November 18, 2010

Name: Michael C
Returned from: Afghanistan and Iraq
Hometown: Orange County, CA
Milblog: On Violence

Sometimes the difference between "a" and "the" can be gigantic.

For example, every platoon has a “PL” (short for platoon leader), but not every platoon has “The PL.” The first is a common name; the second is an informal show of respect.

I don’t remember the first time someone called me The PL, but I remember who said it, Staff Sergeant Williams. He referred to me as if I weren't in the room, or as if I were some higher deity looking down. Something along the lines of, “The PL wants the trucks ready to roll by 0800.”

They had probably called me The PL a bunch of times when I wasn’t around before I first heard it. When I did hear it for the first time, I liked it. I was proud. It’s the final step on crappy nickname ladder that new platoon leaders climb. First, I had other nicknames.

Lieutenant: Lieutenant is the de facto title, and it’s neutral depending on context. If your men call you the “lieutenant,” it isn’t that bad. If a higher officer addresses you as “lieutenant,” you can almost guarantee he’s about to tear you a new one. As a new PL, I couldn’t wait wait to drop that title.

Butter Bar: New PLs don’t want to get called this. It’s the universal synonym for all freshly-minted, new lieutenants, because of the solid gold bar you wear on your chest. It is also why my guys cut a butter pat into thirds and taped it to my rank, a literal butter bar.

LT: Sometimes, before you become “The PL”, you get the intermediary LT. Lieutenant and LT are almost interchangeable, but I preferred LT. (Side note: I’ve noticed that some old Vietnam vets love to call LTs “LT.” Its like, “Hey, I’m not in the Army any more so if I call you LT, what are you going to do?” It’s a throwback to the days of Vietnam, like smoking Pall Mall cigarettes or hating Jane Fonda.)

Cherry: Though the term “cherry” isn’t exclusive to new officers, being called a “cherry lieutenant” is probably the worst insult in the Army.

The Sir: To my face, I was only called “Sir,” the same way our platoon sergeant was only called “sergeant”. On the way to becoming the PL, "the LT" morphed into “The Sir." Again, this was better than being called “The Lieutenant.” (Second side note: my men also came up with the theory that you could say anything you wanted to a higher ranking officer, so long as you said, “Sir, with all due respect.” Such as “Sir, with all due respect, this mission is blanking retarded.” That theory wasn’t true.)

Michael: My men never called me this, especially in the strict world of the Airborne Infantry. Only years later did my men call me Michael, and for some it was a hard habit to break. After I moved to battalion staff, I told one of my guys he could call me by my first name. He looked both ways for Sergeants Major then said, “Later, Michael” with a smile.

Why all this philosophizing on the many names of lieutenants? Because the difference between an “a” and a “the” can bring the emotions flooding back.

Last January, I attended a funeral for Sergeant Lucas Beachnaw after he was killed in Konar province. Most of the Fourth Platoon “Helldivers” showed up to say their farewells. The night before the service, with all of us staying in the same hotel, we had to plan the rest of the night.

Without realizing it, Staff Sergeant Williams referred to me as “the PL” again. I smiled. We weren’t in the same platoon anymore, we weren’t even stationed anywhere near each other and half the guys at the funeral weren’t in the military anymore. But we were still a platoon, and I was “the Sir” and “the PL.” And no one can ever take that away.


Sir, great story. It all makes sense to me. I have been on Recruiting Duty for almost two years now, but can directly relate to your stories, especially that of "Cherry". Your story took me right back to Fort Bragg, where I belong and hope to be the "Platoon Sergeant" again. Sorry for the loss of YOUR fellow Soldier. Strike-Hold!

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