Sergeant Oliver


My bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering was the center point of my career plan right out of college.  It was the late ‘60s, a time of war but also a time of great national optimism.  NASA's Apollo program was close to its first moon landing.  Ford and General Motors were making really cool cars.  It was a glorious time to be an engineer.  I had big dreams and I was anxious to get started.  But since I had taken advantage of grants from the US Army's Reserve Officer Training Corps to pay for school, I was obliged to spend two years in the service first.


After officer's training I spent the remainder of my first year in Ft. Lewis, Washington, and I spent the second in Vietnam. That was going to be it.  Kathy and I had fallen in love with the Pacific Northwest from the day we arrived, and that's where we wanted to settle and begin working.  I was looking forward to building my civilian career between the Pacific Ocean beaches and the Cascade Range.


But in 1970 there was a serious economic recession in the Pacific Northwest and the market for engineers was deeply depressed.  While I was still in Vietnam I followed the declining job prospects at home, and with two months remaining of my year there I had to make a difficult decision—leave the Army at the end of my tour to hunt for a job outside the Northwest; or stay in, in hopes that the economy would improve before I'd be sent back to Vietnam.


I contacted the Pentagon and began an exploration of my options should I choose to stay in.  My record so far was pretty decent so I had some leverage.  Without saying so, I intended to re-up for just one more year.  To stay in the Northwest, I bargained for an assignment back to Ft. Lewis as a company commander in my former unit, the 339th Engineer Battalion.  The Pentagon assured me I had a command assignment there.  In return they mapped out a career path for me beginning with Airborne school, then Ranger school, and then the Army War College.  They had me on a fast track to an ideal military career.


I told them it was a deal.  But I felt uncomfortable misleading the Pentagon since I was getting the command assignment I wanted but was planning to drop out after only a year.  As it turned out, I needn't have been concerned.


When I reported to the 339th I asked which company I'd be commanding.  I was shown a desk in the headquarters building and was told that would be my assignment for the next 18 months.  They said there were several captains in line ahead of me waiting for a company to command.


I had no desire to work a desk job for a year, so I asked the battalion commander if I could look for a command elsewhere.  He said that was fine with him since he had more captains than he knew what to do with.


I just wanted the experience of commanding a company, I really didn't care where.  At the post headquarters I was told, “Well...  (hesitation)  (long pause)  (...ahem)  We do have this one opening.  It's a basic training company with a couple of problems.  It's no glory job but if you think you can handle it, it's yours.” 


Hell, how hard could it be?  I took it.


As it turned out, B Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Brigade had more than “a couple of problems”.  To start with, the Army had nine categories of criteria by which it rated training companies.  I learned that of the 45 training companies at Ft. Lewis, B-1-2 came in dead last in every one of the nine categories.   Dead last.   Out of 45 companies.   In every category.   Quite the accomplishment.


It took me a while to figure out why.  There were many secrets among the cadre (the training staff) in the company.  While the first sergeant was a good administrator he made it clear it wasn't his job to straighten things out; that was a commander's job and the previous commanders had been ineffective. 


The first sergeant kept his own counsel while he watched me sniff around.  Once he saw I was trying, he began to drop little hints as to where I should look.  It took me the greater part of that first month to discover the following…


I decided I was going to have to clean house quickly.  Getting rid of the three drill sergeants was relatively easy; the first sergeant and I reported them and made sure they were banned from any training jobs.


Sgt. Lamond was a little more difficult.  If I transferred him he'd just keep doing what he was doing somewhere else.  What he was doing was criminal and he'd been doing it for years, as I found out.


I called him into my office one day, closed the door, and told him I was writing him off my morning report.  That would make him AWOL and eventually a deserter.  For me to do so was a felony on my part and we both knew it.  But I showed him the evidence I had collected and it was damning.  I told him if he reported me I might serve a little time, but I would make damned sure he would be spending at least 20 years at hard labor in Leavenworth.  My bluff worked—he disappeared completely.  To my knowledge there was never an investigation.  I suspect I wasn't the only one who had some suspicions of what he'd been up to.


That left the SDI, Sergeant First Class Gary White.  I felt he was responsible for a lot of what had gone wrong with that company, and I wanted him gone.  But I couldn't do what I did with Lamond or the drill sergeants.


