For Army Capt. Erik Anthes, the hardest day commanding Easy Company came in December 2012.
That’s when he was forced to deal with one of the biggest problems plaguing the military: the suicide of a soldier. It is one of the most difficult times any leader will face.
“I remember walking into my unit the day before and shook that soldier’s hand and when he went on leave, the next day I was informed we had a soldier take his life,” says Anthes, 27, who turned over command Feb. 10 after 18 months at the helm of Company E, 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division, a routine cycle in the ever-changing Army life.
“It was the worst day in the worst month of my command.”
The staff sergeant’s suicide, says Anthes, was a learning moment for him and the company that became famous during the invasion of Normandy. And it was perhaps the greatest test of his leadership skills.
“I had to be strong,” says Anthes, who commanded about 200 troops in the forward support company stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas. “A lot of soldiers came in to talk to me.”
The soldier who killed himself was getting ready to retire and didn’t show any outward signs of distress, Anthes said.
“I was probably the last person to talk to him,” Anthes said. “The weekend he died, we went back and re-evaluated every soldier, took a very thorough look at them and took a very in-depth look at how we can make sure this didn’t happen again. I personally couldn’t endure another incident like that; it was too taxing.”
Anthes said his decision to join the Army was motivated in part by the need for college money, after a discussion with his father, Erik Anthes Sr. who recently retired as a lieutenant after 28 years with the Pasco Count, Fla., Sheriff’s Office.
“My senior year, I did not have a plan,” he said. “My dad was like, ‘You should probably look at the Army. There’s no money for college.' ”
After graduating from the University of Central Missouri in 2007, Anthes was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army’s transportation corps.
He was assigned to the 1st Heavy Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division and deployed to Ramadi, Iraq, during the surge of troops into that country, where he was the distribution platoon leader.
After returning to the States, he served in the first active duty National Disaster Response Brigade, before going back to Iraq in 2009 as a member of the 1st Advise and Assist Brigade. As combat wound down in Iraq and Operation New Dawn took over where Operation Iraqi Freedom left off, Anthes served as Transportation Operations Office, developing the largest logistics mission of a brigade-sized element in military history. For his efforts, he earned a Bronze Star, among other medals and commendations.
After taking command of Easy Company, Anthes said he began to research its history.
“I was enamored,” he says after learning that Easy Company made all three major landings in the European campaign during World War II: Africa, Sicily and Normandy, where it earned its nickname, Easy Red, because it landed in a sector code-named Easy Red.
Anthes said there was also a personal connection to commanding in the 16th Infantry Regiment. A close friend from high school, Spc. Patrick Miller, served in that regiment and was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad on March 29, 2008.
“I wear one of those remembrance bands,” Anthes said. “I dedicated my command to him.”
One of the highlights of the command he took over in Aug. 30, 2012, was integrating the first female Bradley Fighting Vehicle mechanic into a line unit.
Though the suicide “really killed the momentum of the unit for a couple of months,” Anthes said the company turned things around, to the point where handing over the unit flag, called a guidon, to his successor, comes at a time when the company is moving forward to a deployment to the Middle East.
“It feels like I got them to the playoffs,” he said. “The best day for any commander is when you realize that you are not the commander, but you are in command, that the unit is meeting your intent. It took almost a year, and it is a fleeting feeling, but when it happens, you are just on top of the world.”
“Erik is a tremendous officer,” said his supervisor, Maj. Tracie M. Henry-Neill. “I think of him as a sponge. He is always taking in information and processing it.”
Remembering Anthes as a young lieutenant during the surge, Henry-Neill said: “I had to convince him that he needed to meet certain prerequisites prior to going outside the wire. At first, I don’t think he appreciated it. But after he met those prerequisites, I think he got it. I know by keeping in touch with him that he took that lesson to heart. He makes sure that his (lieutenants) know their platoon missions; that way, they can truly lead their soldiers.”
Anthes, she said, “is a special officer and has absolutely no limits.”
Though the Army, like all services, is downsizing because of budget constraints and the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Anthes said he would like to stay in until retirement.
Next will be a stint on the division staff as deputy transportation officer for the 1st Infantry Division, where he will remain at Fort Riley, where he lives with his wife, Kelli, and their daughter Reagan, who is almost 2.
“After that, I am weighing my options,” he said.
The change of command, a right of passage for all military leaders, was a mixture of memories and relief, said Anthes, who is being replaced by Capt. Yuriy Knyshev.
“It was a sense of relief and a sense of accomplishment and a sense of pride seeing the guys at formation,” he said after the change of command ceremony. “I am going to miss Easy Red.”