Why We Need West Point: Painfully written by an OCS guy

West Point Snow

Recently, there’s been a string of nasty essays written about why we should dismantle the United States Military Academies. The argument usually revolves around cost and the fact that we don’t actually need them. That is, we can produce the requisite number of officers through the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and Officer Candidate Schools (OCS). As much as I love watching my West Point peers get worked up about it, and despite my undying loyalty to my own alma mater (OCS), I’m of the mind that the military academies are precious and valuable institutions that produce superior officers, and dismantling them would undermine the quality of officership in the military.

For the purpose of this post, I’ll refer mostly to the United States Military Academy at West Point, simply because it is the institution I have the most experience with by virtue of my daily interactions with its chief product (officers) over the past fourteen years.

While I refuse to come out and say that West Point graduates make better officers, I will say that on the whole, they are a different breed of officer. And while almost universally derided by subordinates and peers alike, they are invaluable to the work and mission of the United States Army.

Before getting into why West Point officers are different and uniquely valuable, it is important to briefly discuss some of the stereotypes that officers from the different commisssionning sources face. Stereotypes, that while unfair, are often rooted in some reality.

The OCS officer is usually expected to be one of two extremes – either really good or a total dud. They are thought to be prior-service enlisted (although this is not always the case; most OCS officers are simply civilians with a college degree), and they are expected to be wiser through life experience and more in-tune with the reality of doing the Army’s actual work. Similarly, the older ones might be accused of “burn out” by virtue of being older in a young man’s game, or getting too involved in “NCO business” and having a hard time staying in their lane as officers.

The ROTC officer usually comes in many more shades in terms of expected performance, being anywhere along the spectrum from “ok” to “great.” They are generally thought to have partied pretty hard in college, using ROTC as a kind of safety net that accidentally landed them in the military, and their stories of their college experience are invariably better and more interesting than their USMA and OCS peers.

The greatest (and most damning) stereotypes are reserved for West Point officers. When soldiers learn their next platoon leader or commanding officer is from West Point, it’s almost always followed by a deep breath and a mental bracing for impact, and usually an audbile “Oh god…” West Point officers are generally thought to be a little more uptight and focused on mission accomplishment at all costs than other officers. The expectation is that the officer will be of the “Captain Sobel” of Band of Brothers fame variety. That is, strict, intense, and deeply committed to mission success, even if that success comes at the expense of his subordinates’ well-being.

Of course, all of these are stereotypes that unfairly color officers before they ever step in front of troops. These stereotypes exist though, and soldiers (and especially officers) are always interested to learn of one’s commissioning source as a snippet of information to either confirm or deny deeply held biases.

In my personal experience, some of the best officers I have ever worked with were graduates of West Point. I’ve met the quintessential, hard-charging, I’ve-read-every-platoon-leader-memoir-in-existance West Pointer who could have been a stand-in for Captain “your weekend pass is revoked” Sobel. I’ve also met “total bros” who would seem a better fit at Animal House than anything remotely military. And although I’ve met West Point officers whom I personally didn’t like, I’ve never met one that was wholly incompetent. Even the “bad” ones accomplish the mission, no matter how awkward or strange their behavior might seem.

The first time I had a real conversation about West Point as an institution was when I was working closely with a new Captain who was a graduate. I was a young and angry Sergeant at the time, and on our LESs, we had the same number of years of service. He made the argument that being a student at West Point is more of a military experience than a college experience, and he essentially served four more years than I did, despite what it said on his LES. I didn’t agree with him at the time, and thought this was just typical West Point ring knocking.

Over time, however, the more that I’ve learned about West Point and its traditions, the more I’ve come to agree with him.

If the logic holds true, that attending West Point is more of a military experience than a college one (and I think it does), then it should also hold true that those officers are receving four (er, sometimes five) additional years of military experience that their ROTC and OCS counterparts just don’t get. From a younger age they are immersed in a military environment, and over time, everything that is supposed to be expected from an officer is ingrained. You just can’t do the same thing with a college student sporadically attending ROTC courses, or an OCS candidate who has just 12 weeks until pinning on a gold bar.

It’s also true that ROTC and OCS officers bring something different and unique to the service by virtue of their not being completely immersed in a military environment, which is why ROTC and OCS are also important to preserve.

I have a growing respect and admiration for my peers who graduated from our military academies. I am in awe of the work and dedication it takes to apply, get selected, and thrive there – in many ways because I was completely not prepared to do so myself at that age. I’m proud to serve alongside USMA graduates and wanted to write this gentle love letter, because I can imagine how frustrating it must be to have your alma mater drug through the mud every couple of months, and thought that as a non-USMA guy, I could offer a perspective not tarnished by years of doing The Rocket.

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Social media as a way to bridge the civil-military divide

Soldiers crossing a bridge. It’s a metaphor. But that really happened.

Just about every week there is some event that happens that connects social media and the Army, for good or for ill. I’m a true believer in social media. I love using it myself, I studied its use in social movements in college, and I believe that for all its flaws, social media is good for the Army and good for soldiers. Social media allows both the Army and its soldiers to “tell the Army’s story” to the American public, and further, I argue that it helps fill in some of the empty space that makes up the civilian-military divide.

A brief history

… I started to write my own “brief history” of the Army and social media, but then remembered that MAJ Crispin Burke (aka Starbuck, aka, Wings Over Iraq) wrote a good one at the New York Times At War Blog. So if you’re interested in that history, check it out.

How the Army has changed

The Army has struggled over the years to figure out if wants to embrace social media or wall itself in. Thankfully, after many fits and starts, the Army has chosen to embrace social media, and cautiously empowers soldiers to use it to tell the Army story. For its part, the Army has established a pretty impressive digital foothold (Facebook, Twitter, blog, etc.) Units across the force have their own digital holdings. While I’m sure lots of units out there are just “doing it” the Army actually has created guidelines on “how to do it” through the Social Media Handbook (3rd Edition). The handbook provides units and individuals the guidance they need on how to establish a social media presence for their unit or how to conduct themselves online as individuals. There are some specific rules governing a digital presence for units, but for individuals, following the UCMJ, not violating OPSEC, and using common sense is the best hedge for staying out of trouble.

Connecting worlds, bridging the civil-military divide

The thing that excites me most about social media is the way it allows outsiders of a specific community to inject themselves into that community and engage with it in a way that would normally be difficult or impossible. Interested in ballet but not a ballet dancer? A few minutes of searching and you can amass a small arsenal of blogs, Twitter accounts and Facebook pages to saturate yourself in the art. Whenever I find myself interested in a new topic, I usually start finding that community online as a way to quickly learn about it, and hopefully, connect to people who know what they’re talking about.

While the big Army is able to tell its story through its social media presence, individual soldiers like myself can engage with the larger public through blogs like this or on any other social media site. While military bases are normally walled off and secluded from major population areas, the internet is everywhere, and anyone can engage with soldiers who are out there and online. Interested civilians can follow me on Twitter or follow this blog and get an idea of what their soldiers are doing in a more personal way than just reading about it in the newspaper.

Of course, there are inherent dangers in this, just as there is when the military is coupled with social media generally. Some people will do dumb things. That is why anyone – especially soldiers – who choose to engage online need to do so with eyes wide open.

Top comment: “Every time i hear this video it reminds me that we’re all humans and sometimes we need to set aside our differences and live life. I salute these soldiers for taking time to make this video as they get little RR in the war zone. So the next time you see a soldier be kind and say “thanks” because it could be their last appreciation they hear from someone that’s protecting our freedom and liberty.” 

A few years ago when I was still in college, I remember this video was released and it was getting shared across the internet. From the comments and reactions I saw from a lot of my peers in college, I got the impression that this was the first time they saw and thought of soldiers as human beings. That is, to most Americans – young people especially – the concept of the soldier is something abstract, something never seen or experienced. It’s something that happens in movies, video games, and newspaper articles. While many of my military friends chided the soldiers in the video for making us “look foolish” or for obviously having too much free time, I saw value in the video in the way it humanized the soldiers to a society who are largely unaware of what soldiers do or are doing. Plus, the whole idea of tough paratroopers dancing and enjoying a Lady GaGa song destroyed a ton of stereotypes.

The civil-military divide, that thing which gets lots of lip service of being something that needs to be addressed but little in terms of how to fix it. I’ve written about it before, and I’m of the mind that since we’re helplessly outnumbered by the American population, it falls on our shoulders to do our best to not wall ourselves in further and reach out the rest of country to help bridge the divide. Using social media is one way in which we can do that.

And, just for fun.

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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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“We are facing an enemy unlike any we’ve ever seen before.”

One of my favorite parts of OCS was receiving our three days of ‘tactics’ training. This included Troop Leading Procedures, graphics and symbols, and course of action (COA) development. The coursework was interesting, but the instructors were the ones that made it memorable. They called themselves “Team Five” and they teach all of the OCS courses – and probably some other courses – the same stuff. They were senior infantry NCOs, mostly E7s who had seen combat a few times and were now doing their time teaching fresh-faced Officer Candidates how to be a junior tactician. They were professional, engaging, and funny. They were the first real interaction most of the OCs had with infantry NCOs, and they made a very good impression.

Anyway, at one point one of the instructors was describing the process of templating the enemy and how it can often be more challenging when facing an insurgency. He began… “Ladies and gentlemen, we are facing an enemy unlike any we’ve ever seen before.” He went on to describe some of the tactics used by guerrilla fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When I heard that line I couldn’t help but think that this was the exact kind of a line a grizzled sergeant would deliver to a room of space-infantrymen before they went out to fight aliens after the invasion. I laughed out loud a little, and looked around the room, realizing I was the only one having that thought.

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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?

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Self-preservation mode

After branching day at OCS, the BN CDR and BN CSM grabbed all of the new infantry guys and gathered us outside to give us a quick pep talk. The BN CDR spoke about the pride of being an infantryman and the importance of going to Ranger School as a new 2LT.

The BN CSM reinforced what the CDR said, and then delved a little deeper on what to expect going forward in the infantry. He talked about what he called ‘self-preservation’ mode. As a prior service infantryman, I knew what he was talking about, but never heard it put that way before. He described the suck of being in the infantry; the cold, the hot, the wet, the fatigue, the bugs and on and on and on. Life in the infantry can suck. As humans, our bodies naturally try to protect us from these things. This protection manifests itself in the shamming soldier (the ultimate of which is embodied in the soldier in the above pic). The soldier who shuts down, stops volunteering, stops being motivated, stops talking and on and on and on.

Self-preservation mode. The goal is to preserve yourself by shutting down. Anyone who’s been in the field for a few days or has been ground down by tough training knows the feeling or at least have seen others experiencing it. I felt it at the end of last week as the culmination of a weeks’ training took hold late at night.

What I found interesting, is that since hearing the CSM describe that feeling as ‘self-preservation,’ I’ve been able to identify it when it settles on me. Before, I just thought I was “tired” which seems natural enough. There’s something about labeling this thing as ‘self-preservation’ that makes it especially repugnant. Heading towards self-preservation mode isn’t weak, though – it’s natural. Your body and mind are going to push you in that direction. By acknowledging it, however, I’ve found that I’m able to reclaim it, and choose to fight it.

Fight fatigue with action. That’s been my motto when I feel myself going into self-preservation mode. The more I sit and think about how much it sucks, the deeper I go into self-preservation. If I fight it, I stand a better chance of staying out of the trap. Granted, it doesn’t always work. Sometimes things just suck and the best you can do it grin and bear it.

My hope is that by making a habit of fighting off self-preservation mode, it will become easier and easier to do. We’ll see how it goes.

