WIN as a Platoon Leader in the Arctic
October 2019. I received my orders while attending Signal Basic Officer Leadership Course (SBOLC) in Fort Gordon, Georgia. I drove to our townhouse to let my wife know that we could finally plan for our first duty station. Growing up in the Southeast, all we knew was warm weather, humidity, college football, and great food. Our orders were to Fort Wainwright, Alaska, where our world would drastically change.
Fast forward to just my second day in the unit, our Battalion Commander hosted all lieutenants for physical training (PT). We met at the base of a ski slope known as Birch Hill in our Extended Cold Weather Clothing System (ECWCS), and conducted a ruck in snowshoes at -36° F. As I walked back to my truck after PT, I felt colder than I ever could have imagined. As my truck took a while to start, I wondered how I could convince the Army to get me out of this duty assignment.
I share these two examples with you to emphasize the point that Alaska can be an unforgiving territory, but can also set you up for success. Over the next 18 months, I learned some valuable lessons about being a new Platoon Leader (PL) in the Arctic and how to successfully lead one of the most proficient and well-trained platoons in the Brigade. What follows are some lessons learned and while they may be useful in all units, these tips are especially critical for those operating within the intent of USARAK’s Arctic Strategy.
Regardless of rank or type of exercise, leaders must conduct PCC’s and PCI’s. During the snowshoe ruck with my Battalion Commander on my second day in the unit, I did not wear my thin layer gloves underneath my huge arctic gloves. I thought of the extra layer as an extra 30 seconds that I could sleep in my bed because my arctic gloves would “keep me warm enough.”
This was not only wrong, but it was dangerous. Many units that train in the winter environments here have cold weather injuries because they failed to wear the right equipment. The Central Issue Facility (CIF) issues you cold-weather gear for a reason. USE IT! More importantly than just using it, the equipment needs to be used properly. The Arctic mitten is an overlay glove that needs a base layer.
Imagine if one of my own Soldiers did not have on their base layer gloves underneath their arctic mittens. That Soldier could have been injured through frostbite or chilblain. As a PL, it is your duty, (along with your NCO’s), to verify that your Soldiers are wearing the correct gear to ensure that a Soldier does not get a cold-weather injury.
A good Tactic, Technique, and Procedure (TTP), is to conduct a layout with your Soldiers prior to each movement. You should have your team chiefs check each Soldier for the correct equipment while ensuring that the equipment is worn correctly. And after your team chiefs check each Soldier, you as the PL and your Platoon Sergeant (PSG), should do a second check to ensure your team chiefs are conducting spot checks to standard.
- Arctic readiness and training to the standard
Instead of conducting CWIC to the appropriate standards which would ensure Soldiers were set up for success for the winter conditions, many leaders opted to “hand-wave” or focus on other training. Furthermore, as opposed to doing routine maintenance on their arctic equipment year long, many leaders opted to wait until the winter to start identifying and addressing issues.
What these leaders did not realize is that surviving the arctic conditions is priority one. Leaders who did not prepare for the winter by training and maintaining in the other seasons set themselves and their Soldiers up for failure. Your Soldiers cannot operate in arctic conditions if they do not know how to beat the cold. Your Soldiers can also not operate in the Arctic if their equipment is non-mission capable. The Army does not always have a plethora of parts ready for installation the moment it needs replacing. The maintenance and supply chains can take a while, particularly in Alaska.
Leaders must be engaged to prepare their formations for the conditions they will endure. Winter will come, so therefore, it is best to use the laid out training (CWIC) and stay on top of maintaining essential equipment.
Some examples of maintaining your arctic equipment may include employing the arctic tent, and ensuring that your artic stoves and ahkios are clean, and fully mission capable. As a PL you should also inspect your Soldier’s CIF-issued arctic TA-50 quarterly. By doing so, you can test to make sure your Soldier’s cold weather boots are working correctly, all gloves, mittens etc. are accounted for, and that your Soldiers have all layers of their ECWCS.
While the requirement to conduct all three levels of CWIC is only once a year, it is strongly recommended to execute CWIC more often. Even further, it is recommended to conduct CWIC during non-winter months. Safety should always be your number one priority.
CWIC I, the first level of CWIC, should be conducted monthly to ensure all Soldiers have been trained on their winter equipment and are proficient in the arctic tasks. CWIC I is an introductory course done in a classroom setting. Led by a graduate of the Cold Weather Leadership Course, the instructor teaches Soldiers what their protective equipment is used for, how to stay warm using their issued CIF equipment, and discusses the importance of preventing cold-weather injuries.
