“Taking Care of Your Three Feet of Space”

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

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

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

“Hey, why didn’t you salute me?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chow, Mail, and Wi-Fi: Pillars of Modern Soldier Morale

Field Chow

The other day I was having a conversation with another solider about morale, as soldiers tend to do half-way through a deployment. We were having a back-and-forth on the pros and cons of adopting different policies “for the sake of morale.” At some point, I brought up the ancient “three pillars of soldier morale”: chow, mail, and free time.

Now, I’ve actually heard “chow, mail, and pay” as the three before, and that might be true, too. But rules of three are important, and pay is not something junior level leadership can really influence (unless it’s taking it away), so I like to think of the big three as chow, mail, and free time.

I don’t know where these “pillars” originated, although I remember reading about them in reference to the Korean War. General Ridgway was a big proponent the big three. He was keen on ensuring his soldiers got hot chow at least twice a day while fighting the war – and to this day there is no question that hot chow is a morale booster – whether the soldier is in the field or at war. MREs are modern miracles, but there is nothing better than a “fresh” meal served hot in an austere environment.

Mail has always been a morale booster – especially care packages. For most of our history, “mail” meant physical mail; letters and notes, sealed in envelopes and traveling across the world, from the kitchen table in Indiana to a fighting position in Da Nang, Verdun, or Helmand province. For today’s modern soldiers, the physical letter has been aggressively outmatched by email, and to a greater extent, Facebook. I haven’t written a single hard-copy letter since arriving in July – I wrote a half-dozen a day in Iraq in 2003. Take away my ability to get online though, and I would revert back to writing letters, without a doubt.

Free time, or rather, unstructured time, is time for soldiers to do whatever it is that pleases them – movies, video games, reading, staring at the wall for hours – whatever. The point is, if a soldier’s time is micro-managed from the time he wakes up until the time he goes to bed, he will slowly become bitter. For leaders, striking a balance between structured and unstructured time is important, and more of an art than a science. There is no perfect formula. It’s all based on understanding the context, which changes daily. A leader has to sniff out the rhythms and know when to give it some gas and when to let up (and when to shift to neutral!).

Going back to the conversation, when I brought up the classic three pillars, this soldier retorted that “this isn’t World War II or Vietnam,” meaning this model of morale is outdated for the modern soldier. While I certainly agree that this generation of soldiers (like every generation of soldiers) is different from those of the past, I always considered the morale model to be solid and enduring. Is hot chow, reliable mail, and a degree of free time not enough anymore? Do we need to ensure high-speed internet is available at the front lines? Should leaders cave at the requests to relax uniform standards for the sake of “morale?”

My immediate reaction to the idea that today’s soldiers require a different morale model was incredulity – not possible. My thought process has always been that if the big three are being satisfied – chow, mail, free time – then a soldier has no reason to have low morale, personal issues not withstanding.

I let the thought stew for a moment and then, with a flash of humanity, thought that maybe – just maybe – it is possible that for today’s soldier, a different model is required. Context is important here, and while every deployment experience is different (none of my three have been similar), it can generally be said that unless you are on a forward COP or invading a country, counter-insurgency or stability operations lends itself to a higher living standard. Amenities are plenty. Hot showers and hot chow are the norm, not the exception. Mail arrives regularly. War is famously boring, and soldiers usually have ample free time. Those three pillars being met, is it possible for a soldier to then have low morale because he wants more, or that he has grown accustomed to those good things? Like an addict, do we need to inject a stronger medicine to get our fix?

Again, context matters. All of this can be wiped away in an instant with a more austere environment. But I do wonder about the ramifications of a generation of soldiers who are accustomed to bringing their smartphones with them to the field and being at all times, a click away from home. Maybe it’s not all bad. Maybe it’s the worst thing ever.

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Running around like a maniac in the woods, and winning

The last couple of times I’ve been on a land navigation course, I didn’t do so well. The first time, I tried to “take it easy” and walk the course (I normally run a lot). I wasted a lot of time slowly traversing the course, and then because I had it in my mind that I was “taking it easy” it was more difficult to get amped up to crash into the woods and destroy the homes of hundreds of Fort Benning spiders.

Then, at Ranger School, I made a couple of bad decisions at the start of the course which threw me off.

This past week I had another go at a land navigation course for IBOLC’s mini-RAP week. Excited for the chance to get back on a land navigation course and “get my groove back” I put in a little more preparation than usual. One of the problems I had during RAP week land navigation was poor fieldcraft. I didn’t have a clipboard or flat writing surface and I placed my map haphazardly in a zip-up map case. I wasted lots of time digging it out for map checks. Precious minutes spent standing around on a land nav course messing with gear can add up and work against you.

Eager to not make the same mistake twice, I dug through my giant box of old Army gear from my enlisted time and fished out a plexiglass map case I made. It’s something I picked up from watching officers on the drop zones of Fort Bragg. Many of them would pull out these hard map cases with all of the key information they needed already plotted. The case was easy to handle, flat, and protected the map (see here for instructions on how to make one).

After making a few minor repairs to the case, I headed out to the land navigation course with the other post-IBOLC students for the land navigation course (a painful day, wake up at 0030). Surprisingly, we did not go to the usual Red Diamond course I’ve done almost a dozen times since being here at Fort Benning. It was some other course that I’ve never been to before, just south of the Ranger School land navigation site. It was exciting to have to do a new, unfamiliar course.

The map we got for the course was pretty bad. The contour lines were difficult to make out and everything was blurry. I slipped the map into my case and began plotting. Lesson learned: it would probably be better to plot directly on the map and then put the map into the case. The map case is tight, but the map tends to slide around a little bit, and I had to ensure that the map was correctly lined up each time I pulled an azimuth. Also, the parallax caused by the thickness of the plexiglass can effect grid plotting and azimuths if you are not looking directly down at the map case.

I don’t plot out my exact route or course of action for a land navigation course. After plotting my points (and checking!) I usually move myself to the furthest point first, using the night hours to erase the distance. I’ll have a general route plan in mind, but I don’t lock myself into it because I don’t know how the course is going to treat me. I choose my first point, and move out. After getting it (or not), I’ll look at the map and choose the next point. I repeat this until I finish.

After pinpointing my location, I began the course. I used the trails to get myself to attack points. Most of the course was done during the night, so I kept my attack points within 300 meters. While moving along the trails, I jogged. Time spent traversing the course is time wasted. I want to have as much time as possible to locate the little orange and white boxes in the woods after navigating to the general area. The way to get more of that time is by moving swiftly from point A to B.

On this particular lane, I had three points close to the start point, so I snatched those up first. Then I moved to my two furthest points and got those before bringing it back to the start point, grabbing the last two points along the way in my lane.

At the end of the course I was soaked in sweat, but hadn’t actually broken too much brush because I used good attack points. Going with what I know worked (moving quickly, especially at night) and doing well on the land navigation course provided a much needed shot of confidence. Bringing out the map case was helpful, and I learned some lessons on how to use it effectively.

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Joining the insurgency because it’s fun!

In my college classes and in think-tank papers, really smart people peel back layers to try to figure out why insurgencies happen, or why regular people engage in political violence. The result is often this ornate collage of factors that lead people (usually in groups, not as individuals) to join the rebellion. Complicated lines are drawn from economic/social/political conditions to the end result which is violence. The research is there and the data often works. Vindicated. Done.

I’ve always been more curious about the human dimension. Is it really a hodgepodge of factors that leads a person to violence like a lemming, or is there something else? I joined the Army, after all, mostly seeking adventure. The other stuff was there, too (service, patriotism, benefits) but the chief reason that the 19 year old version of me stepped into the recruiter’s office was to do something exceptional. Is it too much to think that our adversaries aren’t doing the same? In many places in the world where you find American troops, our adversaries are living the Red Dawn scenario that Americans often fantasize about.

A few years ago, I was at a seminar where David Kilcullen was giving a talk on insurgencies and counter-insurgencies. I had recently read The Accidental Guerrilla and was familiar with his research and his work. At the end of his talk, I asked him my question about what motivates individuals to join an insurgency, and could it not just be for the simple thrill of it – to be part of something exceptional? He didn’t really give me a good answer, but he directed to me to “an Army pamphlet called ‘Human Factors of insurgencies’ or something that was written in the 60s.” I quickly scribbled it down.

Later, I did a cursory search for this on the internet which turned up nothing. I typed it up as a task and tucked it away in my Things to look at it another day. And there it sat. For three years.

Yesterday, I was poking around and came across that task and decided to give it another search, and boom! First hit. Downloadable as a PDF: “Department of the Army Pamphlet No. 550-104: Human Factors Considerations of Undergrounds in Insurgencies (1966).

I haven’t read through it yet, but it looks like just what I was looking for. For anyone who is interested in insurgency and the human dimension, this looks like a great resource.

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Injury Management

Soldiers – infantrymen especially – are going to collect injuries throughout their career. Human bodies are fragile, and the nature of the job means that those fragile bodies are going to come crashing against a world of hurt. As I get older, I’m discovering that part of a good physical fitness regimen is having an injury management plan. At any given time, I’ve usually got one to three injuries that I’m dealing with. These aren’t show stoppers -nothing that I’d need to go to sick call for and take a profile. Rather, these are nagging injuries that could develop into something worse if not addressed.

I’ve always had a nasty habit of ignoring my small injuries and training through them or around them. While I was out of the Army and just going to college, this didn’t matter much, because I completely controlled my personal training. Now that I’m back in, I don’t always have control over my physical fitness regimen – I’ve got to do what the Army asks me to do. If I hurt my ankle or shoulder, I can’t just stop training until it gets better. Instead, I have to find ways to continue to train while doing the best to 1) prevent further injury, and 2) heal and rehabilitate the injury.

The biggest problem I’ve faced in trying to manage my injuries is remembering which injuries I need to manage. I need a constant reminder of what I’m working on. My solution was to buy a wooden doll from the local hobby shop. These are used as models for artists. I keep it on my desk and I attach little slips of paper onto the doll with a note on the injury. I see this thing everyday, and it serves as a reminder to go easy on those areas.

Reminding myself that I am carrying injuries isn’t enough though. As part of a weekly review (if you’re not GTDing, you’re missing out) I ask myself “what are my injuries and what have I done to mitigate them?” I should be able to answer that question with concrete responses. The goal, is that over time, I will be able to remove the slips of paper from the injury doll.

Injuries are a part of training. Managing injuries is just as important as following a good workout routine and eating a healthy diet. Unfortunately, too often we only address the injury when it reaches a point where it hinders performance.

All that said, if you’re hurt, go to a doctor and get fixed. But if you have a manageable injury, do everything you can to manage it. Research it. Talk to buddies. Actively do the things that will make it better. Otherwise, that injury will nag and grow and eventually win. Don’t let it win.

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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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The ‘I Love Me’ Book

Originally published in 2012.

Now is a good time to talk about managing Army records. Coming back into the Army meant digging out my old paperwork so that I could properly update my personnel file. Graduating OCS meant getting a whole bunch of new paperwork that needs to be added to the pile. Then, I read this article from the Army Times (‘As drawdown looms, mind your personnel file, February 5, 2012).

It seems like the Army does a better job digitizing records than it did a few years ago. Most of the important paperwork I’ve received has already been uploaded to iPERMS – the Army’s digital file. That’s good, but sometimes paperwork doesn’t make it online and all you have is the physical paperwork.

That’s where the ‘I Love Me’ book comes in.

My first team leader in the Army told me that I needed to start putting together a book that has all of my important paperwork. He called it his ‘I Love Me’ book because it was his personal “paperwork shrine” to himself. All of his military accomplishments in one place. Basic training certificate, MOS orders, orders to report to Airborne School, Airborne School certificate, orders for the parachutist skill identifier, orders to report to the 82d Airborne Division, et cetera.

His binder was pretty elaborate. It was tough, and he had glued the 82d patch with a Ranger and Recon Tab on the side of it as decoration (we were in a Scout Platoon). I followed his lead and built an equally elaborate binder (which I’ve since lost track of – not the paperwork, just the binder). My current binder is pretty plain. It’s a floppy, blue binder with sheet protectors on the inside. I like the floppy binders better than the hard binders because they are easier to transport. They’re only as large as your important paperwork is thick.

Pretty much anything that authorizes the wear of any badges, tabs, or ribbons goes in the book. Orders to report anywhere goes in the book. Graduation certificates, ERBs/ORBs, NCOERs/OERs, they all go in the book. Any other paperwork I put in another folder and tuck it away in a closet. I’ve never had to retrieve that “other” folder for anything. If you do it right, you should only ever need to grab the ‘I Love Me’ book.

I like to organize it chronologically, from day one in the Army to the present. You can also put in other important documents that you might need, like college transcripts or civilian certifications.

Going Digital

Having an ‘I Love Me’ book is the first step in managing your own personnel file. The next step is digitizing it. Today, scanners are cheap. Scanning all of the documents in your ‘I Love Me’ book into PDFs ensures that in the event that the Army loses track of your paperwork and you can’t get ahold of your physical ‘I Love Me’ book for whatever reason, you still have the files stored digitally on your own computer. In the smart phone era, I can get access to a file I’ve stored digitally in a matter of seconds. And when people need your paperwork in the Army, they need it now. It’s pretty cool to be able to provide it just as fast.

So what?

Having all of your paperwork neatly tucked into a binder and stored on a computer is great, but it means nothing if the Army isn’t tracking that paperwork. It is a skill level one task to ensure your own personnel file is updated. Luckily, if you keep an ‘I Love Me’ book, you can grab it and head over to S1 to update your ERB/ORB with relative ease. Keeping records updated with Big Army ensures that when they look at you for promotions (or whatever else) they are looking at the most accurate reflection of your history and skills. Being a steward of your own file is going to be more important than it has been in recent years, and maintaining an ‘I Love Me’ book is the first step in making sure your records are straight.

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My new training ruck

Once I realized that I was going to rejoin the Army, I started reaching out to old Army buddies to help me develop my training program. Specifically, I wanted to concentrate on foot marching, something I had trouble with when I first joined (I’m going to write a longer post about foot marching soon). A friend of mine from the 82nd Airborne who went on to Special Forces recommended I ditch the giant North Carolina tick and instead attach a 45lb plate to a rucksack frame and go with that. True, it’s not the same as having a giant ball on your back that you can stuff the world into, but it is easier to pick up, put on, and go than the alternative.

When training, I’ve found that one of the easiest excuses to pick up and walk on an early morning is not having an adequately packed ruck. “Oh, man, I forgot to pack my ruck last night. Ah well, I’ll just ruck next week.” With this, there’s no excuse. I never have to pack it or unpack it. It’s always the same weight.

What do you think? Am I missing out by not being able to cram in more weight?

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What can ‘Leroy Jenkins’ teach us about Troop Leading Procedures?

I haven’t written much since starting OCS. As would be expected, things are busy here. I’m having a lot of fun and I’m still soaking it all in. Five years out of the military is a long time. Slowly though, things are coming back to me.

One of the things that has me really excited about the Army right now is how open it is to new ideas.

Today, after hours of classes on combat orders, Troop Leading Procedures (TLPs) and developing Courses of Action (COAs), the class was closed with this famous internet meme:

Here, you have what looks like a raiding party at an Objective Rally Point (ORP) preparing to launch an attack. The leader is talking through the Execution phase of the Operations Order (OPORD). Each member of the raiding party is being tasked with different responsibilities. Survivability is even calculated (32.33%, repeating, of course).

Then, Leroy Jenkins happens.

In the military world, Leroy Jenkins is the equivalent of Murphy’s Law. That is, anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. While the leader of the raiding party had not even finished his brief, it is doubtful that he could have planned for the contingency of one of the members of the raiding party going rogue and rushing the objective (OBJ) alone. After Leroy rushed in, the rest of the party immediately followed. Now, their half-baked plan was ruined, resulting in the complete annihilation of the team.

What makes this video funny, besides the nerd factor and the strange voice of Leroy Jenkins, is the fact that the team blindly rushes behind him. I’m sure it was probably out of loyalty to their friend or sheer adrenaline, but it is the thing that stands out as the prime mistake. Had the raiding team developed internal Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), they may have had a way to deal with rogue party members. In this case, a sound SOP would probably be to ignore rogue party members and let them go it alone, as rushing behind them blindly is extremely dangerous.

Now, the instructors didn’t use the Leroy Jenkins video the way I am using it here – breaking it down and analyzing it. They just played the video after soaking in hours of classroom instruction on combat orders. Putting the two together, I can’t help but make the connections.

I just think it’s cool that someone in the Army thought to pair combat orders up with Leroy Jenkins.

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