Writing Method


As you all may have gathered, I write fiction. In a given work, there are usually numerous characters. Each character has to be carefully tracked, and interwoven with the others. This can be a chore if you don’t have a plan.

Today I’d like to talk a little about how I lay out and execute these outlines, plans, or arcs.

It all starts with a cup of coffee. Before I commit a single word to the computer, I pace about, usually early in the morning, and visualize where I’d like to go with the book from start to finish.

Once I have a decent idea about the start and end point, I write up an outline using a basic formula. I’ve pasted a loose example below. Note: this is not original to me. For the full, fleshed out version read an excellent little book called “Save the Cat!”

Beat Sheet for notes.

Act I  First 25 pages

Opening Image– “Snapshot of the world before the story begins.”

Theme Stated– State what your story is about before the adventure begins.

Set Up– Show the hero “at Home, at Work, at Play.” Tell us about his world.

Catalyst– Something that sets the story into motion

Debate– Where a hero doubts the journey he must take.

Act II Page 25-85 Act two is 2x size of others

Break into Two– The hero must make a proactive choice to step into Act Two.  This is where he makes the now-or-never decision to go forward.

B-Story– The person that assists the hero, and teaches him the lessons of the journey. Often a love interest.

Fun and Games– This is the poster of the movie. Explore new world hero has entered.

Midpoint– No turning back. Stakes are raised. False victory, or false defeat. Time clock. Pace picks up.

 Bad Guys Close In-Pressure is applied either internally (hero team problems), or externally (bad guys tighten grip).

All is lost– Something dies. Hero transforms- sloughs off old skin. Mentors, etc. die here. Stripped of everything that makes him feel safe.

Dark Night of the Soul– “Why hast thou forsaken me?”


 Break into three– Thanks to new info, hero steps to new level and goes all the way.

Finale– Final exam for hero. Act one, hero has problems. Act Two, learned about problems and some small part of him dies. Act three, final test to see if he’s learned his lessons.

Gather team, load up. This is the “swords sharpening” scene.

Storm the castle. After a couple of minutes of righteous ass-kicking, the bad guy springs his trap.

Hightower surprise. The Emperor strikes.

Rally! Where brains are eaten, and the hero digs deep.

Execute new plan. Use the force, not your puny radar.

Final Image– Snapshot of the world after, the mirror image of opening scene. Think butterflies.

Now, I do try to incorporate these “beats” into my arcs and stories, but keep in mind that this is a guide, not a technical manual to be followed lock-step. Also, you CAN write a book without such a “beat sheet,” but the results might be messy. For example, my very first book (In the Valley) was written without an outline, let alone the deliberate story template posted above. Personally, I think it shows. My next book, “The Captain’s Cauldron,” was planned, but I still wasn’t satisfied. By the time I had reached the final book in the trilogy, “Immolation,” there had been enough accumulated reader feedback and experience that I could not only draw up a decent outline, but I knew what readers wanted, specifically.

The School of Hard Knocks, “Save the Cat!,” reader input, and the crucial advice of a friend, author and mentor led to the “Beat Sheet Cheat Sheet” that I posted above.

It works, and these days I take it into account when I lay out and plan books and arcs.

OK, I read back through this post, and I don’t think I described “arc” well enough. An individual character arc is one character’s journey through the narrative. It doesn’t have to hit all the beats (because those can be covered by other characters), but it does need to conform with the central narrative. A story is a tapestry, everything needs to intertwine. It’s crucial to have a plan. I learned this the hard way, and if there are new authors out there reading this, I can’t stress this enough.

So after coffee drinking, I lay out the given arc using the Beat Sheet Cheat Sheet. There is a master outline for the entire book with individual character Point-of-Views (POVs) described for each beat (this is created first), then there are the individual arc outlines. I usually describe each beat with a short paragraph, then I step back and look at the whole to see if it makes sense. Using this method, I try to avoid plot holes or unresolved characters.

Once this is done, it’s time to write. Writing goes a lot faster when the planning is done beforehand. Also, there is much less waste. Nothing sucks worse than spending all day on something, and then having to throw it away (or having your document crash. Save always and often. And back it up on a geek stick).

Alright, that’s my bit for today about writing. Hopefully this is helpful to someone- I wish I would have seen something like this before I started on “Valley.”

