Category Archives: soldiering

20 Round Magazine



At some point during my first enlistment, I acquired a 20 round magazine. The standard Army rifle magazine is 30 rounds, and the 20 round magazine was no longer issued, as far as I knew.

It was shaped differently. Instead of the banana curve in the 30 rounder, the 20 round magazine was angled and sharp. It was also just a little lighter, and when inserted into the M4, the rifle didn’t seem to tilt or wobble while leaning against something as much as when it did with a 30 round magazine.

Of course, it held 10 fewer rounds.

While the 20 round magazine was an interesting oddity to others, it became an object of disdain to senior Non-Commissioned officers who viewed it as a totem from another dimension. They didn’t like seeing it and they definitely didn’t want me to use it.

At first, I thought they were just jealous, which I admit today, seems very Gollum-esque.

Eventually, I learned their disdain came from the fact that the magazine just didn’t belong in the standard infantryman’s load anymore. It’s time had passed. These magazine were old and would likely fail at some point.

And most importantly, by using one as a leader, it sends the wrong signal that it’s okay to use whatever you want when it comes to equipment.

I put it away.

They still look cool though.



“Taking Care of Your Three Feet of Space”

Note: This post was written a few months ago.

I’m getting ready to move to a new duty station, which has me making the rounds to different areas of post collecting stamps from various offices to outprocess; finance, medical, transportation, etc. As is the case, I’ve been crossing paths with lots of soldiers with whom I’m unfamiliar and exchanging salutes. Back in my unit, most soldiers are familiar enough with each other to spot one another from far away and can ready themselves to exchange salutes before they get within a few paces. Out in the wild, you often can’t tell what the other’s rank is until you’re just about right on top of them.

In these past few weeks, I’ve found myself getting annoyed at missed salutes. Not annoyed because I wasn’t being saltuted – the salute is a formal exchange of respect between soldiers, not to one. Rather, I viewed the missed salutes as a lack of situational awareness at best or poor disicipline at worst.

Each time it happened, I could have stopped the soldier from where he or she was going and made the correction. It’s a hard correction to make, by the way, because – like writing this post – it can so easily come off as pompous.

Hey, why didn’t you salute me?” 

Of course, the spot correction can be better handled by using the “exchange of salutes” technique, which I learned when I was a non-commissioned officer. If I were walking with my platoon leader or company commander and we passed a soldier who did not initiate a salute, I would correct the soldier, saying something like “It’s an exchange of salutes between the two of you, and as the junior soldier you are supposed to initiate it.”

As I collected more stamps across post, saluting became a mild obsession. Not only was I now hyper-aware of crossing other soldiers and the exchange of salutes, I also began honing in on the manner of the salute. Was it sharp or sloppy? Did they wait for me to return the salute before dropping theirs? I recognized that this obsession was getting a little weird, but I couldn’t help it.

As I approached another building for another stamp, I saw two soldiers approaching me at a distance. The one on the further left seemed a littler older, and the one nearer, on the right, was younger. As they got closer, I was able to make out the rank of the younger one – First Lieutenant. We approached one another and I keyed in on him, ready to return his salute. He looked back at me and directly into my eyes. He didn’t salute.

I was angry for only a millisecond when I realized I knew the Lieutenant and we were actually friends. He smiled and greeted me, and I instinctively threw my hand up in a salute because I was already primed. We exchanged hurried words in passing, “Hey man, what are you up to? Oh, you know, staying busy.” 

As we continued moving past one another, in the few seconds this lasted, I remembered that my friend was the Aide-de-Camp for a General Officer. My eyes moved from him to the back of the patrol cap of the “older” soldier who had passed me a moment earlier.

I suddenly realized that I had passed a General and had not saluted him, because I was hyper-focused on seeing if the First Lieutenant was going to salute me.

My friend, the Aide-de-Camp, quickly shook my hand and then dutifully followed his boss to a waiting vehicle where I imagined the General shared words about the lack of discipline and situational awareness in this generation of junior officers, as demonstrated by my failure to salute.

My focus on others’ behavior resulted in my failing in the exact behavior I was looking out for.

