It’s never easy being that new person on staff. It’s even less easy when you’re not organic to the battalion or unit that you’re attached to and have to begin all that relationship building stuff from scratch. It’s like Mean Girls except with maneuver officers. Which is somehow worse. Being a task force special staff officer can be either be an incredibly rewarding position, or a soul-crushing one. As task force engineer for a JRTC rotation, I found it to be very challenging but ultimately one of the most educational opportunities that I have had. While you cannot control everything – the task force commander being the chief thing that you cannot control, no matter how hard you or the executive officers tries – there are a few things that you can do to make your life easier.
Be the Advocate for the Engineers. The first thing to remember is that you are the voice and representative for every engineer on the task force. The maneuver commander really does want to make use of all assets at their disposal, but they probably don’t know just exactly how they work. That’s why you are there: to be the advocate for all those different types of engineers. Your job is to keep them busy doing engineer stuff. Let me reiterate that: they need to be doing engineer stuff, not just stuff. As engineers, we shape the battlefield, and we’re a limited commodity. So ensure you’re being that advocate for them to the commander and the staff. In addition, it means ensuring they don’t get overlooked by whoever they are attached to as the task organization changes. Which it always does.
Brief Capabilities, Not Jargon. As engineers, we’re, uh, a bit technical. We don’t so much get stuck in the weeds as we do make our home there. Usually a well-fortified one, too. The way that you convey information is important. Telling the boss, “Hey, we’ve got a two horizontal platoons with a HYEX, four D-9s with rippers, six skid steers, and six-ten ton dumps, along with a company of sappers with six MICLICs,” is going to get you some weird looks and will probably get you relegated to sitting with the chemical officer looking at the USR data. You’ve got to break it down into capabilities that the commander can understand: “Ma’am, for the upcoming offensive, we can give you three assault lanes that are proofed and marked and no later than two hours after the attack, we can have individual fighting positions built for two infantry companies to defend against the expected counterattack, with three protective obstacles in place.” The commander does not care what the MOSs are of your engineers: they just want to know what they can do to further their intent. So break it down for them and you’ll find that your engineers are now part of the plan.
Know Doctrine and Speak Maneuver. As with every staff position, you need to know doctrine. You need to know our doctrine, maneuver doctrine, fires doctrine, sustainment doctrine, intelligence doctrine, and protection doctrine. Why? Because the role of the task force engineer covers nearly every aspect of the warfighting functions. Being able to understand all these different aspects will make it easy to develop relationships with the other staff sections – who you will need, by the way, to survive. No engineer is an island, no matter how much we would like to be. Additionally, you need to be able to speak maneuver. This means knowing systems and weapons capabilities across the entire task force. For example, being able to convey to the fire support officer that you understand the range and effect of the supporting batteries and that you aren’t going to sacrifice his tubes for random smoke missions will go a long way in building trust. Speaking maneuver means that you can talk intelligently with the rest of the staff on topics from weapons to tactics; it will help build that mythical “mutual trust” that we hear so much about.
Know the Enemy Engineers. While you are the advocate for your own engineers, you have to also be the advocate for those of the enemy. In this case, however, you have to be advocating for their destruction. A couple enemy bulldozers or minelayers left alone for a few hours can turn the S-3’s brilliant plan of double envelopment into a day of SOSRA and heavy casualties. Work closely with the S-2 and the fires officer to identify, target, and kill any enemy engineer units on the battlefield. Be that master of the terrain and think about what you would do with it if you were your counterpart. Then work that into the most likely and most deadly courses of action for the boss.
Protect the Engineers. You might be thinking, “Oh, but you already said that earlier.” This time, I mean actually protect them, from the enemy. We come with a lot of stuff. None of which is easy to hide, which is a bummer, because the enemy wants to kill us just as much as we want to kill them. In the ever-changing tide of battle, you may be tempted to move engineer assets up to the forward line of troops, to be staged and ready should they be needed. It’s a nice thought, but in the long run, if those assets have an effective hide site, do not move them until absolutely necessary. It’s awful hard to plan a defense when all the bulldozers have been knocked out due to moving around too much. Be smart about the employment of your engineers.
Think Sustainment. Neglect sustainment at your own risk. Well, no, at everyone’s risk. It’s so important that it gets its own article. Go nuts.
Show Your Worth. At the end of the day, all of this is moot if you can’t show the commander and staff that you are a force multiplier. This means that you have to be an active and proactive participant. The first time that your engineers open a lane, cross a gap, or stymie an enemy push with their obstacles, you’ll find that you’ve suddenly got credibility. And with credibility comes the S-3 dragging you in during planning time. Sure, this means that you’ll probably be sleep-deprived most of the time but that’s just an added fun challenge.
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Cover photo: Sergeant First Class Eugene Duranseau, first sergeant for B Company, 326th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), walks away after obscuring an obstacle with smoke during mine clearing line charge operations July 29 at the demolition range on Fort Campbell. Soldiers from 326th BEB conducted MICLIC training during a field exercise to prepare for their fall rotation to the Joint Readiness Training Center-Fort Polk, La.