And yes, I am currently involved in doing what I have described above.

No brainer


I recently came across an article that discussed the need for the US DOD to come up with a new rifle for its combatants. Wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard the need for a new US infantry weapon discussed.

Look, the M4/M16 series of rifles is pretty darn good. But they’re not foolproof, and they require a high degree of training and discipline to keep running right. I may have mentioned this before, but I have witnessed what happens when you give more-or-less untrained soldiers the M16a2 in combat- a whole lot of stoppages and pissed off, endangered troops.

It always seems to come down to the same thing with the M16. The gas-impingement system “shits where it eats,” i.e. hot gasses are ported directly to the bolt for semi-auto or automatic function. This results in a buildup of carbon on the bolt and in the chamber area which will cause the weapon to perform sluggishly, or not at all.

The cure? Rigorous maintenance, daily care and cleaning. Every day, every mission. Without fail.

My M4 worked every time I pulled the trigger. However, others have had different experiences.

It shouldn’t be this way. There is <zero> excuse for the world’s best funded military to have a rifle that is prone to fail if neglected somewhat. The HK 416, otherwise known as the M27, seems to solve a lot of the M16’s problems, while capitalizing on its strengths and logistics.

I don’t see why this is an issue. The USMC has already begun wide-scale adoption of the M27, in my opinion the Army should too.

It really is a no-brainer.

In other news, I am typing like mad on my current project(s)- there’s about 31k words done on one book alone. I think I’m putting out decent product from feedback I’ve received thus far, but I await a broader audience during the beta phase of the project. That phase is still some months away as of yet. This is going to be a big book, and I believe it will see the light of day next year.

And of course, there is the exciting news about Hayabusa2, the Japanese spacecraft that landed on an asteroid! How flipping cool is that? Click on the link and check it out.

Cheers, J

Tourists and Big Flippin’ Rockets


When Elon Musk tweets (or does interviews), people listen. Of course, that’s a double edged sword. Today Mr. Musk tweeted out some cool stuff.

Whoa, check out the latest rendering of the BFR spaceship from Space X, it’s a peek at the next generation in spacecraft from the ambitious company. Mr. Musk just put this out, and he intends on announcing the world’s first moon tourist today, the 17th of September 2018, at 6PM US PST.

But don’t let me go on and on. Check out this article for a deeper look at what’s happening and some more images of the BFR.

In other news, just attended a reunion of Advisor Team 1.6, it was good to see the guys. I am floored that seven years have gone by since Afghanistan, it seems to have happened in the blink of an eye.

Also, I’ve been working non-stop on a collaboration that spans three continents, it’s quite a project. Learning a lot.

At this stage I can say with confidence that nothing with my grubby prints will come out before the new year, but 2019 should be pretty good.

Cheers, JL

The End of the Road

col TNT grin

The Final Installment of the Special Forces Series.

We wrapped up the interview with Howard’s final mission, leading a team of combat advisors in Afghanistan.

I asked him what the most memorable moment was.

He said, “Actually, it was you (JL) getting into that firefight.”

“Arzangan. I remember the night before Arzangan, we had those shitheads that we knew had tried to put that IED on the road for us when we went in…I wonder some of the shit that was going on in there…whether we got the full story on some of those assholes.”

“But I remember thinking OK, we know we’re going to go into Arzangan, I remember sitting and having a talk with Charles Bronson (nickname, JL), (REDACTED), who was in charge of the police and Colonel Safi. (REDACTED) said, yeah, it’s my own guys who are spillin’ it. They’re telling the bad guys that we’re comin’.  And it was he who said, let’s set a trap. We’re going to tell them (the Afghan National Police, JL) we’re going north, but what you guys need to do is in the middle of the night go south, on foot. Surround the little village, and once you’ve set up a cordon, we’ll call them (the ANP, JL).”

“I remember that we had had that talk…I went out on a mission with Hajzer that got cut short…I remember that’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to set it all up.”

