Balancing Authority and Understanding as a Young Lieutenant

Don’t be “that guy,” our instructors told every cadet and newly minted lieutenant. “That guy” was a fresh second lieutenant, usually from West Point, but not always. “That guy” would attempt to establish authority in small and petty ways—by having subordinates stand at attention in all interactions, or by flipping out if a salute wasn’t rendered correctly, or at all.

The author, second from left, during Basic Officer Leader Course at Fort Huachuca, Arizona circa 2012. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

No lieutenant, especially the handful of females in my basic officer class, wanted to be seen as a ball-swinging, chest-puffing, insecure new officer. But it still happened. We knew no soldier would listen or respect our authority if we acted like that—hypervigilant and overcompensating. But we struggled to learn where the fine line between confident leader and quiet pushover lay.

One day, shortly after joining my first unit after officer course, I headed to a meeting with a couple lieutenants and a senior NCO. As we made our way down the sidewalk, a group of soldiers walked by without saluting.

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“Hey! Did you miss the four officers?” barked the NCO. He jerked his head, indicating our group. I hadn’t even noticed. The soldiers looked sheepish and quickly lifted their arms to salute us. I was farthest from the group of passing soldiers, and I was relieved it hadn’t been on me to spot them and point out their mistake.

“You can’t let them get away with that,” the NCO said. “They know they’re supposed to salute. It’s a lack of respect when they ignore you.”

“Well, this brigade is where standards go to die,” joked one of the first lieutenants. He elbowed me. “Semczuk, next time you gotta yell at them. You’re the butter bar,” he said, looking at my golden lieutenant rank. I felt a prick of apprehension.

A few weeks passed, and I still hadn’t piped up. “You can’t be shy when you become platoon leader,” said the same first lieutenant who had elbowed me, and then taken me under his wing. All I had to do was correct someone ignoring the rules, he reminded me. But which rules? In our brigade, discipline was sloppy, and the line was unclear.

The author, second from left, during Basic Officer Leader Course at Fort Huachuca, Arizona circa 2012. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

My very first day arriving to the unit, a senior warrant officer and an NCO didn’t address me with the requisite “ma’am” for female officers. I wondered if it was carelessness or just how the “real army” worked outside of schooling. I would have attributed it to them sharing my gender, but they also avoided saying “sir” to the captain who was also in the room. When he didn’t say anything, I considered it the unit’s norm. After all, he had more than five years of active duty service under his belt; he would know what’s what. But when the senior warrant and NCO said some rude things about the previous female lieutenant whom I was apparently replacing, laughing at her perceived sluttiness, I felt they’d certainly crossed the line. But the captain said nothing.

So when my comrades badgered me about correcting soldiers, I felt stuck.

It’s not like I had shied away from confrontation in my previous lives. In high school, I had dealt with rude Dunkin’ Donuts customers on a daily basis, letting them know they could make their own coffee if they had a problem with ours. During my college days in Boston, I had answered a knock on our apartment door, which opened directly onto Beacon Street. A woman and a young man, strangers to me, stepped into the doorframe as though they were about to bypass me. I threw out an arm, catching the woman on her collarbone and shouted, “What are you doing?!” Startled, the woman and young man jumped back. “We’re Marisa’s family,” the woman said. I had succeeded in scaring and meeting my roommate’s family, all at once.

The author during Basic Officer Leader Course at Fort Huachuca, Arizona circa 2012. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

A few weeks passed at my new unit and, as the only female lieutenant among hundreds of men, I was still getting used to the stares. The newness of the tank brigade started to fade, and with it faded my discomfort. I became tired of taking shit from the other lieutenants in my section, who’d point out any imaginary slight or minor instance of disrespect to try to get me to exert authority. I felt dangerously close to being labeled a pushover.

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Not much time passed after having those thoughts, when I found myself heading to the dining facility, on my own, to get lunch. As I got closer to the building, a blonde-haired, pink-faced private walked toward me, only a foot or so separating us. I waited, and hoped, but his arm didn’t twitch. He walked by me, no salute, not even an attempt—a slap in the face at this distance. Deliberate disrespect, my comrades back at brigade would’ve said. So I took a breath and turned.

The author in uniform. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

“Hey! Did you forget how to salute?” I asked, borrowing a friend’s favorite rebuke. I was proud how loud and clear my voice sounded.

The private turned and stammered out, “I’m sorry!” He flung his left hand toward his patrol cap, attempting to salute me with the wrong arm. A split-second later, realizing his mistake, he started to switch hands, but knocked into the lunch tray in his left hand, scattering the contents onto the grass.

“Sorry, sir! I didn’t see you,” he stuttered out as he dropped to pick up his milk carton.

“Sir?” I asked. My cheeks started to heat up. At closer look, the poor private had coke-bottle thick glasses. He was so scared; he had saluted me with the wrong arm. And now his lunch was in the grass.

The author when she was a cadet during Leadership Development and Assessment Course at Fort Lewis, Washington circa 2011. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

I stooped to help him gather his food, hoping he couldn’t see my red face, embarrassed for him, but mostly for myself.

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“Thanks, sir—I mean, ma’am,” he said, finally catching sight of the blonde bun under my patrol cap. He gathered his things and fled.

I shook my head, a rueful chuckle sputtering out. Of all the soldiers on post, I would come across the rare private who genuinely didn’t wish to flout the rules of respect.

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Nina Semczuk

Nina Semczuk’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review, Sinking City, Coal Hill Review, Sledgehammer Lit, and The Line Literary Review. Before moving to Brooklyn, New York, Nina served as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army for five years. Semczuk is an editor of the Writer’s Foundry Review and an associate teacher for Voices From War, a veterans writing workshop.

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