The Change of Command

I received an invitation in the mail yesterday to attend a friend’s Change of Command ceremony.  I’ve been to a bunch of them in the Army, but never as an invited guest. I was always out in the unit participating.

Virtually every change of command ceremony in the Army is the same, varying only in the size of the unit participating.  There’s the reviewing stand, facing a parade ground. The outgoing and incoming commanders will be there. Also with them is the commander of the next higher unit. For instance, at a battalion change of command, the brigade combat team commander would be there.

The battalion marches onto the parade ground, usually lead by the XO, as the “commander of troops.”  The colors are presented, the troops render honors to the reviewing party,  and then the speeches begin.  It’s always either really hot, or really cold for a change of command. At least, that’s the way it always seemed to me, when I was standing in ranks and listening to the brigade commander drone on, and then the outgoing commander give his speech. And then the incoming commander. Though, at least by tradition, the new guy usually only makes a few pro forma remarks.

Finally, it’s time for the actual change of command itself.  The unit Sergeant Major comes forward with the unit guidon, or regimental colors. Forming a little diamond formation with the three commanders, an odd little game of pass takes place. The Sergeant Major passes the guidon to the outgoing commander. The outgoing commander passes the guidon to the senior commander. The senior commander passes the guidon to the incoming commander, who returns them to the Sergeant Major. This passing of the guidon is symbolic of the passing of the authority of command from one officer to the next.  It’s also a nice touch to reinforce the role of a unit’s senior NCO as the “keeper of the flame” that safeguards the units honor, tradition and history for his commander.

After the Sergeant Major has returned the guidon to the color guard, it’s time for the Pass in Review. The battalion basically marches in a giant square around the parade ground, and as they pass the reviewing stand, they render honors by coming to “Eyes Right.” That is, the company commander, while marching, renders the hand salute, the company guidon bearer lowers the guidon parallel to the ground, and the ranks of the company turn their heads 45 degrees to the right (except the extreme right file- the keep facing straight ahead, otherwise the whole company would tend to drift to the right).  This Pass in Review is usually my favorite part of the ceremony. You get to march to a band (almost invariably playing the Washington Post March, my favorite) and if nothing else, you finally get to move around a bit after having to stand around for 45 minutes or so. One the unit has marched completely around the square, the colors are retired, the ceremony is quickly concluded, and the units march back to their barracks. The old commander, new commander, senior commander, their spouses, and invited guests generally go have a nice little reception. The troops go back to work.

So, a change of command isn’t terribly fun to participate in. But they are traditional, and I’m a big fan of tradition. A little pomp and circumstance never hurt anyone.

And command is a big thing. It’s the ultimate responsibility. If a unit does well, or does poorly, you can point at one man, and hold him personally responsible. Nothing establishes accountability like it. In the corporate world, I was often rather astonished to find myself working in organizations where I had no real idea who my boss worked for. Good ideas had to be sold to several people, and often languished because there was no consensus for supporting them. Bad ideas weren’t quashed quickly because leaders thought some other party should do the quashing. In the Army, good and bad ideas both abound, but at least you know who to praise or blame.

Ideally, command of troop units is the goal of every officer. For some, it truly is. For others, it is a challenge that has to be overcome in order to advance. Good commanders seek command for the reward of command itself. Bad commanders seek command to qualify for their next promotion. And many officers just don’t spend a lot of time in command. In the Army, an officer holds command as a Captain at the company level, ideally for 18-24 months, but these days, often for less. His next opportunity for command won’t come until he’s a Lieutenant Colonel, when, if he’s lucky enough to be selected, he’ll command a battalion for about 18 months.  That usually takes place at about 18-20 years of commissioned service. Our officer has held leadership positions as a platoon leader and possibly company XO. He’s had staff jobs, spend a huge amount of time in schools, worked as instructor in the massive Army school system, served on a battalion staff, and perhaps worked in the enormous Army bureaucracy. But in all  that time, no matter how much time he spent in leadership positions, the only time he’s held command was as a company commander. That was probably a dozen years or more before he assumed battalion command. It’s also very likely his last command. The selection rate from battalion command to brigade combat team command is awfully low. He better cherish that time. 

Just got an email from my friend:

The army has gotten to where pretty much all the BN changes happen about the same time because of deployment timelines.  Some units choose to do all BNs and the BCT Cdr at the same time and others choose to do them all over the course of a week or so. There are pros and cons both ways. IMO it should be separate and unique for each BN but there is also much less overhead and the generals only have to attend one with the mass one.

You’d think a wholesale swapout of the leadership would be cause for concern. But as noted in the email, if you swap out the leadership at the right phase of the deploy/recover/train/deploy cycle, you can have stable leadership throughout an entire period of workups and deployment.  Having all the battalion commanders and the brigade commander stabilized throughout a cycle gives time to establish good working relationships, and can reduce friction, and the fog of war at critical times.

10 thoughts on “The Change of Command”

  1. I was always a fan of Blackjack for the PnR, myself. That was one of the frequent choices at The Citadel for Friday parade.

    1. heh

      In 1985 I don’t think anyone would have blinked if they’d just said “oops, sorry!”

      Regardless, 1995 was an interesting time. I sort of wish I’d gone a year earlier, so I could have had more free time to observe what was going on. As it was, I was a little … busy, being a knob. I do remember the cheering when she quit, though, you could probably have heard it a mile away.

  2. Back in the day on the Gearings..we had them approx eery 20 months or so, if memory serves..and the only ones who were cool about it were the CPOs..lol..

  3. The timing of changes command within the current reset phase of an ARFORGEN cycle usually happens at about 60 – 90 day phase of RESET. So to your point command teams are together for a good while and have time to gel early in the reorg process.

    Like you I participated in many CoC ceremonies…but I also had the honor and thrill to twice receive the guidon while taking command.

    But the coolest one I have done was as Scoutmaster. The guy who repolaced me is a good friend and a retired LTC. We had our change of Scoutmaster Ceremony just like a change of command. Our Senior Patrol Leader acted in CSM role….some of the fathers got the significance but most of the audience had no clue. We also had our wives switch our Scoutmaster and Assistant Scoutmaster patches.

  4. Only heat injury I every suffered in the Army was in a change of command for the base commander of Ft. Gordon less than a week after I arrived in GA. Yeah, I was never fond of them either.

  5. When I was with 1-1 ADA back in ’05, instead of a change of command we had an assumtion of command. During an EXEVAL (External EVALuation) by Brigade, Alpha Battery did so bad (as the BDE COL was watching no less!) that their commander was relieved on the spot. They were supposed to change out commanders, but the XO had to take over and they got a new CPT the week after the exercise was over.

  6. Corporate world cannot waste the time of attending two or three rehearsals as well as IPRs for something that may last for an hour. PRIVATE sector time is money. Ideas have to be sold- and leaders must be proficient persuaders. Money talks in the corporate world. Have attended many COCs and find them to be nice little events where I prefer to sit in the sidelines and observe the politicking all the while making little mental notes of who came and why and watching all the mingling. A very interesting opportunity to observe human behavior.

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