The commander of E Company, Captain Charles Whiting, was a close friend of Sgt. White.  In fact they were at a rodeo together one weekend when the bronco White was riding rolled over on him and broke both his legs (I later found out).  White showed up on Tuesday in a cast on both legs up to his hips.  He was totally useless to me. 


Cpt. Whiting was in a bit of a jam; by Army rules he was obliged to report what he knew about Sgt. White's risky side business and that he was involved too.  Not only did he not report him but he backed a story White had made up about falling off a tractor.


Each Monday morning the battalion commander and the five of us company commanders would get together for a status meeting.  For weeks at those meetings Cpt. Whiting had complained about the trouble he was having with his SDI, one SFC James Oliver.  I had observed Sgt. Oliver on several occasions and I liked what I saw.  Cpt. Whiting's complaints about him didn't jibe with my perception of Oliver, and I had begun to trust my intuition in judging the nature of military character.


There were several reasons why I liked Sergeant Oliver: 


Before the next Monday status meeting, I took Cpt. Whiting aside and began a conversation by complaining that, even though Sgt. White was Whiting's friend, he was inept; I'd really like to get rid of him.  Then I mentioned Whiting's oft-stated problems with Sgt. Oliver and concluded that neither of us was happy with the SDI we were stuck with.  I said I knew White's story about falling off a tractor was a cover-up and hinted that I knew Whiting was complicit in the lie.  The look I got confirmed that he was worried about a possible investigation.


So when I offered to take Sgt. Oliver off his hands and he could have Sgt. White, he was more than willing to make the trade.  From his point of view, not only was he getting rid of someone he didn't like and couldn't control, but once he and his buddy were working together he stood a much better chance of burying the true facts of White's injury.


On the day of the trade I was with B Company on a rifle range when Sgt. Oliver came out to report to me and start work.  It was easy to tell from his casual salute and defiant bearing that he wasn't at all pleased being stuck in this abject failure of a training company.


I said to him, “Listen, Sergeant, here's the thing.  I'm one of the laziest officers you'll ever meet in the Army.  To tell you the truth I'm not crazy about doing my job, and I certainly don't want to do yours.  So here's the deal.  You're responsible for all training in this company.  I mean all training, including training the cadre. 

"Second, I really don't like to hear about problems, but if you do have a problem that you absolutely cannot handle, you can bring it to me.   But if you ever do bring me a problem I want you to bring me a solution for it, and if your solution is in the best interest of these trainees, this company and the US Army, we'll go with it.  And I will back you one hundred percent.*  Are we clear?”


He gave me a quizzical look.  “Are you serious, Sir?”


“Damn straight I'm serious, Sergeant.  You have my word.”


“Because if you are serious, Sir, we can make something of this company, you and I.”


“Well then, let's get started.”


For that I received a smile, a snap to attention and a perfect salute.  We were in business.


By the end of the second training cycle since Sgt. Oliver and I had taken over the company, B-1-2 was in the middle of the pack of 45 training companies and we even received a couple of ‘superiors' in training criteria.  By the fourth training cycle B-1-2 was not only the highest rated of the 45 training companies at Ft. Lewis, it was the best in all of Sixth Army. 


The kids from Chicago's South Side were still a majority of the troops we were assigned to train.  They came in with attitudes and some were determined to do whatever it took to get out.  They all knew that it was Chicago's intention that their young lives should end in Vietnam—no one in the mayor's office or the Chicago Police Department would miss them if they never came back.  Sgt. Oliver would say to me that the sweetest revenge would be to have every one of them return to Chicago whole and with the confidence to build a life for themselves based on everything they learned in the Army.  I was very much in agreement.


So even though this was basic training, ours went well beyond pushups and target practice.  We spent a lot of time teaching survival skills like trail reading and walking point with vigilance, and tactics like taking the high ground and platoon-level double envelopment.  And when we went on bivouac for three days, while other training companies were treating it like camp, we were serious.  We even sent out raiding parties to harass guards on duty in other training companies in the area.  If we were going to be up all night, so were they.


There was one such incident I remember with a smile.  Alpha Company's commander was Captain Robert Orscher.  Orscher made a serious effort to look and act gung-ho at all times, and he liked to boast that his company was superior to ours in all respects.  That may have been the case in the training cycles before Sgt. Oliver, but more recently we'd been popping that bubble regularly.


