In April 2004, in the early days of the Iraq war, an armored vehicle drove under a bridge and hit an improvised explosive device, killing one of the three U.S. Army soldiers on board. It was the first casualty in the war for 1/7 Cav, the 1st Squadron, 7th Cavalry of the U.S. Army. Sergeant Major Ray Chandler, the squadron’s highest-ranking enlisted soldier, faced the task of talking to the troops. He had worked closely with the man who died. And he worried that the tragedy happened because his unit had grown complacent.
Today, Chandler is the Army’s highest-ranking enlisted soldier. As a 32-year veteran of the Army who has served as a tank crewman and a command sergeant major, Chandler knows a thing or two about motivational speeches. “So much of what you’re asking a soldier to do is irrational,” he says. “That’s why it’s both so difficult and so important to talk to them.”
Following the casualty in 2004, Chandler gathered his unit for a pep talk. He began by asking soldiers to share positive memories of their lost comrade and talk about how they felt about his death. Next, instead of assigning blame, he calmly explained that their future vigilance would be a form of paying homage. “We need to honor his sacrifice by doing what we know to be right,” he said. “We’ll help each other so that we don’t repeat it.” Thankfully, the unit didn’t lose another soldier for the rest of its two-year deployment.
In any motivational speech, Chandler says, it’s crucial to show team members that you care about them as individuals and trust them to fulfill their roles, and that everyone’s role matters to the higher cause. Chandler used that approach to motivate the 1/7 Cav when it was charged with securing more than 100 polling places during Iraq’s presidential election, a task that would stretch the unit thin and expose it to insurgent attacks.
The day before the election, Chandler and his commanding officer assembled the troops. They didn’t downplay the situation. “You are going to be a target,” Chandler told the soldiers. He reminded them they were responsible for developing security plans for their sites, explaining that their objective was to ensure the election process was not disrupted. Their success or failure, he said, would have strategic consequences for the United States.
The day of the election, which proceeded as planned, Chandler and other squadron leaders circulated among the polling places, encouraging the soldiers, supplying hot food, and offering support. “If you’re going to demand your people do something extraordinary,” Chandler says, “you’ve got to be there with them while they’re doing it.”