In the U.S. Army the generals give the orders, but it's the hundreds of platoon leaders who actually lead the charge in war or peacetime activities. These leaders, usually lieutenants, the lowest-ranking commissioned officers in the Army, command a group of 20 to 50 soldiers. Made up of two or more squads of soldiers, the platoon is the second most basic unit of organization in the Army.
Platoon leaders are the managers of their assigned soldiers, responsible for the day-to-day tasks the platoon must accomplish. Though they receive directives from higher officers, leaders often enjoy flexibility in carrying out their orders. Lieutenant James Small of the 2nd Infantry Division, for example, describes needing to react to unexpected situations in the field without instructions. Platoon leaders must design a plan for carrying out instructions, delegate tasks to platoon sergeants, squad leaders or individuals, and follow up to ensure those tasks are completed. Tasks may vary from securing the high ground on a battlefield to preparing for a parade, but the platoon leader is always the director.
Training and Readiness
Platoon leaders must keep their soldiers are well-trained and ready to execute the orders in drills or in combat. Often charged with determining what type of training their platoons need and developing a curriculum to teach them, platoon leaders design drills to simulate combat situations while holding soldiers accountable for their performance. Captain Christopher Courtney, a commander in the 306th MI Battalion, advises platoon leaders to conduct intensive training sessions to ensure soldiers can perform on autopilot in real-world situations. Ensuring troop readiness also requires platoon leaders to track the medical and psychological well-being of their soldiers.
Discipline and Morale
Keeping troops in high spirits but also well-disciplined can be a challenge, but it is also a core duty of any platoon commander. Leaders must demonstrate competence and fairness to keep their forces ready to follow orders in dangerous conditions. Good platoon leaders must enforce Army standards for readiness and cleanliness consistently and equitably to maintain discipline and respect and hold troops accountable. Captain Courtney encourages platoon leaders to conduct rigorous inspections of soldiers and their equipment, but also to reward squads and soldiers for good performance by praising them publicly or giving them more desirable duties.
Platoon leaders often serve in front-line combat situations, so a critical duty is applying tactical training to achieve mission objectives like securing high ground or evacuating civilians. In combat, this means quickly identifying techniques to subdue the enemy and safeguard soldiers' safety. This may involve ordering the troop to carry out specific maneuvers under fire. In an ambush, for example, a platoon leader must issue orders rapidly to find and eliminate enemy forces, call in for back-up and ensure medical attention for any wounded soldiers.