“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” Proverbs 27:17
Poe is the iron who has sharpened every soldier who had the privilege of spending any time at all around him in the Army. He is Iron Mike incarnate. Show me a good soldier and if you look, you will find the good leaders who molded him; soldiers aren’t born soldiers, they’re made. While I was surely born to be a soldier, it was the leadership of men like SGM Poe who turned me into one. I am also convinced that Bill Poe may actually be one of the few human beings on Earth who was actually born already a soldier. I often say that whoever got credit for writing the Ranger Handbook either copied Bill Poe and Brian Szulwach, or they followed them around taking notes on everything they did. Several of our battalion officers had gone to Ranger School and had 1SG Poe as their Ranger Instructor. Most approached him much the same way a private would. He commanded a certain and high level of respect like few men I’ve ever seen. Just his presence alone made you feel like you were part of something great.
After completing basic training and AIT at Fort Benning, I was feeling pretty confident when I reported to A CO 1-87 IN. It didn’t take long to realize my training hadn’t even really begun. It was only a few days before we were whisked into the frozen tundra that is Fort Drum. The temperature was -22 degrees our first night out and we were sleeping in about 2 and a half feet of snow. Every time I turned around, it seemed like First Sergeant Poe was there, a pattern that eventually explained why the lower enlisted in 1st platoon called him “The Great White Shark”. Absent leaders cannot be good leaders, and absent is something that Poe never was. He was always observing training and making sure his NCO’s were keeping with his standards. If they weren’t, he never corrected them in front of us, he’d take them aside and make sure they understood what the standard was. Poe always cited the Ranger Handbook when giving feedback to us in the field, and most, if not all of us, had Squad Leaders that not only trained us from the very same, they required us to carry a copy at all times.
Shortly after our first two weeks in the field, we had a barracks and Class A uniform inspection. Our squad leader was our first challenge in this inspection of course. Like Poe, Szulwach was a Ranger and his standards and attention to detail produced soldiers that carried the same standard. Our Team Leaders, SGT Ruddick and SGT Douglass, were also as squared away as they come. During the inspection, CPT Parks and 1SG Poe walked the halls, inspected rooms and soldiers, and asked questions of all the new privates. I was certain they were skipping right past asking me any questions other than basic personal information when 1SG Poe unexpectedly questioned me.
“What is the first paragraph of the Code of Conduct, PVT Slane?” – 1SG Poe asked.
I froze as this Ranger and giant of a man stood there smiling at me, expecting an answer. I’m not exactly tiny, and in fact Poe may be the same height as me. But everything about him made me feel two feet shorter. My mind went blank. I couldn’t answer the question. He smiled and started to walk to the next soldier as I suddenly blurted out:
“I am an American, fighting in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense!”
The group consisting of my platoon, squad and company leadership all froze in unison. SGT Brian Szulwach, LT. Bill Shomento, SFC Gary Mason, CPT Parks, 1LT Tom DiTomasso and of course, 1SG Bill Poe.
“Very good, soldier!” CPT Parks exclaimed.
Poe didn’t actually say anything, but he was smiling from ear to ear, like a father who just watched one of his kids reach some milestone in life, no matter how mundane it may have seemed. Looking back now as a man about the age that Poe was that day, I see it as much more than mundane. It was the realization of great leadership and the fulfillment of the contract leaders have with their soldiers. They gave me everything I needed to be successful, all I had to do was use it and let myself become sharper with each passing day.
After a long winter of never ending training, we headed to Ft. Irwin, CA for a rotation at NTC (The National Training Center). As usual, 1SG Poe was everywhere I turned around to look. Just when I thought maybe I could stop hacking away at the rocks with my e-tool as I desperately tried digging my fighting position, I would see him and start once again “Clank! Clank! Clank!”. Telling him I couldn’t wasn’t an option for him, or for myself.
