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2015 Nininger Award Recipient

MAJ ChristopheR P.Dean, Class of 2002

Acceptance Remarks
Washington Hall, West Point, New York
September 24, 2015

General and Mrs. Caslen, Colonel McClure, Ms. Houlihan, distinguished guests, and members of the Corps of Cadets, thank you. I am honored to represent all West Point graduates who have led Soldiers in battle...and, I am awestruck to stand here before you as the tenth recipient of the Nininger Award for Valor at Arms. I pledge to do my best to live up to the virtues symbolized by this medallion and its namesake—Lieutenant Sandy Nininger of the class of 1941.

First of all, I must confess to you all that I was an average cadet.

In fact, my roommates would tell you that my graduation was not guaranteed until I walked up the ramp and grasped my diploma. My Graduation Day, now thirteen years ago, was one of the best days of my life. Since then, I have often realized how much I learned here in my four years, and that topic is the heart of my message to you this evening.
My remarks will be brief, and I won't tell you any war stories. However, I would like to share with you some of the things that quickly became second nature to me as a result of my education and training here.
To begin, allow me take you back in time...
During spring break in 2001, I went on a DMI trip section to Europe. Along with a few other cadets, I visited Army units in Germany and Bosnia. One day, we observed a Fifth Corps command post exercise. After the exercise, our DMI instructor, Lieutenant Colonel Levy, called us to assemble at the map. Then, he took his pointer and put the tip on a salient in the corps front line and said to us...
...during a corps attack, there is a lead division.
...that lead division has a lead brigade.
...and in that brigade is a lead battalion.
...and, as you might guess, that battalion is led by a company that has designated a lead platoon.
…and what this means is: at the lead of an American attack of any scale there is a platoon leader—a platoon leader and his or her Soldiers are the tip of the American spear.

Tonight, my goal is to assure you that you are being well prepared to be THAT platoon leader—the one whose Soldiers form the steely tip of America’s spear.

As you settle in to your first platoon, you’ll be surprised at how much you know about leading it. Some of your knowledge will be technical or factual, and some will be instinctual. The combination will keep you on the right azimuth.

For example, on the day that you meet your platoon:
You will know that trust is critical. You will know to observe the group dynamics and that your Soldiers are sizing you up as well. From Day 1, nurturing trust within your platoon will become an essential objective of your leadership, which will no longer be an academic concept.

You will also know that you must motivate yourself and your troops to do the mundane things: to endure long meetings, persevere through maintenance Mondays, and receive the obligatory safety briefings.

And you will know to share hardships with your Soldiers. When a repair part for a deadlined vehicle arrives at 1600 hours on a Friday, you will stay with your Soldiers in the motor pool. You might not be THE top technical expert in your platoon, but you will know that you can help drag track sections or operate an impact wrench...and that your wallet can handle a platoon’s worth of pizzas. And then, when the work is done, you and your Soldiers will leave the motor pool together. At that point, you will also recognize that you intuitively knew how to strike a balance between leading your Soldiers and being their servant.

And I would like you to know that you will understand the value of empathy...doing what you can to lift the spirits of the specialist whose high school girlfriend, the one he was sure he was going to marry, has moved on to someone else. You will also listen patiently to your go-to NCO when he's complaining about his divorce, because you know he needs to vent…And when Jones gets a “no pay due” LES, and he can’t fight that battle himself: you and your platoon sergeant will help him file the pay inquiry.

The long days and nights with your Soldiers will forge your team. You will enjoy laughing at their high school pranks, the stories about how they crashed their first car, and hearing about which new video game is “the new hotness,” [surveying crowd: Does anybody even SAY that anymore?]

…but you will also hear about hard childhoods in poor communities, and how the Army provided many of your Soldiers a path to a brighter future. And, often, you will be struck by the purity of their patriotism.

You will balance this team—building with a fanatical passion for the tools of your trade—your branch. Your Soldiers will sense that passion and do their best to achieve the standards you set, so that, individually and collectively, they will have the skills and cohesiveness needed…as a team...at the tip of the spear…to prevail against a ruthless enemy who is the embodiment of evil.

And then, when the Nation calls on you to be THAT platoon leader, you will know.

You will know what small arms fire sounds like when it's pointed at you and how to take appropriate action.

You will know whether to direct the .50 cal, the M240, the main gun, artillery, or air support on the enemy…And you will know that, like in a multiple-choice test, the best answer is usually “All of the above!”

You will know that when your unit is on a movement to contact, your place is in the lead vehicle because you need to be there…because, in the “symphony of destruction,” YOU must be the conductor.  And you will fight from the open hatch, because the specialist in the scout HMMWV—five vehicles behind you—cannot button up, and he's watching what YOU do.

In short, you will know that YOU are your platoon's guidon. Your Soldiers WILL rally around you and look to you to point the way forward.

When the OPTEMPO is heavy, you will be fatigued, but you will go on every mission, because you can’t let something bad happen in your absence…And your platoon needs you to be a strain gauge—to sense when your Soldiers are starting to break. And when you tell your crew that they can rotate with the other crews —because they have been going out every day and you don't want to exhaust them—you will get it when they say, “We're your crew, we're going with you, Sir.” And when returning from a mission, regardless of how late, the fuelers and mechanics will swarm to help you prepare for the next mission.

But if something bad does happen, I can tell you from experience that you will know sorrow...
…when you identify your Soldier.
…and when you ask the chaplain if he performed last rites,
…and when you collect your Soldier’s gear and clean his vehicle,
...and when you find what words to put in the letter to his parents.

And later, when you can't talk about about your magnificent Soldiers without struggling to maintain your composure, you will understand pride.

So, in closing, I can say with complete confidence that you are all about to partake of one of the greatest honors that American society has to offer. That is, the opportunity to lead and to serve American Soldiers—men and women who volunteered to face evil wherever it threatens. I cannot imagine any experience that is more significant and rewarding, and I envy each and every one of you.

In closing, I would like to thank the Association of Graduates for this award, and General Caslen—thank you for your courtesies to me and my family. Most of all, I want you all to know what an honor it is to be invited to speak at one of your dinners.

I accept this award on behalf of the magnificent Soldiers of Task Force 2 37 Armor, the Iron Dukes. I love them.

And I would like to dedicate my remarks to Sergeant Mike Mitchell, Specialist Nick Zimmer, and First Lieutenant Ken Ballard. They never left their places at the tip of the spear. They have been in my heart every day since we fought together in Baghdad and Kufa.
I would like to thank my family here with me this evening. You have often borne the burdens of my profession, supporting me every moment.

And thank you to my mother, who worked tirelessly to encourage me, despite my indomitable, know-it-all attitude.

And, finally, thank you to my father. Dad, thank you for inspiring me.

I appreciate your attention this evening.  I wish you all the best in the years ahead.

 Go Army!


Nininger Award