You Keep the Lessons with You: Parting Ways with Teammates
“Whatever comes, let it come. What stays, let it stay. What goes, let it go.” – Papaji
The end of a 10-month deployment was just barely in my rearview as I entered the start of a new year, ready for a change. I was brand new to a Special Forces Group Support Battalion, a career move I knew I wanted to make before I even commissioned, but I also found myself in a company I did not know existed until a week before getting the job.
As I took my first gulps from the firehose I would be drinking from for the foreseeable future, I came to the same conclusion as countless other junior leaders in similar positions; I needed a lifeline. As most would expect, this took the form of the senior NCOs and officers I worked with every day.
My first few months saw the story unravel with even more predictable beats: I learned every chance I got, I grew in confidence, and I began to make an impact. I got a feel for my unit and my teammates and exercised the sort of influence you hope to have as a new leader. By the time I finally started to pull my head out of my own foxhole, I noticed something else had happened; I had grown closer to these teammates than I expected, and they had impacted my life in ways I never saw coming.
The Sergeant Major I first met in my interview for the unit was a rockabilly fan, the commander earned a master’s degree in China where he and his wife had adopted their son, and the admin NCO from Detroit had spent the last 12 years in the same SF Group. Each of these teammates (and more) had countless differences, but they all had one thing in common; they impacted me in ways I had hardly noticed. As the hours of working together on operations and budgets added up, they taught me what professionals look like, how to excel in an ever-changing environment, and how to find value in anyone. They shaped who I was as a leader and in a short time I had grown to know them on a deeper level than I ever thought possible.
Then came the hard, and inevitable, part. I blinked and a year had gone by. I was confident in my position and had built a network beyond my company and even my battalion. By the time I could sit back and appreciate this, I found myself at a local café, sitting across from the same Admin NCO from Detroit who had been by my side since the beginning and guided me through my transition into SOF. It was his farewell party and the table was packed with the operations section we had both been a part of. People had already come and gone who affected me in ways I will never forget, but saying goodbye to a friend who had been my one constant served as the most real gut check I could ask for.
This story might be my own, but the way it unraveled is almost universal to the experience of junior leaders in the Army. Officers are trained to see the big picture and to guide a team toward mission success, but no commissioning source or training prepares you for the eventual reality that sharing in that pursuit with others can make saying goodbye that much harder. You are told to seek mentorship, rely on your NCOs, and put people first, but they have yet to develop doctrine or produce an SOP that softens the blow of parting ways with cherished teammates. Change is inevitable in any part of life but being an Army Officer means that every year or so brings a new position with a new dynamic, just as you were finally settled into your previous ones. This can be difficult, but it comes with the territory when you choose to accept formal leadership.
Just as with the death of a loved one or a big move outside of the military, saying goodbye to those that were close to you can shock you out of your day-to-day mindset and cause you to look back in reflection. My advice is this: look back with gratitude on the times you had and the lessons they taught you, express this gratitude to them if you still have the chance, and try your best to refocus on the team you are still leading. As with any period in your life, it’s knowing it will end that makes you appreciate it that much more. So dive headfirst into any assignment, learn as much as you can, and make the best impact possible, but remember to stop and appreciate those around you along the way.
Above all else, make sure you are intentional about reminding yourself and your teammates of their importance. This could mean making notes of their achievements for future NC/OERs and awards, including positive comments and open discussion in counseling sessions, and honoring them in their departure through going-away gifts or ceremonies. Avoid treating events like counseling sessions and awards ceremonies as routine and try to find ways to make them unique and memorable to the specific teammate. Consider having a small informal get-together to celebrate their time in your unit, even if a larger ceremony or hail-and-farewell is already planned, and enlist the help of others to decide on a gift that stands out and has sentimental value if you can.
If you are a fellow officer who has had similar bittersweet experiences, I hope you know you are not alone, and that those former teammates will always be a part of the leaders we are today If you are still on your journey to becoming an officer, stay motivated for the career you have ahead of you, and remember this: units change, people leave, but you keep the lessons they taught with you.
1LT Dylan Nigh is currently serving as the Executive Officer for the Technical and Information Support Company (TISC) in First Special Forces Group (Airborne). He enjoys reading, volunteering, and long walks around his apartment.
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