During a night Air Assault during which we flew Nap-of-the-Earth and did several false insertions, 1 LT DiTamasso (who was later reassigned to the 3rd Ranger Battalion and awarded a Silver Star for heroism during The Battle of Mogadishu) decided he didn’t like the flight and un-assed our bird during a false insertion, truly one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen. However, after our birds later dropped us in the middle of an armored company’s perimeter, I really wish I would have followed him. The company was wiped out in a matter of minutes.
A day or two later, I was released from the casualty collection point where I somehow ended up riding in a Humvee alone with 1SG Poe. Suddenly we crested a hilltop and began driving across a ridgeline and immediately got quite the show as 155mm howitzers tore the valley below us apart. I looked over at the First Sergeant who was yelling “You see that, Slane!?!?!? Ain’t that something!?!?!?” like a kid at the circus. At first I was honestly a bit worried, maybe even scared. But that feeling quickly faded as realized he was no longer driving straight at it. Then I let myself enjoy the show.
In another six months, after Hurricane Andrew Relief and MOUT Training at Ft. Bragg, 1SG Poe would take over HHC company and we would be on our way to Somalia with a new CO and 1SG. We were as ready and prepared as any soldiers could be given the best training in the world under the direction of 1SG Poe and CPT Parks. I have never met a soldier who did not respect 1SG Poe as being the best of the best. As now the 1SG of HHC, Poe would pin the SGT stripes on Arnoldo Garcia-Bochas, one of the members of our battalion scouts that would accompany A CO 1-87 IN to Somalia as among the first of American forces to arrive in the country.
Now that I’ve given a little of my interactions with Poe and described the impact he made on me, which will be more apparent in Behind the Gun when it’s published, let’s look at the full picture of the absolute best soldier and NCO I ever personally served with.
Bill Poe looked like the All American ideal kid when he joined the Army in 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War. He and his wife Kay had been married for about 5 months prior to his enlistment. And while others in America were protesting in the streets, Poe was raising his hand to protect an ideal and a tradition over 200 years in the making. Soldiers don’t concern themselves with the politics of anything at all when they make that decision to serve their country, they just go. I know, because I would do the exact same thing 22 years later during the Gulf War when I dropped out of college, and volunteered for the Army.
Not only did Poe volunteer for the Army in a way that they could assign him to do anything (basically voluntarily drafted himself), and despite having a GT score that qualified him for anything in the US Army, he chose to become an infantryman. Why? “Because that’s what being a soldier is all about. Everything else is just support.” he told them as he chose his infantry MOS after basic training. His response and enthusiasm of course prompted some scorn and poking fun of from the clerks doing the paperwork. But I imagine Poe just smiled to himself, knowing they were just Pogues and the exact type of soldier he didn’t want to be.
After completing Basic and Infantry training at Ft. Lewis, WA (common during the Vietnam war vs Ft. Benning for most of us), Poe was selected for OCS (Officer Candidate School). However, when he learned that would stall his orders to Vietnam, he recanted and instead asked to be sent to Vietnam. The Army responded by sending him to become a “shake and bake” SGT. Again, Poe resisted, and again, asked to be sent to Vietnam. Why? He felt that to lead men in combat he himself should first gain the experience required to lead men successfully in combat. And becoming a shake and bake NCO would leave him as an inexperienced leader in charge of men in combat, a problem that plagued the Vietnam era soldiers. While the Army contemplated Poe’s future, most of the men he had trained with had gone and died in the jungles of Vietnam, literally wiped out in a single fatal swoop.
The Army finally accepted Poe’s request, but instead sent him to Korea on the DMZ where he was assigned to the 7th Infantry Division (which was the first unit I served in after leaving the 10th Mountain Division following Somalia & Haiti). I had met several people during my time in the Army who served on the DMZ during the Vietnam War and in doing so, I learned something the American public is largely unaware of: there was fighting going on there, too. However, the Army didn’t award the Combat Infantryman’s Badge for the fighting that took place on the DMZ between 1966 and 1970.
In Korea, Poe was assigned to a signal battalion and told to take off anything identifying him as Infantry, under the threat of actually being assigned to an Infantry unit. Poe stood there in front of his commander not budging an inch or removing anything from his uniform.