“I had to make a couple of calls that night, and one of them that I regret was that we didn’t have enough interpreters to go around. I didn’t have a ‘terp with me. I had some people who had a little English, but it wasn’t good enough. It was a risk, it ended up not being a problem, but had I to do it again, I would have done something different.”

col p in potfi

“Also, I would not have used Goddamn guides. ‘Cause we had a guide who said “oh, I know where to go” and he took us some circuitous route (I laughed, my final combat mission got screwed up by a guide as well). Trying to get on top of the hill, it’s barely light and we realized we’re about a klick off. ‘Cause you guys were way down in the valley. And we were supposed to be looking directly down on where you guys were and we were out of position. The Afghan company commander pushed some guys down there, so we had some bodies out there, but we didn’t have the entire company.”

“And then I remember the fire starting. The firefight starting. And the immediate “OK. We’ve done this before, we know what we’re doing,” and then the wheels began to turn. Fuchs and Buettner (our JTACS, or forward controllers) started getting everything together. I turned to them and said “get me some air.” I waited before I called you, because you were just developing the situation. But, of course, back at Camp Barata they’re going “What’s going on?” in Hungarian, which was very helpful.” (Combat operations in four or five different languages could be convoluted. English, Hungarian, German, Dari and Pashto.)

“Thankfully, we had the gringo channel, and we all dropped down to the gringo channel so we could talk. I did have dual comms, which was a very big thing we had learned from our first firefight. But then having that rolling, and then talking to you I was just realizing that having gotten everything moving in the right direction, there wasn’t anything else for me to do but stand up there.”

“I remember asking you whether you needed illum (illumination flares), you said “No, we know where they are.” And I thought this was going to be fun getting those idiots back there to fire illum mortars… Yeah, just standing back waiting for the situation to develop.”

“It felt surreal. Watching the fight go on and thinking “What else should I be doing? What else needs to be happening right now?” Everything was already turning, everything was moving in the right direction. And then the firefight started to subside, and I started getting more information from you, pushing people in the right direction. The Police were already on the way, cause they had gotten tipped, but they still didn’t show up for another hour.”

“It was a little while after that I got down into the village. I didn’t get to the site of your fight, but I did get to where they were holding all the other shitheads. You know, the same thing we were talking about…the lamentations of their women. But our kids were going off to prison, or whatever they ended up doing with them.”

“I dunno. There are a million things I’d do differently, but I couldn’t tell you the first thing.”

I thanked him for the interview, held on the 26thof August, 2018 from roughly 1100hrs to 1300.

As long as I live, I’ll never forget this remarkable man, or the others I served with on Team 1.6.

It’s been an honor to share LTC Pearce’s tale.

col p at top



Part five of a six part series.

The moment when Howard went from being “the lieutenant” to “Sir” was when his team was called upon to serve in Eritrea.

“It was in East Africa, no-one had been in Eritrea in forever…just three years earlier they had won a civil war, they had won their independence from Ethiopia…We were dealing with the Eritrean fighters, they were some hardened warriors. I’d equate them very much with the Afghans we worked with…They knew what they were doing.”

“These fuckers moved faster at night then they moved during the day,..I remember getting the team out and then realizing, I am six hours from the nearest gringo, I am out here with 200 of these cats and four Americans. We’re it. Our plan in case we got an American hurt was coming up on the SATCOM and seeing if there was a carrier group in the Red Sea; that was our exfil.”

Howard sat down with a representative from the US Embassy. The man said “You’re going to be in-country for about three weeks. Here’s what I expect of you. You’re going to be a self-licking ice-cream cone. I expect you to come in today and tell me what you’re going to do, and in three weeks I expect you to come in here and tell me that you’re done, and I’ve heard nothing else about what you guys are doing.”

What could the young Green Beret say, other than “Roger?”

Howard returned to his unit. “Yeah, you’re in command, but you’re not in charge of everything. Your team sergeants are getting things done, you’re listening to people. You’re taking their input- then you become “Sir.” They will back you up; when you make that call they will back you up.”

Howard talked a little bit about when a team becomes a team. “The real After Action Review (AAR) comes in the truck on the way back when guys say “What the fuck…” When you can pick the pieces up and execute the next day just a little bit better…that’s when you know you’ve got a team.”

He provided me with a vignette from Eritrea.

“We had a monster team…my twelve guys and four guys from 5th Group.” Originally the plan had been to split people up, but Howard was able to talk the in-country SF commander, a soldier named Binford, into his way of thinking. Much later, I learned that Howard is a master of the Jedi mind trick technique- convincing others that his plan is best, all while the hapless victim believes Howard’s plan was his from the start.

