“If you think snot rockets are gross…”

army soldiers running in the snow
Fort Drum Snow Run

This is a guest post from Andrew Steadman who writes at The Military Leader.

If you think snot rockets are gross…

I had a lesson hit me the other day on a run. It was a damp, chilly morning, the kind that leaves you raspy and congested during a workout. And as I ran past the four mile mark, I decided to blow a snot rocket to free a little sinus space.

As I let it fly, I noticed a pedestrian strolling on the sidewalk to my left. He was wearing a tie and blue blazer on his walk to work. And he had an unmistakable expression of dissatisfaction, maybe even disgust, at the nostril-clearing activity I had engaged in. He thought my snot rocket was gross.

Now, he was at least 15 feet away and not in my blast area, so I know I didn’t hit him with it. Clearly, though, he did not approve of what he saw and I can only conclude it’s because he had forgotten, or has never known, what snot rockets are for.

Which brings me to my point…

If you think snot rockets are gross, you’re probably not testing yourself. If you’re in a combat arms job and can’t remember the last time you got dirty or low-crawled, you’re not being honest about the demands that combat will place on you. If you can’t remember the last time you put yourself into a risky situation or a scenario that demanded prowess and stamina, you might be living in your comfort zone. If that’s the case, you’re not growing. And more importantly, if you’re not growing, your followers aren’t growing.

If that’s you, change it now. Get out the door and do something that forces you to blow a snot rocket. Push yourself in a new way. Submit yourself to someone else’s training regimen. Whether it’s setting up a radio or conducting mission planning, perform your skill as fast as you can, then do it in the worst possible weather conditions. Then do it at night. Then do it when you’re exhausted and scared for your life.

Why? Because that very battlefield awaits. And you will step onto it…prepared or not.

——————————————————

Andrew Steadman is a US Army Infantry Officer and creator of The Military Leader, a website devoted to helping leaders of all professions grow themselves and their teams. He is also a founding member of the Military Writers Guild.

Women in the Infantry: A Reflection on The Experiences of Allied Nations

karina infantry
Karina

On Facebook, I noticed a couple of my friends attended an event where female infantrywomen from allied nations were talking about their experiences. Outside of Facebook, I saw nothing on it. I asked Jason Lemieux, a friend whose work and writing I admire if he would be interested in writing a guest post on the event for Carrying the Gun, to which he agreed.

UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that CrossFit proper has not replaced running in the Canadian Army. 

CAF’s Director of Force Health Protection has issued a Public Health Advisory against the unmodified use of CrossFit and other “Extreme Conditioning Programs” (ECPs). ECPs have been traced to several hospitalizations of CAF personnel in recent years. One case reportedly required dialysis to treat acute renal failure. 

The Directorate of Fitness, Personnel Support Programs has created a fitness program that borrows the most useful aspects of ECPs but it does not endorse CrossFit proper. From the Advisory:

ECPs, such as CrossFit®, P90x®, and Insanity®, have increased in popularity over the past few years. These programs are characterized by frequent, repetitious, high intensity exercises with very short rest periods between sets/cycles and little recovery time between workouts. Some ECPs do not encourage participants to progressively increase their workloads in an effort to allow for training adaption. CF personnel who participate may not have the requisite knowledge to properly set the required work to rest ratios to offset injury or illnesses possibly associated with ECPs. A disproportionate number of injuries such as muscle strains, sprains, stress fractures and rhabdomyolysis associated with ECPs have been cited in anecdotal reports and case studies, however, few studies have looked at the relationship between ECPs and injuries to date. (reference B)

ECPs are not endorsed by Personnel Support Programs (PSP), Directorate of Fitness (DFIT) or D FHP for reasons noted in para 4. DFIT has reviewed ECPs and has incorporated some of the recognized benefits into their physical fitness programs. To reduce the risk of injuries, DFIT has also developed a Tactical Athlete User Clinic, which educates and trains CF personnel on how to safely perform complex weight lifting techniques commonly found in ECPs (e.g., clean and squat). In addition, two courses (the Basic Fitness Training Assistant (BFTA) and the Advanced Fitness Training Assistant (AFTA)) are offered to CF personnel who are interested in leading safe and effective unit physical training.

Of course, whether the more reckless aspects of CrossFit have caused injuries among CAF personnel needs to be analyzed separately from whether excessive distance running has also caused injuries. 

*B. Bergeron MP, Bradley CN, Deuster PA, Baumgartner N, Kane SF, Kraemer WJ et al. Consortium for health and military performance and American College of Sports Medicine consensus paper on extreme conditioning programs in military personnel. Current Sports Medicine Reports. 2011. 10:383-89.

Last week, I had the good fortune to attend a symposium on the experiences of allied nations with the integration of women into combat arms units. The symposium was hosted by the Combat Integration Initiative, a joint effort of Women in International Security and SIPRI North America. Service members of both genders from the US, Canada, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden participated. In my limited allied experience, it was a good personnel practice-sharing exercise between military allies. A few participants noted that they left the symposium with a better perspective on their own service.

For me, the symposium was as novel as it was enlightening. Even as an integration advocate, it was surreal to find myself making small talk with infantrywomen and even women infantry commanders. Much of what was expressed confirmed my pre-existing beliefs, so it’s fair to take my remarks with a grain of salt.

I’ve split this post into two sections. The first section is a far-from-comprehensive reflection on the symposium. The second section is a more detailed look at physical occupational standards, especially those of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). Physical occupational standards are the latest source of contention as the US military branches prepare to implement the 24 January 2013 DoD integration policy (PDF).

Debates that are already over: Can women succeed in the combat arms?

Even without considering the experience of US service members, including FET members who participated in ground combat, it is obvious that women can succeed in combat arms. The Nordic infantry commanders seemed puzzled and maybe even a little bored with the question. “Here I am, a woman who led an infantry platoon in Afghanistan. There’s two days of this?”

I took from the symposium that the hallmarks of successful integration are maturity at all levels of the institution and a commitment to view and lead servicemembers as military professionals without consideration of gender.

A few observations in support of maturity:

  • At the individual level, the panelists used a typical military no-nonsense communication style to convey egalitarianism rather than self-importance, reason rather than bravado. They were over themselves.
  • The Swedish Marine Corps, which seems to have gone the furthest of the participating allies in creating a gender-blind force, does not distinguish between men and women in berthing assignment. Bathrooms, bedrooms, and showers are shared. People deal with it. This strikes me as the logical endpoint of integrating an expeditionary force.
  • The allied representatives had the eminently realistic view that sexual activity is both inevitable and manageable: Develop a set of ground rules and get over it.

That said, the Nordic personnel cautioned the American attendees not to overlook the cultural differences in the societies from which their militaries originated. Even with highly egalitarian values, the Nordic countries only integrated their combat arms in the last decades of the Twentieth Century. The US’ relatively elitist culture makes it all the more imperative that senior leadership accept integration as the new normal and impress upon subordinate commands that the time has come to integrate for the benefit of the military and of the country.

For the participating allies, successful integration required maturity not just at the individual or unit level but at the institutional level as well. When the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) allowed policy to follow the conclusions of valid scientific research in 1991, its physical occupational standards were overhauled. This change was presumably not without its associated cost and discomfort. In 2013, they changed the standards again, both to reflect lessons learned from Afghanistan and to incorporate new equations that reliably predicted occupational competence without respect to gender. The successful integration of women was the immediate-term goal. However, in the big picture, integration served as the impetus to create a test that truly measures occupational competence when lives are on the line. Will the US military branches follow this example?

Throughout the symposium, the duty of military professionals to evaluate fellow servicemembers solely on the basis of their occupational competence was reiterated over and over. Major John Steemann Adamsen, former infantry commander in the Danish Army, put it best: “In Iraq and Afghanistan, I never ‘led women.’ I commanded soldiers.” Women are valuable members of the combat arms team not because they bring special competencies or assets to population-centric missions (which vary by cultural context anyway) but because they perform to the same occupational standards as everyone else.

The US military personnel who spoke on the panels reported that where women were given the opportunity to perform to standard in combat roles in Iraq and Afghanistan, they were treated as valuable members of the team. Bryan Coughlin, a US Marine Corps infantry captain, realized that his poor experience with Female Engagement Teams (FETs) on his first deployment needed to be understood in context: he wasn’t really sure how to lead them, nor did he have the opportunity to properly employ them. On his second deployment, he was attached two FET personnel who became integral components of his infantry platoon. Yes, they went on every patrol in full gear and yes, they returned fire in contact. He is converted.

The connection between physical fitness tests and occupational standards

The relationship between physical fitness tests (PFTs) and occupational standards is especially relevant now because the US military branches are in the process of validating their occupational standards as gender-neutral to comply with DOD policy.