“What are you waiting for?” his commander asked him.
“To be assigned to an Infantry unit, sir.” Poe replied.
“Get the fuck out of my office!” his commander replied angrily.
Needless to say, it didn’t happen and while his initial impression may have ruffled some feathers, Poe would eventually win the NCO of the year award: as an E-4 serving in the capacity of a sergeant. He had been promoted to E4 at the minimum time in service (9 months) and was made an “acting sergeant” the same afternoon. When the upper echelons of his command found out he wasn’t actually an NCO and had won the NCO of the year award, they remedied the situation promptly. At less than a year out of basic training, just 11 months, Poe was a sergeant. To put that into perspective, I was considered a “fast tracker” for making E-5 in two years…..a full year+ longer than it took Poe.
Poe re-enlisted for Germany in 1970 where he relocated with his wife Kay where his first two children were born at Nuremberg. He was assigned to A Battery, 6-60th ADA (Hawk) where it was determined he was the senior sergeant (at two years…) and made the commo section sergeant where he found himself in charge of 22 men. Though he and Kay enjoyed Germany and the family time they were afforded, the attitude of the all volunteer Army had killed his motivation to continue in the Army.
With eight months left, he was sent to Fort Hood where a pay problem had caused him to rebel by refusing to get a haircut.
“You think you are going to ETS in a month, but you’re not. We are going to flag your orders and court-martial you. You will do some hard time and get a DD.” Poe’s SGM told him.
“Sergeant Major, I will shave my head to get the fuck out of this Army!” Poe replied.
“Prove it.” the SGM told him.
As soon as Poe reported with a regulation haircut, his payroll issue was magically fixed. Poe learned a lot from the SGM, lessons he would carry with him later in his life. But for now, it was time to exit the Army.
While constantly fighting back the urge to vomit in civilian life, the Poes had their third child, and for two years tried to make the most of civilian life. However, Poe knew he was born to be an infantry soldier and when he went to re-enlist, he stood his ground until he was given orders to report to Ft. Lewis as an Infantry Sergeant. However, due to “significant changes” in tactics and techniques, he was forced to re-take his infantry training at Ft. Polk, LA where while in training, he was made a CADRE (instructor) until he was finally sent to Ft. Lewis.
At Ft. Lewis, Poe was assigned to a straight leg infantry unit, B Company, 3-47th Infantry, where within six months he was designated Brigade NCO of the Month, and promoted to Staff Sergeant. The next day he was assigned as a Platoon Sergeant to a platoon that did not have a Platoon Leader. The leadership experience mounted. And Bill and Kay’s family continued to grow as well as their 4th child was born in 1977.
In May, 1978 he was reassigned, once again to Korea. This time to B Company 1-17th Infantry (Mechanized), 2nd Infantry Division. During his one year tour they completed three 30 day rotations on the DMZ where he led 36 dismounted combat patrols in the DMZ as a Squad Leader and later served again as a Platoon Sergeant.
By the time Poe got out of Korea, he was sick of staring down drunk privates who thought they had the monopoly of being bad, when in fact they were being stupid. He wanted more in the Army and while on leave, Poe put on his dress uniform and reported to the Command Sergeant Major of 2-75th Infantry (Ranger) with his 201 file in hand and told him he wanted to be in his unit. The CSM accepted and had Poe’s orders changed.
Poe’s first stop would be RIP (Ranger Indoctrination Program), a course to weed out those not totally dedicated to the Ranger commitment, which equated to at least 50% of any given class. After just 4 days in RIP, he was told to put on rank and was made a cadre. Now only one thing stood in Poe’s way: to be in a leadership position in a Ranger battalion, he had to be both airborne and Ranger qualified. Poe quickly graduated airborne training and was sent to Ranger School where he graduated as a member of Class 10-79. He was then assigned as a Squad Leader in A CO 2-75 Infantry (Ranger) which had only formed 5 years prior in late 1974.