“I had three ‘Nam vets on the team, including one SF ‘Nam vet. I had police officers…they were the only ones with practical knowledge about pop-up-and-shoot-back targets…I ended up pushing out to a place called Ghatelay, which was down by the Red Sea.”


(REDACTED paragraph)

“So these guys are in active combat in all kinds of places while we’re in there trying to teach them how to fight… I remember sitting down with some of their officers, I was a late twenty year old captain sitting down with their battalion commander, a man in his forties. I said, Sir, let’s talk about ambushes.”

The Eritrean commander replied, “You mean linear, U-shaped or L-shaped.”

Howard was surprised. He said “Oh, you’ve got this.”

The Eritrean replied through the interpreter. “You need to understand that we’re fighters. I’ve got 30 year old men inside my unit with fifteen years of combat experience. But you, you are soldiers. We need to become soldiers.”

And that is precisely what the US Army brings to the table in these types of affairs. So, some US officers got together with the Eritreans and they ran tabletop exercises of battles they had actually fought in the past, such as the fight for the causeway in Massawa.

“There were bad guys, Ethiopians, on the island, and they started sending battalions, one after another, up the causeway. They started to talk about “Did you have any supporting fires?” “No.” “Were you supported by fires from other battalions?” ”No.” This led into a discussion about the grit of combat operations, logistics and supply.

“We talked about how commanders had to write orders to coordinate with one another, while the soldiers focused on the tactical.”

“We ended up doing night battalion live fires, with no illumination.”

(A brief note from JL- very, very dangerous.)

“That’s how these cats worked.”

“I never knew that RPG’s spun. That they skipped and spun…we set up these big plywood targets, lit up with chem lights. In the morning, when you went out to look at it, you would see the perfect outline of an RPG-7 round, including the fins, where it had spun through the target. Then your next problem was we gotta go find those rounds, cause there’s goats and herdsmen all through this area.”

“We were set up in this area…and we had baboons come through…I’ve seen baboons in a zoo, I’ve never seen fifty of them moving like an infantry company, and the Eritreans just get out of their way…cause they went through the Eritrean camp and just tore it to shit.”

The Eritreans said “If you get surrounded by these things, fight well, my friend.”

“I was back at the camp, and I’ve got my battle rattle on, and I remember thinking, I’ve only got 210 rounds. That ain’t enough.” Howard laughed at the memory.

“It was a very good first mission, because it set up, “this is what you do.” Sitting in the middle of nowhere, talking through an interpreter, trying to figure out what we want to work on, but also who is he…how can we work together, and what are the things I don’t want to get into.”

“This is what I loved about my job.”

The Q-Course


Part four of a six part series.

After the blast furnace of SFAS, soldiers moved onto the Q-Course, or the Special Forces Qualification Course. “What we found was that after the course (SFAS) we didn’t have people who were dropping because they were physically incapable. They attrited because they couldn’t do the classwork… they would be victims of self-inflicted wounds, they couldn’t get their shit together. A guy who had too much of an alcohol problem. The idea that SF was made up of ingrates, miscreants and troublemakers, yeah, there was a certain amount of that, but not anymore.” He continued. “They’re not looking for screw ups, they are at the point now that they have enlisted guys with Master’s degrees, they have some really smart people who want to be part of the force, who want to do the mission.”

“Selection finds out who can’t physically do it, and then you get in the Course, and you find you have a very steep learning curve.”

“Remember that in Selection there is no rank… at the Q-Course you’re back at Bragg, back in uniform… you are a SWCster, a member of the JFK Special Warfare Center, or Swick. You get to bow down before Bronze Bruce… you get back to Bragg, and you are broken into different classes. When I went through it, the Q-Course was broken into three phases… Tactical phase, your MOS phase, and a final field phase. It has since transitioned into a six phase system, where Selection is part of it, language is part of it, SERE (Note: Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, JL) is part of it, and then your field phase, your MOS phase and your tactical phase.

“The killer thing, at least for officers, in the Q-Course, is land navigation. Land navigation… they did a Star exam, some long-ass movements. You started in the middle of the night… and that, too was a fifty-percent first-time GO. I mean, the number of people who had to go back and do that again, but you’re in the Q-Course now, they would recycle, retrain you, give you an opportunity to learn new skills.”