On this occasion both our companies were on bivouac, set up about a mile apart.  On the second night out Sgt. Oliver and a group of his DIs, all in camouflage and black face, came into our officers' tent and asked permission to “check our lines” as he put it.  It was obvious he had other intent, but to cover my own ass I told him that was fine with me but I was going to hit the sack early.


Turned out their timing was impeccable.  Orscher himself was filling a generator with gasoline (we weren't supposed to have generators or other creature comforts out on bivouac), when our “patrol” lobbed flash-bangs into his area and opened fire with blanks.  One of the incendiary devices hit a tree directly over Orscher, ignited and landed next to the generator as he was spilling gasoline in his panic.  There was a small fire and extensive chaos.


My guys had had so much fun that night that when they got back to camp they couldn't contain themselves and everyone got to hear the whole story in loud and vivid detail.  No doubt Orscher could hear the laughter from his camp.


Two days later, when everyone was back in the barracks, I was called in to the battalion Executive Officer's office, where I found a furious Orscher waiting for me.  The XO asked me what had happened and I professed I knew nothing since I had gone to sleep early.


Orscher accused me of lying and I could hardly contain a grin while trying to look innocent.  Glancing at the XO I could see he was having the same problem. 


I feigned shock at Orscher's accusation, and with a pained expression I asked him what had happened.  He was so smug and self-righteous that, without thinking, he made his case that my guys had “endangered the safety” of everyone in his camp.


“Endangered? In what way?”, I asked.


“I had a full gas can in my hand when that thing went off right above me.  It could have started a huge forest fire!”


“You had a gas can?  Really?  What for?  It wouldn't have been for fueling a generator, would it?  No, couldn't have been.  Because we're not supposed to have generators out on bivouac.”


At that point the XO was trying simultaneously to bear down on Orscher for his screw-up while suppressing a belly laugh so hard I thought he was going to hurt himself.


When I got back to my office the cadre was gathered to see if I had caught hell for their little game.  I had a story to tell them that topped anything that had happened to Orscher in the woods.


It wasn't all laughs with Sgt. Oliver, but it was all love.  He really loved the kids, and he really loved the work.  He changed countless Black lives, and white, for the better in the eleven months we were together.


We always went on bivouac in the second to last week of the training cycle.  It was a critical time in the process—most of the trainees had gotten with the program by then, but there were always those few.  Sgt. Oliver must have seen something of himself in them because they were always his special project.


In our first bivouac together we were all set up in the woods and had some slack time.  Sgt. Oliver said he wanted to take a dozen of his problem children outside the perimeter and have a talk with them about the facts of their lives.


I said that was a great idea, I'd like to come along.


“With all due respect, Sir, I don't think you should be there.  If you don't mind I need to do this alone.”


Well… I knew when I wasn't wanted.  But I was interested.  So a half hour after he and his gang left the compound I went for a walk in the woods.


I eventually found where they were and could see them through the trees.  Sgt. Oliver was sitting on a tree stump with the trainees sitting around him on the ground.  It looked like a diorama of Jesus and his disciples.  I couldn't hear what he was saying to them, but from the way they were listening to every word, what he had to say must have been powerful.


And results proved that it was.  When they got back, those twelve kids were quiet and deliberate and attentive to everything Sgt. Oliver had to say to the company for the rest of their time with us.  No longer were they screw-ups, they were serious and well disciplined—they were soldiers.  And so, each training cycle after that, Sgt. Oliver would spend an afternoon in the woods with his chosen few.


There was one trainee though, a South Sider, who was a particularly tough case.  About two weeks into the training cycle, he walked into my office with a sleeve rolled up.  He declared he was a drug addict and needed to get out of the Army.  He then took a needle and jammed it into his forearm.


For a long moment I just stared at him, emotionless.  He obviously was expecting a different reaction and just froze holding the needle and looking at me, puzzled and uncomfortable.   After countless frozen seconds, in my loudest command voice I shouted, “Sergeant Oliver!” 


The kid disappeared and didn't try that trick again.  But he wasn't done trying.


Bivouac on Ft. Lewis was conducted in the woods adjacent to Puget Sound, about ten miles from the barracks.  To get there we marched the troops, in full pack, through about two miles of residential areas on post and across main thoroughfares to get down to the Sound.


Needle boy was feigning injury and fatigue and was at the very back of the company as we came to a major road crossing.  I was back with him, and Sgt. Oliver was up with the second platoon.


