Fieldcraft: Making knee pad inserts from a sleeping mat

In the days of BDUs/DCUs, crafty soldiers would sew pouches into the trousers and tops around the knees and elbows. Inside the pouches they would place cut-out pieces of foam from the Army sleeping mat. These served as good knee pads and elbow pads in place of the often constricting and uncomfortable Army issue knee and elbow pads. These worked pretty well, but were sometimes discouraged because they came about from unauthorized modifications to the Army uniform.

When the Army introduced the Army Combat Uniform (ACU), they included slots for knee pad and elbow pad inserts. Great idea! And an example of bottom-up feedback being implemented.

The problem, though, is I’ve never seen anyone issued those inserts.

There are a number of aftermarket inserts you can buy online. I’ve seen some in the gear stores locally in Columbus. The one’s I’ve seen locally are too thin to be of any use, though. Some of the aftermarket inserts look pretty good. But I can’t help but think most of them are pretty much prettier versions of the same thing soldiers have been using for decades: cut out pieces of sleeping mat.

Here’s how you can make your own inserts:

1. Get an Army sleeping mat (new costs about $15. Used would be better and cheaper).

2. Measure the knee pad insert on a pair of ACU trousers. For a Medium/Regular the dimensions were approximately 5 1/2″ x 8 1/2″.

3. Round out the edges to create an oval shape.

4. Insert into the knee pad slot.

5. Done.

They might work better doubled up. I haven’t tried it yet, so I’m not sure.


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Land Navigation: Declination

Declination: “It’s a real thing.”

There are some things in life I feel strongly about. No Super Bowl will be greater than Super Bowl 42. Reality television is simultaneously everything that is great and terrible about America. And you must adhere to the declination diagram of a given map! Here at Fort Benning, declination is usually glossed over as unimportant.

“It’s only 4˚ gentlemen, you don’t even have to use it.”

At its worst, I sat dumbfounded in a land navigation class as the instructor said that to get a magnetic azimuth you SUBTRACT the G-M angle from the grid azimuth. After the class, I spoke with him, confident that to get a magnetic azimuth at Fort Benning you add 4˚ to the grid azimuth. I was told I was wrong, because “General (Grid) to Major (Magnetic) is a demotion, so you subtract.” I’m sure that he learned that somewhere, at another post, where that mnemonic worked. It doesn’t work at Fort Benning, and if you did indeed subtract, you would be off azimuth by 8˚, which is certainly not negligible (double the numbers at the diagram I have at the bottom).

What is declination? From FM 3-25.26 (Map Reading and Land Navigation):

Declination is the angular difference between any two norths. If you have a map and a  compass, the one of most interest to you will be between magnetic and grid north. The declination diagram shows the angular relationship, represented by prongs, among grid, magnetic and true norths. While the relative positions of the prongs are correct, they are seldom plotted to scale. Do not use the diagram to measure a numerical value,. This value will be written in the map margin (in both degrees and mils) beside the diagram.

Fort Benning Declination Diagram.

In more basic terms, any azimuth you get using a protractor is not useable on the ground until it is converted using the declination diagram. At Fort Benning, to get a magnetic azimuth from a grid azimuth, you add the G-M angle which is 4˚ (70 mils). If, for example, you plotted an azimuth of 90˚ to a point, you would have to shoot a magnetic azimuth of 94˚ in order to walk the actual azimuth you plotted.

I’m assuming that most instructors advise students to ignore the G-M angle for simplicity. It might be too confusing to add 4˚ to a grid azimuth.

I’m a firm believer in using the G-M angle because it is the actual correct azimuth. To ignore it is accepting that you will not walk exactly where you intend to. When navigating, it seems most people tend to drift to the right. That might explain why so many people swear by ignoring the G-M angle – their drifting right actually puts them on the right azimuth!

From Left to Right (top): Start Point, 50m, 90m, 130m, 200m.
From Left to Right (bottom): Start Point, 300m, 600m, 1000m, 1500m.

The map above shows how declination works at Fort Benning. From the start point (SP) at the road on the left I plotted a 90˚ azimuth to the road on the right. If you added the G-M angle (4˚) and walked a perfectly straight azimuth of 94˚, you would walk along the bottom line. If you did not add the G-M angle and instead walked a perfectly straight azimuth of 90˚, you would walk along the top line. The numbers on the bottom line are the distances in meters and the numbers on the top line are the approximate distances off azimuth a navigator would be at the given ranges.

So, for example, by ignoring the G-M angle, you would be off by approximately 50 meters after walking 300 meters. Not a big deal if you are looking for something big, like a house. But if you’re looking for a small orange and white box on a six foot stake in the woods, obscured by foliage and sadistically placed in the most out-of-sight-spot, at night, it might be hard to see that from half a football field away.

As you move further along your un-declinated azimuth, the distance only widens. At 600 meters, you are just under 100 meters off azimuth. At 1 kilometer you would be about 130 meters off. 1500 meters: 200 meters off.

Of course, a good way to compensate for this is to understand the terrain you will be traversing. If I was walking the 94˚ azimuth in the diagram, I would know that to get from one road to the other I would be crossing the creek at just over 1000 meters and then crossing a second creek at about 1500 meters. If I chose not to add the G-M angle, I would still cross the creek, but that would happen at about 600 meters. Coming up to the creek 400 meters too soon should give the navigator pause and he should stop to figure out what is going on.

The “oh by the way” of this is I have plenty of friends who have successfully completed land navigation courses here without using the declination diagram. They may have drifted into their correct azimuth or used a combination of land navigation techniques to improve their chances of finding their points. The point is, at Fort Benning it is possible to ignore the G-M angle and still do well. But why knowingly handicap yourself when all you have to do is add 4˚?

Declination. It’s a real thing. When it comes to land navigation, I’ll take any advantage I can get it.

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Scouts vs. Mortars

“Three of ya’ll going to scouts” said the Specialist from S-1 who picked us up from 82nd Replacement Detachment. He said it like it was a big deal.

He closed the gate on the back of the LMTV and the plastic flap fell, darkening the back of the truck.

“Scouts” I thought to myself. That sounds cool. “I hope I’m going to scouts.”

I had no idea what it was, but I knew that I wanted it. It turns out the “Airborne Reconnaissance Platoon” (as it was formally known) of the battalion I was assigned to needed soldiers. Often, scout platoons hold try-outs at the battalion level where more experienced soldiers compete for the coveted slots in the platoon. I got lucky and they were hurting. They took three of us who had the highest APFT scores at 82nd Replacement and I got to spend about a year with the scouts before moving on to a rifle platoon.

That year with the scouts was formative. It’s where I spent my time as a joe. Scouts are normally a part of the headquarters company of an infantry battalion, which is an amalgamation of different kinds of soldiers who support the battalion: cooks, clerks, drivers, mechanics. And then there are the two specialty platoons: scouts and mortars.

Soldiers in the scout platoon are supposed to be the baddest guys in the battalion. It’s a small platoon with a specialized mission. As such, they often train independently and with less supervision than the rest of the battalion. This leads to amazing training opportunities, and lots of “big boy rules,” meaning life could be less miserable so long as everyone was doing the right thing.

Across the hall from the scouts lived the mortar platoon. The mortar platoon was made up of 11 Charlies (11Cs). To most 11 Bravos (11Bs), 11Cs were barely infantrymen. Their mission was to sit around and drop rounds into tubes while the rest of us walked all over the place with heavy packs. In the hierarchy of the infantry world, the more you had to walk, the harder your job was, or so it was thought. (And lest I get flamed by all of you 11Cs out there, I know that this is all nonsense. I’d hate to have to jump in a mortar tube or lug around a bunch of 81mm rounds).

The scout platoon was smaller than a normal rifle platoon. The mortar platoon was about the same size. Being across the hall from one another and being the only infantrymen in HHC led to a rivalry, which I am guessing is mirrored across most infantry battalions.

Scouts vs. Mortars.

We liked each other, and often hung out with one another on the weekends. But during the week, it was scouts vs. mortars. We loved ribbing one another, especially when the other group messed something up. “Well, well, well…” a snotty mortarmen would comment after a long mission out in the woods of Fort Bragg. “I heard ya’ll got compromised by OPFOR last night. Way to go, scouts!”

Out in the field, soldiers in the recon platoon would scowl at the mortarmen, chilling near the BN TOC, enjoying the hot coffee and amenities of life close to the flagpole.

My greatest memories of the rivalry manifested itself in the hallways after the duty day, when the officers and senior NCOs went home. Pranks were constant. Medicated foot powder to the face right after getting out of an open bay shower. A bucket of water dumped on your head as you enter your room. Coming back from off post to find all of your furniture set up in the formation area outside of the barracks.

No war cry was more horrific (or invigorating) than hearing “MORTARS!” which meant there was a battle raging in the hallway and every scout and mortar would be needed. The scouts, hopelessly outnumbered would strike fast and silently to avoid major confrontations. The ultimate score was to ambush a wayward mortarman in the hallways, kidnap him, tape him up and then throw him into the mortar CP before disappearing again.

I hope, that somewhere out there, the battle continues.

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Life Lesson: Find your own way

This is how I land nav.

I’ve wasted a lot of time looking for the ‘right answer’ on the internet. It’s not always necessary to try to find the ‘right way’ of doing something or looking to see how others did it before. Sometimes (and often) it is best to go with what you know.

As great as the internet is, it can pull us down rabbit holes of worthless information. The information you’re looking for isn’t always out there. Sometimes you need to be the trailblazer. But if you do, please post it on the internet somewhere to make it easier for the rest of us.

And if they have a phone number, call them. One phone call and you can be done.

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Wait, how am I supposed to wear my ruck again?

“What’s this for?” I asked, holding the waist buckle male and female ends of the ALICE pack in my hands.

“It’s for pogues. Buckle it in the back of the frame and tape up the free running ends” my squad leader said with the certainty of the entire infantry behind him.

And that’s where the waistband stayed the entire time I was enlisted: buckled, stowed, and taped. Not using the waistband was a given. If we were to take contact from the enemy, it would be easier to drop the ruck. And using the waistband was for pogues, those cretins worse than dirt who valued things like comfort and future musculo-skeletal health.

Every now and then there would be “that guy” who bucked the trend and wore the waistband fastened and tightened, swearing that it was “designed” that way and it made rucking just a little bit easier. The good infantrymen I knew would smirk at his relative weakness before squirming under the weight on their shoulders.

Well, it turns out that rucks are designed to be worn with the majority of the weight on the hips, not the shoulders. What, you haven’t read TM 10-8465-236-10 (Operator’s Manual for Modular Lightweight Load Carrying Equipment)? Here are the instructions on how to “don” the ruck:

LARGE RUCK – Continued Donning

1. Place ruck on back by inserting arms through shoulder straps.

2. Buckle and adjust waistbelt.

3. Adjust shoulder straps with the quick-release buckle (Figure 2) on the lanyard (Figure 3).

4. Stow free-running ends.


Not the best instructions, but it drops more specific hints in other sections.

Shoulder Straps

The shoulder strap suspension of the frame is adjusted by securing the 1-inch webbing around the frame in the appropriate location using the slide buckle.

The proper location is determined by donning the frame and fastening the waistbelt buckle while wearing the vest. Position the shoulder straps so there is complete contact with the shoulder. For short torsos, move the waistbelt location on the frame as shown in the next illustration. If more adjustment is needed, move the shoulder strap location on the frame.

A properly positioned waistbelt will cover the hip bone. After the 1-inch webbing is secured around the frame to hold the shoulder straps in place, wrap the 1 1⁄2 -inch webbing around the cross bar and secure with the non-slip slide buckle.

And a note on the “load-lifter straps.”

The load-lifter straps can be used to adjust the pack while marching. The weight of the pack can be transferred from the shoulders to the hips and back again by either cinching the 1-inch webbing down or by loosening the webbing by adjusting the non-slip buckle.

I also found these instructions from REI’s website. These are general to any pack, to include our own MOLLE II rucksack:

Backpacks: Adjusting the Fit


Six Steps to a Great Fit

Your goal is to have 80% to 90% of the load weight resting on your hips. To achieve this, start by putting about 10 to 15 lbs. of weight into the pack to simulate a loaded pack. Follow the steps below in front of a mirror. Get a friend to help if possible, or visit an REI store for more assistance.

Step 1: Hipbelt

  • First make sure all the pack’s straps and hipbelt are loosened.
  • Put the pack on your back so that the hipbelt is resting over your hip bones.
  • Close the hipbelt buckle and tighten it.
  • Check the padded sections of the hipbelt to make sure they wrap around your hips comfortably. Keep at least 1″ of clearance on either side of the center buckle.
  • Note: If the hipbelt is too loose or tight, try repositioning the buckle pieces on the hipbelt straps. If this doesn’t solve the problem, you may need a different pack (or hipbelt).

Step 2: Shoulder Straps

  • Pull down and back on the ends of the shoulder straps to tighten them.
  • Shoulder straps should fit closely and wrap over and around your shoulder, holding the pack body against your back. They should NOT be carrying the weight.
  • Have your helper check to see that the shoulder strap anchor points are 1″ to 2″ inches below the top of your shoulders.

Step 3: Load Lifters

  • Load-lifter straps are located just below the tops of your shoulders (near your collarbones) and should angle back toward the pack body at a 45-degree angle.
  • Gently snug the load-lifter straps to pull weight off your shoulders. (Overtightening the load lifters will cause a gap to form between your shoulders and the shoulder straps.)

Step 4: Sternum Strap

  • Adjust the sternum strap to a comfortable height across your chest.
  • Buckle the sternum strap and tighten until the shoulder straps are pulled in comfortably from your shoulders, allowing your arms to move freely.

Step 5: Stabilizer Straps

  • Pull the stabilizer straps located on either side of the hipbelt to snug the pack body toward the hipbelt and stabilize the load.

Step 6: Final Tweak

  • Go back to the shoulder straps and carefully take a bit of tension off of them. Now you’re ready to go!

I’ve written before about how some of the most common and mundane things in the Army hardly get any attention. How exactly should my boots fit? What is the “standard” for weapon cleanliness? And how am I supposed to wear my rucksack?

Rucking sucks. Anything that can be done to make it easier is worth the effort, or at least worth a try. The MOLLE ruck is designed to carry the majority of the weight on the hips and the weight can be easily transferred from the hips to the shoulders and back as needed during a ruck. All you need to know is how to do it. Read the TM, and ruck lightly.

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Fieldcraft: Short wave crank radio (and the greatest mission that never happened)

I was in the field last week for a detail, but I was determined not to miss the first Presidential debate. I wouldn’t have access to a television, and streaming audio or video through my iPhone was no sure bet considering I didn’t know if I would have power to keep the phone charged or enough cellular service to make it happen. So I dug into my gear box and pulled out my old short wave crank radio. My dad had given it to me as a gift a number of years back and it came in great use. The radio is powered by batteries, or crank power. Crank the handle for a minute and it will provide 30-60 minutes of listening time (depending on volume, age and condition of the rechargeable batteries, and other factors that are beyond my understanding). The radio can pick up local AM and FM radio stations, and more importantly, short wave radio stations. I was able to sit in a concrete room with a bunch of other young second lieutenants and listen to the debate.

This wasn’t the first experience I had with a short wave crank radio. My platoon sergeant brought one with him for OIF I. He was a veteran of the Gulf War, and that experience informed him that having a short wave radio might be helpful. He would turn the radio on first thing in the morning as we woke up in Kuwait. On most days the news discussed the ongoing diplomatic battles raging between Iraq, the US, and the UN, and the buildup of forces in the Gulf. Once the war began, the information became much more relevant, discussing significant battles, casualties, and troop movements.

We had been in Kuwait for over a month, training daily for the greatest mission that never happened. For a whole week we felt like we were sitting on the sideline, waiting for the coach to put us in the game. The war was moving fast, and our greatest fear was that the whole thing might end without us ever leaving Kuwait. Then, a week after the war began, on March 26, I rolled out of my cot and sat up, rubbing the sleep and sand out of my eyes and adjusting to the bright lights which were hastily turned on at 0600. The platoon sergeant turned on the radio just in time to catch the opening of the BBC World Service. In a charming British accent, we heard:

“Paratroopers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade parachuted into Northern Iraq today, seizing a military airfield and opening the northern front of the war.”

The tent erupted in groans and expletives. “BULLSHIT” was the most commonly heard word for a couple of minutes. Soldiers were flipping cots. We were angry, but mostly jealous.

A combat jump is the ultimate prize for a paratrooper, and as the greatest mission that never happened slowly faded away in likelihood, it was dawning on us that those paratroopers from the 173rd would be sporting mustard stains for what seemed to be a relatively safe operation. Adding to this is the spirit of competition between airborne units. Paratroopers in the 82nd like to think of themselves as the premier airborne unit, while paratroopers in the 173rd have an air of superiority about them because they’re a smaller unit and they’re in Vicenza, not Fayetteville.

Later, during the invasion in 2003, the unit I was with was moving rapidly north towards Baghdad, but we were behind the lead elements of the 3rd Infantry Division and the Marines. We were hopping from town to town working our way north, staying nowhere for longer than a couple of days. Starved for information with no one providing us any updates on the war, our platoon huddled around the platoon sergeant and his little radio whenever we had some down time. I remember the whole platoon slumming around on the cool floor in a school in Rumayhtah, listening to the BBC World Service describe the latest news on the war and the reaction back home. We’d listen to the descriptions of battles we had just fought and grumble at battles we missed out on. It was strange, and somewhat disconcerting to get the most accurate news about what we were doing from an international broadcast from thousands of miles away. But it was the reality of the time, and that cheap crank radio provided us with the information we desperately desired.

I wonder what a war in the image of Iraq would look like today. Many of the emerging technologies we have today did not exist back then. There’s a part of me that would like to think that we are so advanced now that you shouldn’t need to bring a short wave crank radio with you to war to get information. But I also thought that in 2003, the American Army wouldn’t run out of MREs during the push to Baghdad.

I’ll keep the radio in my rucksack.

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The Junior Officer Reader – Black Hawk Down


Today is the 19th anniversary of the Battle of Mogadishu (Day of the Rangers).

When I first joined the military in 2001, Black Hawk Down was the book du jour for young infantrymen. At 30th AG, where all infantrymen get their start, just about everyone had read the book or were currently reading it. For some, it was the inspiration to join. For others, it represented the high end possibility of life in the peacetime infantry.

I never heard of the book.

Sure, I knew about the events in Mogadishu in 1993. But I didn’t understand them. I was 11 years old at the time. What I knew was that there was a major firefight in some far-off African city. A lot of Americans soldiers were killed, and these were some of our best.

I remember being marched to chow and passing the placards featuring the Medal of Honor citations for SFOD-D snipers Randy Shugart and Gary Gordon. Gung ho recruits who were more familiar with the book and story told of their heroic attempt to protect downed Black Hawk pilot Mike Durant, dropping into the crash site and holding back a violent Somali mob until they were ultimately overrun. Shugarts’s body would be seen on television screens across the world as it was dragged and displayed through the streets of Mogadishu.

I finally dove into Black Hawk Down (1999) a few weeks ago and just finished it. It was a difficult book to read because the detail was so intricate that the action was hard to follow. Bowden painstakingly recreates the battle, telling the same story and meta-stories from different angles and perspectives, including the Somalis. The reader is rocked forward and backward through moments of time, sopping up every detail of a gruesome battle.

For the junior officer, the book offers a number of lessons, including the importance of careful preparation. Task Force Ranger decided not to bring their night visions devices on the raid since it was supposed to be an in-and-out mission during daylight hours. This left them stranded in the city during the night without the device that would have given them a significant tactical advantage. Some of the men chose not to wear their bullet proof armor plates, opting for speed over safety. At one point, the Ranger Commander regrets choosing to leave bayonets back at their base, as they were growing dangerously close to running out of ammunition. I don’t remember the last time I saw a bayonet.

Unity of command is another important issue found here. At times during the battle, Rangers found themselves intermixed with operators, and it was not clear who – if anyone – was in charge.

Something captured well by Bowden is the hierarchical structuring the military does to itself in terms of eliteness and professionalism. The Delta operators thought the Rangers were unprofessional who though that the 10th Mountain Division was a joke. It wasn’t just an acknowledgement of different mission sets and training, but a real animosity that often manifested itself in tactical decisions made out of spite or anger.

Before I read the book I already understood the cultural significance that Black Hawk Down has had on the Army. It is the battle in which all modern battles are compared to. It is the benchmark. It is constantly referenced as both a joke (“Irene,” “This is my safety”) and a lesson (night vision, armor plates).

I also found the descriptions of the Rangers interesting. Bowden writes that the “high and tight” was the haircut that marked the professional, high-speed Ranger. Today I think you would be more likely to see a more civilian-inspired hairstyle, emulating the guys on the next rung on the hooah ladder.

I’m not sure that any mission since then – including the Bin Laden mission – has had or will have more significance to the culture of the military than Black Hawk Down.

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These are books that I have discovered or had recommended to me and would be good to read as a junior officer. My goal is to get through all of them before I’m no longer junior. Any suggestions?

Just Another Soldier (Jason Hartley) 10/13/11
One Bullet Away (Nathaniel Fick) 5/13/12
The Unforgiving Minute (Craig Mullaney)
The War I Always Wanted: The Illusion of Glory and the Reality of War (Brandon Friedman)
Chasing Ghosts (Paul Rieckhoff)
Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War (Matt Gallagher)
Love My Rifle More Than You (Kayla Williams)
Hesitation Kills (Jane Blair) 6/10/12
The Blog of War (Matthew Burden)
House to House (Davide Bellavia)
Afghan Journal (Jeffrey Coulter)
Once a Marine (Nick Popaditch)
Greetings From Afghanistan-Send More Ammo (Benjamin Tupper)
The Poor Bastards Club (Paul Mehlos)
Kill Bin Laden (Dalton Fury)
Horse Soldiers (Doug Stanton)
The Long Road Home (Martha Raddatz)
Once an Eagle (Anton Myrer)
The Good Soldiers (David Finkel) 9/19/12
Black Hawk Down (Mark Bowden) 10/1/12