They also don’t have to contend with the political ramifications – as we do – of foreign exploits because of the authoritarian nature of their governments.
This doesn’t mean that we’re “not good” at IW, it just means we have to work a whole lot harder.
On to the podcast.
There were some great points made in the epsidoe and areas worth exploring further. These indlcude:
We never fight the war we want (tanks/troops in the open, fire for effect)
The difficulty training for irregular warfare (a day in the field represents a month 🤦♂️)
An argument to send military “observers” to other nations/conflicts to build knowledge
How personnel systems lose wars (this one is so true – and needs to more attention)
The importance of language skills for SOF personnel
The fact that SOF is and should be the primary actor in GPC – competing in the gray zone prior to conflict
Finally, towards the end there is a question posed as to what SOF should look like in IW. I’d offer it looks like a lot of things, but one of those is highly trained SF/CA/PSYOP forces out there doing there jobs. It’s the investment in human capital, not impressive tech, that will move the needle.
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First, I know there are some units and job specialties that never got away from extended field training. There are also some training events, tank gunnery, for example, which almost always serve as a form of extended field training.
Second, I don’t actually “love” being out in the field – as others might claim they do. I enjoy training, and I view being out in the field as a necessary part of being in the profession – this is how we train. That doesn’t mean I enjoy being bitten by strange insects, being overly cold or hot, sleep-deprived, and away from friends and family. “The field” is where we train – so it must be endured.
Third, this is an Army-centric observation. But I’d be curious to know how extended training exercises have (or have not) changed in the other services since the beginning of the GWOT.
Finally – I love my smartphone and bring it with me to the field (when appropriate/allowed).
Ok, warnings complete.
The below is a trend that I have observed over the past twenty years and something that I’ve been thinking about recently, as the profession turns towards thinking about how to train and prepare for future conflicts.
When I first joined the Army, just before the start of the GWOT, it was not uncommon to conduct extended field training at home station. These were not field exercises tied to an upcoming CTC rotation or pre-mission training for a pending deployment. These were just training exercises that we did regularly. Ten-day field problems, in fact, seemed to be the gold standard. Deploy to the field on a Monday or Tuesday, and come back the Wednesday or Thursday of the following week.
Of course, this meant that you would be training over a weekend.
These were painful training exercises where days dragged on and bled into one another. We lost track of time and what day it was. And it wasn’t fun to be out in the field for that long away from family, friends, and civilization.
Ten days is a long time, and it is almost certain to rain.
But I’d be lying if I said these weren’t some of the best training experiences I’ve ever had. You just can’t replicate the training value of extended field operations. You can’t replicate it with classes, VR simulations, hip-pocket training, or out-and-back field problems where you don’t actually live, eat, work, and sleep in the field.
Being out there over time has its own value. You learn things about yourself. You learn how to adjust your kit. You learn fieldcraft from your peers. You learn how to operate as a small team, out there. You learn the strengths and weaknesses of yourself and your teammates.
These extended field exercises are where units get good.
For me, these early training exercises occurred at a time before the smartphone.
When we went to the field, we were really cut off from the rest of the world. We could completely focus on training – there was literally nothing else to do.
Then the wars started.
And to quote an unknown French general: “War ruins a perfectly good Army.”
Lots of things changed during the first couple of years of the GWOT. One of those things was a reluctance to conduct extended field training.
I remember coming home from my first deployment and learning that conducting any type of training over a weekend would require the Division Commander’s approval. That essentially put an end to extended field training at home station. The unspoken subtext here was “you better have a damn good reason for wanting to train over a weekend.”
This was well-received by nearly everyone. We were all veterans now and had experienced real combat. Why would we need to be out in the field for over a week anymore?
This mandate – which I understand became widespread at the time – had pure intentions. It was meant to preserve family time at home at a time when we knew we would face repeat deployments. It was a good thing.
As a result, field problems at home station became increasingly short.
Smart leaders know it’s not a good idea to deploy to the field on a Monday or return on a Friday.
We started seeing a lot of two or three day field exercises.
Any training is good training, but squeezing in an FTX between Monday and Friday is not the same as being out there for five, seven or ten days on end.
This is not to say extended field training didn’t happen. It did. CTC rotations necessitate longer times in the field. And units routinely engaged in progressive train-ups (squad level STX/live-fires –> platoon level STX/live-fires –> company level STX/live-fires, etc.). Many of these train-ups occurred over longer periods of time – a week or more.
But the trend, so it appears, is that these types of extended field exercises are occurring less frequently.
Unfortunately, I think a lot of the changes we implemented during the GWOT (with good intentions) are ingrained and hard to budge from. Asking a formation to stay out in the field for longer periods of time – over weekends – is tough. You are asking them to miss family events, social functions, and hobbies.
On top of this – and this one hurts – we really need to improve our electromagnetic signatures – not just with our military equipment but with our personal devices. Not only do our smartphones and watches emit signals which put us at risk of detection, but being connected (during combat) opens us up to an entire world of threats.
When cellphones – and then smartphones – emerged and became ubiquitious over a decade ago, commanders at all levels had to wrestle with their permissibility in the field. It was not uncommon early on for commanders to outright ban bringing phones to the field.
That seems to have changed as well. Banning phones seems heavy-handed and overly harsh.
We have become so accustomed to constant contact that the idea of leaving the smartphone at home teeters on unreasonable.
What if there is an emergency? What if I’m expecting an important call from someone?
It’s all very strange, because times have changed. And that expectation of constant contact is real. The world we live in today is not the world we lived in during the 1990s or early 2000s.
But the threats that we are likely to face in a future conflict have changed as well, and they are very real.
And they carry serious consequences.
These changes create additional challenges for commanders to contend with. None of them are easy.
Much of the discussion surrounding future conflicts revolve around improvements in technology and leveraging that tech on the battlefield. Getting the best tech and employing it tactically is important.
But as our own wargames (and FICINT scenarios) demonstrate, the opening shots of a conflict between great powers will likely ‘cancel out’ many of the tech advantages of each actor. With that, the side that is able to operate in a tech ‘blackout’ – while leveraging that same tech when available – will likely have the advantage.
This means a return to extended field training to develop the analog skills required when all that tech goes down. This means training in “tech blackout” conditions. This means using communications windows (to include use of personal devices) to replicate what we may face on the battlefield.
There is a way to bring back this type of training without being overly harsh about it or creating unsafe conditions. It takes deliberate planning, unit buy-in, creativity, and empathy. But it can be done.
And if we are serious about the profession, and winning the next conflict, it is necessary.
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“The unique part of this VR training is that it’s voice-activated, so you’re required to say things out loud that maybe you’ve never had to say before,” said Master Sgt. Shawn Dougherty, a VR training facilitator at Travis, in a press release. “Actually saying phrases like ‘do you have a gun in the house’ or ‘are you thinking about harming yourself.’ We’ve seen over this week, even with squadron leadership, saying uncomfortable phrases like that, they actually say them quieter than other phrases that they’re more comfortable with. “
Dougherty said the training is helpful because it allows airmen to “get those reps” asking those questions so that they are more familiar if they have to ask them in a real-life situation.
You’re a company commander. You spent the entire year training your company on their mission essential tasks. You developed, wrote, and published a solid unit training plan that methodically trained the inidividual and collective tasks of everyone in the unit.
You’re nearing the end of your command and it’s time for the big event – the culminating exercise that you’ve been working towards. The one you’ve been telling everyone about. The one who naysayers laughed off as too complex. You have enablers and units participating from outside of your organization. You invited your leadership (and their leadership) to observe and provide guidance.
It’s all perfect.
You get out there, you’re on the ground, and things seem to be happening. You occupy the land, tents and antenna are going up, soldiers are laughing and working – spirits are up and everything is coming together.
You suddenly get a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach.
Did we tell range control about this? Did we reserve this land?
You shake it off. The enthusiasm of the soldiers is evident. They’re excited for the training. Some of the external enablers start showing up and shake your hand with a big grin, excited to be part of this training.
You check the map. Are we even in a training area?
Is this… a golf course?
You realize that none of this has been done the right way. Somehow, you forgot to reserve the training area (typically done at least three months out) or coordinate with range operations to occupy and conduct training.
You wonder, should I tell anyone? The soldiers look so enthusiastic. How embarressing would it be to tell everyone that you messed up and we have to pack it up and go home. Should you even call range control? You’re supposed to be out here for a week.
Maybe no one will notice?
This isn’t real. This was a stupid nightmare I had the other night.
