14 July 2010

How Sherpa Got His Callsign

More Notes from Annual Training in June 2010 ...

It was at an Annual Training a couple of years ago that I earned the nickname "Sherpa." It even happened right here at Camp Ripley, Minn. The headquarters company had just come in from the field, and we were variously busy washing mud off our vehicles, cleaning and turning in our weapons, and staging trucks for the next day's convoy.

The staff, of course, had scattered to the four winds. Commanders and first-sergeants are always focused on taking care of business, and their business is troops. By comparison, however, once in from the field and distracted from mission, staff officers are mostly like cats. Attention-deficit disorder cats--A.D.D. cats on crack.

The headquarters company supply sergeant couldn't lock up the weapons rack and load them in the truck, because she was missing a couple of staff officers' M-16 rifles and M9 pistols. I volunteered to wander around Camp Ripley, collecting the weapons directly from the customers. At this point, the supply sergeant didn't care how clean the weapons were--she just wanted them back.

It took a few hours and a few miles--I was schlepping around on foot, because all the vehicles were at the wash-racks--to locate Supply's Most Wanted. By the time I found the last of the usual staff suspects, my back bristled with three long black rifles, and I was carrying a semi-automatic pistol in each hand. If I looked dangerous, it was probably more to myself than to others.

As the last gentleman handed over his handgun, he said, "Hey--You're the weapons Sherpa!"

At least, I suppose, he didn't say "caddy."

It took me a few years to grow into the "Sherpa" name. Truth told, it now means more to me than a silly story. If you've spent any time with me, you already know that there's never a single or simple explanation. I'll write more on the topic soon.

For now, however, let's just say that "Sherpa" has come to represent--to me, at least--the idea and ideal of putting yourself out there, in humble and hopeful service to one's peers. You've heard the Marine motto, "No greater friend, no worse enemy"? I prefer "no task too great, no service too small."

Too often in this world and Army, people seem to seek out only glory, praise, or honor for themselves. I've been guilty of it many times myself.

"Sherpa" keeps me grounded. "Sherpa" keeps me real.

Without realizing it, I think I've been on the path toward "servant leadership." I aspire to be more humble. I desire to help make my organization better. I am also painfully aware of my shortcomings, and that I can trip on my own tongue, and miscommunicate my message.

In the months leading up to my deployment, I've been quite taken with writer Ann Marlowe's clear-eyed plain-talk from Afghanistan. One particular passage builds on quote from a Provincial Reconstruction Team (P.R.T.) leader in Zabul Province. "The concept of servant leadership is absent here," he says. Marlowe later writes:
The Afghans, of course, have already Afghanized, and that’s the problem. It’s sauve qui peut ["every man for himself"] here, and servant leadership is maybe a century or two in the future. The best we can hope for now are the kind of Afghan government officials who identify with the interests of the government as though it were another tribe. They will at least protect its property and interests, which roughly speaking means our investment here. And of course some few genuinely care about achieving something here.

[...] Many would be happy if we took over all the apparatus of the state, from issuing drivers’ licenses and passports to collecting taxes, because Americans don’t ask for bribes. Many others want to kill us--and in a way, for the same reason. When you have a sense of shame about your culture, it’s one way to restore self-respect. Even the presence of Afghans who care about their work and their country is a reproach to those with no pride left.
We may not be able to make the world follow our leads--whether individually, as soldiers or citizens; or collectively, as armies or countries--but we can always lead by example. Remember the three most powerful words we can say to each other, even those who we perceive to be our enemies.

No, not "I love you"--but "can I help?"


  1. Thanks for the reminder. Also, my first drill will be up at Ripley. I'm kinda nervous, going back in after so long! Yikes

  2. Well said, Sherpa. Now go get me a cup of coffee.:)


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