Former Army captain reflects on fallen comrade, leadership

Former U.S. Army Capt. Justin Quisenberry, a 2000 Brandon High School graduate who served three combat tours in Afghanistan, spoke during the 16th Annual Americana Concert held Friday evening at Oxford High School. Photo by C.J. Carnacchio.
Former U.S. Army Capt. Justin Quisenberry, a 2000 Brandon High School graduate who served three combat tours in Afghanistan, spoke during the 16th Annual Americana Concert held Friday evening at Oxford High School. Photo by C.J. Carnacchio.

True leaders aren’t the ones who have fancy titles, hold high ranks or receive fat paychecks.

True leaders work in the trenches, get their hands dirty and set a good example for those around them.

That was the essence of former U.S. Army Capt. Justin Quisenberry’s speech about leadership during the 16th Annual Americana Concert held Friday evening at the Oxford High School Performing Arts Center.

“The best leaders among us are the people who have a goal, people who have a purpose in life, who have passion,” said the 2000 Brandon High School graduate. “They have a set of principles and ethics, and they stick to (them) and they live that life, regardless of the benefits or the risks.”

After graduating from West Point in 2004, Quisenberry served three combat tours in Afghanistan as a platoon leader, executive officer and company commander with the 173rd Airborne Brigade and the 101st Airborne Division.

Despite his education, experience and rank, Quisenberry described himself as “an average leader at best” during his military days.

“I’m not here to discuss leadership because I was a good leader,” he explained. “I’m here to discuss leadership because I had front-row seats to witness one of the best leaders anyone could ever hope to meet.”

Quisenberry proceeded to talk about Staff Sgt. John Doles, of Oklahoma. They met in Afghanistan in the summer of 2005 during Quisenberry’s first combat tour.

At the time, Quisenberry was a platoon leader in charge of approximately 40 soldiers. It was his first job in the Army.

Doles was one of the four squad leaders under him.

“Immediately upon meeting him, I knew that he was the de facto leader of our platoon, regardless of what his rank (was) or what my rank (was),” Quisenberry said. “When he entered a room, people (took notice). When he spoke, people listened. And when a decision was made, even if it wasn’t his decision, people would look at him and when he nodded, everybody knew it was OK.”

Quisenberry accepted this, but he didn’t understand why it was so until he began going on missions with Doles “and then it became extremely clear.”

“When the bullets flew, everybody looked to John,” he said. “He was a warrior. He was ferocious. He was fearless. He was calm, he was measured and he always knew exactly what to do. When I made a decision in combat, John would do exactly what I asked. And when he made a decision in combat, everybody did exactly what he said. He was the perfect guy to have on our team. Being (near) John was the safest place to be on the battlefield.”

Off the battlefield, Doles was still a leader. He was appreciated and respected for his candor, his sincerity and his ability to motivate others.

“He did not care about rank,” Quisenberry said. “He would talk to a private the same way he would talk to his platoon leader, the same way he would talk to his battalion commander or brigade commander. Every single person who talked to him walked away feeling more confident, more positive, more happy. It was a gift. He was magic. I don’t know how he did it, but he did.”

Unfortunately, Doles didn’t make it home to his wife and two children. He died on the battlefield in September 2005, but in true Doles’ fashion, he sacrificed himself to protect his fellow soldiers.

A convoy consisting of a couple dozen U.S. military vehicles was moving through a valley known to be “a hotbed for insurgents,” according to Quisenberry.

Doles and other soldiers were walking along the high ridgelines that surrounded the valley on the east and west sides to make sure they were clear of the enemy.

Quisenberry gave Doles the opportunity to take a break, but he volunteered to keep going. Doles told him, “Sir, it’s a beautiful day. It’s finally cool. The sun’s out. I’m among my friends and I’m hiking the most beautiful ridgeline in the world – and the Army is paying me to be here. It does not get any better than this.”

“I knew, even at that time, that I was looking at a man who was 100 percent content with what he was doing . . . When he walked back up that ridgeline, I wish I would have known at the time that (it) was the last time I would see John,” Quisenberry said.

Doles called about an hour later to report he was “in trouble.” Quisenberry and his men went to provide reinforcements.

“When we got to the base of his ridgeline, we came under attack (on) all four sides,” he said. “I would like to tell you that we got out of those trucks and we reinforced that hill because the platoon leader said, ‘Follow me.’ But that’s not what happened. We got out of those trucks and we charged that hill because our actual leader was on top of that hill and he needed our help. And it’s the biggest regret of my life that we did not get there in time.”

Quisenberry later learned that when Doles saw the reinforcements were exposed at the base of the hill and that the enemy had set its sights on them, “he knew we didn’t have a chance.”

“Knowing that he might not survive,” Quisenberry said Doles “exposed himself to the enemy fire in order to take out that machine gun nest.”

“John Doles, my friend, our leader, laid down his life so that we could live and that’s the only reason I’m here tonight,” he said.

Quisenberry believes the true foundation of the U.S. Army’s might is not its generals, massive defense budget or “superior weaponry.” It’s soldiers like John Doles.

“The United States Army is the greatest army in the world because the best leaders in the Army are not wasting their time in an office or wearing stars on their shoulders,” he said. “The best leaders in the Army are on ridgelines in some far corner of the world doing amazing things and inspiring (others) to do amazing things.”

Outside of the military, Quisenberry believes “the best leaders among us are not running our country.”

“The best leaders among us are exactly where they need to be, dispersed throughout our organizations, throughout our citizenship . . . . hidden in plain sight,” he said. “They’re the ones who live by their code or pursue their goals and show us how to live.”

Quisenberry urged the crowd to look for leaders in their communities and daily lives.

“If you’re looking for examples of leadership in the government, don’t look at the president. Look at that township clerk who spends every day interacting with the residents, trying to make their lives better, for very little recognition and very little pay,” he said. “In schools, don’t look at the superintendent . . .  Look at your teachers who spend their free time and their evenings, tutoring kids, helping them study for tests or facilitating events like (the Americana Concert). In (law enforcement), don’t look at the sheriff. Look at that deputy who spends every day interacting with the citizens that he’s sworn to protect and defend.”

“Those are the leaders among us,” Quisenberry continued. “Those are the people who make this world spin. Thankfully for us, they’re not hard to find. Put down the phones, turn off the TV and look up – they’re there, they’re everywhere, hidden in plain sight . . . Go with them, ask them questions, learn from them, emulate them and most importantly, please become them.”

Quisenberry concluded his speech with a heartfelt plea.

“This country is in need of good leadership, as much now as it ever has been,” he said. “We’re counting on you. I’m counting on you. I lost my leader. I need a new one.”