Alright, so why am I posting more pictures of me in shitty places?
Well, I guess because the past is an important part of my present-day decision making, and the photo above illustrates what I’d like to discuss today.
The tactical pause.
We need to rewind to 2005, so let me do that. I was an enlisted soldier back then, fresh off an OIF tour when the war was still young. The Army was begging for junior officers in combat units, they couldn’t get enough lieutenants. I saw an opportunity and allowed myself to be recruited. It was a real honor to be selected for officer’s training, considering that I had enlisted in 1991 as a no-stripe private. I should have taken it as a warning sign when the Army granted me an age-waver for training without qualm. A few years earlier and I would have been out of luck.
But hey, hundreds of thousands of soldiers were in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rubble was still settling in places like Fallujah.
With the war in the background, I secured my slot in Officer Candidate School, an in-your-face months long torture test. At the other end I emerged a prior-service Second Lieutenant, an O-1E.
Why am I telling you this.
Because I’d like to talk about the Army’s officer training process at the height of the US’s longest war. A lesson learned, and a bit about my instructors.
The number one thing, hammered over and over into us, was not to lose your shit while everyone else was freaking out. Why? Because you might find yourself to be the Head Motherfucker In Charge while it goes into the pot.
After OCS I was sent to Infantry School, or BOLC PhaseII as it was known at the time. They’ve changed things since. When I arrived for training, it was nothing but beatings for months on end. Harsh, brutal lessons constantly reinforced. No excuse, and no forgiveness schooling. An example.
I injured my right knee on a ruck march. It hurt. I was afraid to go to the medics. Didn’t want to be pulled from training. So I popped a lot of naproxen and sucked it. One frigid morning, my worst times, we went on an eight-mile run. I couldn’t maintain the pace, my knee throbbed. So I fell back about one hundred meters, but I concluded the run.
It didn’t matter. I was lumped in with those who had not completed the run, on time and to standard. They stood us in front of the rest of the battalion and proceeded to punish us with calisthenics and a speech about how we had failed and we were worthless shitbags, barely qualified to lead soldiers.
Stuff like that. You don’t forget those lessons.
And I couldn’t forget my instructors.
Every one of them had just returned from the war. Some were awaiting medical retirement. There was a guy with one arm. Another short an eye. A dude with a voice box, shot in the throat. And some of the students were the same. A good friend with hearing aids, IED in Iraq. A fellow who drank himself to sleep every night, he had been sent down caves in Afghanistan with a pistol and a flashlight.
Things, people like that will make an impression on you. Kind of like the wall in the Company dayroom. A series of pictures, a sentence in large letters above. “OUR FALLEN COMRADES.” A few empty frames below, one with a sheet of paper inside. “YOUR PHOTO HERE.”
How could you miss that?
So I trained hard, helped out the new LT’s, and listened to my instructors, many of whom would never be sent overseas again. They had done too much.
One such instructor made a big impression on me.
He was an infantryman of slight build. Skinny, dark complected. Probably hispanic, I never asked and didn’t really care. Very soft spoken. He moved like a spooked deer, he was constantly looking over his shoulder. He smoked like a chimney, his young, black/brown eyes were surrounded by crow’s feet. I can’t remember his name; he was our house-clearing instructor.
In 2004 he had spent a year in Ramadi. The. Worst. Fucking. Place. In. The. World.
He knew how to clear a house. He talked about guys dropping from the ceilings. Dogs with explosives stuffed inside. Women used as human shields. Toys with grenades attached. His eyes telegraphed hell, his murmurs spoke of horror.
He addressed us. Gently, informally.
He taught me about the tactical pause.
“Dude, when everything is going to shit, when a guy’s been shot, when they just won’t quit coming, relax.” He reached into his shoulder pocket and produced a pack of Winstons. He stuck one in his mouth and lit up; fuck the regs. He drew in, exhaled a sinuous cloud of smoke. “Just relax. You’ve got time, Haji doesn’t.” He took another hit. “Lemme tell you about the tactical pause. It’s not freaking out. It’s not fucking around. It’s not cluelessness.”
“What it is is taking a second, take a breather, and making a decision based on the best information that you have.” He looked us all in the eye. “The tactical pause will save people’s lives. Rushing in because you think you have to hurry will kill your men.” Another drag. He exhaled, his blue smoke filled the shoot-house room.
“Relax. Then go in and kill every motherfucker that gets in your way.”
What he said made sense. The lesson sank in, and squared with my past experience. How many times had I seen stupid, knee-jerk decisions made by leadership? Too many times.
One of my biggest regrets is that I can’t remember his name, although I used his lesson again and again.
When things get rough, take a second. Clear your head. Tap out a cigarette, take a piss, light up. Think things through. Then make a decision and go with it.
What brought this up.
The Corona virus, of course.
People are losing their shit. As I write this, large parts of Italy and China are locked down, and who knows what is coming next.
I am by no means immune from anxiety over COVID19, my approaching travel is in jeopardy.
What is needed is a tactical pause. A second taken where you look back at your options and then take the least-bad route.
My given trigger point is fast approaching. This is the chosen moment where I’ll have to make a decision, to fish or cut bait. And here is yet another lesson from my training- make a decision and stick with it. Remember as well that no decision is also a decision, even if its passive.
So I’m listening to that long-ago instructor. I’m taking a breath. Relaxing. Accepting that there are a number of factors in play that I can’t control.
No cigarettes anymore, so I’m sitting here and typing out my thoughts on this matter.
I’m taking a tactical pause.