…Surrender is not a Ranger word!
- The Ranger Creed
…I will never accept defeat, I will never quit…
- The Warrior Ethos
It all went bad right from the start. The moment I hit the water, I couldn’t breathe – not like I should be able to. The water was choppy and murky from the previous night’s rain. People were piling in to the river behind me. I had no space. I tried to take a few strokes. I tried putting my head in the water like I’d done a thousand times. Nothing was working. My goggles fell off my face. I caught them but they were broken so I just let them sink. I looked at my watch. It had only been 15 seconds and about 5 feet and I was in peril. I was not going to finish. I was barely going to get started.
I completed my first Ironman triathlon in 2008 almost on a dare to myself. I’d been patrolling Iraq for more than a year without much chance to run or exercise. I wanted something to challenge myself. Though I knew nothing about the Ironman, it sounded like just the thing. So, I promised myself I would do it. While dismayed at learning that it involved a full marathon, I pressed on. I trained and I studied the sport and, though I slacked off toward the end of the training cycle, I completed my first Ironman within a year of committing to it. That night I couldn’t lay on my bed because I was too stiff. I knew I had not trained enough, but I was proud. I woke up the next morning and signed up for my next one. Over the next year I trained hard and I blew my previous time out of the water and then competed again later that year and set a personal record at 12:53. I thought I was on the verge of a promising amateur career. But, life would get in the way.
In 2010 I had the opportunity to do two things I’d long desired to do: compete in the David E. Grange Jr. Best Ranger Competition and attend Reconnaissance and Surveillance Leader Course. Both were physically and mentally taxing and left me unable to compete that summer. Then came more than two years in command, another dream of mine that would force long course triathlon to the back burner. Leaving command, I hoped to get started again, but I was sent on TDY for nearly two months with no ability to train. Then the summer of 2014 offered a chance to get back into it.
I signed up for Ironman Louisville, the site of my first and second finishes. I had to go to Fort Knox for a large chunk of the summer but I took my bike. I had no opportunity to swim but figured I was good enough at swimming that I’d be okay. (Prior to leaving for Knox I hopped in the pool for only the second time that year and swam at my desired pace for ¾ of the distance.) I was unable to dedicate time between work and graduate school to train like I wanted. However, I did get out on long bike rides and made a point to ride hills. I didn’t run more than 80 minutes at any time. So, as I arrived at the starting point, I was certainly under trained but was supremely confident in my ability to swim and knew that if I could make the bike cutoff time, I’d tough it out on the run and complete it.
But, there I was, a ¼ minute into a 140.6 mile race, and nothing seemed right. I decided it was best to quit. I’d accepted defeat. I couldn’t breathe and by placing myself in the middle of the pack I was increasing my chance of something bad happening. I couldn’t believe it! I’d swam my entire life and could easily at any time hop into the pool and knock out 2 miles without training. Here, I couldn’t go 2 feet. But, I knew that I had bigger priorities than dying to finish the race. I was done. I reasoned that I didn’t need to prove anything. I reasoned I wasn’t trained. I reasoned that this wasn’t important. I tried to convince myself it was okay to quit.
I swam toward the shore, but just as I was close to exiting the course, I turned back. I just couldn’t do it! Not without trying. The conditions were horrible and all I could see ahead was 17 hours of pain and discomfort. But, I pressed on. I dogie paddled; I swam elementary backstroke; I did whatever it took to move forward. I would try periodically to put my head down and swim like I knew how, but I just couldn’t get my breathing down and the lack of goggles made navigation of the rough, dark water difficult.
As I continued on the course, faster swimmers running into me angrily,I determined that I wasn’t going to make the time and swam up to an official and said, “I’m done”. I said I couldn’t get my breathing down. He said, “Well, maybe you’ll get it back.” A girl, resting at the kayak, said, “You have 2 hours to do it.” I said, “No, I’m done.” But, as a left the official’s kayak, I turned back into the race, not toward shore.
I continued on, keenly aware that I was falling further and further behind in the pace I needed to maintain. I kept telling myself I’d swim to the next marker and then quit. It took me about 10 minutes to swim 100 meters, something it would take me 2 minutes or less to do in a pool. I kept looking at the shore, swimming toward it, but could never just leave the course. I’d give myself the next marker before quitting and then the next. Finally I found a low spot where some dirt had piled up. I stood up and caught my breath. I knew that if I made it to the open water, I’d get the help of the current but I’d also be out in the middle of the Ohio River where if things went wrong, if I couldn’t get my breath down, I’d be in danger. This was my strength, swimming, but it was now my weakness.
