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A Poor Sailor Blames the Wind

One of the best jobs I ever had was commanding a battalion responsible for transforming raw recruits into Soldiers. There are many great professionals involved in this very difficult mission, but the key to successfully training young men and women lies with the Drill Sergeant. This is a tough job which tends to wear out our NCOs, so the Army normally limits a Drill Sergeant’s time “on the trail” to two years. This means that every training unit experiences 50% turnover in its most critical personnel every year.

Training units responsible for Army Basic Combat Training are typically required to brief their performance and training achievements semi-annually. This consists of a series of briefings from subordinate companies which are then rolled into battalion briefings and presented to a General Officer somewhere up the chain. In typical Army fashion these briefings are most often PowerPoint marathons where staffs compile and present often-meaningless statistics that “prove” the unit is doing a great job training young recruits and managing their training cadre.

Likely the most mockable portion of these briefings is the inevitable “Red, Amber, Green” assessment (or T,P,U assessment where units report if they are “Trained, need Practice, or are Untrained”) which require some form of assessment by commanders about their own units. There is usually some magical formula behind the ratings that give the appearance of objectivity to the proceedings.

A few years ago, as a new battalion commander, I got to watch a series of these briefings where I saw nearly every company commander report themselves as Amber or “needs Practice” on the Mission Essential Task of “Train Soldiers.” The reasoning behind the Amber rating was that each unit had “lots of new Drill Sergeants who lacked the experience to get us to Green.” This was usually acknowledged with a sympathetic knod.

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Saying Farewell: How we treat people who leave matters

When I was a young lieutenant I was in a really great unit. The leaders were engaged, and it seemed like everyone was truly dedicated to the Army and the mission. The culture in that unit was very pro-career, and nearly every young officer spoke of long-term career goals.

But occasionally, a young officer would show up that only planned on completing their initial obligation, typically 4-5 years. They had other career and life aspirations, and didn’t think they wanted to stay on active duty for the next 20 years.

These officers were typically looked down on and often treated as second-class citizens. Sure, most of them were as competent as the next guy, but that didn’t matter. They were quitters. They didn’t love this profession the way the rest of us did.

It was easy to adopt this kind of attitude. You were “in” and they weren’t.

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Urban Legends, Myths, and the Irrational Tendency to Ignore Facts

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Mark Twain

A few months ago I attended a High School soccer match downtown which was scheduled to end just in time to get the spectators (who were largely from the suburbs) out into afternoon traffic. As the game wound down the usual debate began amongst the local traffic experts sitting in the stands about how to make the 25 mile drive back to our home town. “Take I-40 straight to 67 then go on up,” says one. “You’ll be stuck for an hour that way. Better to go through town and up I-30,” retorts another expert. “I never go that way at this time of day! It’s sure to be backed up,” says a third. I watched in fascination as these guys speculated as to the likelihood of traffic delays and the usual traffic patterns. No consensus was found and I was interested as to whether this was going to turn into a live experiment after the game.

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Potato Peelers and a Culture of Innovation

spudsIn the summer of 2013 I went to work with the Chief of Staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group (SSG) in DC. The group was set up to do some innovative thinking and produce some ideas of value to the CSA and the Army. The director of the SSG at the time was a retired US Army Colonel with a PhD named Dave. When my cohort first arrived at the SSG, Dave told us a story about why we were there that has stuck with me ever since.

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Walking on the Grass: Abandon Outdated Constraints

As a young captain I was privileged to serve on the staff at the US Army War College at Carlisle Barracks. Carlisle is a beautiful post with a rich history, and I truly enjoyed being in that environment. Among the most impressive buildings there is Upton Hall which has an interesting history of its own. At the time I served there it housed the Military History Institute, and sported a beautiful green lawn that would be the envy of many golf courses. In the corner of this pristine lawn stood a small, obscure sign that read, “Please walk on the grass.”

The first time I saw it I did a double take. Walk on the grass? Wasn’t this an Army post? Every private and every cadet is taught from the very beginning not to walk on the grass. Why in the world would this sign be there? Continue reading

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Stamp Out Stupid

arty

I heard this story a few years ago and have no clue who the folks involved are, but recognize the value of the lesson here…

In the late 1980s a graduate student studying military training spent a day observing an artillery crew going through crew drills. She spent hours watching the crew prepare, load and fire their cannon. The crew followed each and every step perfectly, showing exceptional discipline and training. The graduate student mapped the purpose of each step to her understanding of the gun, and the needs of the crew. Every step made sense to her… the swabbing of the barrel, the loading of the explosive charges, the positioning of every soldier on the crew… it all made sense. All of the movements were economical, purposeful, and important. All but one.

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Knowing when to tap and when to keep rolling: Are you quitting too early?

As a battalion Executive Officer I had a robust physical training program for my staff. It included functional fitness, sport, and combatives. I always liked combatives, but I never had any real training in grappling. So I would get out there and flounder around with my staff and do my best. During the boxing training I did fine, but during the ground training I was truly making it up as I went, and it showed. After getting twisted up by my supply chief one morning (which included an all-expenses-paid visit to the ER and a dashing neck brace) I vowed I wouldn’t “roll” with people bigger than me until I learned how to do it right.

I moved to another job soon after that, and, as luck would have it, they had a great combatives program. I took them up on their offer to train jiu jitsu a couple of times a week. The first thing I learned is to leave your ego at the edge of the mat. The second (which goes hand in hand with the first) is to “tap out” when someone has you in a submission, preferably before you get injured. During my first week in class I got paired up with a very large, well-trained Special Forces captain. “Great,” I thought. “This is going to be fun…”

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