be my only available decision. I looked to the masked heads of my men, and then to their feet. I ordered the ones wearing sneakers to take off their masks. There was no hesitation, no "why me?" and no "who gave you the right?" They followed my order. Before they could completely remove their mask, having only broken the seal, one OC (the SFC) tagged them as "Killed in Action" (KIA). Under my leadership we reached our objective and achieved our mission, but my decision at that particular time and in that particular place had a particular outcome -- the death of three soldiers.

Those of us who serve do so with the knowledge that we can die on any given mission, or even in training (which happens more frequently than you think). The personal outcomes for our individual decisions are easy to accept. For those of us who lead such missions and training, it's a different story. However inevitable my death from my decision may be, it's not acceptable that my decision causes the death of my fellow soldier or citizen. My only redemption (if redemption applies) is the process by which I made my decision. The process did not involve the color of their masked skin. It did not reference the so-called color of the state they called home. It considered, instead, the ongoing triage that downgraded their condition from "Minimal" (the walking wounded) to "Expectant" (critically injured, not likely to survive). I'm reminded of this lesson every time I vote.

The recent presidential, congressional and gubernatorial campaigns made issues out of citizenship, voter rights, conception, abortion, and contraception; the last four are connected to the rights of women and minorities. The Constitution of the United States, rulings by the Supreme Court and the triage process of public opinion have downgraded these arguments to "Expectant." Meanwhile, war, taxes, unemployment, foreclosures, gas prices, global warming and retirement savings lost to investment bank deregulation have brought American decision making processes and outcomes to the forefront of my thoughts. More importantly, it has done the same to the Republican Party, the Tea Party and a nation of outstanding Americans (I mean that sincerely) who might benefit by attending an MDMP course or a promotion ceremony. I was in the televised audience of a historic promotion ceremony on Jan. 20, 2009, and I'll watch another historic ceremony on Jan. 21, 2013. I'll do so with the satisfaction that my decision (i.e., my vote) was made with others in mind: the descendants of the Irish immigrants of the mid 1800s, the Jewish, Russian, Polish, English and Italian immigrants of the mid 1900s, that 47 percent, the majority of whom do not look like me and do not descend from Africa.

My birth in the United States of America makes the right to vote mine. That right was fought for, secured and promised to me by the sacrifices of my father (a World War II veteran wounded while serving in the Philippines), his father before him and tens of millions of men and women of African descent who farmed American soil, carved American roads, built American industry (first without pay, and then with less pay), erected American cities, built the nation's capital, including the White House, and made advances in education, science, literature, philosophy, medicine, history, technology, civil rights, etc. that have benefited every American. Activated at the promotion ceremony of my 18th birthday, my vote has been used to support male and female candidates for public office, without regard for their look, and who were either Republican or Democrat.

My vote is not a Christmas gift, some toy or clothing item that I'm allowed to play with or wear from time to time. Unlike the fruit of Southern trees, my vote does not swing. It is learned, informed and dedicated to the self-evident truth that fair and equal citizenship for American men and women is inherent in the American dream. My vote is cast in a moment during which I again accept and understand that my decision at a particular time and in a particular place affects more than just me, and that the thing that my 18th promotion trusted is the obligation to think about the American mission and my fellow Americans. My vote is cast with a profound belief in and a pledged allegiance (proven through service) to America's founding principles -- not her principals.

We do not practice Moses, deliverer of the Ten Commandments. We practice the Ten Commandments. Similarly, we (at least some of us) do not practice the racial and gender subjugation practiced by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and the brave deliverers of the Declaration of Independence. We are ordered to live, defend and practice the principles of the Declaration. The principals have had their inglorious deeds masked by the ideals and achievements of a nation greater than they imagined -- a masking that has, and continues to, hamper America's national and global mission, and her greatness.

Harold A. Ross is a Senior Enlisted Active member of the Army, Sargent First Class. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and son.