By Colonel Wes Martin

"What were the last two words spoken by Tom Hanks' character Captain Miller in the motion picture ‘Saving Private Ryan'?" That question was asked to me by retired Sergeant Major of the Army Bill Gates (SMA during Desert Storm) while he and I were discussing individual and unit development. If no other specific dialog is remembered in this World War II classic, those two words have good reason to become a permanent part of our memory.

The answer: "Earn It."

Both the fictional character Captain Miller and the living warrior-leader SMA Gates were making a good point to drive home a concept that should be representative of every generation. The gifts of life and ability to serve our nation as well as humanity require effort, commitment, and self-sacrifice. They also demand of us determination to work for what we have been -- and will be – provided. Fulfillment cannot be achieved by inactivity and expecting everything for nothing. Yet, the more we claim to understand the aforementioned, the further we get away from it.

Nowhere is this truer than in our own advancement systems. Years ago to be promoted, we were required to have time in grade/service, be specialty qualified, and have demonstrated ability to function at the next level. Unfortunately, too often, supervisory promotions are based only on longevity and specialty qualification. This is a serious problem at any level, but even more so at ground zero where training, development, and immediate future of our service-members are dependent on their unit leaders.

Ironically, this comes at a time when we have the ever best leadership development schools. The problem is not in the academic environment. Schools can teach the concept of leadership. They can teach the required skills and proficiencies necessary to survive on the battlefield. It is individual service-members and units that must set the standards for success. This takes us back to the concept of "Earn It." People, especially military, cannot expect something to just be given to them. Increased responsibility or authority that is given but not prepared for by earning it, will result in failure. Military failure, whether on the battlefield or in support elements during battle, results in increased use of body bags.

Furthermore, if someone didn't work for what they have received, why should they work now? The reward of their past inactivity was advancement. Therefore their learned behavior is to do nothing and get rewarded. They have no reason to change, they have achieved their personal self-serving desires without having to give of themselves. Meanwhile motivation and retention of those who practice the concept of "earn it" are negatively impacted.

At all levels, we have the opportunity to earn it and never stop earning it. The hero of the battle at Ia Drang Valley, Lieutenant General Hal Moore put it this way, "In any environment there is something you can do to make it better, and something after that, and something after that." Whether it is self-development, team development, unit readiness, goal achievement, or any other worthwhile endeavor we accept, further improvement should always be the goal.

Hal Moore's preparation for combat and his actions at Ia Drang were portrayed in motion picture "We Were Soldiers." When later asked if he prayed over the dead soldiers while still on the battlefield, as did Mel Gibson while playing his character, General Moore responded that did not happen because when the battle commenced, "The time for prayer was past; the time for fighting had started."

The same holds true for all preparation. When the fighting starts, preparation is over. The end result will be determined by how ready we came. That included coming with service-members possessing the technical and tactical skills necessary not just to survive, but to achieve victory. They must have the spirit and toughness to go the long fight. They must have confidence in themselves and their leaders. This can't be achieved by individuals who have always been given the easy route and are supervised by people in positions of authority who have never earned it.

We have the greatest country in the history of the world. We have to do the same things our forefathers did; we have to earn it. This includes defending it. We can defend it a lot better in our time of challenge if we take the harder right, rather than the easier wrong. The harder right is firmly anchored in the words of Captain Millier and Sergeant Major of the Army Gates, "Earn It."

©2021 Wes Martin