Ryan- The Nebraskan
Ryan is an extraordinary leader who lives the values of being an “Airborne Ranger.” An amazing athlete- He beat General Petraeus’ time on the Army 10 miler by more than 3 minutes.
The outside world sees a quiet, almost shy figure, who expresses his strongest feelings, especially on professional matters, in writing. Underneath his hushed tones he is one of the boldest spirits I have ever known.
From Ryan, I learned in situations of moral ambiguity, good intentions and heartfelt wishes are not enough. The great dividing line between words and results is courageous action.
He showed me great warriors, are also humanitarians, and that without courage, compassion falters, and that without compassion, courage has no direction. I have known many West Point Graduates but never one who exemplified “Duty, Honor, Country” as this quiet Nebraskan who loves his family and country above all else.
He would make me renounce every bad thing I ever said about West Pointers. Ryan taught me many lessons in being a good leader. Here are just a few.
July 2000, Camp Casey, Korea
My first job out of college was as an Infantry Platoon Leader in Korea. I was assigned to one of two mechanized infantry battalions at Camp Casey.
Camp Casey sits 12 miles from the North Korean border and 25 miles from Seoul, the capital of South Korea. No one ever said it, but we all knew we were a speed bump for the North Korean horde if they came south.
We had outdated equipment that constantly broke down. All our soldiers were on their tail of their enlistments and just wanted to go home. You could look forward to a freezing cold winter and stifling summer heat where all we did was train. It was a dream assignment to learn how to lead men.
We had a die-in-place mission should the “hostilities” ever resume. The order was simple. If alerted, just climb aboard your Bradley Fighting Vehicle and point it north. There were three rules: 1. March to the sounds of the guns. 2. Kill everyone that didn’t look like you. 3. Hold out as long as you can and hope you survive until help arrives (not very likely). It added a sense of realism to all our training.
I had been at Camp Casey for a month by July. In a place with 20% turn over every 30 days, in a month you were an “old guy.” One year tours and the urgency of the mission meant things happened fast. It was essential to find a “buddy” to show you the ropes.
Ryan moved into the small room next to mine. I volunteered to be his tour guide. It would be a friendship that would last a lifetime.
Ryan always reminded me of the actor Jim Caviezel. With his blue eyes, high cheekbones and quiet demeanor, he was every inch a Nebraskan. He was quiet without being a bore, ambitious without taking either himself or his job too seriously and unassuming without being dull.
Ryan had a quiet reserve. His hallmark was his Midwest values of honesty and sincerity. He was the type of leader that his subordinates would attempt any mission for. They would charge ahead regardless of the situation or fears. They would do it because he was there with them.
Ryan lacked the fake macho, loudness that marked many of our peers. He had the tough masculinity of a man who defined himself by his deeds. He was unlike anyone else coming straight out of Ranger School.
Beanpole thin, with a slow drawl and awkward mannerisms, you initially couldn’t imagine him as an infantry platoon leader. But his openness, emotional complexity, intelligence, and authenticity made him the perfect small unit leader.
He would coax out of his men some of the most unforgettable performances of military excellence I would ever see.
He inspired them by his personal and physical example to follow him.
Ryan R’s secret identity name follows the alliteration rule of Marvel Comics characters like Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, Scott Summers, Reed Richards, Matt Murdock, etc. With a first name as his last name he couldn’t help but stand out.
Ryan was raised in Nebraska City, Nebraska. He grew up across the street from the John Brown’s Cave tourist attraction. A hollowed-out hole beneath an old cabin that represented a place where escaping slaves may or may not have hidden. “It was the biggest lure in four counties,” he once told me over some beers in Seoul.
It was here among the conservative, friendly folk in Otoe County, Nebraska Ryan learned to see the real value in life. He attended West Point and become an Infantry Officer. In the two years we served together, I had never met a man who embodied the motto of: “Duty, Honor, Country” more than Ryan.
Ryan had been in the battalion for a month when he quickly became the favorite of the enlisted men. He would spend extra time working out with soldiers that needed help. He stayed after hours helping his NCOs study for exams.
He stunned his grunts when he took up the M240B machine gun on an all-night patrol, a job usually given to the newest recruit. He would check his men for exhaustion and made sure they ate. He was the first one in the motor pool and the last one to leave.
He always a quick story about a friend or acquaintance to illustrate a point. All Ryan ever had to say, “I knew this fella once…” and everyone within earshot would smile. He told the story without being preachy.
Ryan is a Midwestern boy who steeped himself in military history so he knew his trade. He lived by a personal code of honor that required him to step forward and take the lead on almost every situation.
In Ryan’s example, there is a simple truth. That’s what real leaders do; they lead. Ryan showed us that real leaders get assailed with doubts, real fears, and insecurities.
His examples show us that military medals are usually earned the hard way. That professionals who are component and compassionate win battles, by doing whatever has to be done.
That in the end, when men die in battles, there is no splendor, no trumpets sounded for glory, just young men swallowing hard, and stepping up to the plate again to do the right thing. The way the Nebraskan Ryan Roberts would get the job in Iraq, in Korea and in several places around the globe.
Ryan is serving his third tour in Korea. He is going to hate that wrote all this stuff about him.