Howard passed first time. As an aside, I know what it’s like to fail a land-navigation course. At one of my schools, I had my glasses yanked off my face by a branch in the dark. Couldn’t find them. Did my best to find my points with compass and map, but I ended up in washout lane… not cool. Quadruple so for a school like the Q-Course. Alright, back to Howard.

“It was a killer, it got a lot of folk. Some people can’t do it (ie navigate with a map and compass, JL). Officers got to do it early in the Q-Course, while enlisted guys got to do it much later… It is absolutely critical that officers have this crap down.”

He launched into a brief description of the various Special Forces MOS’s. An SF officer is an 18A. He mentioned that he was a bit of an oddball as an 18 series; he was a lieutenant in the Q-Course, usually officers would be captains. The Army preferred experienced soldiers in the SF courses. He never said so, but it was pretty easy for me to infer his uncommon ability in the fact that he qualified for SF as an LT.

One exception to the experienced soldiers rule were the 18X’s, these were usually prior service from other branches who were trying for SF. One Navy guy only passed his land navigation exercise because of a dog- he was totally lost and a dog walked by. He followed the dog, and viola, he came across a group of guys eating rations by his last point. Well, it was pure luck and that’ll only get you so far. He washed out a few days later.

There were the 18B’s, weapons specialists. Then there are the 18C’s, engineers. According to Howard, the hardest training of all was for the 18D’s, the medics. “They have the highest attrition rate. They spend years learning to be a medic to the point where they are qualified to do surgery… to this day, when I have a medical question, I call up my old Team Sergeant, an 18D.” Finally, there were the 18E’s, communications troops. Howard somewhat dated himself by mentioning that when “I went through, guys were still learning Morse Code.”

All these specialties combined into an SF Detachment Alpha, or an ODA, or an “A-Team.” They have a composition of 12 soldiers under ideal conditions, but as Howard explained later, conditions are rarely ideal.

There would be an officer (18A), a warrant officer (180) (who would command a team when the original ODA would be split), a team sergeant (18Z), an intel dude (18F), then there would be two of each of the basic SF Military Occupational Specialites- for a total of twelve.

“It was really odd to show up with a team of twelve.”

“So back to the Q-Course. After SERE, I did months and months of classroom training, and some stuff out at Camp Mackall…at the end of the officer’s training there was a thing called Troy Trek, it was probably the most fun I had at the qualification course…it was a culminating exercise… as officers we went through isolations a lot. Isolation is a process whereby a Special Forces team prepares… a commander says “isolate this team,” the team is segregated and stuck somewhere. You’re pretty much in a prison. And then you get your mission. Once you have that mission… the Team begins to tear that mission apart, to the nth degree, everything we can possibly think of. As officers, we are going to plan that…they would take us and place us in an ISOFAC, an isolation facility. Basically, a little prison camp… at the culmination of the isolation was a thing called a briefback. Your commander and his staff comes in, and you brief back every aspect of the entire mission.”

“At this point the commander has the opportunity to say, “this team gets it, and they are ready to execute.” Of course, the reverse could also be true. Howard adds that it’s not uncommon for commanders to isolate various teams, give them all the same mission and pick the one he likes best.

“The execution could be that you give your briefback, your rucksacks are packed and you get on an airplane and go… or it could be a trigger mission, meaning you go when the trigger is pulled.”

Howard went on to say that a lot of these procedures were written by the Son Tay raiders in Vietnam; where the mission was carried out flawlessly but failed because of rapidly changing circumstances on the ground.

He also elaborated upon the origins of Special Operations Command, how that structure arose from the failings of the Desert One operation.

Then he returned to the final isolation and briefback. “We would talk about our infil (infiltration, JL), our alternate infil, our contingency infil… PACE” (Primary, Alternate, Contingency, Emergency. JL). Howard laughed. “You’ve heard me say that a lot.” I laughed too, thinking back.

“When we went out on our unconventional warfare assignment…the most dangerous thing is contact with the guerrillas. You had to establish bona fides, who you were going to talk to… how am I going to get there, and when things go to shit, what are we going to do…and you had to memorize all this crap.”