Before I started to swim again, another guy stopped and asked if I lost my goggles. I told him I had and he offered me an extra pair which he pulled out of his shorts. I declined them more because I wasn’t sure I was going on any longer more than where he’d stored them, but I now twice had interacted with two very good people. I was inspired. I pushed on.
I hit the open water at about 58 minutes, meaning I had 1:22 left to complete the swim. I’d traveled a little more than 7/10 of a mile. I had more than 1.6 miles to go. I told myself that if I didn’t make time, oh well. I was going to let someone else take me out of the race. I would give it all I had.
I put my head down and found my stroke and rhythm. Finally I could breathe. The water was clearer and less choppy now that I was away from the island. I started swimming strong and like myself. I told myself, “If you make it through this, you have the rest of the race.” I started swimming so efficiently that I kept swimming under the markers, meaning I was swimming the straightest path possible even without goggles, something I’d never done in any open water race.
As I got closer and closer to the finish of the swim, I pressed harder. I was sure I was up against time. I wanted to give myself a shot. I refused to look at my watch because it would take precious seconds. My mandatory swim cap came off, but I caught it. But, there was no time to put it back on. I worried I’d be penalized, but there was nothing I could do but keep going forward. I went hard into the end until a volunteer caught me and helped me up the steps. I looked at my watch. It read 1:30. I’d just swum 1.6 miles in about 30 minutes where the previous .7 had taken nearly an hour. I had finished with 50 minutes to spare.
I moved into the transition and got my bag. Normally I rush through to get on the bike. Today, I took my time. I knew I was not well trained and wanted to be good going onto the bike. It took me 15 minutes (about 10 longer than it ever had taken me) to get through transition. I had my long sleeve black shirt on that I used to prevent sunburn. I would regret it constantly as the heat and humidity got to me. I grabbed my trusty old bike. I ran to the mount point and got going, 112 miles in front of me.
But, this was different. In my first two Ironmans, the bike made me apprehensive. In the third, it was a nuisance. Now, I was pedaling with a euphoria I’d never felt. I had pushed through the worst adversity I could imagine. My strength had collapsed and I’d nearly quit. Not only did I push through it, I destroyed the final 1.6 miles of the swim. I knew in those first few pedals that nothing could hurt me. There was still a lot of distance and time left. But, I knew I could conquer it if my legs held up.
The first 10 miles are dull and flat, but about mile 11 it gets tough and continues that way for a while. The first hill is long and gradual and you slow to a snails pace. I pushed on. I knew that mile 20 brought the worst hill. I’d trained for it on Fort Knox’s storied Agony and Misery hills with the sun beating down and up on me (they had recently gotten new black top). It would be tough but I just had to push forward. Around mile 18 you hit a weird stretch. Visually you are going down hill, but you are actually going up. It is very mentally tricky and I hated it, but nothing could knock me down. As I went up the long, steep hill I thought the worst was yet to come when I found myself back on flat ground.
I pressed on. The first 60 miles presented little in the way of challenges. I anticipated the hills and pushed through. They were tough, but not as tough as me. I knew that the course could not beat me. If my body held up, I’d make. But, about that time, the sun got a vote. The black shirt kept the sun off me but attracted heat and it really made things difficult. Also, I started to cramp. Sometimes I couldn’t sit due to cramps, but I would work them out as I moved forward. I knew that no matter what, I needed to move forward. I feared my leg would lock up, but I would push forward until I couldn’t. I started hitting the 70 and 80 mile marks, the places that historically my attitude would tank. The miles start wearing on you and even at 80, you still have 32 to ride and 26.2 to run. But, the heat, the hills and the cramping proved more inconvenient than frustrating. I was amazed.
Mile 90 came and I was still euphoric. My adversity was my rallying cry. I knew that I hadn’t pushed through that to lose it on the bike. Also, I started realizing something I hadn’t expected: I was beating my 25 year old self. I had not ridden so well in 2008. In 2014, 5 years removed from the sport, I was ahead of myself. It only added to my euphoria.
Mile 100 came and I was still high as a kite. From then to the finish of the bike, I hit a mental block but not like I had in the past. I was back on the flat surface after 90 miles of hills, and I was bored. I wanted it to be done. The worst part of an Ironman is you have to do the first 114 miles alone. So, my mood tanked, but I was still very optimistic. The run awaited me.
As I crossed the bike finish, my wife was there working the penalty tent so I got a quick kiss and moved on into the second transition. How I made it out, I don’t know. My right forearm had developed tendonitis from oversqueezing bottles, handlebars and breaks for 7+ hours. My back was sore and I could barely bend over. My forearm was so bad I could barely grip so I was hardly able to tie my shoes. But, I powered through and began to walk toward the started of the marathon.
I worked to jog but quickly realized I could only do that for about 100 meters at a time. My legs were shot and the sun was just too hot. I pushed on, running down hill and in shady spots, walking the rest. About mile 3 I unexpectedly came up on one my former NCOs and his wife who lived in Louisivlle. It was quite a boost in motivation and we gave an awkward bro hug as I picked up my pace. That got me about 200 meters of running. But, after that, I realized that I didn’t have much running left in me.
I began, around mile 4, to develop severe blisters on the balls of my feet. It was incredibly painful. I realized that I had only one option: move forward. If I sat down and tried to adjust my shoes and socks, or found someone to take care of my blisters, I would not get back up. I had to keep moving forward, every step painful. I’d been through tough things before, Ranger School for example, so I knew what I had to do: never give up. I figured I could walk 20 minute miles and still finish but I set me goal at 15 minutes miles.
I had hoped the blisters were the last in the setbacks, but they weren’t. About mile 9 or 10, as passed by historic Churchill Downs, I started feeling out of it mentally. I felt dehydrated and had to take my visor and sunglasses off because they were too much to wear, all .25 pounds of them. I felt like I needed to sit. But, I knew sitting was essentially quitting as I couldn’t get back up. I had a feeling I might pass out if I kept moving forward. I slowed and made the decision to press on. But, I realized I was not sweating. My body was shutting down.
At this point, it would have been prudent to tap out and seek medical aide. But, I couldn’t give up. Not after making it through the swim. Not with 124 miles in the books. So, I decided that from them on I would dump all of the ice and water I could on myself and start ingesting salt through cola and broth as much as possible. Aid stations were every mile. I’d have to hold on in between. I pressed on.
At mile 14, the organizers are gracious enough to have you pass within 100 meters of the finish, just so you known what it looks like, on your way back out for another 12. My feet were killing me. I still wasn’t sweating. The sun seemed like it would never go down. I kept moving forward. And, I realized that despite the lack of training, the debacle on the swim, the cramping on the bike and now every problem under the sun, literally, on the run, I was still beating my 25 year old self. And so, adversity became my rallying cry again. I was going to write the perfect ending. I moved forward.
The sun stayed high longer than I thought. I hoped I’d start sweating again when the sun went down, or at least it would be cooler. Prior to the race medical experts had advised the race organizer to cut the run portion short due to the extreme heat. The organizers declined. Needless to say, it was hot.
On lap number two, I started seeing the faces of the damned: those that had come so far but whose bodies shut down on them. They lay on the side of the road waiting for transportation to the medical tent. They’d come all this way and wouldn’t finish. That wouldn’t be me, I resolved. I also realized I was passing people who looked much fitter than me. I could only surmise that I was much more mentally tough. These people who were falling behind me clearly would beat me in a foot race, but in a mental race, I had them. With feet destroyed and body shutting down, I not only pushed on, I aimed to pass. I still couldn’t run, but I could move forward.
By mile 20, the night had come. But, it didn’t bring cooler temperatures. It brought a mugginess that felt just as bad. Still, there was but a 10K left so I pushed. I began to think about my run through the finish, about kissing my wife and getting my fourth medal. I stepped it out. Mile 21 came, then 21.5 and so on. I got closer and closer to downtown Louisville. I passed Churchill Downs and Papa John’s Stadium and entered into the heart of downtown. The long line of supporters had dwindled to little, but I didn’t care. I kept moving forward.
Finally, I hit 26 miles with .2 to go. I turned the corner onto Fourth Street and saw the finish line before me. My feet were in as much pain as ever, but with a block to go, I picked it up to a jog and then a hard run. As I crossed the finish line, I threw my arms in the air and heard the announcer say, “Darrell Fawley, you are an Ironman…again” as he realized I’d completed one before. I was so proud. I looked at my wacth: 15:25, 5 minutes faster then my 25 year old self. Despite all the issues I had, I’d knocked out 14 minute miles.
I’d long theorized that I was better than my 21 and 25 year old selves in all but pure speed, but until that day I’d have no real metric to prove it. I did then.
I moved through the chute, got some water and my medal, took a picture and found my wife. I’d waited 15 hours, 25 minutes for my finish line kiss and here it was. As I left the chute, Lindsey introduced me to one of her cousins who was there supporting another athlete. That was pretty cool to meet a new family member. I couldn’t stand any longer and found myself headed to the medical tent where I was described by the attending doctor as being, “In the best condition as anyone they’d seen.” I laid on a cot sipping water for a while but knew I had to go home. So, Lindsey and I walked to the care and drove 3.5 hours to my parents’ home arriving at 3 am. She left for work an hour away at 5 and I left around 7 to drive back to Athens and go to work.
While I was far from my personal record, I could not have been prouder of myself. I had turned adversity into my rallying cry. I would not be defeated once I had pushed through the mental and physical difficulties on the swim. I knew, that when all else failed, when my body was quitting, I needed to move forward. I could have quit and there were times when I probably should have quit, but I didn’t and I’m better for it. I stood at the starting line telling myself, “This is either your last Ironman ever or you’re going to catch the bug again.” I caught the bug again.
The above story is my own personal story but we all face adversity and we all face times when the logical answer appears to be quitting. But, we need to keep moving forward. We learn to do this by doing. Though I’ve been through 4 Ironman triathlons, Ranger School, RSLC and Best Ranger, I still learn from tough experiences. Leaders need to put themselves through mentally demanding situations that require them to go beyond perceived limits and to fight through adversity to prepare themselves and you can never be too trained.
I challenge all who read this to do something that will push them out of their comfort zone; do something that will cause you to want to quit but push on. Find something that will take all of your mental strength to accomplish. That may be a marathon, a Crossfit class or a run around the block. It may be something that has no physical component whatsoever. But do it and grow from it. Bring a friend along if it helps. Your limits will expand beyond what you know and you will be a better leader for it. Then, when times are tough, when the chips are down and you feel like you can’t take one more step, you’ll be able to think about all the steps that took you to get to where you are, and then you’ll be able to take one more. You’ll rally those around you to victory by moving forward and turning adversity into your rallying cry.
It is the question that American soldiers have been asking since there have been American soldiers. It is the question that NCOs have dreaded answering since there have been NCOs. It is the question that drives the purpose of all we do. It is the question that means more than any other. It is the question that we are so horrible at answering. It is the question “Why?”.
At all points in my career, I have heard officers and NCOs mutter phrases similar to, “Soldiers these days always want to know why. We used to just do what we were told.” They utter this with lament as if some golden age has passed. It is a phrase that seems to have been uttered throughout the history of the US Army. Do soldiers really need to know why? YES!
Teaching a soldier what without teaching a soldier why is a machine-like process. It creates soldiers that can DO but not soldiers that can THINK. To many, this seems like what we want as a military. Don’t we want soldiers that will execute without question? While we do want soldiers who, at the point of contact, will not question the orders of their leaders, we do not want soldiers that do not understand why they do what they do. Why, you might ask?
Combat has evolved into a fluid environment. In linear warfare, a soldier needed to march forward, fire on command and reload as fast as possible. In fourth and third generation warfare, the battle changes rapidly and soldiers who can think offer a clear advantage over those who can’t. Soldiers who just know what to do but not why are less apt to innovate. A soldier that knows that he does x to make y happen, but realizes x is not working may figure out some z that will lead to y. A soldier that doesn’t, will likely continue to do x in futility. Understanding why gives a soldier the tools to get the job done.
A captain in Maneuver Captain’s Career Course will fail if he briefs an operations order without giving a purpose (answering why). That same captain may later take command and be quite successful (ratings-wise) without ever providing a purpose for training or any other events. Why would it be so important that soldiers understand the purpose behind a combat operation but nothing else they do to prepare for combat or to operate in combat?
An enterprising commander I once had looked at me and said, “We don’t necessarily need to achieve our task so long as we achieve our purpose.” Those word are, in my mind, true. If my mission is to Seize a hill in order to Prevent the enemy from enveloping another company, which is more important, the task or the purpose? If I am leading this operation and suddenly realize that seizing the hill is not feasible or it is too costly but I can think of another way to prevent to the enemy from enveloping the other company, shouldn’t I shift course? What if there is no enemy on or near the hill? Will seizing it prevent the enemy from enveloping the other company? Perhaps, but likely not.
This is an essential element of mission command. A commander has to be able to react swiftly to the situation and take steps to accomplish the mission even if it is against the prescribed course of action in a plan. Commanders who understand the why behind their actions and know the intent of the next higher two commanders can use initiative in combat. Those who subscribe to a rigid format will seize the hill even as it becomes apparent it will have no effect on the enemy.
Extend this down the chain. Lieutenants need the be similarly equipped and so do NCOs. And, this is not just in a tactical sense. The importance of understanding why has magnified in the past 60 years. Soldiers, NCOs and junior officers now make decisions that can impact strategy or cause international turmoil. Therefore, it is important that they know why they do what they do. Look at this situation: Lieutenant X is leading a patrol that takes a small amount of rifle fire from a small hamlet. The lieutenant has three likely courses of action. Course of action 1: Lieutenant X orders his platoon to suppress the fire with all they’ve got because he’s been taught to respond to contact with overwhelming firepower. Civilians die. The hamlet is shot up. The unit is set back months if not years. Course of action 2: Lieutenant X is paralyzed by the rules of engagement (ROE) and not wanting to cause civilian casualties, either gets pinned down or breaks contact. The enemy is encouraged or at least not deterred and the soldiers are angry because nothing happened to the enemy. Course of action 3: Lieutenant X has a strong understanding of the ROE, knows the purpose of the application of firepower and maneuver, and has been trained to quickly make decisions. He orients on the fire, suppresses with minimal deviation (such as a machine gun on a tripod) while maneuvering an element to attack the enemy. No civilians die. The enemy is killed or captured. Morale is high. Which is best?
Course of action 3 is certainly best. The lieutenant has taken out the enemy and preserved the work of his unit while also sending a strong message to the enemy. This occurs because he knows why the ROE exists, why he applies firepower and why he is conducting the patrol in the first place. Lieutenant X has avoided major repercussions from the people of the area, avoided the ire of his platoon for not taking out the man who shot at them, and denied the enemy the ability to see the population as a safe haven.
Why do soldiers need to know why? Though there are many reasons, the most important is that soldiers feed the NCO ranks and, to a small degree, the officer ranks. How do you create an innovative, adaptive leader if the leader starts as a machine? Many may scoff at offering soldiers a reason believing it may create soldiers that question everything. However, are we afraid to tell soldiers the reason because they’ll question more or because we don’t know why ourselves? Is there harm in soldier knowing why? Maybe if he is the guy who has to test the air after a CBRNE attack. But, for the most part, mindless soldiers are not necessarily good soldiers.
Answer why. In fact, don’t answer it, offer it before it is asked. Morale will improve, efficiency and effectiveness will increase, and leaders will become more adaptive. The most important question, the one we answer the least, is the one we need to focus on.
Those who know why survive and thrive. There used to be a beer named Bud Dry and the tag line was, “Why ask why? Bud Dry.” When’s the last time you saw a Bud Dry in a cooler?
On Joe Byerly’s blog, An Enlightened Soldier, there is a post titled, “Think, Write, and Publish: An Army Captain’s Perspective”. Joe writes of the need for junior officers to take the ideas in their heads and put them into the public forum so that those ideas can benefit the military profession. His argument is compelling and he does not shy away from acknowledging potential issues such as doors being closed or negative feedback. He further argues that writing also opens doors and is ultimately good for everyone. I’d like to demonstrate the power of reading, thinking, writing and publishing.
In March of 2009 I moved into a new office at the Infantry Basic Officer Leader Course (IBOLC) headquarters. Like all military offices, the predecessor left me an assortment of things such as manuals, office supplies and the ubiquitous keys to nothing. One particular item he left is of note: a copy of the book Company Command: Unleashing the Power of the Army Profession by Nancy Dixon, Nate Allen, Tony Burgess, Pete Kilner, and Steve Schweitzer (2005). My commander walked in, saw the book and pointed to it saying, “That’s a good book. You should read that before taking command.” So, I diligently took the book, placed it in the hutch of the desk and never touched it again…that is until I was cleaning my desk out for the last time 18 months later.
I was familiar with two of the authors, Nate Allen and Tony Burgess, having read their other book Taking the Guidon: Exceptional Leadership at the Company Level (2001) several years before. Nate Allen had also led a professional development session with my cadet company in 2001 or 2001, but I’d never spoken to him personally. Despite this, I only took the book with me when I left because the title was the job I sought, company command. I was en route to Fort Lewis, WA, and my previous battalion commander was there and indicated I would take command soon due to my date of rank relative to other inbound captains. Suddenly, there was an immediacy to my preparations.
Sitting in my packed up apartment waiting for the movers I cracked the book and I barely put it down before finishing it. It is a fast read but an inspiring one. How much good could we do if we all came together to share our experiences and advice? The book centers on the professional forum companycommand.army.mil that allows this to happen. I was familiar with the sister site, platoonleader.army.mil, having used it in its infancy sparingly as a lieutenant but then abandoning it. Immediately upon finishing the book, I logged on to the site, created an account and began to ask questions of current and former company commanders. I was leaving a job training future platoon leaders and had led two of my own in Iraq so, while I pulled advice from commanders, I became comfortable answering questions from lieutenants and cadets on platoonleader.army.mil. If this was all I got out of it, I would have been a better officer and my company would have been better, but events would transpire to enrich my life.
As predicted by my previous battalion commander, I took command relatively quickly and so used the forum often. I started becoming comfortable providing command advice as well. The forum allows users to rate your responses as helpful and soon I was up to 100 helpful votes which made me feel pretty good. The guys who ran the forum sent me an award, an engraved mini-bat, and that made me feel good as well and inspired me to continue contributing. In 2011, Tony Burgess, one of the forum’s developers and on of the co-authors of the aforementioned book, contacted me and said he was coming out to Fort Lewis and asked if I wanted to meet up. I took the opportunity to bring my lieutenants and have them meet someone who has dedicated his life to developing company level leaders. We spent about two hours talking about leadership and leadership development. It was probably one of the better afternoons of my command.
I continued to contribute to the forum as I could and tried my best to keep up in 2012 while I was deployed to Afghanistan. Sometime toward the end of my deployment, Tony contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in bringing a team of lieutenants to West Point to speak to cadets about deployment. I jumped at the chance. After Tony’s team cleared several road blocks, we traveled to West Point at the end of February and I had the opportunity to meet Jason Wayne and Jonathan Silk both of whom I’d only known through the forum as well as Tom Morel and Katie Christy who are key players that I hadn’t been aware of (though I was familiar with Tom as he had been my roommate’s instructor when I was a cadet). The opportunity to speak to cadets was amazing (here is an example of what we did), but it was meeting these individuals that really has been important in my life. To see the dynamic at play, these five working in small office toward a singular goal, was amazing. It was a team with total buy in with a laser beam focus, as Tony might say.
Two months later, I met up with these five once more in Georgia to help with a leader development workshop and talk about the professional forums. where I also met Pete Kilner, Joe Byerly (whose blog inspired this post), and Micah Klein, people I’d known of but never met. Joe and Jon have certainly become peer mentors for me, people I can bounce ideas off of and talk to frankly and openly. Tony and Pete are infantry officers who have gone where I am going and great people to seek advice from in terms of leadership and career track. They are both men who have moved up in rank but continued their dedication to company-level leader development. Micah brings a different perspective to things and it is inspiring to interact with someone who is as dedicated as he is to developing others. His attitude is infectious. Jason has moved on to serve as a battalion XO but will be someone I reach to often when I take over as an operations officer a few years down the road. Tom and Katie are incredible people who go out of their way and beyond their “pay grade” to assist in leader development. Truly, they are two of the most amazing DA civilians I have met; people who do what needs to be done to achieve desired outcomes.
So, let’s look back. In March of 2009, I came into possession of a book and 18 months later, I decided to read that book. Now, I know Tony, Pete, Jason, Jon, Katie, Tom, Joe, and Micah They are friends, mentors, you name it and I would not know anyone of them nor have benefited personally or professionally had I not read a particular book, one that I dismissed for a long time. These are people I am positive I will interact with throughout my life.
