Okay, I am going to be really candid here; I am not criticizing the National Guard. When we deployed I was incredibly proud of my Guard unit. Especially in South Dakota, the National Guard is a prestigious organization, and members are viewed as elite citizens in their communities. Our Guard units are prided for being so cohesive. One big happy family serving gallantly together is how we all likely envisioned our potential performance before deployment, and morale was high. But things started to happen, and by the time we left Kuwait, I was doubting the leadership.
Perhaps as a consequence of being National Guard, it seemed that our unit lacked the infrastructure necessary to act the same as a regular Army unit and execute the same caliber of decisions through its chain of command. We had less accessibility to resources, we spent less time in training, and as a group we had a general lack of knowledge when compared to our regular Army counterparts. Even so, we were extremely efficient in our missions because our soldiers were amazing! My peers in the company worked with dedication and immense optimism for sixteen months! Many of our officers were also amazing, but some of our leadership demonstrated a noticeable lack of respect for subordinates. It became obvious that some did not believe that soldiers, regardless of rank, deserved basic respect. This empathy gap was quite possibly the biggest threat to unit morale and cohesion, and the incident known as the Great Laundry Swindle convinced me that nothing would close it.
The Great Laundry Swindle was executed one hot day while we were still in Kuwait. There hadn’t been anything to do in quite a long time, so we were just sitting around waiting for something to happen. Oh how trouble enters this way! A handful of our leadership mentioned they were going into Camp Doha for a meeting and they needed several high speed volunteers to help with assorted errands. For our efforts, we would have a free afternoon of shopping and dining in Doha’s large market. They made it sound very simple, some light lifting, a bit of walking, nothing too laborious. A cardinal rule in the Army is NEVER, EVER, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, VOLUNTEER FOR ANYTHING!!! But, we were so bored that four of us said we would do it. How bad could it be?
“By the way, Sir, what is it that you need us to do, exactly?” one soldier asked as we loaded into the Humvee. “Oh, don’t you worry about that, Sparky… Heh heh heh…” the officer answered shiftily as he tossed laundry bags into the back with us. We “high speeds” didn’t catch on that we and the half dozen laundry bags in the Humvee were all going to the same location until we pulled up in front of a plain building with a little brown placard marked with a name and corresponding laundry facility number. Our fearless leaders were snickering as they unloaded their bags and dropped them on the ground in front of the building. “Your mission today is to do our dirty laundry for us while we are in our meeting. We’d like everything fluffed and folded too. See you in a couple of hours.” “Seriously?” One of us asked with a half smile, because it HAD to be a joke. “Yes, seriously. Get it done,” they drove off laughing. We stared at each other in disbelief. “Holy shit! What the hell just happened?” the biggest NCO of the group asked. “No really! What. The. Fuck. Just. Happened? I am an NCO! I am not a damn laundry lady!! Come back here, you motherfuckers!”
For those readers not terribly familiar with the military, here is a quick lesson. In the chain of command, it is normal for subordinates to take orders from their superiors to do assigned military related tasks in the course of duty. However, it is NOT normal for subordinates to wash their superiors’ fucking laundry. Not only that, it is highly inappropriate, and an abuse of authority for a superior to coerce a subordinate into doing laundry, whether through a direct order, a threat, or in this case, trickery. We had been duped into doing something that felt like punishment and our bosses were laughing at us. Even in the regular Army, soldiers were never required to wash their superior officers’ smelly, nasty underwear. The message sent was that our chain of command thought so little of us that they had lost the sensibility to treat us like real soldiers. It was a slap in the face and an affront to what we had all worked for during our time in the Guard. So what if we were only enlisted soldiers and junior Non Commissioned Officers? We were still soldiers who deserved basic respect and dignity, but that had been stripped away in one very bad joke.
We spent some time discussing possible revenge strategies: mixing up all the dirty laundry and just putting it back unwashed so the bastards got each others’ disgusting socks and underwear; putting everything into the dryers still dirty to set the sweat stains and pungent smells into the fabric; or throwing the clothing out onto the street in an act of protest. In the end we decided we were all professional even though we had been put into a degrading and embarrassing situation. We decided to be the bigger soldiers and do the laundry. It was humiliating! We washed , dried and folded it neatly, and when our so-called leadership returned we placed the clean bags into the Humvee and climbed in without so much as a word. They could tell that we were livid and tried to make light of the situation by offering to buy us lunch. We got an hour or so at the market, just long enough to grab lunch and browse a bit, not the “free afternoon at the market” that had been promised, but it wasn’t about that anymore. We were still fuming from a worse betrayal. During the drive back to camp we wracked our brains for memories of times when we had ever been treated worse, but couldn’t think of any scenarios to top this.
We returned to camp in time for the daily platoon meeting. None of the leaders involved attended (they were probably too busy putting their clean laundry away) so we vented to the rest of our platoon about what had transpired. They listened in disbelief. Until that day I had worn an Army Values tag on my ID tag chain. It was the acronym LDRSHIP: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. I took it off during the meeting and tore it up, which was no small task since it was made of the same material as a credit card. As long as any soldier in our unit could be abused by our leadership in such a manner, there was no such thing as Army Values, I proclaimed. We were a great National Guard unit that did amazing things in Iraq. Sadly, a tone had been set by leadership during that incident at the laundry; a picture was painted of officers with absolutely no respect for the driving force of our unit, the enlisted soldiers who made the unit so successful. If they found it perfectly ethical to dupe their own soldiers into washing their laundry, where would the line be drawn?
Being a true leader is not accomplished through coercion and trickery, abuse of authority, and neglect of subordinates’ best interests; it is earned when a leader gives subordinates all the resources to realize their potential and encourages them to succeed. Leaders have to invest in their soldiers, not draw the life out of them. My leadership never got that. Nobody should ever have to wash their boss’s nasty drawers!
P.S. Did a little research, and in 2011, a National Guard brigade commander was relieved for taking bad leadership to the extreme. Guess what…one of the unethical abuses of power that he used to degrade his subordinates was…coercing them into doing his laundry!!! Read it here: