Me and Pat Tillman

Pat Tillman Madden 2001

Back in 2000, before I joined the Army, I was playing Madden 2001 on my brand new Playstation 2. Whenever I play Madden, I play franchise mode with the New York Giants. When I play defense, I like to stick with one player, and “be” that player for the season so I can develop his skills. Before the season starts and I begin my career, I make initial changes based on the needs of my team.

Back then, I really liked playing as a safety. The safety can be such a versatile player. If you played him close to the line, he served as a quasi-linebacker and could help stop the run, but you could still quickly drop back into coverage if it was a pass play. Playing a good safety can completely change the defense of a team.

In the summer of 2000, less then a year before I joined the Army, I remember poking around and looking for safeties when I came across Pat Tillman of the Arizona Cardinals, who were still in the NFC East. I didn’t know anything about Tillman, but when I saw his avatar, with the fierce eyes, long blonde hair, and thick neck, coupled with a decent overall score (74) and relatively young age (24), I knew I had to have him on my team. He was young, looked badass and there was room to develop him. I made some trades and I got Tillman on the New York Giants.

In the months before I joined the Army, Pat Tillman and I destroyed the NFC East and won numerous SuperBowls.

Years later, after I joined the Army and Pat joined the Army, one of my teammates would tell me stories about Pat at basic training. They were battle buddies. He had nothing but good things to say about him. He talked about how there was always media around, hovering, and Pat would do his best to stay away from it all and avoid the special recognition he was offered as an NFL player-turned-Army Ranger.

In April 2004, after returning from my first Iraq deployment, I was at an Army school when I learned of Pat’s death in Afghanistan – a wild, tragic ending to an incredible journey. It was a sleep-away school, so the news came in whispers and “have you heards.” Before a class started, an instructor confirmed the news. “Yeah, apparently Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan yesterday.” He then began the class.

Months later, the truth would emerge of fratricide, making the whole thing that much more tragic and wild.

Years later, I left the Army to go to school. Pat, this person I never met but have known since 2000, was still inside, lingering.

I learned of the Pat Tillman Foundation and the Tillman Military Scholarship sometime in 2009, when I was organizing the City College Veterans Association. The organization and scholarship was new to me, but I knew immediately that I wanted to be part of it and applied.

Fortunately, I was accepted (it was easier in 2009). Since then, I’ve tried my best to make it to Tempe for Pat’s Run every April and at the very minimum, participate in a Shadow Run. Without question, it is the military/veteran event I look forward to the most every year.

The Pat Tillman Foundation is still relatively young. Its founders and board members are very much connected to the man who was Pat Tillman, and as I was reminded this past weekend at Pat’s Run, he is still missed, and if it could be done, they’d trade it all to get Pat back. He was that fucking good.

That said, the product that is coming out of the Tillman Foundation – the Tillman Military Scholar – is phenomenal. An amazing group of service-members, veterans, and spouses who are committed to a life of service, in the spirit of what they believe Pat would have wanted – an impossible thing to know but a source of limitless potential.

I wrote a small piece in the Daily Beast over the weekend that was kind of connected to Pat Tillman. It was a small attempt to link the event in Tempe and Pat to a bigger news story. The run in Tempe, for as big as it gets every year, is still a very local thing – local to Arizona, local to sports, local to veterans. It should be so much bigger. Pat is everything that is right, whether he actually was or not. He is the ideal of boundless ambition, an infinite resource of potential energy.

I don’t write about the things I do personally very often on this blog, but I am so proud to be a part of the Tillman Foundation that I felt like I should use this tiny corner I’ve carved out to say something – so there it is.

To learn more about the Pat Tillman Foundation, please visit their website.

Never Stop Honoring.

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The Civil-Military Divide: An Imagined Structure of the Military Mind (also, @amyschumer)

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The other night I saw a skit on the Amy Schumer show that was pretty funny and got me thinking. Amy played a soldier who had just returned from an Iraq deployment and wanted to surprise her boyfriend by popping out of a cake for his birthday, a lá the surprise reunion videos that have grown so popular as entertainment recently. As she hides in the cake, she overhears him talking shit about her. She listens and takes it all in. When she pops out, she’s embarrassed and breaks up with him on the spot. As the scene ends, someone awkwardly “thanks her for her service,” because that’s what you’re supposed to do. A special kind of “fuck you” that soldiers have heard when they’re being helped by someone that can’t really help, and get thanked for their service when what they really need is to get their cell service terminated before deploying.

Anyway, it’s a pretty funny skit and it got me thinking that maybe the civil-military divide isn’t really that big of a problem as people think it is. In fact, maybe these wars have been the best thing for closing it.

The “divide” isn’t a new thing by any means. It’s been written about by every generation going back to Sparta. I still think the best recent piece on the divide in our era comes before the Global War on Terrorism began, back in this Tom Ricks article in The Atlantic (1997).

I’ve written before about how there seems to be a correlation between willingness to poke fun at the military in popular culture and a perceived decrease in the civil-military divide. That is, the more comfortable civilians feel making fun of soldiers and the military, the better relations are (so long as military folk don’t get too butt-hurt about it).

As far as I know, Amy Schumer never served in the military, but that didn’t stop her for going for the skit. I’ve seen it done real well on Family GuyThe Onion and Fox’s short-lived Enlisted (rest in peace).

I still believe that the civil-military gap is an imagined structure of the military mind. The gap is as big as the veteran wants it to be simply because civilians don’t walk around thinking of themselves as something different from everyone else – veterans do that. In that regard, the more connected to civil society the veteran feels, the smaller the imagined gap. It is an individual effort to close it, not a collective one.

That said, the more shots taken at military life from the civilian side, the more normalized the whole thing becomes. The wars have kept the military in the media for the past decade in a way they wouldn’t have been without them. We seem to be moving past the point of blanket hero worship and into a realm that’s more thoughtful and critical.

Good.

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Some thoughts on Major Gant…

I’ve read a lot of good articles on MAJ Gant over the past couple of weeks, timed of course with the release of ‘American Spartan,’ a very indulgent title choice, I think.

Joseph Collins wrote a great, succinct review over at War On The Rocks. His last paragraph is the critical one. In it, I think he captures the story hidden behind the hyper-masculine Spartan shield that the book tries to portray (as I can only imagine – I haven’t read it yet).

When we ask ourselves why Major Gant fell from grace, we also have to look in the mirror.  The all-volunteer Armed Forces — active and reserve components — are not made for a decade of large-scale, protracted warfare.  That fact, however, did not and will not stop us from engaging in protracted warfare.  The U.S. Government chose to wage large-scale, protracted war in part by grinding down the best and the bravest until many of them died, broke, or fell from grace.  On the jacket of Tyson’s book, Gunner Sepp, himself a former special operator, writes: “There are many stories here.  One of the most troubling is about what happens to elite troops after their country has kept them in combat for more than a decade.”  Jim Gant’s fall is an object lesson for America and a warning to our nation’s leaders.  It will also be a blockbuster movie that probably will not be as good as the book.

What happens when we ask young, patriotic, hard-charging Americans to go overseas to fight a war “predicated on being implemented by geniuses?” In MAJ Gant’s case, he goes and tries his best to win.

What comes back?

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The Tipping Point: Veterans and Violence

The Lament for Icarus (Herbert James Draper, 1898)
The Lament for Icarus (Herbert James Draper, 1898)

It’s been a hectic few weeks in the media concerning veterans and violence. After the Fort Hood shooting, there was the initial wave of reporting that made casual linkages of PTSD in veterans with increased rates of violence. The much maligned Huffington Post article (now removed) was aggressively jeered and rebutted by the Minutemen – the veterans and veteran advocates who rapidly respond to these type of pieces, whether in the form of highly explosive torpedo tweets or full on essays at major news outlets.

There was some other nonsense too, like the BuzzFeed article that treated Fort Hood and the soldiers stationed there like zoo animals.

And then this week, an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times with the headline “Veterans and White Supremacy.” The Minutemen rallied and defended.

A lot of the articles being written are really good – on both sides. There is a canvas being slowly unfurled. Unfortunately, it seems that whenever anyone writes anything on this subject, there is an immediate reaction from “the other side” that tries to sink the other ship.

This morning, I read a good piece at Slate: “War is Hell, And Hell Rubs Off” which pretty much says what I know a lot of people have been thinking: “Maybe – just maybe – there is something going on here.”

The idea that PTSD is unrelated to violence back home is one of the central pillars of today’s rigid “support the troops” campaign. After every mass shooting event involving a veteran, Veterans Affairs psychiatrists and veterans advocates deliver the same stern warning: Mentioning PTSD in conjunction with these shootings is not only inaccurate, it hurts veterans.
-David J. Morris

The article is written by David J. Morris, a former Marine officer, which gives him the space to say what he says without immediately being branded as a traitor or a dove. In it, he basically argues that there is scientific data that connects combat stress with increased levels of violence – not new information, mind you. He also, and more importantly, tells a deeper story – and this is the story that I think combat veterans know, but don’t want to talk about – that there is something here we are not acknowledging, whether it is the “thing” that draws people to the military in the first place, the brutal process of militarization, or the “thing” that happens to you when you go to war, that “thing” that stays with you.

There has been so much point and counter-point going on in the media concerning veterans and violence that I think the shouting match has become the story. It seems, though, that we are now at the tipping point. Voices are growing bolder in recent days, spurred on by the deluge of articles where violence and extremism find themselves on the same page – in the same story – as veterans and service members. We might be reaching the point where instead of instinctively pushing back or deflecting, we start talking seriously.

What does this mean? The beginning of a more thoughtful, honest conversation about war, I hope.

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Military Meditation

Around the time I started to transition out of the Army, I started to get very interested in “productivity.” I followed blogs like lifehack and 43 Folders. I kept reading articles about and by people like David Allen and Merlin Mann. I developed my own system for “getting things done” and have revised and revised over the years to get to where I am now (it’s still a monster,  but it’s my monster). Somewhere along the way I came across Gretchen Rubin. I found her through her blog, The Happiness Project, which later became a best-selling book. In it, she describes her journey on finding happiness through self-experimentation. It’s a fantastic book which I eagerly read when it came out and have given as a gift a bunch of times.

Fortunately, Gretchen maintains her blog and posts pretty regularly. She frequently posts interviews with people in the field of whatever it is she is researching at the time. Right now, she’s writing a book on ‘habits.’ Back in February, she posted an interview with ABC news correspondent Dan Harris. Now, if you are a very close reader of this blog or you know me personally, then you are already aware of my fascination with early morning news television. Wherever I am, I’ll always watch the local news, mostly because it is often extremely awkward, and then if I’m around, I’ll stick around for the highly-polished national news. It’s hardly news anymore – it’s more like BuzzFeed – just a mashup of some news items with some celebrity stuff and viral videos. It’s supposed to wake you up, I guess.

Anyway, my preference is Good Morning America, and I usually only get to see it on weekends, when Dan Harris is on. I have always liked Dan Harris. He’s done some good war reporting. He’s also pretty dry and can be sarcastic. So when Dan Harris popped on Gretchen Rubin’s blog, it was, for me, one of those weird intersections in life of people I admire. In the interview, I learned that Dan Harris meditates and just wrote a book aggressively titled “10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works.” As someone who has flirted with meditation before (more on that below), I pre-ordered the book and shortly thereafter, shipped off to the National Training Center. After returning home, I finished up one book and then jumped into Dan’s book.

I’m not reviewing the book here. I’ll just say that it was really good. Funny, well-written, and practically helpful. If you’re interested in meditation, mindfulness, or the drama that goes on behind the scenes at ABC news, you will enjoy the book. In it, he refers to the Marine Corps’ experiments with teaching meditation to marines as a way to make – better marines. For its part, the Army has embraced “resiliency” as not just a thing you should be, but an entire methodology for teaching and living (meditation in the classic, Buddhist tradition is not currently part of the instruction, though).

When I was going to college in New York, I learned about a guy named David Wagner who was offering free meditation sessions to veterans. At the time, I was organizing the City College Veterans Association and wanted to see what it was all about. Like Dan says in the book, meditation’s biggest problem is bad public relations. The stereotypical meditator is the touchy-feely hippy who is lost in his own world. There is probably no subculture of people that might be more skeptical of meditation than the military – with your “dip and velcro and all your gear.”