What about publishing though? In March of this year, I read eagerly the back and forth between retired LTG Barno and active LTG Hodges on ForeignPolicy.com regarding the bleeding of officer talent in the Army. I felt that the conversation needed a junior officer’s perspective as it was about junior officers. I penned an article, “A Junior Officer’s Perspective on Brain Drain”, sitting in my hotel room as I prepared to move across the country having finished two commands at Ft. Lewis. I wrote the article, let my wife read it and provide feedback and then went to bed. I woke up, proofread it and fired it off to ForeignPolicy.com. Later that day, I received a nice note from the editor that they had passed the article around the office but decided not to use it. Disappointed, I saved the document to my computer and went about my life. It certainly wasn’t my first article rejection and likely won’t be my last.
A few months later I decided to try Small Wars Journal (call it an epiphany). Within 24 hours of sending it to the editors, it was up on the site and I received a wave of e-mails form junior officers, senior field grades and retirees. I was encouraged that I wasn’t alone in my thoughts. Two of the people who contacted me stand out because of the relationship I’ve built with them. First is Dennis Laich, author of the Generally Speaking blog. He contacted me and we have since developed a relationship. He lives near me and he has opened me up to new ideas. I just finished his book, Skin in the Game: Poor Kids and Patriots, which I never would have known about had I not written and published. His book has provided me great information for writing projects of mine and his perspective is a change of pace from most current and former senior leaders. I don’t agree with everything he says, but I respect his ideas. The other is Donald Vandergriff. He is a leading proponent and expert of adaptive leader training and outcomes based training and has authored several articles, papers and books. His book Raising the Bar: Creating and Nurturing Adaptability to Deal with the Changing Face of War is the best source I’ve found for adaptive leader training. I am now developing experimental training methods for cadets at my ROTC program and he has been a major source of inspiration and resources. Don has access to information (briefings, speeches, articles) you don’t easily find on a Google search. My research will be much better off for it and ultimately the cadets who receive the training will be enriched and better prepared to lead America’s sons and daughters.
Publishing has aided my professional growth in a way I did not imagine. I figured a few friends would send me words of encouragement, but did not expect to develop new relationships. It takes courage to press send on an e-mail to an editor. Once your thoughts are in cyber space or print, there is no going back. In today’s electronic world, people love to throw barbs at you with the veil of anonymity on their side. Sometimes the criticism is less than professional and at times it is simply personal. For whatever reason, anonymous posters sometimes enjoy attacking the author’s character rather than the argument. And, sometimes the critic is someone above you and it shuts a door as Joe talks about in his blog post. But, publishing still brings out many good things. It brings support, it brings a life to your idea and it can bring mentors and other opportunities.
Reading, thinking, writing and publishing have enriched my personal and professional life and given me friends I’d have no other means of meeting. So, next time you think of picking up a book or putting down thoughts on paper, consider the life altering effects it may have…and jump right in.
Leadership and Training for the Fight: A Few Thought on Leadership and Training from a Former Special Operations Soldier by MSG (R) Paul R. Howe (2005) is book with a pretty appropriate title. MSG Howe indicates that the majority of his career was spent as a member of special operations, likely in a direct action role. He seems to have rounded out his career as the Senior Military Instructor for an ROTC program. MSG Howe explains his desire to write the book saying, “Too many times in our lives we find ourselves saddled with ticket punching ladder climbers and those who seek the role of leader for the wrong reasons.”
MSG Howe starts with the Boyd OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) Loop and then goes on to speak of the combat mindset. He then talks about selecting individuals and leaders and leadership in combat, at the individual level, team level and organizational level. He spends a chapter on training for combat and another on planning before rounding out with a few thoughts on leadership. Each chapter begins with a vignette from his combat experience, mostly centered on his time in Mogadishu or individual direct action hits. He also speaks of his time in Panama. At no time during these vignettes does he actually reveal where he was at and surely he leaves details out for security reasons. He gives some sustains and improves for each vignette and then speaks to the subject of each chapter. Chapters are broken up in many subsections making it easier to read.