Traffic had been stopped in both directions at the road crossing as we were passing through, and our boy chose this moment to dramatically faint dead away in the middle of the road.  His head bounced on the pavement and then he didn't move.


Within seconds Sgt. Oliver was standing next to me as we both looked down on this corpse in the road.


“Sergeant, I think this is serious,” I said.


“Sir, I'll handle this.”


“I really think this is serious.  And we've got witnesses in all these cars.”


“Sir, please rejoin the company.  I've got this handled.”


I was hesitant but I trotted ahead to rejoin the company.   As I did so I glanced over my shoulder.  The kid hadn’t moved yet.  Sgt. Oliver was bending over him and was saying something.


In an instant the kid jumped bolt upright and started running.  He passed me and disappeared into the middle of the company.


I never did find out what Sgt. Oliver said to him but whatever it was, it was a miracle cure.


Sgt. Oliver and I left the Army on the same day: August 19, 1971.  On the Sunday before, our company's cadre and families and friends put on a large picnic in honor of the two of us.  It was a most joyous occasion with many, many young children enjoying the day in the park.  Because we had cadre members from Hawaii, the Philippines, Puerto Rico as well as all corners of the continental United States, there was a great variety of entrées at the picnic and all the food was exotic and delicious.


I had a lot of fun that day and it was a delight sharing it with Sgt. Oliver.  At the end of the day I gathered all the families together in a pavilion and presented Sgt. Oliver with a framed plaque I had created for him. 


I had done this for each deserving cadre member who transferred out of the company during my year.  Each frame had a felt background in the color of the individual's branch: pale blue for Infantry, red for Artillery, etc.  On the felt was a brace of insignia of the individual's rank and branch, along with campaign ribbons and a plaque engraved with an expression of thanks for outstanding service.


It was a gesture each departing cadre member treasured and I enjoyed making the plaque and presenting it.  In Sgt. Oliver's case the presentation would have been difficult if I'd had to stay on without him, but since we were leaving together my sincere expressions of appreciation for his service came easily and lightly. 


After presenting him his plaque I wrapped up the event by thanking everyone for coming and participating, and I “dismissed” them all.  They all started heading to the parking lot.


Sgt. Oliver, in his command voice, called everyone back to the circle.  My first reaction was surprise and curiosity.  My second was amusement as I watched everyone—soldiers, wives, even all the smallest children, everyone—turn right around and come back.


Sgt. Oliver stood in the center of the circle and began to speak.  “I want everyone here to know that in my twenty two years in this Army I have served under hundreds of officers.  In that entire time there were only three officers that I trusted enough to follow anywhere in combat and do anything they commanded.  One of them is in this room.”


I looked around at my lieutenants wondering which officer he was talking about.  Then I looked at him.  He was pointing to me.  I was in shock.  Inwardly I was shouting, NO! NO!  You can't say that.  We haven't been in combat together.  You have no idea how I'd act under the kind of fire you were under.  I haven't done anything to deserve this.


Twenty four years later I was having dinner with a black friend and happened to tell him about my time with Sgt. Oliver and what he had said at the picnic.  I told my friend I'd thought about his words for years, and always felt unworthy of them. I never could understand why he had said them.


My friend said, “That's because you're not black.”


I shook my head.  “I don't see what that has to do with it.”


He said, “You have to understand the world from his perspective.  Black men live very lonely lives.  They're not respected by Black women, and they're certainly not respected by whites.  They've been beat down for centuries.  So when someone in authority says, ‘I trust you explicitly, you're in charge', you have to understand how rarely that happens. 


“And in your sergeant's case, when he first met you and you said what you said to him, and he reacted the way he did, it's clear to me that nothing like that had happened for him in a long time.”


Those many years later I was able to see it all with new-found clarity.   Finally.


I thanked my friend for his insight.

And, silently, I thanked Sgt. Oliver for the honor of having stood by his side.

*   My greatest experience—the best education—in my brief stay in the military was in the area of leadership, an abstract concept in theory that becomes a severe trial in practice.  For me, it became the custom of never eating until all the troops were fed, making sure they had hot showers and enough sleep to enable them to function optimally under difficult circumstances, and hearing them when they had anything critical to say.


In his book, My American Journey, Colin Powell wrote, "Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership."