EIB Week: “Expert” vs. “Combat” Infantryman Badge

CIB

First, let’s just get the basics out of the way. The Expert Infantryman’s Badge, known in everyday parlance as the E-I-B, is a badge awarded to infantrymen and special forces soldiers after undergoing a series of infantry tasks over the course of a few days, usually a work-week. Although the testing standards change every decade or so, there are are common elements to all of them. The EIB test will assess: physical fitness, marksmanship, weapons proficiency, common soldier skills (camouflage, medical, communications, etc.), land navigation, and foot marching. The badge was introduced during World War II by General George Marshall as a way of honoring infantrymen, who were known to have a particularly harsh and often thankless job. Wearing a badge that sets you apart from other soldiers was an easy way of raising morale, while also giving soldiers another reason to train hard.

Also, EIB holders earned an extra $5 a month.

For more on the history of the EIB, see this article from the Infantry School.

I first learned about the EIB early in infantry training at Fort Benning in 2001. It was probably at 30th AG, lounging around in the barracks waiting three weeks for my class date to begin. There were plenty of know-it-alls who knew everything there was to be known about the Army. They usually carried around this giant book called “Hooah” that was full of pictures and short missives on everything exciting in the Army. There were pages and pages of special skill badges and tabs. I’m sure that’s where I first saw the EIB.

I didn’t really understand what it was though until later in training. Most of my Drill Sergeants had Combat Infantryman Badges – which is like the EIB, but with a wreath. The CIB is awarded for being an infantryman who engaged in active ground combat – essentially going to war and doing the job of an infantryman. Most of my Drill Sergeants were Gulf War veterans. A few of the Drill Sergeants in the company, however, did not have CIBs, they had EIBs – just the naked rifle.

Towards the end of training, I remember being on a formation run. My Drill Sergeant – who incidentally would wind up deploying to Iraq with me a year and a half later – was calling cadence. He had both an EIB and CIB.  He was free-styling, just singing whatever came to his mind. Some soldiers have that talent. He started singing:

(Italics is my Drill Sergeant, bold is the soldiers’ reply)

C-I-B / C-I-B
On my chest / On my chest
Hell noHell no
HELL NO!
HELL NO!
Don’t want it
Don’t want it
Don’t need it
Don’t need it
You can have it
You can have it
E-I-B
E-I-B
E-I-B!
E-I-B!
Hell yeah / 
Hell yeah
Hell yeah! / 
Hell yeah!
We can take it / 
We can take it
We can make it / We can make it

I’m pretty sure I understood immediately what he was saying. The CIB is something you really don’t want to get. To earn it, you’re really putting yourself out there. It is one of the proudest things you can earn in the Army, and most infantrymen I know will tell you that the CIB is the award they are most proud of.

But it comes at an incredible cost.

Which takes me to the point I wanted to make here, which is the EIB is always compared to the CIB. A soldier is not allowed to wear both and has to choose which to wear. Infantrymen tend wear a CIB if they have it, as it is generally held in higher regard than the EIB. This is due partly to scarcity. Before Iraq and Afghanistan, and with few exceptions, there was only the Gulf War, Panama and Grenada. Those were places that infantrymen could earn their CIB, but those were short wars. Not that many CIBs (relative to now) were pinned. Then there is Vietnam, which is going back pretty far.

When I got to my unit in 2001, only senior NCOs and officers had CIBs from “back in the day.” Most of the rubber-meets-the-road infantrymen sported EIBs.

Now, with over ten years of war behind us and thousands of CIBs pinned on the chests of young infantrymen, they are not so scarce. In a very Seussian-way, it is not that uncommon to see someone who has both a CIB and an EIB choosing to wear his EIB to distinguish himself from his peers.

It is true, that for the most part, the CIB is an award for being in the right MOS at the right place at the right time. The EIB, on the other hand, requires a measure of skill and performance.

Which gets me to the next thing which I’ll discuss tomorrow: is the EIB the “mark” of an infantryman?

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Heavy vs. Light Infantry (and what the hell is a ‘Dragoon’ anyway?)

Standing at the position of ‘parade rest’ at the 30th Adjutant General Reception Battalion at Fort Benning, Georgia, my eyes flitted left and right to steal glances of the plaques bolted to the walls. They were there for me to read, weren’t they? Each plaque had a unit name and patch on it and a short snippet about them.

82nd Airborne Division (Light)

25th Infantry Division (Light)

3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized)

It was supposed to be motivating, I thought. Here are all the different places I could go after I finish my infantry training. I was 19, and didn’t know shit about shit.

It was clear from the very beginning that the “light” units were the cool units to go to. Light, I assumed, was a reference to the combat load that individual soldiers carried. A paratrooper in the 82nd could fight better because he carried less gear. He could march further and faster and fight better. That made sense.

I didn’t see any units designated “medium” or “heavy,” though I assumed that the units designated “mechanized” must fill that role. The school that produces our MOS, though, does not differentiate between infantrymen – you are either an 11B or an 11C, infantryman or indirect fire infantryman (mortars), respectively. No one is pre-designated as a “light” or “heavy” infantryman.

