Life Lesson: Have a “Capture Device”

During our initial inbrief at IBOLC, the battalion commander read off a list of ten things (I think it was ten) that would help us be successful officers in the Army. Some of them were pretty basic, like be in good physical shape and try to get enough sleep. I dutifully copied down the notes, but became particularly interested when he said “Number 8, always have a ‘capture device.'”

I straightened up and craned my neck to listen.

Around the time I was getting out of the Army in 2006 and starting college, I became super-interested in all things “productivity.” I read all the blogs and articles and theories. I created my own monster of a “getting things done” system that I still follow and tweak today (a post for another time).

So when he mentioned something that sounded like it might fall into that realm, I found myself listening intently.

He went on to talk about how good ideas often present themselves at random and inopportune times, and without a “capture device” they will simply disappear.

A capture device can be anything, from a simple pen and pad to an App on your iPhone (I use Things, and to a lesser degree, Evernote).

It is some of the best advice I ever heard, and my feeling is that it was lost on most the young Lieutenants sitting in the room.

Did you ever notice that you’ll often have fantastic ideas while in the shower or during exercise? There’s a bunch of scientific reasons why that happens. When Don Draper is stumped on an idea, he goes to the movies and lets his brain rest.

By the time he leaves, the idea is there waiting for him.

Only in real life, if you don’t have a place to “capture” that idea, you’ll find yourself stopping in your tracks hours later, staring at the floor with an outstretched index finger and scrunched face, trying to remember what it was you wanted to do.

When I get an idea for work, social life, a gift, this blog – anything – I will stop what I’m doing and go to my “capture device,” in this case, my iPhone, and capture it quickly, usually in just a couple of words, and then revisit it later. The idea for this blog post came after I got an idea for another blog post and went to my phone, realizing that it would also be interesting to write about that in the first place!

Those “good ideas” only last a few moments before I forget them, usually because I’m caught up in something I’m enjoying, like watching a movie or exercising. Without capturing them, I am essentially letting them pass, hoping they’ll return at a later time when I’m not so engaged – unlikely, says science.

Over time, I’ve collected lots of great ideas for ‘things,’ most of which amount to nothing, or sit in an ever-growing list of things that I may one day do. Others, though, have been fantastic and lead me down paths or allowed me to do things that I never thought I would do. That is why I almost always have my iPhone with me.

It is my capture device.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Whose Platoon Is It Anyway?

PL and RTO

Maybe this is all just semantics, but I’m of the mind that words are born of thoughts, and they all mean something.

What does it mean when a platoon leader, a young lieutenant declares “This is my platoon.” Or, “these are my guys.”

Or when someone asks, “Hey, when are you getting your platoon?”

I never thought much of it when I was enlisted. The platoon leader really didn’t factor that much into what I did on a day-to-day basis. I was much more concerned with what my NCOs thought, and keeping my mouth shut when an officer came around.

Back in IBOLC, as the talk of going to “take” a platoon stirred, I started to feel bothered by the idea of declaring a platoon “mine.” Something just seems wrong about it. I think the idea is born from a good place, a patriarchal desire to do good for your¬†guys, but still, something seems wrong. They aren’t and will never be mine.¬†Platoons are made up of individuals, and if anyone owns them, it’s the Army.

The platoon leader, at best, just signs the hand receipt.

Maybe it’s because of the rank/pay/duty disparity – I don’t know.

I do know that in most cases, the platoon leader will come and go, but the soldiers of the platoon will remain long after.

So, who does the platoon really belong to?

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

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 80ňö, 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 313ňö. 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 313ňö, it is more like 335ňö.

I run back to that point and reshoot the azimuth at 335ňö. 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.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

“Someday this war’s going to end…”

“Someday this war’s going to end…”

The majority of my peers at IBOLC are younger than me, hovering around the age of 23. Many of them were just finishing elementary school on 9/11. They grew up with The War as a constant, something that began when they were barely cognizant of what was happening outside of their neighborhood. We fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and there was little reason to think that it would ever stop. At some point, they decided that the military was right for them. They waited patiently until they were old enough to enlist, and then chose to delay a few more years in order to go to school and join as an officer.

Before even arriving at IBOLC, they signed on for additional years of service or swapped assignments at great units or duty stations in order to get to a unit that is deploying shortly.

Iraq is over (for us) and Afghanistan seems to be not too far behind. It was only a few years ago that joining the Army meant a guaranteed deployment. It was not a matter of if but when. Training was tailored to the operating environment. COIN was the name of the game.