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I still don’t know what size boots I’m supposed to wear

One of the great advantages I supposedly have had at OCS as a prior service soldier is the depth of experience and domain knowledge I possess. Generally, this is true. But having been out of the game for five years, there are some things that I forget, and other things that I brush off as insignificant. As a former infantryman, I should know better than anyone how important properly sized, well broken-in boots are for foot marching. And I do know that. I came to OCS with a pair of 8 1/2 R Belleville’s that I was issued shortly before getting out of the Army in 2006. I broke them in during the two years prior to rejoining the Army on my occasional foot marches. So, the boots are at least six years old, but the heel was hardly worn and the boots were in decent condition, and most importantly, they were well broken-in and felt great on foot marches.

They were still six years old, though.

Just before we went on holiday leave, the sole on my right Belleville started to come undone. The glue that keeps the sole to the boot must have rotted away and my sole was flapping like a duck’s bill. This was during the last couple of days of our final field exercise, so I taped the sole to the boot and went with that until the end of the field problem. No big deal, I thought. I would just go down to Fort Bragg while home on leave and have the boots resoled and it would be good as new.

While home on leave, my rotting boots sat next to my open suitcase as a constant reminder that at some point during my vacation, I needed to drive down to Fort Bragg, drop them off, and then come back a few days later to pick them up. It would have taken a total of three hours of driving and maybe $60.

One day of leave melted into another, and eventually I decided that driving All The Way to Fort Bragg wasn’t worth it, and that surely I could repair the boot myself. I remember using Shoe Goo during my first enlistment to prepare a ghillie suit and that the stuff was pretty powerful (and made for shoe repair, anyway). I set out and bought some, quickly rinsed the dirt off of the boots and squeezed lumps of clear goo between the sole and the boot. Then, I taped the sole tightly and set it outside to dry overnight.

I felt proud that I did the repair myself and saved myself both time and money.

While home on leave, I also grabbed another pair of 8 1/2 R boots that were brand new and sitting in a duffel bag. I figured that I should break them in “just in case” the repair to the Bellevilles didn’t work out. I started to break those in over holiday leave, but remember thinking they felt a bit too tight. I figured once they were broken in, they would fit just fine.

3 months earlier, at the 30th AG…

I stepped onto the Army’s version of the catwalk, the fifteen foot long elevated platform that all soldiers walk across to reach the Army civilian that will measure their feet and fit them to the perfect sized boot. Most of the soldiers processing through 30th AG are new recruits who are quickly being cycled through a number of stations on their way to basic training. Most of them won’t know much about boots and will take whatever is given to them. As a prior service soldier en route to OCS, I knew how important the precious few moments spent with the boot guy could determine how comfortable the next few weeks, months, or years could be. As he began measuring my feet, I told him that I was prior service and always wore an 8 1/2 R boot. He looked down at the measuring device and then up at me. “You’re a 9.”

I looked down at the device and saw that my big toe just barely made contact with the line at 9.

“Yeah, but barely. I think I should probably still wear an 8 1/2 R.”

“No,” he said, “You’re definitely a 9.”

I shrugged. “Okay, I haven’t been measured for almost ten years, so I guess maybe my feet grew.”

So I went off to OCS with my size 9 boots and worked diligently to break them in. They were too loose. I tried buying inserts. I tried stepping on them and squashing them and breaking down the toe and heel cups as much as possible, to no avail. The boots were still too loose. Still, I wondered if maybe this was how boots were supposed to fit. There’s this little sign where the boot man does his job that shows pictures of see-through boots with the toes inside. The pictures show that there should be some space between the toes and the end of the boot. The boot people do their best to try to get you to figure out where your toes are. “Is the end of your toe HERE?” the boot man says as he makes a line with his fingernail in the suede of my boot. “Yes, I think so” I say as I try to touch the roof of the toe cup with my big toe.

The day of the ten mile foot march

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Sitting in the dark on the edge of my cot, I slipped on my six year old, rotting, self-repaired 8 1/2 R Bellevilles. I tightened them up, stood up, and looked down at my feet. Something didn’t feel quite right. My toes in the boot that I repaired were arching upwards. I tried squeezing my toes to go down, but it didn’t work. I examined the boot and found that my repair was faulty; I didn’t properly seal the sole to the boot, resulting in an arched toe.

It probably wouldn’t matter, I thought. I walked around a bit to get a feel for the boots. I definitely noticed the arching. It felt like my foot was sitting in a canoe. And I knew that anything I felt in one step, I’d have to feel for the thousands of steps during a ten mile foot march.

So I faced a dilemma. Wear the boots I have been foot marching in for the past two years without any foot problems and risk that the repair will result in some kind of annoyance or injury, or, wear the barely broken-in boots that I brought with me from back home.

I went with the latter. I sat back down and took off my Bellevilles and put them back in my ruck. I stuffed my feet into the new boots and before stepping off on the foot march, hoped for the best. The boots fit tightly, not snugly.

Like most foot marches, everything started okay. My feet felt fine and I put one in front of the other without much thought. About three miles in I started to notice a little bit of rubbing on the inside of my heels. I sighed, knowing that this was a boot-fit issue. “Maybe it won’t get any worse” I thought to myself, fully knowing that it would definitely get worse. This was one of those foot marches where we walk for three or so miles and then take a ten minute rest. While that sounds nice, when dealing with blisters or any kind of injury, stopping on a foot march can be the worst thing to do. Blisters and sores will go numb on a foot march after awhile. By stopping, that numbness goes away and you have to mentally fight through the pain when you start walking again until you once again reach that numbness.

We stopped three times during the ten mile foot march. It was clear to me that the skin on the insides of my heels were in pain. Each time my heel hit the ground, I imagined my heel sliding down to the bottom of the boot and my green sock scraping against an open red sore.

At the end of the foot march, I remember feeling frustrated because the bottoms of my feet felt fine. My feet were toughened for the march, but the improperly fitted boots resulted in unnecessary injuries to the insides of my heels.

After getting a quick accountability of personnel and equipment, we were released to change into dry uniforms and new socks. I eagerly pulled off my boots to see the damage. This moment could either be a morale booster or a complete downer. For the past couple of hours, I walked and felt pain in my heels on each step. My hope is that I would pull off my boots and blood and flesh would spill onto the floor. That would be a testament to the toughness required to complete the foot march. Pulling off a sock to reveal a barely-there blister or worse, nothing at all would make a soldier question his or her own mental toughness.

Peeling off my socks revealed nearly identical sores. The skin had been rubbed off of my inner heel revealing some raw layer of skin that’s not supposed to make contact with the air. I was happy with that result and smiled widely, inviting anyone who was nearby to see. They looked and acknowledged that it was bad before turning to their own injuries.

A few weeks later, back at the 30th AG…

Shortly before graduating from OCS, we went back to 30th AG to DX (exchange used equipment for new equipment) any old or damaged clothing. I excitedly bagged up my boots and when we got there, made a beeline for the catwalk. I explained to the boot man that I had been improperly measured for a size 9 boot, despite having always worn 8 1/2 R on my prior enlistment. He asked me to step back on the measuring device. I stepped into the device and seated my heel deep into the metal. I looked down at the device and shook my head.

“You’re not even an 8 1/2 – you’re more like an 8 1/4.”

So the first time I came into the Army, my feet measured 8 1/2. When I rejoined, I was measured to be a 9. Now I am more like an 8 1/4.

The boot man recommended that I try wearing a size 8. Completely bewildered and unsure of the right answer, I asked him to let me try on some 8 1/2 Rs (Army-ism: “go with what you know”). He agreed and I tried them on. They seemed to fit okay, and certainly better than the 9s. Happily, I exchanged my never worn size 9s for some new 8 1/2 Rs.

I’ve been breaking in the 8 1/2 Rs for a couple of weeks now.

They feel a little loose.

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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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