“I’m right behind you,” I said. That’s what I told my wife and son as they departed the hotel. They had been gone an hour or so and I had only a few remaining administrative tasks to accomplish. Then I would be headed home.

I was wrapping up another Strong Bonds for soldiers and families at an Atlanta-area hotel. The program is designed to aid soldiers in communication skills, in understanding trust and mistrust issues, in working through conflict, in fighting for our marriages, in knowing our own “love languages” and the languages of those to whom we are closest, in how we soldiers—married or single—might make wiser decisions regarding how to show love and sustain love.

All I had remaining, I told myself, were just these final signatures with my hotel contacts, accountability for personnel, double-checking my room for gear, and I could go. I was tired, and longed for my own bed. Long day tomorrow (Monday). Always, I thought, looking ahead.

I’d confirmed all of the soldiers and families who had participated in the three-day event had checked out of the hotel. Most had repacked their cars or trucks for the drive back to their homes. As each event finished, I liked to watch couples leave together. Often they held hands walking out from the hotel through the parking lot, their children pulling at the parents’ pants, asking, “Can we stop for lunch?” or “What are we going to do now?” Unmarried soldiers walked with their battle buddies and talked of common interests, or their evaluations of the training event. Single parents often wore expressions of enduring resolve amidst unspoken solitude.

I finished the paperwork with the hotel staff, double-checked I had all my gear, zipped up my backpack and computer bag, and headed out the door. A twenty year-old bellhop said, “Have a good day, sir” as I exited the vestibule and crossed through the closest parking areas down to the lower lot where I had parked my truck.

I placed my gear in the bed of the truck and got in the cab. I cranked the truck, let the windows down for the accumulated August heat to escape, and turned on the A/C. I sat for a moment taking mental inventory, thinking of anything I might have left behind.

When the cab was cool, I backed out and drove towards the exit gate. When I approached the area to scan my room key, I did. The red and white arm lifted. I dropped my key into the drop box and prepared to turn out of the parking lot onto the main road but as I watched the gate’s arm descend in my rear view mirror, a couple caught my eye. It was not a married couple. It was a father and son. The father was one of our instructors and chaplains. He was walking back to the hotel lobby. I stopped my truck and rolled down the window.

“Is everything okay?” I asked.

“Yes,” the father said, his 10-year-old beside him.

Matthew leaned against his father’s leg, smiling.

“Matthew wanted to go walk through the hotel again. He likes it,” the father said.

Suddenly my thoughts flashed to my own 10-year-old son, and of what it means to walk beside.

I watched them walk on beside each other looking ahead together.

The Ones to Watch

He is not the most popular. She is not the most recognized. He is not the handsomest. She’s not in the limelight. However, each is invaluable. Who are these people? What sets them apart? They’re the servant-leaders. They are the overlooked catalysts of success and missimgresion accomplishment.

Recently the military unit of which I’m a part trained at Ft. Stewart for a few days. Our mission? Individual weapons qualification (IWQ). We spent several days and nights on ranges practicing marksmanship skills. I love anything to do with guns and ammo, so I relished the training with my fellow soldiers.

As with any skill set, soldiers vary in their levels of proficiency. Some infantry soldiers zeroed their weapons with just 6-9 rounds, then moved down to the qualification range. There they qualified as marksmen, sharpshooters, or experts.

However, some soldiers floundered. And that’s when I witnessed the emergence of the servant-leaders. A divide occurred. A handful of soldiers struggled with fundamentals of marksmanship: sight picture alignment, breathing, trigger squeeze, etc. Some soldiers scoffed at the struggles of their fellow soldiers, as ways of congratulating themselves. Yet other soldiers, non-commissioned officers, and officers, took a different approach. Rather than accentuating the struggles of their fellow soldiers, they mentored them. They served them in order that they (the struggling shooters) would learn and improve.

The servant-leaders got down in the dirt with the soldiers who were struggling. In the prone position, they talked them through the fundamentals of effective marksmanship. For most soldiers, their shooting improved. Nearly all qualified.

At the end of the days of training, these servant-leaders did not receive accolades. They garnered no public praise. Yet the fighting force of soldiers is now stronger. Why? It’s due in large measure to these overlooked catalysts of success and mission accomplishment. Who are the ones to watch? It’s often those men and women who speak softly but serve valiantly, the servant-leaders.