The acme of occupational relevance is to test personnel in the precise movements most often used in the course of their duties. Unfortunately, this becomes a logistical impossibility when applied to the many occupational components of a modern military organization. Instead, the participating allies have developed proxy tests that reliably approximate competence in one’s occupational tasks. I have decided to elaborate on the CAF’s occupational fitness test because it strikes me as an ideal legal and scientific model (and because I was not able to attend panels on unit cohesion, operational effectiveness, and culture; or recruitment and retention).

It took an act of human rights law to ensure equal opportunity in the Canadian Armed Forces. In 1989, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordered the CAF to open all positions to women and to ensure that any physical standard is based on a bona fide occupational requirement (BFOR). As such, the CAF PFT minimum standards are scientifically correlated to the essential tasks most likely to be performed in combat. The definitions of “essential” and “most likely” are key to understanding what makes an occupational requirement “bona fide” under human rights law:

Tasks are deemed “essential” according to the consequences that follow from failure to complete them. Essential tasks are those whose failure would result in at least one of the following:

  • Injury or death to the Canadian Armed Forces or to the general public
  • Compromise the outcome of a mission or operation
  • Cause significant damage to Crown (i.e., government) property

Unless the CAF can show that one of these three consequences is reasonably likely to occur as a result of failure to perform a task, then they cannot enforce the task as an occupational standard.

The six “most likely” occupational tasks that inform the current CAF PFT were identified from a thorough review of physically demanding tasks that CAF personnel have been historically required to perform in combat. For instance, after reviewing after action reports from Afghanistan and training exercises, Canada found that using the fireman carry to extract a wounded comrade is a nice fantasy but dragging is overwhelmingly more common (PDF).

Furthermore, in Afghanistan, vehicle extraction was required in 45% of CAF casualty evacuations. Since it is impractical to use vehicles in routine physical fitness tests, Canadian researchers developed a composite test that combined a casualty drag, grip test, and static squat test to strongly predict the ability to extract a casualty through a vehicle hatch. By limiting occupational requirements to essential and most likely tasks, the CAF kept those requirements grounded in the realm of the reasonable and empirical as matters of life and death should be.

The CAF occupational standards are also informed by the legal Duty to Accommodate, which states that Canadian employers must provide employees the leeway to complete occupational tasks with work methods to which they are individually suited. In other words, for the purpose of placing a heavy box on a high shelf, it is not the business of the CAF to dictate that a soldier favors the use of his/her arms or hips or legs. Their only business is whether the box makes it atop the shelf. (There’s a lesson here for the US Army, who recently found that despite a relative lack of upper body strength, women were able to load heavy objects by emphasizing their hips and core in the lifting movement.)

Initial research found that for some occupational tasks, the average servicewoman did not need to be able to complete as many pushups or situps as the average serviceman to complete the task. This is probably a cultural artifact: men enter the military with more experience in pushups and situps but these exercises are not especially relevant to combat. From 1991 to 2013, the CAF PFT reflected this finding, leading to perceptions of gender bias when the test was actually gender-neutral in terms of occupational outcome.

After another round of research in 2013, CAF instituted the FORCE program, which uses four exercises that simulate real-world combat movements closely enough to reliably predict performance in the six most likely occupational tasks without respect to the cultural artifacts of gender. Of the four exercises—sandbag lift, intermittent loaded shuttles, 20-meter rushes, and sandbag drag—women tend to have the most trouble with 20-meter rushes and the drag but over 90% of women are passing these events as of April 16, 2014.*

There are some interesting differences in the Nordic physical fitness standards (PDF which may be outdated in places). The Danish and Swedish PFTs are gender-blind, though perhaps not as predictive of occupational performance as CAF’s FORCE program. Both countries’ minimum PFT standards vary by occupational specialty, which in my opinion is their primary advantage over the FORCE program. According to Captain Nina Sofie Berg, a Norwegian infantry commander, Norway is looking into a similar system. Norway has separate PFT standards for men and women but its combat training standards are gender-blind. Also, in Denmark, platoons pass or fail the PFT as a unit. The intended lesson is that leadership and teamwork are necessary for success.

(More foreign nation military gender research can be found here.)

It was refreshing to see such transparent empiricism. It remains to be seen if the US military branches’ integration efforts will compare favorably. The US Marine Corps plan seems to be to correlate performance in occupational tasks to its existing physical fitness test—pullups, crunches, and a three mile run—and combat fitness test, which includes the historically irrelevant fireman carry, by Fall 2013 to “develop a physical screening test for MOS classification.” It is not clear whether the Marine Corps examined the value of these exercises as strong gender-neutral predictors of occupational performance but so far there is no indication that the Corps plans to modify or replace any of them.

On a related note, the US military community’s concern for women’s pullup strength seems out of proportion to the unique demands of combat. In the participating allied countries, upper body strength is measured with a more diverse set of exercises and in a smaller proportion to the rest of the PFT. Corporal Malin Tilfors, a female Combat Craft Driver in the Swedish Marine Corps, noted that the ability to stay awake without eating for days at a time has played a much larger role than upper body strength in her combat training. Either way, she meets the standard.

In closing, whatever was believed about women’s deficiencies in centuries past, it is now known that they can thrive as members of combat arms and infantry units. We should not be swayed by unfalsifiable assertions to the contrary. In particular, we should unequivocally reject attempts to turn this discussion of civil rights and military professionalism into an amateuristic contest of status that substitutes combat arms experience for scientific and historical literacy.

As a public institution, the US military has an obligation to honor the values of US society. We can do better than discriminating in employment opportunity on the mere basis of the circumstances of one’s birth. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s historic decision to overturn the 1994 combat exclusion policy was the right call, and the military branches should implement this policy intelligently and in good faith.

*Even before the FORCE program, the Canadian army PFT dispensed with irrelevant distance running in favor of a forced march. According to Colonel Jennie Carignan, stress injuries became less common and performance increased when some of the running in army physical training was replaced with CrossFit.

Jason Lemieux served five years in the US Marine Corps infantry and three tours in Iraq. He is currently a Policy Fellow with the Service Women’s Action Network. The views expressed here are his own.

Enjoy these posts? Sign up for the monthly newsletter.

How to Lead Infantrywomen in Combat

karina infantry
One of the author's soldiers, 'Karina,' during a deployment to Afghanistan in 2009.
One of the author’s soldiers, ‘Karina,’ during a deployment to Afghanistan in 2009.

This is a guest post from friend of the blog Soren Sjogren, a Danish Army Officer who has led a mixed-gender infantry unit in combat.

Leading women in combat

Whether women are eligible to serve in combat units in the US is no longer a discussion. The first women have already passed basic infantry training and American junior officers will soon face the challenges of leading mixed units.

As a Danish army officer I have led mixed platoon-size combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here is what I have learned about leading women in combat.

Do not focus on gender

Gender is not important. Ethnicity is not important either. What is important, however, is this simple question: Does this person deliver the results expected as a part of the team? The only standards to measure are the soldiers’ ability to do their job. Do not focus on anything else.

Measure your soldiers by the same standard

Make sure you measure your troops by the same standard. The idea that women have to prove themselves more worthy than the males by making tougher demands on them is just as wrong as the opposite – lessening standards in an attempt to stuff more women into the unit. Remember: It can never be an objective to have a specific number of women in a given unit. The objective is to train and maintain a fighting force able to carry out its tasks.

Protect your unit from attention

Along with arrival of the first women in your unit comes a lot of attention. Imagine the interest of the media in the first mixed unit deployed in combat. All sorts of commentators might have an interest in the women in your unit in order to use them to promote a specific cause. Higher command might have an interest in telling the success story of women in combat.

Say no, politely. Your job as a leader is to protect your unit and focus on the mission. The women in your unit are there for the same reasons as the men: to prove themselves and serve their country. They did not become soldiers to attract the attention of the press, commentators, or higher command because of their gender.

Never accept sexism

Words have the power to move and to transform us. Never use nor allow language that implies negativity related to gender. An innocent joke about women’s lack of ability to do something or implying that it is OK to use gender as an explanation is the first step down the wrong path.

Do not go there yourself, and strike down hard on any approach to sexism.

Allow women to be women

There is no such thing as a stereotypical infantry soldier. Dark, light, big or small – the only thing that matters is that you are able to do the job. You do not need to transform women and make them more ‘manly’ in order to serve.

Allow them to be women as long as they do their job. Just as you allow the rest of your soldiers to be the individuals they are.

A final word

In the Danish army women are still a minority, even more so in combat units. Few women make it into the infantry. The average woman certainly will not.

But neither would the average man. The point is that we are looking for people who can get the job done. Gender regardless.

Focus on the task. Focus on the standards of the field manuals. Focus on your unit’s ability to capture the objective or to hold the ground. That is all there is.

Enjoy these posts? Sign up for the monthly newsletter.

The Looming Spectre: Addressing the long war with PTSD

a man blurred in vietnam
Charlie Haughey photography.
Charlie Haughey photography.

This is a guest post from a friend I served with. 