Training anywhere is mired in administrative minutiae – mostly for good reason – safety and scheduling. It is very easy to miss a key requirement which could tank a training plan.
There’s something about being exposed to administrative heat and light over time that can make you intrinsically fearful of that wrath. More so than anything “real.”
Advice I’ve always lived by is “the fastest way through a dense bureaucracy is directly through it.” That is, don’t try to find the short cut or go around it. Just do the work right and do it early. It’s (usually) faster.
The stress of administrative mistakes is a real thing. Maybe it’s related to high allostatic load.
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I wrote this with my old First Sergeant over the past year. If you want to train your Company to standard this might be a good place to start.
A step-by-step guide to develop a Unit Training Plan for a Company based on Army doctrine.
From the intro:
Last year, we served as a Company Command team of a Psychological Operations Headquarters and Support Company in a “Regional” Psychological Operations Battalion aligned to the Central Command area of responsibility – an extremely niche unit. As a new Company Commander with a background mostly in infantry units and a First Sergeant with similar experiences, we faced a steep learning curve in understanding what UTM is, why it matters, and how to implement it. Together, we educated ourselves on the program, attended training when possible, met with subject matter experts at TRADOC to build understanding, and engaged in self-development by devouring all that we could on the subject. As a result, we developed a Unit Training Plan (UTP) that included valuable input from junior and senior leaders within the Company, trained against our METs, and were objectively assessed in accordance with the current training and evaluation outlines (TE&O).
By titling the piece as so, the writers/editors are trying to paint a picture of a sleepy Army, worn out from war and now struggling to deal with the mundane tasks back home, in “garrison.”
Read the article. It’s the same piece that has been written for the past ten years. Young soldiers go overseas, see some crazy shit, come back and then talk about how it was really exciting and they look forward to going back. Junior officers are talked up about how much they are doing relative to their rank. Everyone loves going to war where they get to do their job.
This particular article doesn’t really discuss any changes back home, in “garrison.” It’s all just training like it’s always been. The only difference is that instead of titling the article vanilla like “What’s Going On in the Army Right Now” they titled it as they did, the supposition being that everyone is spending their days picking up cigarette butts.
There is a prominent myth that is couched in the article that the Army is filled with a bunch of very young soldiers with multiple deployments, which isn’t quite accurate (anymore). Most of the junior soldiers in a given unit joined in the last few years and have not deployed at all, or maybe once – and that may have been to close-out Iraq (a relatively tame deployment). The NCOs, on the other hand, have been in for awhile and they likely have multiple deployments. It is the senior NCOs/Officers who likely have three or more deployments. What I mean to say, is that there isn’t this horde of E1-E4s who are drunk on combat but now trapped in a “garrison” Army with nothing to do and going crazy. It’s mostly the same E1-E4s that we’ve always had, which is its own thing with its own problem set. The combat hardened veterans are mostly men and women in senior company or above positions. They’ve been through this already.
I get what’s going on here. The New York Times is writing a story about the Army on the timeline of 2001-2014, but the actual Army that exists, exists only ephemerally, forming slowly and hardening in a three to four year timeline before everyone PCSs/ETSs and it starts all over again. The garrison Army that the media keeps talking about just isn’t here yet. I’ve been countering the garrison narrative since I started this blog in 2011 and it hasn’t stopped.
What annoys me about these articles though is the way they get digested as fact. People will read this (people including soldiers, and leaders of soldiers) and see the headline which will lead them to process the text of the article differently than if it had been titled “Army Prepares for Future Wars.” Senior leaders will look out over their formations and think they see a bunch of hardened combat veterans, good at “war” but bad at “garrison” whatever that means.
Meanwhile, nothing has changed but the narrative.
I have friends who just got back from deployment, friends who are deployed now, and friends who are getting ready to deploy shortly. Just yesterday the Department of Defense announced another soldier was killed in Afghanistan. Whether we like it or not, we are still at war. We are not in “garrison.”
The current training tempo is hard and fast. If by “garrison” Army they meant a force that is either deployed, returning from deployment, or training for deployment, than I guess they got it right. But I don’t think that is what they meant.
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There are some things in life I feel strongly about. No Super Bowl will be greater than Super Bowl 42. Reality television is simultaneously everything that is great and terrible aboutAmerica. And you must adhere to the declination diagram of a given map! Here at Fort Benning, declination is usually glossed over as unimportant.