CWIC II is the next level of CWIC and should be conducted monthly between October – April so that Soldiers are accustomed to the arctic environment and have a running list of lessons learned. CWIC II gives Soldiers the real-world experience of employing their arctic equipment outside, in an overnight garrison environment. The instructor can safely conduct arctic training while the Soldiers are close enough to a building to prevent any cold-weather injuries.
In Alaska, you are an arctic warrior first, then your MOS.
Maintenance is an everyday thing, not a Monday thing… Maintenance is an everyday thing, not a Monday thing… Maintenance is an everyday thing, not a Monday thing…
A lot of Army units dedicate the first day of the week to motor pool maintenance. Soldiers will PMCS vehicles, do the occasional road test, and then have their vehicles sit until the following week. If you wait until Mondays to get after vehicle maintenance, you are wasting 6 other days that could be used to ensure your equipment is functional.
You will often hear, “Sir.. Ma’am”, my vehicle won’t work because it’s just too cold. While this is true some of the time, most of the time it is an operator-level issue. In order to make it from October – December, these vehicles must run for at least an hour per day, and be taken out on weekly road tests. Many issues that occur with broken vehicles are “hand waving” vehicle maintenance because operators do not want to be out in the cold.
During downtime throughout the week, it does not hurt to PMCS your vehicles again, ensure you have all of your BII, conduct mock convoy inspections, or dispatch vehicles for road tests. This is especially important during winter.
As a leader, especially being a platoon leader, you should be outside with your Soldiers in the motor pool. Not hiding in your office, not working on training calendars, not at MEDPRO’s appointments. Help your Soldiers shovel snow, learn how to PMCS your vehicles, and stay engaged.
- Physical Training
Monday – Friday is PT in the Army. Being in Alaska is no different. There are regulations that state how long you can be outside, wind chill considerations, and uniform guidelines, however, if you think that you are going to be able to hide from being outside during PT, you are in for a rude awakening.
As mentioned earlier, my second day on the job, it was -36°F and we were doing a snowshoe ruck in our winter duty uniform. If worn properly, you can easily stay warm in these conditions.
On a normal winter morning, the temperatures will fluctuate from -20°F – 5°F. Units will throw on their layer ones, winter APFUs, a balaclava, watch cap and gloves, and take off running.
What I’ve found that helps, is you spending as much time within the winter guidelines as possible outside with your Soldiers. Every time a new Soldier arrives to the Platoon, their very first PT session, they are leading the prep drill (With Team Chief guidance) and we are outside in the elements. This will help their bodies acclimate to the climate and you quickly find out how fast your body adjusts. It is common to find Soldiers wearing only PT shorts at 20°F.
- Leave everything better than you found it.
This doesn’t just apply to being a PL in Alaska, but this tip will help you succeed at any unit that you are in. As a Signal PL, I take pride in learning from the SOP’s from the Platoon Leaders before me and continue to build upon those SOP’s for the next Platoon Leader to take and continue to thrive.
Being in the Arctic is no easy task by any means. Being in a Signal company, we run a no-fail mission. If we can’t get our communication systems up, then our Brigade and Battalion Commanders cannot effectively communicate on the battlefield. Being too cold or not knowing how to use our equipment in the austere environment of the Arctic is not an excuse.
By establishing good SOP’s, and sharing lessons learned with fellow PL’s, you will establish a culture of success and breed outstanding Soldiers.
Being stationed in Alaska may be completely different than how you expected your first (or second or third) duty assignment to be, but I can assure you that there are many things that you will learn that many officers will never have the chance to experience unless they too served in the Arctic. But perhaps more importantly, you will gain the knowledge that there is no battlefield climate in which the Army cannot fight and win our wars.
If you enjoyed this article, you might also want to take a look at Becoming a Basic Training Platoon Leader.
1LT Alvin Cade is a 2017 graduate of Columbus State University. In 2019, he was commissioned as a 2LT at Officer Candidate School in Fort Benning, Georgia. Since commissioning, LT Cade has served as the Rear D S6 and Platoon Leader for 70th BEB, 1-25 SBCT in Fort Wainwright, Alaska. LT Cade has been married to his wife Ravhen for two years and has a one-year-old labradoodle. Outside of the Army, the Cade’s enjoy CrossFit, watching college football, creating YouTube content, and traveling.