As very junior officers serving in Germany in the early 1990s, we often found ourselves “in the field” at various training centers. “The field” was designed to replicate wartime conditions for units, requiring them to sustain themselves without the benefit of the buildings or infrastructure most of us have become accustomed to.
For the troops, this meant sleeping in vehicles or tents in between battles, eating lukewarm food when you could get it, cold MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) when you couldn’t. Typical rotations at the Combat Maneuver Training Center (CMTC) in Hohenfels (now the Joint Multinational Readiness Center) lasted ten days, long enough for most of us to run out of pogey bait (food the troops smuggle in). This duration also forced leaders to figure out how to get troops and themselves the right amount of sleep. Some folks think they can go days without sleep, and they’d be wrong. Few things are funnier to watch than a company commander who thinks he can go 10 days without sleep falling asleep mid-sentence while trying to brief his battle plans on about day 3.
During one of the many rotations at the training center, my engineer platoon was given the mission of supporting an infantry company in preparing their defensive positions. My first job was to find the company commander and figure out where he wanted his vehicles dug in, and where we might put obstacles out in front of his position to slow down the enemy attack.
Finding an infantry company commander usually isn’t that difficult: he is usually in the Tactical Operations Center or in his Bradley Fighting Vehicle. But by the time I got to the commander’s position the sun had set and it was pretty dark out there. I was tired, hungry and just a little bit lost when I finally found his Bradley. His driver was there, but the captain was not. “Oh, it’s dinner time. He’d be in his Humvee,” said the driver, motioning to a cargo vehicle nearby.
Now company commanders usually don’t have cargo Humvees. They have “fastback” Humvees, which are designed for moving people, not cargo. The fact that this captain had the cargo style vehicle was just plain odd. Shrugging my shoulders I approached the canvas flap in the back, made some noise so he could hear me coming, and peeked inside.
What I saw behind the flap was not your normal cargo truck. This captain had transformed the Army-issue cold, drab, dirty truck into his version of a modern-day, tactical recreational vehicle. He had Christmas-style lights, a camp stove, a heater, a cooler with real food, a bed, and a coffee pot steaming with fresh coffee smells that made you forget you were in the field.
“Holy smokes, sir,” I managed to say. “You’ve got this decked out like an RV! This is great.” He looked at me with a smile (a rare thing from an infantry guy in the middle of a training rotation). “This doesn’t look anything like where I am staying,” I said, thinking of the narrow, cold metal bench in my armored personnel carrier where I slept, and the cold food I’d been eating. He looked at me with a grin.
“Lieutenant”, he answered, “It’s too easy to live hard.”
He went on to explain that this whole setup only took an hour or so to put together, and that it didn’t cost much. He used this as an example to show his folks that with a little extra effort we could live a lot better in the field. He would host his battle meetings with his junior leaders in his RV over coffee or a meal, and show them some of the little things they could be doing to make their troops’ field time just a little better.
“This is a ten day rotation. We can tough it out for that long. But we are training for war, and wars last a while and we ought to be able to figure out how to take care of ourselves and our troops better. It can’t detract from the mission, and they can’t be too comfortable that they get lazy, but a little fresh coffee, a warm meal and a decent place to sleep can do wonders for morale,” he later told me.
That moment has stuck with me for the past 25 years. There were a lot of truths in that simple statement, “It’s too easy to live hard.”
It came to mind on deployments where conditions for troops could always be improved. It came to mind when I took over a job as the operations officer for an engineer battalion and my predecessor was using the equivalent of a broom closet for an office. It came to mind when I got a job in an office building that hadn’t been upgraded in 20 years.
Some people are good at living hard. They just don’t seem to mind that everything they do is just a little bit harder. Others are “too busy” to improve the things around them, even though often the improvements they could make would make them less busy or enable them to get more done. Others don’t want to spend resources on themselves, not wanting to look selfish. Most of the time, though, people think of improving the things around them as “someone else’s problem.”
People too often accept less-than-adequate conditions as inevitable, and just live with them. Many people don’t worry about fixing something that’s broken, getting rid of outdated things lying about, or upgrading their space or equipment to today’s standards. Someone else must be in charge of fixing things around here. That’s not in my job description. That’s not what they pay me to do…
Unfortunately, most organizations don’t have anyone with “make this place better” in their job description. I have yet to see a job title that looks like “Vice President for Better Work Conditions.” These jobs don’t exist as far as I can tell. I think that’s ok, as long as leaders and workers at every level are engaged in making things just a little better all the time.
For some organizations this is a cultural shift. There are so many people “living hard” who grew up that way, and think any improvements are either inconvenient or wasteful. I think it’s necessary to improve things around these folks in spite of their objections. Most of the time they are able to adapt to new, more comfortable conditions rather well, and productivity and morale almost always goes up if you did it right.
I often think back to the hard, cold, narrow metal bench I slept on during field rotations. I got 2-3 hours of restless sleep a day, and often woke up sore. I didn’t think it mattered. I was younger and tougher than I am now, and I didn’t let it bother me. But maybe it should have bothered me. Was I making the best decisions I could make when I wasn’t get enough quality sleep? Was I doing my job the best I could, being groggy and cranky most of the time? Was I wearing “living hard” as a badge of honor just to show how tough I could be? Just like everybody else?
On future training events and deployments I made sure I and my troops had a decent place to sleep (usually for more than 2 hours) and hot meals whenever possible. In future jobs I made sure I had an adequate work space that looked professional and helped me do my job better. I no longer sleep on a cold metal bench, and I don’t allow those that work for me to do so either. Of course that takes a little more effort, but the payoff is worth it.
I recommend that leaders and workers at every level look around for that “Improvement Manager” who is responsible for making the place better. When you realize that they don’t exist, you have a choice: continue to live hard, or get to work doing something about it.