“It’s only 4˚ gentlemen, you don’t even have to use it.”
At its worst, I sat dumbfounded in a land navigation class as the instructor said that to get a magnetic azimuth you SUBTRACT the G-M angle from the grid azimuth. After the class, I spoke with him, confident that to get a magnetic azimuth at Fort Benning you add 4˚ to the grid azimuth. I was told I was wrong, because “General (Grid) to Major (Magnetic) is a demotion, so you subtract.” I’m sure that he learned that somewhere, at another post, where that mnemonic worked. It doesn’t work at Fort Benning, and if you did indeed subtract, you would be off azimuth by 8˚, which is certainly not negligible (double the numbers at the diagram I have at the bottom).
What is declination? From FM 3-25.26 (Map Reading and Land Navigation):
Declination is the angular difference between any two norths. If you have a map and a compass, the one of most interest to you will be between magnetic and grid north. The declination diagram shows the angular relationship, represented by prongs, among grid, magnetic and true norths. While the relative positions of the prongs are correct, they are seldom plotted to scale. Do not use the diagram to measure a numerical value,. This value will be written in the map margin (in both degrees and mils) beside the diagram.
In more basic terms, any azimuth you get using a protractor is not useable on the ground until it is converted using the declination diagram. At Fort Benning, to get a magnetic azimuth from a grid azimuth, you add the G-M angle which is 4˚ (70 mils). If, for example, you plotted an azimuth of 90˚ to a point, you would have to shoot a magnetic azimuth of 94˚ in order to walk the actual azimuth you plotted.
I’m assuming that most instructors advise students to ignore the G-M angle for simplicity. It might be too confusing to add 4˚ to a grid azimuth.
I’m a firm believer in using the G-M angle because it is the actual correct azimuth. To ignore it is accepting that you will not walk exactly where you intend to. When navigating, it seems most people tend to drift to the right. That might explain why so many people swear by ignoring the G-M angle – their drifting right actually puts them on the right azimuth!
The map above shows how declination works at Fort Benning. From the start point (SP) at the road on the left I plotted a 90˚ azimuth to the road on the right. If you added the G-M angle (4˚) and walked a perfectly straight azimuth of 94˚, you would walk along the bottom line. If you did not add the G-M angle and instead walked a perfectly straight azimuth of 90˚, you would walk along the top line. The numbers on the bottom line are the distances in meters and the numbers on the top line are the approximate distances off azimuth a navigator would be at the given ranges.
So, for example, by ignoring the G-M angle, you would be off by approximately 50 meters after walking 300 meters. Not a big deal if you are looking for something big, like a house. But if you’re looking for a small orange and white box on a six foot stake in the woods, obscured by foliage and sadistically placed in the most out-of-sight-spot, at night, it might be hard to see that from half a football field away.
As you move further along your un-declinated azimuth, the distance only widens. At 600 meters, you are just under 100 meters off azimuth. At 1 kilometer you would be about 130 meters off. 1500 meters: 200 meters off.
Of course, a good way to compensate for this is to understand the terrain you will be traversing. If I was walking the 94˚ azimuth in the diagram, I would know that to get from one road to the other I would be crossing the creek at just over 1000 meters and then crossing a second creek at about 1500 meters. If I chose not to add the G-M angle, I would still cross the creek, but that would happen at about 600 meters. Coming up to the creek 400 meters too soon should give the navigator pause and he should stop to figure out what is going on.
The “oh by the way” of this is I have plenty of friends who have successfully completed land navigation courses here without using the declination diagram. They may have drifted into their correct azimuth or used a combination of land navigation techniques to improve their chances of finding their points. The point is, at Fort Benning it is possible to ignore the G-M angle and still do well. But why knowingly handicap yourself when all you have to do is add 4˚?
I’ve done the Red Diamond Land Navigation course at Fort Benning almost a dozen times since arriving here last October. I consider myself pretty good at land nav, I know the course pretty well, and I’ve scored 8/8 every single time I’ve done the course.
Except this past week.
I was not able to attend the last Ranger School class because I needed a waiver, so I had to complete (again) IBOLC’s “mini-RAP week,” which is a series of training events like the ones Ranger students will face during Ranger Assessment Phase (RAP) week in Ranger School. The major events are the Ranger Physical Fitness Test (RPFT), land navigation, and a 12 mile foot march. The RPFT and the 12 mile foot march are mostly physical events. If a person is in good shape, he (or she) will usually pass.
Normally, I go all out when I’m doing land navigation. I don’t try to make it easier by shuffling through the score sheets as they’re being passed around, looking for a lane with easy points. I take a sheet and pass the pile along. When the course begins, I plot my points and take off. I run the course. And when I get all of my points, I run back to the start, regardless of how much time is remaining.
This time, however, I wanted to try things a little differently.
Around 80˚, humidity somewhere near 100%. Half moon in the sky.
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.
Eh, just walk another 50-75 meters. You usually find it then.
Still no point.
Okay, start boxing out. Small circles.
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.”
Box out, semi-circles. Still nothing.
I spend about 45 minutes looking for this point because it is so clearly marked on the map. To miss it would be a crime. (It turns out the graders said this particular point has a bad plot – it is actually on the east of the road.)
At this point, I’ve killed two hours. I have three to go. I have collected zero points. I haven’t been running the course, so these early mistakes cost me more time than they normally would have.
Still, I don’t panic. I’ve got three hours to go. The sun is coming up. I’ll get the next point and then run the rest. I’ll grab 6/8 without a problem and escape with my dignity.
I’m heading to my third point, which is the point furthest from the start point. On the way there, I come across a known point. I plot my position and record my azimuth to the next point. 350 meters at 313˚. Nice and easy.
I take off at a jog, eager to make up time now. On the map I have the point plotted in some low ground between two spurs. I hit 350 meters and I’m dead between two spurs. The sun is out and I can see clearly.
No point around me.
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.
I take a deep breath and take a knee, pulling out my map. I recheck the original plot.
Crap. I misplotted. The point is about 100 meters to the east of where I plotted it. I recalculated my azimuth from the known point, and instead of 313˚, it is more like 335˚.
I run back to that point and reshoot the azimuth at 335˚. I run the azimuth at 350 meters.
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 beeneasy 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.
“Part of me wants to be hard as nails, the other part of me wants to chiiiiiiiillllllllllllll.”
In the days and weeks leading up to my now delayed Ranger School class, every moment, meal, and quiet nothing took on monumental significance. Driving somewhere on post with a couple of buddies, we discussed the two axes of thought regarding any impending military event, in this case, Ranger School. The spartan in us wanted to do nothing but read the Ranger Handbook, drink water, and train. The sybarite in us wanted to do nothing but go out, party, and soak up every vice allowed in the final moments before disappearing into the woods/mountains/swamps. These two opposing thought patterns exist simultaneously.
The thing that drew many of us to the military in the first place and the infantry specifically was the shot at adventure and the opportunity to be hard. In that hardening process, a deeper appreciation is gained for the simple things in life. An old Army buddy once marveled at the civilian’s freedom to sit down wherever and whenever he pleases, for example.
Imbibing and gorging before a sleep-away camp like Ranger School satisfies the craving to enjoy life now while it is still under control, but sabotages training for the same. Any time some great luxury sits in front of me, it’s hard to resist knowing that when I’m taking a knee on a mountaintop with a shrunken stomach in the near future, I’ll want to slip back in time and dropkick my old self for not eating the freaking pizza. But any thoughts in that food/sleep deprived state aren’t entirely rational and cannot be taken as absolute truth.
What are we training for? This is the question that anyone who trains has to ask. There is a tendency out there (myself included) to think that by virtue of tough training, we’ve bought our permission to enjoy the things that set us back (name your vice). In fairness, I know some people who seem to be able to train hard and party hard all the time. I don’t know how they do it, but I know that I can’t. If I want to achieve something difficult, I have to commit to be all in.
And that’s hard.
“I’m calling you a killer. A natural born killer. You always have been, and you always will be. Moving to El Paso, working in a used record store, goin’ to the movies with Tommy, clipping coupons. That’s you, trying to disguise yourself as a worker bee. That’s you tryin’ to blend in with the hive. But you’re not a worker bee. You’re a renegade killer bee. And no matter how much beer you drank or barbecue you ate or how fat your ass got, nothing in the world would ever change that.” -Bill, to the Bride (Kill Bill)
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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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