Although a deployment to Afghanistan is still possible for many of us, if things fall the way they are planned, this might be the first crop of new infantry lieutenants who miss the show. This has sparked an anxiety among many of my peers that they are going to lack combat experience and that void might stunt them, professionally or personally.

As someone who has already deployed, I don’t feel that same urge to chase deployments. I’ve got my stuff, and make no mistake, getting the stuff is one of the incentives of going. I’d be happy to deploy and would do so with enthusiasm. But clawing my way to the tip of the spear just to see it one, more, time, before it packs up and leaves for who knows how long seems foolish. Go where the Army tells you and do the best job that you can, whether it is forward or in the rear. To me, that seems like the best course of action.

In Nate Fick’s book, One Bullet Away, he talks about the difference between “golden memories and ghosts.” Serve in the military and do good things, and you’ll be rewarded with golden memories. Chase that deployment, and you’ll be cursed with the ghosts. I thought that was a pretty apt description.

I also remember reading a quote somewhere by a French military officer (I think) that went something like “War ruins a perfectly good Army.”

Yet, I completely understand why a brand new lieutenant would do whatever it takes to get to a deploying unit right now. The window feels like it is closing fast. There’s a fear of being that guy who just missed it, and who has to walk around with a bare right shoulder until he gets another opportunity, which may be never.

What advice can I give to someone who wants to deploy? Once you’ve been there, you know it’s not worth chasing – even though there is that urge to go back and try to experience it again. Time and distance atrophies all of the bad memories and raises the good ones to the top. But if I sit and think for a minute I can clearly remember how much a deployment can suck. I’m sure it doesn’t help when everyone who has deployed sit around and swap stories with one another, like pirates at the pub after a round of plundering.

The advice I want to give is “Don’t chase it. If it happens, great. Go fight.” But the infantryman wants to be near the gunfire, and I understand that. I understand where they are coming from. I know how I grinned from ear to ear when my Company Commander told our company of paratroopers that we were deploying. I remember the mix of fear and excitement and I wouldn’t give it up for anything.

Usually, I just nod in agreement when someone expresses their desire to deploy, fully knowing that they’ll never really leave once they’ve been there.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

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.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

The moral equivalent of war

‚ÄúWhat we now need to discover in the social realm is the moral equivalent of war; something heroic that will speak to man as universally as war does, and yet will be as compatible with their spiritual selves as war has proved to be incompatible.‚ÄĚ

-William James
American Philosopher

COL (Ret) Ralph Puckett mentioned this idea in his talk to IBOLC students a couple of weeks ago. I forget what sparked him bringing it up, because it didn’t sound like it was something he always mentioned. It’s an interesting idea, the “moral equivalent of war.” The idea that war is is something universal that does something to people that draws them to it again and again. That it provides people with something they seek. Why do people join the military or seek out that excitement? There is some part of it that is about crawling out the edge to see what is there. Can you really experience that anywhere else?

As far as I can tell, no one has discovered the moral equivalent of war, yet.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

The things I carried (in the field!)

Last week, I had my first “real” field experience since being back in the Army. The field time at OCS wasn’t bad at all. We slept on cots in heated tents each night – so that didn’t really count.

Like always, we had a pretty standard packing list, designed to meet a certain weight threshold and provide the soldier with the minimum stuff he’d need for a week in the field. There are a few things that I packed in my ruck that I knew would be good to have based on prior experience. And then there were some things that I forgot to bring, based on a faulty memory. I won’t forget again.

The things I remembered to bring:
Vaseline: Chaffing happens in the field. It didn’t happen to me this time, but it happened to some friends and they came begging for it.
Gold Bond Body Powder: When you can’t wash, you can at least get dry.
Foot care kit: Moleskin, gauze, tape, and band aids. Only needed the band aids this time.
Dust brush: A barber’s brush, for weapons maintenance. There is nothing more annoying than people constantly asking to borrow your dust brush.

The things I forgot to bring:
Watchcap: How I forgot this, I don’t know. My bald head is the only thing that pokes out of a sleeping bag, and we lose a lot of heat from the head.
Bug juice: As in, insect repellant. I suppose I thought it was still Winter. It’s already Spring here in Fort Benning. My face, head, and neck have the bug bites to prove it.
Canteen cup: It wasn’t on the packing list, so I left it out. I could have used it for hot water.

I usually err on not bringing extra stuff to the field. When I was in the 82nd, everything extra that you packed would be strapped to you for the jump in, so getting as light as possible was the goal. A watchcap and insect repellant are light enough to warrant bringing to the field for the added comfort.

What else is good to bring?

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.