Howard went on to say that the officer had to be intimately familiar with each aspect of not only his mission, but the exact role of each of his soldiers and what they would be doing at any given minute. It was an exercise in attention to detail, squared.

“Look, the plan is going to go to shit, whether it’s on the first step or the third step of the mission.” I silently wondered if he had drifted off the subject of the Q-Course at this point, and was perhaps reliving various moments in his life.

“We need to know, because more often than not, and I mean, the ‘Nam vets taught me this… you need to be sharing with your team everything that’s going on. They need to know your thought processes… you’re the team commander, but they need to understand how you think. Where there’s going to be a benefit is when you don’t have time to tell them what’s going on… where they get out of the truck and go up that hill because the team needs it… this is what I’ve got to do.”

So back to Troy Trek, the final exercise, after the teams have been isolated. Everyone got dropped off in Uwharrie National Forest with a grid coordinate they had to reach. A major difference with Selection and regular Land Nav? There were teams out looking for the aspiring Green Berets. “Oh, they weren’t looking very hard, but they were looking. If you got caught, they were going to kick you back to your last point; whether that point was two kilometers or twenty-four kilometers away.”

As seems to be the norm for SF training, the students were given no clear instructions or an endpoint. It was also up to them when they slept or rested. The silent voice that drove them were their own inner doubts, fed by the lack of clear guidance. “You were on your own.”

Howard never got caught by the search teams, and he never used the roads like some guys.

At this point I must mention that Howard was doing this exercise with a bullet hole in his leg. That’s right, readers; a bullet hole. It seems LT Pearce had been partying with some friends during a brief break in the training and got himself shot. Somehow he pushed through and ran through Troy Trek with a mild-grade fever and a whole lot of pain.

“So you would get to a point and there would be a point setter. He’d hand you a letter, and there would be a test with a question such as “what are the bona fides of your second infil point, how are you going to make contact with the guerrillas?” “What are your long range versus close range bona fides?” And you would have to fill it out using the info from the isolation that you had just been through. Or he would hand you a radio and tell you to come up on your primary freq; you would have to put the radio together and make an Angus report.” I asked Howard what an Angus report is, he said it is the initial call an ODA needs to make once they are on the ground. That was a new one on me.

“On a normal mission we would have a commo window that was every couple of weeks, maybe once a month… in order to come up on a freq, you were setting yourself up to be found, it was a very dangerous thing to do. Our commo guys would bang it out in code, after we had manually encrypted it… using the same coding system Benjamin Franklin used, same type of stuff… versus nowadays where you have an O-6 (a full colonel, JL) yammering in your ear because there’s a Pred up there and he’s telling you turn left, turn right, which isn’t all that helpful. The teams were out on their own, really on their own.”

“And at the end, you found out who didn’t survive. A significant number of people didn’t make it past Troy Trek.” Howard sang a funny little song about the experience, set to the lion’s song on Wizard of Oz. “After that, you had a couple of down days, because there was significant physical carnage. You just were fried at the end of it. That was the end of the MOS phase for the officers.”

“We then moved into the final phase, where they assembled actual operational detachments. So you have a couple of officers, and a whole bunch of NCOs…and then you begin work on Robin Sage, the culmination exercise, or as we called it, Sobbing Rage. It was putting everything together in an unconventional warfare mission… Everyone believes that Special Ops… we’re all door kickers. And yeah, that’s direct action. A Special Operations unit is supposed to do some of that.”

“The thing that made SF unique… is that we have two missions. Foreign Internal Defense, or FID, which means we go to foreign countries and mentor and coach their militaries. That was one thing that I did throughout my career, and unconventional warfare. Unconventional warfare is one thing that SF is trained in that no other Special Ops are trained to do… going in behind enemy lines and working with the G’s, guerillas, and training them, mentoring them, coaching them and fighting along side them, behind enemy lines. That’s why language is important, cross-cultural communications, that’s why self-sufficiency is a huge part of what SF does, and the other Special Ops don’t do.”

I made the comment that you could clearly see the roots of SF in organizations such as the OSS in WW2.

“Exactly. And look at where SF grew up, in Vietnam, working with the Montagnards… we were fighting a counterinsurgency, but Special Forces are also pretty good at insurgency… when it’s a US backed insurgency, we are the force behind that.”