About half a year later, there I was, the newest Private in an Airborne Reconnaissance platoon – the Scouts. “This will be great,” I thought, “I will be the lightest of the light because I have to move further and faster than anyone in the battalion.”

I wasn’t a big fan of rucking. When I joined the Army I weighed 140 pounds. Foot marching was the event that instilled the most fear into me as a new soldier.

When I got to Scouts, they needed a new RTO, and since I had a new pack of map markers sitting on a table in my barracks room, my squad leader decided that was reason enough to make me the new RTO. Humping the radio adds a significant amount of weight to your load.

Fast forward to our first field exercise shortly thereafter. Being “light” infantry didn’t feel so light anymore. At infantry school we were issued medium sized rucksacks. Here at Fort Bragg we got large. The more space they give you, the more stuff you pack into that space.

My rucksack hung on my back, fat and bursting at the seams with gear. None of this made any sense, I thought. How am I supposed to move swiftly with all this gear loading me down?

Over time, the whole idea of being “light” infantry became a joke. We’d get the packing list for a foot march or an FTX and someone would inevitably make a crack about the whole thing. “Light infantry my ass.”

So how is being an infantryman in a “light” infantry unit any different from infantry in a “non-light” unit? Or stated another way, can you really have light infantry without having medium or heavy infantry?

That was all a really convoluted story to get to my point, that the whole idea of “light” infantry as something different from all the other infantry we have is a concept that is old and remains today out of legacy. The reality is, most infantry units train pretty similarly. Obviously each unit has its quirks – airborne, mechanized, Stryker, etc. But the infantrymen in those units all came from the same place and do the same training – OSUT at Fort Benning – and for the most part, rotate around the military throughout their careers.

A long time ago, those designations really did mean something. “Light” infantry was just that – lightly armed infantry that moved ahead of the “heavy” infantry wearing more armor and carrying heavier weapons. Add horses to the mix and you get “light cavalry” also known as “dragoons.” Then you also have “heavy cavalry” which is just heavily armed cavalrymen.

Using the “light/heavy” designations doesn’t really work that well in the modern Army. The case could be made that Stryker and Mechanized units are “heavy.” The Stryker is an infantry “carrier” meaning its role is to transport infantrymen to the battle, but not necessarily to “fight,” making it more akin to “light cavalry.” Maybe the Bradley is a legitimate “heavy” infantry platform.

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Bye Bye Benning

fort-benning-35464802_std

It’s wild to think I’ve been at Fort Benning for over a year, just to get back into the Army. But that’s the case.

Memories:

30th AG Reception Battalion: Looking like a football hooligan because all I had to wear for four days was a pair of black swishy pants and a black windbreaker, both with white piping. A Drill Sergeant with tattoos that ran up his neck called me some pretty nasty names for it.

OCS: Ascots. The OCS alma mater. Singing. Lots of classes. An ever-present fear that you’d get in trouble for something and dropped from the course and kicked out of the Army, no commission for you, and a one-way ticket to needs of the Army. Getting sucked into the stupid hierarchy of “you’re better than me because you have a blue ascot and she’s better than you because she has a white ascot.” Branching day. Coffee privileges.

IBOLC: Heavy rucks. Experience tailored by the cadre, not the course. A terrible feeling that you were being graded on something you haven’t been taught. An aviator who taught his class wearing flight gear, helmet and all.

Basic Combatives Course: Sore elbows and knees and waiting to get punched in the face. Getting tazed.

Stryker Leader Course: Morose. PMCS. Lay out all of the B.I.I.

Ranger School: A tragedy in three acts, but you’re the character that gets killed in the first.

Time spent at HHC: Trying to steal diamonds from an angry, sleeping dragon.

I really enjoyed my time at Fort Benning. I met great people and have a ton of new friends. The post is beautiful and Columbus isn’t that bad either. Atlanta and Savannah aren’t that far away and they provide nice outings if you just have to get away.

The entire experience has been a positive one, warts and all. I’m looking forward to the next step, to see how things have changed (or haven’t) in the ‘real’ Army.

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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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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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Keeping the fire burning

“Are we done yet?”

I’m a little over half-way done with IBOLC. After that will come a short “break” and then more specialized training and before heading to my first duty assignment. So, at this point I’ve been at Fort Benning for about six months, and I’m staring down another five or six before I actually get to the operating force. Talking with a lot of my peers from OCS, many of us are experiencing a degree of burnout.

For them it’s probably worse – they started with nine weeks of basic training before getting to OCS. For our peers from ROTC and USMA, this is there first run in the “real” Army, so they’re riding strong. A lot of the classes we get at IBOLC are the same classes (with exactly the same PowerPoint slides) that we got at OCS. Training environments can be mind-numbing, all the more so when the courses are exactly the same.

Unlike OCS, though, we’re not really competing for anything. At OCS, scoring well and doing your best directly affected where a candidate ranked in the course and their ability to choose their preferred branch. Everyone wants to do well in an Army course, but the rewards for being in the top x % at IBOLC are bragging rights only. I think the Honor Graduate gets a special school slot. The guys who ranks number two? Well, he was number two.

