The Voice of Combat

RTO: His Call Sign is Courage

December 14, 1998



He is the one who calls in the dust-off when you are hit and artillery when you’re pinned down. Sometimes you think he has it easy and other times you wouldn’t take his job for all the rice in Asia. He is the Radio-Telephone Operator (RTO) … often your only contact with other elements. Any private first class or specialist assigned to a line unit as a rifleman is eligible for the job. Yet only a handful ever make good (RTOs) because they require what commanders call, that something extra. A RTO needs above average intelligence because they must understand the entire tactical situation and juggle calls for resupply, medical evacuation or information. He also needs a cool head. His knowledge is useless if he gets rattled during combat and can’t keep his call signs straight. And there is more.

I pick a guy who has a lot of confidence, said 1st Lt. Graig Bennett of 4th Bn 39th Infantry. Often the platoon leader doesn’t have time to take every call that comes in and the RTO has to have the brains and confidence to supply a quick answer. At the same time, he has to be a good soldier who follows orders explicitly. You must have confidence in him because if you get hit he may end up taking over your jobs. There are cases where a RTO has taken over an entire platoon.

Other descriptions add depth to the image of the good RTO. He has to be good enough to be your best squad leader should need arise, said 1st Lt. Richard Valle with the 2nd/39th Infantry. I look for a man who can talk, has quick reactions, knows radio procedure and has common sense, said 1st Lt. Earl Simms E Co. 3rd/47th Infantry but it doesn’t stop there. The RTOs job is considered more dangerous than that of a rifleman. He needs a certain intangible feeling for the job before he can perform it effectively. I carried an M-79 for my first four months here and got sick and tired of being in the dark, said Sgt. Ed Wajewski of the 2nd/60th Inf. I wanted to know what was happening all the time so I volunteered to become an RTO.

Constant Communication

I wanted to become a cog in the operation of the platoon, said PFC Mike Johnson 4th/39th. As an RTO I felt I was doing more to help. You have to keep constant communication with the company commander and the rest of the platoon. When you consider all the call signs and messages you have to juggle it turns out to be a hectic job. In addition you have to tag along with the platoon leader, sergeant or forward observer, holding their pace and keeping the handset to your ear at all times. You always must know the tactical situation and be prepared to act.

And he has to carry that radio, said Bennett, who had been Johnson’s platoon leader. That plus extra batteries, antennas, grenades and his basic load of ammo give him one of the biggest loads in the platoon to carry. During the rainy season, it makes his job even harder because he is always getting stuck in the mud or water.

Although what the RTO knows and carries is always the same with every unit, responsibilities vary even within companies. Some only answer the “horn” and pass it on to their platoon leader or forward observer. Others are expected to make some of the minor decisions a commander is plagued with. After the RTO and I learn about each other, our thinking and such, I can depend on him to take care of a lot of the little things I normally would handle myself, Sims said.

An RTO in a Mech unit has a slightly different job, Although he doesn’t have as much equipment to carry as his infantry counterpart, he must contend with other problems. His responsibility is much greater because a mech company has more radios and they are more complicated, said 1st Lt. Armand Murphy of Jacksonville, FL. B Co. 5th/60th Mech. But the job is not all extra weight and added responsibility. There is a certain amount of pride in the work and most like the job.

Calling dustoffs

I think it’s a great job, Wajewski said. In attention to knowing everything that is going on, you get a good feeling when you help someone, as in a dust-off, the faster you get that wounded man to a hospital, there is great satisfaction in doing something like that. Johnson concurred by adding, besides, most of the problem of extra weight and responsibility are balanced out by being able to stay with the headquarters element and on top of the action.

After everything is said and done, a good RTO means a lot to a platoon leader. If you got a good RTO, you’ve got it made as a platoon leader.

Article taken from the Oct-Nov-Dec issue of the Octofoil: ABM