Howard pointed out that insurgencies are different from civil wars in that insurgencies are rebellions backed by outside forces, whereas in a civil war that might not be the case.

“We went into our final isolation, and we prepared to go out and work with the guerillas in a war in Pineland, somewhere in North Carolina…it was the first time the enlisted guys had been in isolation, we officers had done it three or four times…we loaded our rucksacks; in Special Forces you gauge your rucksack by what your Robin Sage rucksack was. Your Robin Sage rucksack was over one hundred pounds, and you have to hump that damn thing…things will break. They will make sure they break. They will throw all sorts of things in your path, just to see how you react.”

It still could go wrong, however. The trials weren’t over, and sometimes guys got booted from the course for UCMJ offenses, such as adultery. It’s more common than you think.

“Everything is a test.” That phrase seems to sum up Special Forces training rather nicely. “Soldiers need to be good both in the field and garrison.”

Finally, Howard and his team loaded up in a DC-3, of all things. Even thirty years ago, those aircraft were antiquated. “It was really neat to be up in that aircraft, and looking down through the door. A DA (Department of the Army) civilian was the jumpmaster, just kind of sitting in the door. I was glad he was our jumpmaster… when we jumped out there were already rotating red lights from emergency crews because they had lost two whole passes with guys in the trees. It was an itty-bitty, postage stamp DZ. And we all made the drop zone…” Thanks to that mysterious DA civilian jumpmaster.

Once they were on the ground, the team had the “worst night of your life” trying to make it to the link-up point, to meet up with the G’s. “Of course, that went wrong.” All points of the team’s infil plan was tested, from exchanging bona fides to locating many alternate link up sites. Finally, the team got to the G camp, “and the exercise began in earnest.”

“You have to deal with the G-chief, or the guerilla chief. The G-chief is this old, grizzled guy; you automatically know this is an old SF guy who is playing the G-chief…then there are a bunch of kids. I found out later that they were from the XVIII ABN Corps mailroom, they know nothing about all this tactical stuff we were supposed to do. All they knew is that they had been promised a four-day pass if they gave three weeks to the SF dudes.”

It was a recipe for chaos. “The kids were there as props, the G-chief was challenging everyone on the team…it was taking place in this compressed time zone, in which you’re saying a few days counts as a month… you’re supposed to be making a certain amount of progress with your G’s.”

“They throw as many dilemmas at you as you may face in the real world. You’re dealing with guerillas, and the G-chief is in charge of all of these people…including discipline. There was one kid with the G’s, everyone wanted to kill him. He was one of these annoying, fat, whiny ass bitches…we found out it wasn’t an act. He was that annoying. He wasn’t stupid, he was just a punk (Don’t sugar coat it, Howard. JL).

At one point, the G-Chief decided to teach the punk kid a lesson. He had all the mailroom kids gather to have the punk run the gauntlet. It was fake, of course, but the punk thought it was real. “They blindfolded the kid, and they started to run him through the gauntlet. The kid is screaming his head off…no one actually hits the kid.” But it certainly left an impression on him. The G-chief took the scared punk off into the woodline for a talk, and the mock-beating was over.

“So what do you do with the biggest fuck-up?” Howard asked. He was referring to the punk kid. “You put him in charge. It was the culminating exercise to the whole thing. An ambush leading into the blowing up of a bridge on an infantry company…we had to get all the teams together to mount this major attack. We put him (the punk mailroom kid, JL) in charge; this kid turns into Rambo. I mean, he was amazing! …He came up with this really ambitious plan, we’re going to do this, and we’re going to do that. We weren’t in the mode where we were leading them, we were trying to coach them.”

“There was an eight or nine hour movement to get us where we needed to be…the kid wants us to wade through a river. We said, you know, there’s a rope bridge 100m down the river, and we’re going to be out for three or four days, and within two minutes of starting this, you want everybody soaked?” The kid eventually saw things the advisor’s way. “Oh, OK.”

“But the kid ended up leading what I thought was a textbook attack…we had guys creeping up to place explosives under the bridge…and some people were standing on the bridge, they had an infant with them.” The infant spotted the team, but no-one else did.

