A Great GI Story About what a Good Officer is like by Heiland Hoff, former Sergeant at U.S. Army (1981-1986)

My military intelligence company moved into a fortress that had been built by Hitler to withstand an artillery attack. There was a large commercial kitchen in the basement that the captain decided we didn’t need. All the counters and cupboards were built of steel-reinforced concrete.

Every lower-enlisted guy was handed a sledge hammer and told to remove the concrete. We worked on it for three weeks, and to be perfectly honest, you could barely see any progress at all. We knew we’d just be given some other stupid task if we finished that one, so we kept swinging away hard enough that we wouldn’t get in trouble, but not hard enough to really make a difference.

One day my first lieutenant platoon leader was replaced by a chief warrant officer. Nobody knew anything about him except for four things: 1. He was a green beret. 2. His first language was Russian. 3. He had escaped from the Soviet Union. 4. He had served in Speznaz in Soviet Russia. (Speznaz was the Soviet equivalent to the U.S. green berets.)

So our new platoon leader followed us down into the basement and watched us work. For an hour, he leaned against the wall, silently watching us. Then, he walked over and held out his hand, requesting a private’s sledge hammer. He never said a word.

He just started battering the concrete in a frenzy of madness. Giant chunks of concrete were flying everywhere. We didn’t have safety goggles. It was impossible to be in the same room with him. We all dropped our sledge hammers and fled to the stairwell.

There were typical G.I. grumblings: “Who the hell does he think he is? He’s trying to show us how hard he wants us to work, but it’s absurd; he’s going to be exhausted in two minutes, and WE have been hammering away for three weeks, so we have learned to maintain a sustainable pace.” We all expected him to hand back the sledge hammer in a few minutes and reprimand us for not working that hard, and if he had done that, we would have had no respect for him at all. But that isn’t what he did.

We hid in the stairwell, shielded from a perfect storm of flying concrete, for four hours. Then we started grumbling that we were missing our lunch. The ranking corporal made a command decision and released us for lunch, telling us to be back at one.

When we returned, the Speznaz dude had not decreased his pace of deranged hammering one iota. We hid in the stairwell until five. Then, the ranking corporal released us from the day’s work detail. We went to the chow hall. Afterwards, I went out for beers with friends. I got back sometime after midnight.

The demented Speznaz dude had not decreased his pace. I went to bed, but it was impossible for anybody in the building to sleep, because the flying concrete hurricane downstairs was shaking our bunks like cannon fire.

At oh three hundred hours, the sound abruptly stopped. I thought, “Good lord, that crazy fucker finally got too tired to continue.” I fell asleep straight away.

At oh five hundred hours, I got up and put on my running shoes for P.T. Out of curiosity, I crept downstairs to peek in the basement. There was no sign that there had ever been a kitchen there. All the plumbing and electrical stuff was gone. All the concrete had been removed, and the dust had been swept up. It was clean. I spread the word.

For my remaining time in service, I served proudly under that man-god. He rarely said a word. His English was terrible; mostly he just pointed at shit. Any one of us would have taken a bullet for him without a moment’s thought.