As embarrassed as I was, the episode served as a good learning point. When I was enlisted, I had a Battalion Commander who ended every speech by imploring us to “take care of our three feet of space.” He said that if we took care of ourselves and the things within three feet of us, we would all be exceptional soldiers. It’s a simple concept, and had I taken care of my three feet of space in this scenario, I would have recognized the General and rendered a proper salute. Instead, because I was so focused on the potential misbehavior of others, I failed to do the right thing myself.

Since this episode, I’ve been less concerned with what others are doing and more concerned with what I am doing. I’ve been taking care of my “three feet of space.” It’s a much more reasonable way to get through a day.


I’ve met few people who don’t have some twinge of regret for getting out of the Army

Having left the Army once and then come back in years later, I’ve seen lots of soldiers make the transition out of the Army. After the initial honeymoon phase of not having to wake up early, no standing in formations, and the multitude of other absurdities that color military life, there comes a much longer period of time characterized by nostalgia. The miserable field problems in the rain and cold fall to the background. The camaraderie and sense of purpose rises to the top, and regardless of what the veteran is doing in the civilian world, nothing seems to ever match it.

I’ve seen the same in soldiers who leave the Army today. In separation counseling, I mention that with very few exceptions, I have rarely seen someone get out and not regret it on some level. A soldier determined to get out is undeterred, though. Still, I have not been surprised by the number of soldiers that have gotten in touch with me after getting out to say they definitely regret it, if even just a little.

In the military, you have time for 1, maybe 2 hobbies


If you take your job seriously in the military – which you should – then you likely only have time for one, maybe two hobbies.

It’s a dismal realization that was thrust upon me by a senior leader over a decade ago.

His chief hobby was Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He made it his hobby by ensuring he went to practice a few times a week, to include Saturday mornings. He loved doing other things, like shooting, but given everything else he had to do, he had to choose which hobby got his attention.

The work week is consumed by work, often starting well before the sun rises and ending after it sets. Time at home during the week is characterized by reconnecting with loved ones, eating, and preparing for the next day before collapsing into bed.

On the weekend there are likely family obligations, house tasks, and basic errands that need to be done. In the moments that remain, there might be time for one, maybe two hobbies.

It’s a tough thing to come to terms with, because many in the military are ultra-ambitious. There are lots of things we would like to take up as hobbies, but we just can’t. The nature of the work requires a lot of time and energy, and there is only so much time during the week.

The only thing I have found helpful is carefully selecting the hobbies I want to commit to and then making the time for them, which often comes very early in the morning on weekends.

I am interested in knowing how others manage their hobbies, especially if a bulk of their time is dedicated to work and family.

In the military, it’s hard to say “I don’t know”

Disrupting enemy activity

In the dozens of daily interactions military personnel have with one another, the phrase “I don’t know” is rarely heard.

It’s not that everyone in the military is so smart or well read, it’s mostly a fear of admitting that one doesn’t know what he or she thinks she is supposed to know.

I’ve certainly been guilty of it. Standing in a hallway with a colleague talking about an upcoming training event or plan, I’ve nodded dutifully to a barrage of acronyms or concepts that I’m hardly familiar with.

Military terminology is so laden with jargon, acronyms, clichés, and buzzwords it is a small miracle when any information gets passed along at all.

Most officers can attest to a time some piece of information came across on a radio transmission or a phone call on speaker, and instead of responding immediately looks up to those around him mouthing “What did he say?”

We don’t want to admit ignorance to a subordinate because by virtue of our positional authority we are expected to know more.

We don’t want to admit ignorance to our peers because we are supposed to of equal knowledge, experience, and ability.

We don’t want to admit ignorance to our superiors out of fear of seeming incompetent and losing trust.

The paradox of this fear is that in most instances it is refreshing to all parties to admit “I don’t know” or to ask the question “Wait, what does the mean?”

Asking a subordinate to clarify an elusive idea or concept gives him the opportunity to explain it in full to his boss. He gets the practice in unpacking the idea and the boss gains better understanding.

Stopping a peer from a barrage of acronyms to get clarification allows her to demonstrate mastery of memorizing another military acronym – a small military feat. That acronym, though, might be the one key to understanding the idea of what is being communicated. The peer will likely enjoy the small kick in dopamine for clearly knowing just a little bit more.

