Change is tough, but necessary

August 26, 2008 

Anyone reading the newspaper knows that a number of changes of command are occurring at Fort Benning this summer. This is true any summer, but is particularly obvious now because of the 3rd Brigade’s recent return from Iraq.

Anyone who has spent much time around the Army knows that changes of command are a fact of life for soldiers and units. Changes of command are also a bit unique in a military environment.

Any organization experiences some amount of change when the boss leaves for good. This can happen because the leader receives a promotion or some other less favorable personnel action may result in a departure. If the leader has been in the organization a long time, there might be some form of farewell event. However, the military services make this a formal process.

Having spent 26 years on active duty, I experienced a number of these changes of command where my commander changed or I changed out of a command position. Whether as a captain or a colonel there was always a lot to do with farewells and welcomes and the accompanying ceremonies. The larger the unit, the bigger the participant list and spectator list grows. In the Army the units always have a guidon or set of colors denoting the unit to be passed from the old commander to his next higher commander and then be passed to the new commander. The central person in all of this is always the senior noncommissioned officer in the unit who is the custodian of that guidon or colors. I suppose civilians would think of the guidon and the colors as flags, just different sizes.

The formality of the exchange of unit guidons and colors are important because the passing of them denotes a complete change in responsibility — out with the old and in with the new. This is a bit different from that experienced in the civilian world. Commanders are legally and morally responsible for everything that their unit accomplishes or fails to accomplish. The emotional attachment when that unit faces enormous stress such as combat, overseas duty, or some other significant challenge can make the severing of the relationship very tough.

No unit can have two people in charge. There must only be one commander because someone must be able to make a decision and set a course of action in play to focus the unit’s energy and abilities. So this change can be tough on the old guy who now knows he or she can’t go back. A significant change in his or her life has just occurred. The new commander is always excited but also often a bit humbled. A great weight has just landed on his shoulders.

So when you read about these changes, you are witnessing dramatic change in many ways for certain people, especially the commanders involved. Some element of the unit character may change as new commanders set goals and missions change. However, the people really experiencing change are those commanders. Whether leaving a part of their lives behind or gaining a new family with the new unit, life has changed for everyone.

John M. House is a retired Army colonel who lives in Midland, Ga. His e-mail is

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