After about two years in the Ranger Battalion where he eventually became a RIP CADRE, Poe was promoted to SFC/E-7 the day he signed out of battalion to report to a position with the University of Oregon ROTC program. It was a needed break as Poe nursed an ankle injury back to health after surgery. He took his position seriously, understanding that he had an opportunity to influence the next generation of Army leaders.
In 1984, after 3 years with the University of Oregon ROTC program, Poe found himself again assigned to a Ranger unit at Florida Ranger Camp, Egland AFB, Florida. While assigned here, Poe would complete numerous schools, including: Jumpmaster Course, Pathfinder Course, Master Fitness Course, The Dynamics of International Terrorism Course, along with several other schools. After making E8, Poe first served as the Operations NCO for the Florida Ranger Camp before the Ranger Department reorganized as the Ranger Training Brigade (RTB), at which point Poe was laterally promoted to 1SG and assigned to Company A, 6th Ranger Training Battalion. In 1987, Poe was transferred to Ft. Benning and made the acting SGM of 4th RTB before eventually serving as a 1SG in a line company in the 197th Infantry Brigade (Heavy).
In 1990 Poe came out on the Sergeants Major Academy list and was reassigned to the Academy, Fort Bliss, Texas. At the time, once a soldier graduated from SGMA they fell within management of Sergeant Major Branch, DA. So all further assignments would be managed by that branch. So he was looking at the end of all hope for light infantry. But that policy changed while he was in the Academy. It was changed to read that all non-promotable E8 graduates would be retained by their own branch. That day Poe was on the phone to DA to get a First Sergeant assignment. When his orders came through they were for First Sergeant, A Company, 1-87 Infantry, 10th Infantry Division (Mountain), Fort Drum, NY.
While preparing to head to Somalia in October 1993, The Battle of Mogadishu caused yet another mission shift. HHC 1-87 IN would not deploy as a company and B CO 1-87 IN was instead sent quickly on October 4th-6th.
After Somalia, Poe was promoted to SGM about the time I was promoted to SGT. One of the last times I saw him was at the gym when I and SGT Ruddick got a chance to congratulate him on his promotion and he reciprocated and congratulated me as well. Before our paths would part for some 20+ years, SGM Poe had one more big role to play in my life when he helped plan the Army’s largest air operation from naval vessels since WWII, when 1-87 IN, along with the rest of the 10th Mountain Division’s 1st Brigade, Air Assaulted into Haiti in September 1994. And in much the same way Poe had found himself speedily thrust into leadership roles throughout his career, I found myself as the 1st Squad Leader at just over two years in the Army. Something I was more than prepared for with the role model and training I had before me for the two years prior.
After more than 28 years in the Army, SGM Poe retired with his wife Kay where he then took a position at St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin where he again set the standard for leadership eventually serving as the Deputy Commandant before being approached by representatives of the Emir of Qatar to help them found a military academy of their own. He then spent several years traveling to and from Qatar before finally retiring to Ft. Living Room in 2007 with his wife Kay who he says was the best of military wives over these long years. Poe is regularly consulted by the soldiers who served under him as well as the students he taught in the military academy. He is not only a great soldier, authoritarian and leader, he is a great father figure and role model to many. And now we can add grandpa to the list, several times over.
What did I personally learn from SGM Poe? Too many things to list. But, Rangers Lead the Way, he left no doubt in my mind. Lead by example and lead from the front. Do the right thing without regard to whether anyone is looking or not. Know your job inside and out and strive to be the best. And something that worked well for me, too as an NCO….yelling isn’t required if everyone believes you’ll kill them where they stand just by looking at them.
It is my sincere hope that I did this great man any justice at all in my writing about him. I really could spend several chapters talking about SGM Bill Poe. Perhaps he’ll write a biography some day.
Come read about SGM Poe and other great soldiers in “Behind the Gun”.
Rangers Lead the Way!
To the Top!
~ Bravo Charles
All photos are the copyright of Bill Poe.
Copyright© 1991-2016 by Bravo Charles/Steve Slane