I’m writing this and sending it to a man that I respect. I’ve known Don a while now, but there is distance between us.  We haven’t been face to face in over ten years. That’s why I feel safe sending this to him. While I have a loving wife and family, great friends, and mentors that would understand, I am too embarrassed to discuss this with them. Call me a coward, but some would say I’m a brave man based on things in my past.

I have PTSD and I thought that it would go away if I ignored it. To be honest, I thought it did for a while.

I’ve done two deployments; one really good one, and one really bad one. The first one set me up to think I knew how the second would play out, and I was wrong. My unit struggled from the beginning and sustained regular casualties. I was the Company 1SG and felt enormous pressure to stop the bad things from happening. I didn’t want my boys hiding in the COP, but I didn’t want them to keep getting killed either. Two incidents stand out in my mind regularly.

My company was sitting in a patrol base and the tell-tale stream of smoke indicating an IED, sprang up from the orchard. I knew that we had no forces there, and that it had to be a local national that set it off. I gathered a squad-plus and moved out there to engage the populace and see if we could help. As we rounded the corner, four or five women were on the ground in their burkhas, wailing in the manner only women from there can wail. A man walks out from around the mud wall separating the orchard from the homes and has a plastic sack in his hand and an angry look on his face. I glanced at the bag (you know how they are kind of translucent) and saw random body parts from a girl no more than eight, sticking out at rakish angles. A hand, a leg with a foot attached. My translator told me the angry man was blaming us for this; I tried to explain that we didn’t put the bombs in the ground.

A second man comes around the corner holding the little girls severed head up by her hair. He just stood there, holding it up above shoulder level, looking at us. I was stuck. I just looked into that little girls eyes. They were blue. We left.

Another incident that I think of regularly was a catastrophic IED that struck one of my vehicles. Seven of my soldiers were killed in that blast. I arrived on the scene to conduct CASEVAC operations and spent the remainder of that day cleaning up the site and recovering the vehicle. Placing the remains of my boys in body bags, not knowing what parts belonged to whom, was a difficult task.

At one point we ran out of body bags and had to use trash bags.

I still don’t know how to feel about that. Once during the course of the event, I thought to myself that if I just stepped on an IED that this would be all over for me and I wouldn’t have to deal with it anymore. I shook that off and immediately chastised myself as being selfish and weak. I was a leader and the job needed to get done. I had to galvanize the company into action. I told myself to be the example and try to look like it didn’t bother me.

During that deployment I went home on leave. There were inklings of problems even during those two weeks at home. I had little patience and my emotions were all over the place. I can only imagine how my wife felt.

Since coming home (it’s been three years) I’ve actually been to counseling for anger management.

I’m still adjusting. I had a violent incident with a stranger at a casino. I had an incident at work that involved a physical altercation with one of my peers. That’s when my boss and my wife recommended I go see someone. Seeking help was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Doing it gave me the false sense of security that goes with thinking that I was cured.

I’m at an Army school now and things have slowed down. I’ve took on lots of things to keep me busy. I’m taking two college classes in the evenings and I quit using smokeless tobacco. I’m trying to stay in shape to try out for a selection in November. I’m trying to restore an old car in my driveway. I think that I’ve tried to take on all these things to keep my mind off of the past.

It isn’t working. It’s coming back. The sadness. The anger. All of it.

I can’t sleep. I’m writing this thing. I’m embarrassed. I’m worried that it will affect my performance and my career. I’m worried that it will negatively affect my family. I got up at five-thirty this morning and ran three miles. My eyes got misty during the run. Little things set me off. My treadmill broke, my bike wouldn’t start, the transmission leaks on my car… I throw things in the garage. The random violence is coming back. I know I’m feeling sorry for myself and it makes me angry. I’ve lots of reasons to be happy.

I don’t want to be like this. I want to be happy. I want my wife to be happy. I want to be positive about the future. I know I can be successful; I have been my whole career. I should be able to smash this.

My point is that it never goes away. Keep the pity. You have to deal with it all the time. I don’t want sympathy.

What I want is for the guys out there that know they have it, but refuse to get treatment, to know that if they don’t, it will get worse. You are going to have it forever. There are coping mechanisms available. I can see the anger coming now. I know how to physically and emotionally stop and deal with it.

Those of you reading this, I don’t have a specific reaction that I’m trying to get from you. I’m not trying to change your mind about anything.  Do what you want and think what you want. This just made me feel a little better.

Enjoy these posts? Sign up for the monthly newsletter.