Being stuck in the training vortex can get people down. I remember feeling that same way when I went to Infantry OSUT and Airborne School. It felt like I was going to be in training forever. Like all things, it eventually ended and I moved on to the real Army, and from that vantage point, Fort Benning seemed insignificant and distant. I try to remind my peers that in the scheme of an Army career, this is a blip. In a year’s time we’ll look back and scoff at it all. Things that seem challenging or annoying now will be a joke compared the real problems that we’ll face on the line. That, and the fact that as junior LTs in a training environment we’re essentially responsible for ourselves only (no easy task, mind you). Once we get to a unit, we’re responsible for our entire platoon. This, then, should be easy. “Take care of your three-feet of space” like my old BN CDR used to say, “and the rest will work itself out.”

So how do you keep the fire burning? I remember being in graduate school last year, fantasizing about what it would be like to be back in the Army – to wake up and go to formation, do PT, and be around a bunch of people who all at some point in their lives decided they wanted to do something bigger than themselves, and in seeking that were willing to put it all on the line to do it. I remember thinking about how great it would feel to be able to experience that again – so many of my peers who have gotten out and veterans who I’ve met on the outside can never come back in. I try to remind myself of how much I wanted this when I’m faced with some of the inconvenient realities of these actual situations (standing in PT formation 45 minutes before PT starts in a summer uniform during the freezing winter,  or no coffee for the first six weeks of OCS, for example).

Essentially, to keep the fire burning you have to have a deeper reason to be doing this in the first place. Because it’s “cool” won’t last a week. “Dig deep” is what they say when a guy is sucking on a foot march or a run. If you do this right, there should be a whole lot of mental tumbling going on when a person decides this is what they want to do as a profession. This is a serious business, and it deserves serious thought. Being burned out will happen from time to time. The physical exhaustion of military service, the stress of leadership and the mission, and balancing these with social and family obligations will eventually pile up to a point that overwhelms a person. If we’ve done the mental gymnastics that answer the question “why” beforehand though, then “digging deep” will never be necessary – the answer will always be right there.

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Not shooting can be more exhilarating than shooting

Sighing, I picked my head off the ground and looked around and then over to my team leader on the right, who was watching the objective. I was a little further back, behind a tree and lying on my stomach. I couldn’t see it. He looked at his watch and then to me and whispered “They don’t have any weapons.”

I looked back at him blankly.

He said, “What should I do?”

“What did the squad leader tell you to do?” I asked.

“He said to open up at this twelve o’clock and it’s twelve o’clock. But they don’t have any weapons.”

I took a deep breath trying to think of the right answer. They’re not showing weapons, yes, but is that because they don’t have them or because we don’t see them? With no weapons, the right answer is not to shoot, but we really didn’t brief a mission that had a contingency built in for an objective without enemy personnel or people without weapons. We’re in a training environment and on a training lane. The mission is a squad attack. Our team’s mission is to support the assault by fire. To do anything else might result in failing the lane, but the right thing to do might be to not shoot.

I certainly didn’t want to give the wrong advice, so I passed the buck. “Well, it’s your lane and you’re the one getting graded. Go with what you think is right.”

He nodded and jumped onto his feet shouting “Freeze! Don’t move!” Instinctively, but cautiously, I followed. It felt completely wrong.

No gunfire, no shifting fire, no assault.

We moved forward at a quickstep, weapons up and scanning. I felt like we were doing the right thing, but worried whether we were thinking this one through too much rather than just going with what was normally expected – shoot, fight, win.

Watching the objective, a figure dashed from a tent and over a log, curling up against the log in hiding. Another figure took off running away from the objective into the woods. As I reached the log I yelled over to the team leader that we had one person on the objective who didn’t speak English. She lay on the ground speaking gibberish.

The lack of gunfire coupled with the strange shouts eventually compelled the assaulting element to come out of their positions in the nearby woods and stumble into the objective, wondering what the hell had just happened. An eerie feeling descended on us as we whispered to each other, trying to figure out what was going on. We were all thinking the same thing – we probably just messed this up big time and someone was getting a no-go.

Still, when you’re in this deep you go with what you’ve got. We criss-crossed the objective looking to see if there was anything worth noting or anyone left hiding. I searched the one civilian(?) gingerly and fake zip-tied her hands. We then picked up and moved out with our one captive until the cadre called ENDEX.

I felt exhilarated. More so than any of the lanes where we conducted a flawless, textbook, squad attack with lots of gunfire and loud bangs. I was beaming. I was completely impressed and inspired by the decisive and bold leadership displayed by the officer candidate who decided that it was more important to do the right thing as he saw it and risk failing the lane than to take the easy option and follow through on the briefed plan.

Fortunately, our cadre had actually instructed the OPFOR to not show any weapons to see how we would react. The plan was to attack and destroy the personnel on the objective. But a junior leader made a tactical decision that, had he not, could have had strategic implications (if this was a real scenario).

Not shooting was the right thing to do in this case. The leaders passed the lane and we all left feeling good about the decisions made.

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