Seeking clarification from a superior on his insistence in hammering a cliché or buzzword allows him to explain exactly what he wants while demonstrating that you -the subordinate- are actually interested in understanding. While it might not be true in all cases, most bosses don’t want blind compliance after a brief; they want true understanding and buy-in. Initial concepts might come out dry and loaded with military-speak. Saying that you don’t understand and seeking clarification gives the speaker the opportunity to try again in regular language, outside of the scope of formal speech.

Admitting “I don’t know” has a powerful effect in an organization. Once one person starts doing it, the doors are opened towards others admitting they don’t know either. Instead of a room full of automatons complying with an order they don’t understand, it becomes acceptable to admit ignorance and subsequently gain understanding.

It’s actually a wonderfully refreshing thing to see someone you respect in your organization admit they don’t know what an acronym means or the concept behind a oft-said piece of jargon. As hard as it might be, try it out next time.


Enjoy waking up early, be in good shape: the secret to a happy military life

Soldiers sleeping on cots. Stars and Stripes, Oct. 2003

Soldiers sleeping on cots. Stars and Stripes, Oct. 2003

Two seemingly enduring aspects of military life are the tenets that starting things unnaturally early is best, and physical fitness is paramount. Failing to master these two things makes military life more miserable than it needs to be.

As a new private, first call was a dreaded affair. It was the time that my Team Leader or Squad Leader banged on my barracks room door in the morning to get me out of bed and ready for physical training. On most mornings first call was 0600. I tried my best to set my alarm to 0555 to get the jump on the NCOs and get into the shared latrine a few minutes before the rush of sleepy, grumpy soldiers. Most mornings, though, I let my NCO be my alarm clock so I could get the most sleep possible.

Within 25 minutes of waking up, I’d be standing in formation waiting to be subjected to whatever physical training my Squad Leader could dream up – in this case, usually a fast, long run up and down Fort Bragg’s firebreaks.

The combination of being forced to get up early and thrust into physical training makes mornings miserable for many soldiers.

Over the years, I’ve come to terms with the idea that the military is going to make me get up early, just about every day. Instead of resisting this and trying to eek out a little bit more sleep by waking up at the absolute last-minute, I’ve shifted my wake up time far to the left, waking up at an ungodly hour that insulates me from having to rush. This means having to go to bed early, but that is usually something I can control.

I’ve grown to not only make waking up at an early time a habit, even on the weekends, but I’ve come to enjoy the mornings more than any other time of the day because it is truly my time. What I do with it is completely up to me.

When it comes to physical training, taking responsibility for your own fitness ensures you can go to work feeling reasonably confident that you can handle whatever physical training you are forced to do.

Much of the misery that soldiers endure are connected to these two things – sleep and fitness. Waking up early and enjoying it together with staying in good physical condition can make military life a whole lot easier.

Post Platoon Leader Series: Buy the unit coffee mug

Unit Coffee Mug

This post is part of a series that attempts to add something to the “platoon leader advice” category beyond the typical “be good at everything at all times and you’ll be fine” variety. The intent is to provide more specific (and obscure) advice.

An interesting aspect about military culture is the zeal commanders have for their current unit. While it’s always a little tongue-in-cheek (because how can it be possible for each successive unit to be the BEST they’ve ever served in), when done well, it really is internalized. You can tell when a leader really loves their unit and is giving it their all. That leader wants their subordinate leaders to share that same enthusiasm.

Which is why you should buy your unit coffee mug.

One of the first things I did upon arriving to my last unit was visit our museum (which is good advice in its own right). At the gift shop, I bought a stainless steel coffee mug. pictured above and on the right, nestled gently into a space in my MRAP during a mission in Afghanistan in 2014.

From day one in the unit, I had that coffee mug, emblazoned with our unit logo. It went with me to the field, to the National Training Center, to Afghanistan, to Dallas-Fort Worth for funeral honors, and I still drink out of it every day.

On multiple occasions, officers and NCOs would ask me where I got the mug. They liked it, and were always surprised that it was sold at our very own gift shop.

Besides the fact that carrying a coffee mug is good Army practice ( if the Army is there, coffee is too), choosing to identify further with your unit beyond what is required sends a signal to your soldiers, peers, and leaders that you support the unit. Simply buying the mug doesn’t necessarily “do” anything – you can buy all the unit swag available and be a terrible leader.

But, buying the unit coffee mug is a very simple way of displaying that “you’re in.”

You have to drink your coffee somehow, you might as well do it with a purpose.