“We ended up executing the attack. It went flawlessly, we brought everybody back. At the end of this (Robin Sage, JL) you don’t know if you passed. You’ve spent all this time out in the woods. I was the lieutenant on the team…I was known as “little sir,” the team commander, who was six foot four, was known as “big sir.” Luck played a role. One day, Howard got bored and started to put up tanglefoot, an obstacle made of barbed wire or something (in this case vines). Cadre just happened to be passing by and noticed. They were impressed. They were also impressed when one day Howard noticed that “Big Sir” was burned out; Howard sent his team commander off on a pointless recon in order to get some sleep while Lieutenant Pearce assumed temporary command of the operation.

Finally, the candidates were doing some clean-up when it was all said and done. Howard said they were “clearing brush or something.” The chief grader sat under a tree on his “ubiquitous folding chair” and was calling over students one by one and telling them pass or fail. This was the moment of truth- Howard’s roommate had been graded a non-select at this phase, so the threat of not passing was real. “I’d seen it happen. You wanna talk about a lightning bolt to the nuts.”

So when Howard was called over to speak with the grader, there was a definite fear factor. The grader spoke.

“I have to tell you that when I saw a lieutenant on this team, I thought a lieutenant doesn’t have any business…leading a team of Special Forces soldiers.” The grader paused. “You’ll do.”

Howard said that those words from the grader were “high praise.”

He went on to explain team dynamics. “At some point, everyone on the team is going to want to kill someone else.” It was true; I had seen that first hand from being on a team in Afghanistan. “The question is, how do we handle that?”

And just like that, the Q-Course was over. Howard returned to his Army Reserve unit and was informed the next day that the unit was being inactivated and he was being moved to 19thGroup, Army National Guard.


“Thus began my true adventure… you learn a lot in the Q-Course, but the teams train you. The team I left was the team I returned to.” A team sergeant said upon his return, “There are going to be some dark nights. You’re going to walk down a dark road, and you’re going to look down and see boot prints. Those are mine. Follow them! And when you can’t go another five steps, just go one more. Just keep going. Because they can kill ya, but they can’t eat ya.”

Howard mentioned that while he had completed the training and was “tabbed and flashed,” he was still “the lieutenant,” and not “Sir.”

I asked him when the moment was that he became “Sir.”

He proceeded to tell me.

SERE School


Part three of a six part series.

Howard made a sidestep into the SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) Course, “Arguably the most professional military course I have ever attended. When I went through Q-Course, it (SERE School, JL) was not required for soldiers, officers had to attend it. Normally when you showed up for the Q-Course that was one of the first things you attended, SERE. We attended what was called level C, or high risk of a soldier becoming trapped behind enemy lines. They had level A, which nowadays every soldier goes through level A, it’s an online course. Level B is for people who need to understand a little bit more.”

“Level C is for we need to really prepare these folk.” He continued. “When you show up for SERE School it’s a gentlemen’s course, everyone is in the classroom to eventually you get to the point where you’re in the prison camp. It’s one of the few Army schools where you sign a form saying that they are going to hit you. You are going to be struck, you are going to be injured, and you sign a form saying that you understand that.”

“You go through interrogations. Without going to in-depth about it, let me say that they were professional and they explained everything that they did- to include that at the end you sat down for at least an hour with one of your interrogators. He would walk you through your interrogation, what you were thinking…how you reacted, where you started going wrong.”

Howard thought he went wrong when the “hitter” came in. The interrogator disabused him of that notion. “No, no, you went wrong before we called in the hitter…”

As an aside, the Army has people who are specially qualified and trained to beat people in these schools without causing permanent damage. Still, the experience is unpleasant at best.

“You talked about what were your thoughts, what you screwed up and screwed up badly, what did you do well, and what could you build on… In many ways I felt at the end that I was more torn down than in other parts of the course. You needed to have that (the debrief, JL) in order to put you back together. You went through something that was intense, and made you question yourself sometimes.”

“And that final thing, if they would have just said, “you made it, you passed SERE,” I dunno, it would have been difficult to put it into perspective, whereas having that opportunity for someone to give you first-hand feedback…”

Howard found the feedback invaluable, and he actually managed to trick his interrogators by feigning exhaustion in one session- a clever ploy. His interrogators said that he “deserved an Oscar.”

Howard passed one of the Army’s most brutal training courses on the strength of his wits.