There are many great lessons from the book. The initial vignette speaks to a combat action where one of his soldiers (presumably an operator) gets confused during a night time hit and shoots at one of the other teams. MSG Howe asks the question: Counsel the subordinate for shooting at friendlies or for missing? He doesn’t answer the question but it is actually a difficult circumstance that warrants thought. This makes the vignette very useful in a decision making exercise. His description of Boyd’s OODA loop is also a key component. The Military Decision Making Process is woefully inadequate for on the spot decisions. Thus, the OODA loop is what someone at the point of contact needs. MSG Howe also describes the importance of PACE (Primary, Alternate, Contingency and Emergency) plans without explicitly stating it. He talks of a “layered offense” where he always knew where to go if his rifle went down, and then his secondary, etc. These contingency plans can and should be expanded to many things like initiation of fires, signals and communication as well as casualty evacuation.
Additionally, MSG Howe points out common training failures. One that we are all likely guilty of is having soldiers stop in training when they are “hit” (i.e. their MILES goes off, they are tagged with a simunition). This inadvertently trains them to stop in combat when they are hit even when they have minor wounds. He trains his soldiers to fight through until someone stops them allowing them to learn to fight on and move forward. On that note, he speaks of a common issue with casualties being the desire to rush and bring them to safety. Common CLS (combat life saver) classes have evolved to the “shoot first” philosophy, but MSG Howe expands on this but saying that you should only help a casualty once the threat is neutralized. You should not even pull them to safety.
MSG Howe spends a decent amount of the book referring to where the leader goes on battlefield. This is relevant to the team leader and the platoon leader. He talks about placing yourself where you can best control your soldiers which is rarely at the front of the stack or leading a bayonet charge. Placement for leaders is a contentious issue, especially at the platoon and company level. His many references to this should help any leader understand the problem better. He spends a good amount of time speaking of rehearsals and AARs (after action reviews), two critical components to training and mission success. Lastly, he speaks of involving all in the planning process and allowing leaders to plan their specific portions (at least in the lead) with enabling assets present. For example, if a company commander had a mission he would allow the platoon assaulting the objective to choose their route to the objective and breach point and work with enablers to make it work. This leads to buy in.
Nothing MSG Howe brings up is revolutionary. He reinforces counseling. He dispels special operations myths (they are just professional who train hard in the basics). He largely demonstrates the necessity of doing things right. Without using the phrase, MSG Howe comes across as a big proponent of mission command whereby leaders push down requirements and guidance to the lowest levels and allow those leaders to execute as they see fit. Surely, this philosophy led to much of his success.
MSG Howe’s book suffers from three things: lack of the “how to”, extraneous opinions and poor editing. It’s doubtful that MSG Howe intended the book to be a manual or guide, but more examples of training events and more detail would certainly bring many of his points to life. MSG Howe uses a lot of non-professional, non-politically correct phrases such as “booger eaters” and he uses foul language at times. While he is certainly passionate, this can harm his argument in the minds of certain readers and it can be distracting. MSG Howe inserts his opinion in other ways. He clearly is not impressed with the way officers are selected and trained and makes this known constantly. This is an issue in that the book is about leadership and training. It is not intended to prescribe changes to officer management and thus it is a distraction especially when the reader is as an officer. He seems to believe NCOs are superior but then belittles many throughout the book. It certainly moves him away from his theme. Lastly, at least for me, the numerous typos became distracting. It would be a much smoother book with a little editing.
The largest concern I have about prescribing this to someone is that MSG Howe clearly has a tactical mindset which is good for his subject but he makes statements that demonstrate his lack of strategic understanding. For someone who cannot see this and shake it off, this book can negatively influence them into believing that we should destroy whatever we need to destroy to bring every soldier home and not worry about political consequences. This is a popular theme but the bottom line is that war is a political endeavor and actions and decisions in war should be guided by politics. Clauswitz tells us that war is a political endeavor and that all military actions are subordinate to political objectives. Force should be applied only where it supports larger objectives. This is not an excuse to get soldiers killed. However, destroying a village to save a soldier may be good today in that it brings the soldier home. But, it can create an enemy army tomorrow due to the deaths of many non-combatants and the desire for revenge from the survivors. Therefore, leaders must find a balance with a simple ROE (rules of engagement) and consideration for the strategic objectives of the command. A decade of war has demonstrated that tactical success does not necessarily equal success in war. Therefore, it is incumbent on leaders that they understand a higher level of math than killing the enemy = success.
For leaders that understand this, the book can be good at generating ideas, refreshing concepts or reinforcing principles. At 197 pages, it is worth the couple of hours especially with the vignettes which can serve in future tactical decision making exercises. All in all, it is not a must read but it is a good filler book.