I met David in his Manhattan office. He was about my height, with a full beard and dark, wavy hair. He smiled widely as he greeted me, but wasn’t overly friendly. As we walked into his office, I looked around the room and saw a sticker that read “Fuck the Naysayers.” We sat down, and he excitedly shared with me a theory he had about war veterans, based on things he has read and his own study of meditation. I’m paraphrasing here – it’s been over five years since this conversation – but he explained that there is a deep inner understanding that meditation practitioners work to achieve through years of patient work. He spoke about Greek mythology and the notion of the warrior achieving enlightenment through combat. We discussed the overwhelming feelings that overtake a person the first time bullets fly overhead. His theory, is that at that moment, a person is fully present – which is one of the goals of meditation, after all. The fear and excitement of combat supercharges a person into the here and now by necessity. That soldier has touched that deep inside ‘thing’ for a moment, and then the adrenaline goes away and Dan’s ‘voice in the head’ comes back and takes over.

You know that half second of chest-constricting terror that happens when you see the demon’s faces for the first time in The Devil’s Advocate? That’s apparently how war feels, constantly. –@babyballs69

David believes that through meditation, veterans can recapture that feeling of being completely present – the exhilaration of combat (without the fear) through meditation, and ultimately, be a better person. I liked what he was saying, and it made sense. What I especially liked is that David wasn’t approaching help for veterans as a charity case to address PTSD – which I’ve seen over and over again when it comes to doing anything for veterans.

While meditation might help veterans with PTSD (I haven’t seen the research), David was more interested in using meditation as a way to build the next-greatest generation.

To put it plainly, his thought was that through the crucible of combat, veterans achieved something that most people will never achieve – a kind of self-enlightenment that was actualized, and then locked away, deep inside the body. Through meditation, that “thing” could be unlocked. The classes were free, so what did I have to lose?

I met with David over the course of a couple of months and began meditating. It was a frustrating process, because it takes real discipline and buy-in. Over those months, I sometimes meditated regularly and sometimes stopped for long periods of time. David was always nice about it when I said I hadn’t meditated in awhile, pointing out that if I looked at a chart of my life, I was still meditating a lot more than I had over the past twenty seven years. During that time when I was meditating regularly, I felt good, and strangely, it manifested itself in the gym – I was working out harder than ever.

In my last year at City College, I tried connecting more veterans with David and meditation. I pushed, but it was too hard a sell at the time and required a lot more energy from me than I could give to make it happen. It’s unfortunate, because I think David is really on to something. As Dan’s book points out, the research is there. Meditation is not just some lovey-dovey cosmic thing – it’s proven by science to improve a number of things. In Dan’s case, he claims to be at least 10% happier. Not a bad return on the investment. So, I leave this all here for you to pick through and think about. I know I’m convinced.

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Two o’clock in the morning courage

Napoleon at the Sphinx

A couple of months ago, in a professional development session, the subject of ‘2:00 AM courage’ was brought up. We were reading about Napoleon, who had this thought about courage:

When he mentioned courage, Napoleon had also in mind moral courage – what he liked to call “two o’clock in the morning courage.” When bad news comes to a person at that hour, it is dark, he is alone, and his spirits are at low ebb; it requires a special brand of courage at such a time to make the necessary decision. Such courage is spontaneous rather than conscious, but it enables a general to exercise his judgement and make decisions despite the unexpected or the unfortunate surprises.

I don’t think this type of courage is relegated just to the late night or early morning, but also to generally trying circumstances. Said plainly, it is easy (or easier) to make difficult decisions when seated comfortably in the office chair or even in the middle of the day at the Company CP. It is an altogether different task to make a difficult decision when time is short, morale is low, and there is an overwhelming desire to slow down or get some rest.

It is in these situations that I’ve always found value in asking myself “what is the right answer?” Usually, we know what the “right answer” is, and by simply asking the question, the right thing to do reveals itself. By ignoring that question, it is easy to slide by, and ultimately, do the wrong thing.

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On bringing your girlfriend to war

Mary Anne Bell

I’ve been catching up the goings-on since I’ve been gone, and I came across a couple of stories on MAJ Jim Gant, the author of ‘One Tribe at a Time’ (who I mentioned in Monday’s post). At the Huffington Post, an article by David Wood that chronicles the rise and fall of MAJ Gant. And over at War is Boring, David Axe hones in on the fact that MAJ Gant “brought his girlfriend to war.”

It’s one of those wacky stories that you can’t possibly believe is true, yet somehow, is.

It reminds me of the story of Mary Anne Bell, the peppy girlfriend who visits her boyfriend in Vietnam in The Things They Carried. Once there, she gets swept up with a team of Green Berets (hmm) who are co-located on the same camp. She starts going out on missions with the team and quickly becomes enamored with the war. Over time, she completely disappears.

For anyone who has served in a war zone, the idea of having a loved one come to visit is absurd. Yet, it’s only a plane ticket away.

Is bringing your girlfriend to war that strange, after all?

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The End of War Reading List: One Hundred Victories-Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare

quote-for-to-win-one-hundred-victories-in-one-hundred-battles-is-not-the-acme-of-skill-to-subdue-the-sun-tzu-188541.jpg (850×400)

This is another book that wasn’t on the original list, but it’s relevant and was recommended to me by someone on the ground. One Hundred Victories (by Linda Robinson) is about ‘Village Stability Operations‘ (VSO), which is one of the principle missions of special operation forces in Afghanistan. The author tells the story of of the VSO mission in Afghanistan and in attempt to make the book more palatable to generalists, she wraps it all up in the final chapter on what the future of war might look like.

One Hundred Victories will appeal to anyone interested in what special operation forces are currently doing in Afghanistan, classic Special Forces missions, and to those who may interact with the VSO mission at some point in the future (SFAAT staff, infantry uplift personnel, CA/MISO, etc.). Outside of talking to those who have done a VSO mission, there really isn’t much else to read on the subject other than some articles on Small Wars Journal or whatever is out there in open source (not much). Right now, this is the definitive book on the VSO mission.

In terms of narrative, the author bounces around from team level stuff outside the wire to big boss decisions being made at headquarters. With the exception of some of the notable Generals, there are no ‘characters’ that are followed from start to finish. The bulk of the research comes from team embeds and interviews that the author conducted over the course of a few years. There are some familiar names that pop up through the book who are associated with the VSO missions. Notably, MAJ Jim Gant, the author of ‘One Tribe at a Time‘ and profiled in the just released book ‘American Spartan’, and SSG Robert Bales, the American soldier who murdered 16 Afghans in 2012. SSG Bales was assigned to a VSO team as part of the the aforementioned ‘infantry uplift,’ the pairing of conventional infantrymen to a VSO team to augment security.

I only highlighted three things as I read through the book. The first, mentions a friendly-fire incident:

“A US soldier from a conventional unit was killed at Sar Howza one night in a friendly-fire incident. He approached on of the local police checkpoints and was mistakenly shot by an ALP policeman.”

The Afghan Local Police (ALP) is the program that the VSO mission is all about. It is a ‘bottom up’ recruitment, training, and fielding program that develops a local security platform. It is separate from the Afghan National Army (ANA) or other security programs.

The second thing I highlighted was in reference to MAJ Gant:

“Finally, a young conventional infantry lieutenant attached to Gant’s ad hoc team decided to blow the whistle after being asked to falsify a situation report. “This is just not right,” he told Gant’s superiors, adding that things were out of control in the camp. The command ordered a “health and welfare” inspection of Gant’s camp in early March 2012. It appeared that Gant had been living out some kind of a sex-, drug-, and alcohol-fueled fantasy, becoming, as one officer put it, “a legend in his own mind.” Alcohol and steroids were found in his hooch, along with large quantities of Schedule II, III, and IV controlled substances and other drugs. Classified material were also found unsecured in his quarters, a violation compounded by the fact that Gant had been keeping a reporter-turned-lover at the camp, moving her around to prevent his superiors from learning of her presence.”

Lastly, on human terrain:

One special operations officer confided his dismay at seeing a terrain model in a senior general’s office in Afghanistan that was festooned with labels such as “block,” “attrit,” and “isolate” — a pretty clear indication that the general viewed the contest as a fight over physical terrain that could be addressed with a conventional scheme of maneuver.”

For a review of the book in the New York Times, click here.

The End of War Reading List

Into the Land of Bones (gift from a friend) – done (Dec. 31, 2013)
One Hundred Victories (recommended by a guy on the ground) – done (March 2014)
The Defense of Jisr Al-Doreea (recommended by a couple of friends)
The Massacre at El Mozote (recommended by Matthew Bradley)
Every War Must End (recommended by Jason Lemieux)
Black Hearts (recommended by “Jim”)
Can Intervention Work (recommended by “Lincoln”)
A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq (recommended by Robert)
Blink: the Power of Thinking without Thinking (recommended by Laura and a friend)
Friend by Day, Enemy by Night: Organized Vengeance in a Kohistani Community (recommended by Laura)
War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (recommended by Joao Hwang)
Romance of the Three Kingdoms (recommended by Joao Hwang)
The Forever War (recommended by Shelly)
How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle (recommended by Tim Mathews)

“On Deck”

The Operators (recommended by Nathalie)
The Liberation Trilogy (recommended by Allen)
The Village (recommended by Robert)
Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop (recommended by “Kyle”)
The Junior Officer’s Reading Club (recommended by “Kyle”)
The Enlightened Soldier – Scharnhorst and the Militarische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805 (recommended by Laura)
Storm Troop Tactics: Innovation in the German Arm (recommended by Laura)
Utility of Force; Art of War in the Modern World (recommended by Laura)
The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century (recommended by Laura)
Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power (recommended by Laura)
Brave New World (recommended by a fellow infantry officer)
Sympathy for the Devil (recommended by Wesley Morgan)

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Fieldcraft: Platoon Leader Planning Board

COA Sketch

You may recall a couple of years ago (sheesh!) I was posting ‘fieldcraft‘ articles pretty frequently. Well, the intervening year had me busy doing the King’s work, but now I’m back in the field and thus, a new fieldcraft post.

It was highly recommended to me by my commander that I develop a “planning board.” You may recall my post on building a plexiglass map board. It’s kind of like that, but a little more involved.

The purpose of the board is to provide the leader with a tool in the field for planning a mission. It is highly customizable, and I based mine off of my commander’s, though I added things that I thought I would find useful.

My board is made out of four pieces of 8 1/2″ x 10″ plexiglass (from Lowe’s Hardware), copious amounts of 100 MPH tape, some transparency sheets, dry erase markers, binder clips, plain pieces of white paper, excerpts from the Infantry Leader Card GTA, and an execution matrix that I created.

This isn’t hard or expensive to build. It just takes a little time.

After building the thing, I wasn’t really sure how useful it would be. I brought it with me to NTC, and I can confidently report that it was a great tool. Most useful was the blank space in which I could draw out simple COA sketches and the execution matrix which pretty much ran my scheme of maneuver. Often I had simple graphics that I could use for a given mission which helped me on the ground (yes, I brought this thing with me on missions).

This is definitely something I’ll take with me on deployment. I’d like to refine it, though. I actually didn’t use a lot of the weapons data – so I might modify what I put on that front piece – maybe planning info? I’d also like to find a way to stow this thing on my gear without needing an assault pack. I’m not sure what that would be – maybe a D-ring attached to it? I don’t know.

Anyway. It’s a good tool and I’m happy to share it with you.

Instructions:

1. Tape the edges of the plexiglass first.
2. Use a piece of 100 MPH tape to connect the pieces of plexiglass together, ensuring you leave enough space so that it will close on itself.
3. With the fourth piece of plexiglass, tape it to the top (or bottom) of the middle piece so that you have the ability to insert a map or graphics. You can also place extra pieces of transparency paper inside of this space to keep until you need to use it. Use a binder clip to keep it closed.
4. Place a piece of white paper on one of the boards and tape it down, and then place a piece of transparency paper over it and tape that down – this provides you a space to write/draw on.
5. Use one side to tape down relevant data – I chose weapon system information, engagement area development, and call for fire information.
6. On the backside, tape in a pouch to store markers, protractors, and whatever else you want to store.

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