Learning from failure – a 2LT lost in the woods

You can’t spell lost without LT.

I’ve done the Red Diamond Land Navigation course at Fort Benning almost a dozen times since arriving here last October. I consider myself pretty good at land nav, I know the course pretty well, and I’ve scored 8/8 every single time I’ve done the course.

Except this past week.

I was not able to attend the last Ranger School class because I needed a waiver, so I had to complete (again) IBOLC’s “mini-RAP week,” which is a series of training events like the ones Ranger students will face during Ranger Assessment Phase (RAP) week in Ranger School. The major events are the Ranger Physical Fitness Test (RPFT), land navigation, and a 12 mile foot march. The RPFT and the 12 mile foot march are mostly physical events. If a person is in good shape, he (or she) will usually pass.

Normally, I go all out when I’m doing land navigation. I don’t try to make it easier by shuffling through the score sheets as they’re being passed around, looking for a lane with easy points. I take a sheet and pass the pile along. When the course begins, I plot my points and take off. I run the course. And when I get all of my points, I run back to the start, regardless of how much time is remaining.

This time, however, I wanted to try things a little differently.

Around 80˚, humidity somewhere near 100%. Half moon in the sky.

0400.

I received my score sheet and looked down quickly scanning the eight digit grids. My points were spread out over a large swath of land about four kilometers west of the start point. Normally you receive a clipboard with the map laminated to it for the land navigation course, but this time we received a map printed on a sheet of paper. I folded up the map so that only the land navigation portion was visible. I quickly plotted my points while resting the map on my knee, and confident in my map reading skills and my ability to ace this course. I plotted once.

Once I finished plotting, I looked over the map to plan my route. Behind accurate plotting, this is perhaps the most important task during the preparation portion of land navigation because it sets the pace for the entire lane. Since this is a night-into-day land navigation course, I would normally use the hours of darkness to run to my furthest point. The idea being, night land navigation is hard, so it’s better to use that time to erase the distance between the start point and the furthest point. Then, begin careful navigation in the darkness, collecting as many points as possible without making any mistakes. Once the sun comes up, I can pick up the pace and finish the rest of the points easily.

Instead of “going with what I know” by running to my furthest point, I decided that I would follow a counter-clockwise route and pick up the points along the way, darting into the woods to collect the point, and then skirting the roads along a circular pattern until I’ve collected them all and return to the start point.

Not a terrible plan, so long as it is executed well.

I folded up my map and scoresheet and tucked them into my zip-lock bag and headed out. I walked briskly to my first “attack point,” the intersection of a railroad track and a dirt road. My first point was about 800 meters from there and this intersection was the closest attack point I could find. The plan was to move to the attack point, shoot an azimuth to the first point, and then walk nice and easy to the point.

I reached the attack point within 30 minutes and shot my first azimuth. “Here we go, I thought to myself,” and boldly stepped into the dark woods.

I missed my first step and tumbled forward, catching myself with a quick-reacting trail foot. My face and hands caught a fistful of spider-web and I reacted as all warriors do, by freaking the hell out and karate chopping invisible tarantulas.

I regained my composure and re-shot my azimuth and took another couple of steps into the dark. A thin branch of thorns slid across my face and I stumbled again over loose earth.

Angrily, I gritted my teeth and took another step forward, rolling onto a weak ankle.

This wasn’t going to work. I took a knee and examined the map again.

Okay, I could follow the railroad track another 500 meters, and then shoot an azimuth into the woods, hit a trail, and then shoot another azimuth to the point. That would be an attack point just 300 meters from the point – perfect.

Now, for some background on land navigation, walking pace along a road or tracks and then jutting into the woods is never a good idea. There are too many variables that could go wrong. I am counting on my 100 meter pace count being completely accurate (which it’s not), and the map to 100% accurately reflect the terrain (which it does not). Then, I am counting on hitting a trail, which is difficult to identify at night, and then shooting another azimuth the point from there, and walk 300 meters to hit it. An attack point of 300 meters at night is do-able. But the other things – pacing a road/track and shooting in from there – is never a good idea. Sometimes this works. Especially during the daytime. But it’s not good technique.

Confident in my ability to find the point based on a history of always finding the point, I give it a try.

I pace 500 meters, shoot into the woods, and find the trail. Looking good. I shoot my azimuth to my point, and then walk 300 meters into some thick stuff.

No point.

Eh, just walk another 50-75 meters. You usually find it then.

Still no point.

Okay, start boxing out. Small circles.

Nothing.

I spend about 25 minutes looking for the point, but come up empty. I take a deep breath. No big deal. It’s dark, I took a risk trying to find this point and came up short. I’ll get it on the way back.

I take a look at my map and my next point. This one should be easy. It is about 100 meters off of the railroad tracks and right on the west side of a north/south road. Too easy.

I skirt the railroad tracks until I come to the road. At this point, the sun is just under the horizon and the air is a gray/blue color. Mist obscures my vision.

“Okay, here I am. Railroad track. North/south running road. The point should be 100 meters north and just west of the road.”

Nothing.

Box out, semi-circles. Still nothing.

I spend about 45 minutes looking for this point because it is so clearly marked on the map. To miss it would be a crime. (It turns out the graders said this particular point has a bad plot – it is actually on the east of the road.)

At this point, I’ve killed two hours. I have three to go. I have collected zero points. I haven’t been running the course, so these early mistakes cost me more time than they normally would have.

Still, I don’t panic. I’ve got three hours to go. The sun is coming up. I’ll get the next point and then run the rest. I’ll grab 6/8 without a problem and escape with my dignity.

I’m heading to my third point, which is the point furthest from the start point. On the way there, I come across a known point. I plot my position and record my azimuth to the next point. 350 meters at 313˚. Nice and easy.

I take off at a jog, eager to make up time now. On the map I have the point plotted in some low ground between two spurs. I hit 350 meters and I’m dead between two spurs. The sun is out and I can see clearly.

No point around me.

“WTF!?”

Now I’m just angry. My course is imploding. No worries though, just go with what you know.

Box out, semi-circles. Running around the woods looking for the point to jump out at me. Take a knee and conduct SLLS, hoping there’s someone else out there approaching a point.

Nothing.

I take a deep breath and take a knee, pulling out my map. I recheck the original plot.

Crap. I misplotted. The point is about 100 meters to the east of where I plotted it. I recalculated my azimuth from the known point, and instead of 313˚, it is more like 335˚.

I run back to that point and reshoot the azimuth at 335˚. I run the azimuth at 350 meters.

No point.

I take another deep breath and figure this is it. It’s just not my day. I walk another 50 meters, just in case, and there it is, just a few feet buried in the woods. I walk up to the point, confirm with the scribble on the point that this is it, and record the number on my scoresheet.

I’m almost three hours into the course and I’ve just recorded my first point. At this point, I’m back on track and manage to scoop up two more points within the next hour. After those two points, I head back to the start point and with great embarrassment, turn in my meager scoresheet.

I spent a good portion of the rest of the day brooding over this failure. Having killed the course every other time I was on it, it stung more than it should have.

As painful as it was, I think doing so poorly was a good thing. Here’s why:

Had I done like I normally do and scored 8/8, I would have increased my confidence in land navigation (a dangerous thing for a lieutenant, no doubt), but I would not have learned anything. Failing, as it were, provided me with a number of lessons. Lessons I had already learned, but can now be reinforced.

Some of these lessons may only apply to land navigation, but I think they can be used more broadly.

Lesson 1: “Go with what you know.”

I normally run land navigation courses. It saves time. Even if it means spending more energy, it is always worth it to run the course and buy that extra time in the event a mistake is made. I know this, but failed to do it this week, and paid for it.

I also know that it is not smart to dead reckon for more than 300 meters at night. The chances of drifting are too high. I chose to dead reckon 800 meters at night, and then, seeing as that wouldn’t work, tried to dead reckon from a not-so-certain attack point.

If I did what I normally do, I would have chosen a route which would have taken me ultimately to the furthest point on the course, and snatched up points with certain attack points (< 300 meters). This would maximize my night land navigation time and provide confidence by getting a couple of points early in the course.

If you do something that works, keep doing it until it doesn’t work.

Lesson 2: Plot, check, re-check

I plotted my points while leaning a flimsy piece of paper across my not-so-flat knee. And I didn’t check. As a result, one of my points was misplotted by about 100 meters, which resulted in me wasting lots of time on the course.

I should have used a flat surface, carefully plotted, and checked my work to confirm I had the correct points.

Lesson 3: Sometimes the map is wrong

I wasted almost an hour trying to find my second point. I was so confident in my plotting (I plotted it correctly) and it should have been easy to find because it was right at the intersection of three major features. But I couldn’t find it, and it turned out that the grid for the point inaccurately places the point on the west side of a road when it is actually on the east side.

I should have realized that there was something wrong after walking in circles for about 20 minutes and moved on, chalking the point up as a loss. Desperate for a point, I wasted too much time looking for something that didn’t exist where I thought it did.

Mistakes snowball. My first mistake of not running resulted in me having less time to navigate the course. My second mistake of not following my own plan and trying to find a point based on a weak attack point resulted in me missing that point altogether. My third mistake of wasting too much time looking for a point that wasn’t located where it was supposed to be wasted more time. And my fourth mistake of misplotting the furthest point sealed the deal.

I don’t think I’ve ever done a land navigation course perfectly. Somewhere along the way, I’ll make a small mistake and have to correct for it.

This time, however, I made a number of small mistakes which altogether made my day very painful.

But the net result of the training is positive. Because I learned something, which, is what training is for after all.

The moral of the story here is failing can be a good thing. We learn through failure. If I did well on the land navigation course, I wouldn’t be thinking about land navigation at all. Doing poorly forced me to examine my course of action, what went wrong, and how I could have done better. And writing about that experience here reinforces the reflection.

Nobody wants to fail. But failing is an active ingredient in success, so long as you learn from it. I’ve learned a lot from this experience, and I’ll take the lessons and internalize them, and try my best to not make the same mistakes in the future.

PS. Incidentally, I read this article about fitness goals and failure (Figuring Out Your Life and Fitness Goals), and it comes to many of the same conclusions. Check it out.

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