Writing Method

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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?”

Act III

 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

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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

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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

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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.”

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“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.

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Eritrea

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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.”

PEARCE ARMY061

(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

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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.

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“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

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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.

 

Selection

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Part two of a six part series.

It was a couple of years before Howard was allowed to go to the actual SF courses. First he had to gain his actual Army commission in 1988, which he did, and in the meanwhile he was placed in charge of the unit admin section, then Intel, and finally he lead the training team, a sub-unit that specialized in getting soldiers ready to attend the SF course. Also, he had to complete Infantry school for officers (IOBC) at FT Benning, Georgia.

Then the fine day arrived that he was allowed to attend Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS)– three weeks of hell. It was in this period that a lot of changes were occurring within the SF community, both administrative and in terms of training. Howard received the benefit of the refinements- a grueling “gut check” of a course designed to weed out the stupid, the rash, and the weak.

The selection course that SF finally settled upon “drew heavily upon the British SAS, who had their own Selection, or with the Ranger Training Brigade, to see what Rangers did… we needed to find out the basic things, to see if soldiers had it, or not.” Originally the selection course was called Special Forces Orientation Training, or SFOT, and the original classes were “bedlam,” before “it all shook out.”

The questions the school wanted answered were “Do they have the mind, the grit, the stick-to-itiveness… can they prepare themselves, can they put up with misery?”

Howard reflected that by the time he got there, SFAS was a well-oiled machine. As far as he knows, it hasn’t changed much since the late eighties. “Sore Feet And Shoulders” is still the same, and Lieutenant Pearce was not successful on his first try. However, he was allowed to re-attend the school, and he did.

I asked what percentage of candidates were washed out. “It’s not like the song, “one-hundred men, they’ll test today,” that’s a song.” (NOTE: That song is “The Ballad of the Green Beret” by SSG Barry Sadler. JL) “I will tell you that the highest pass and selection rate (at SFAS- JL) is somewhere around fifty percent… if you look at the entire course, the number is significant, a significant emotional event.

There are some basic requirements for attending the school- time in grade, and a basic physical fitness score (based upon the 17-21 range, regardless of age).

“What struck me when I showed up, I’d been through a number of Army courses… there’s always that ‘we’re going to get off the bus and here we go.’ Get yourself ready for the barking, the yelling, and all the stupidity, reindeer games.” He rolled his eyes, paused, and continued. “There was none of that…there were five hundred people there, all of them in uniform with their decorations…I saw a big dude, I thought “he’s going to walk through this course,” I saw a little dude, wondered how he would do…Just about every person I saw, I was wrong.” “The big dude? He quit halfway through the first week…that little dude? He was the first one in on the last ruck march.” He paused. “I learned a lesson from that; you don’t know what’s on the inside, you see what people can give you.”

Howard was surprised the most at the lack of yelling. A student was tasked with holding a formation and getting a count. He did it once, the cadre told him the count was wrong. So the poor guy did it again, once again the count was wrong. Finally, the cadre showed mercy. “Did you count yourself, Sergeant?” The whole time, the trainer spoke in a quiet, level fashion, and finally only corrected the soldier after several tries. That incident set the tone for the school. The only facial expression the cadre member showed was a slight smirk.

Then the students had to do some basic Army physical tests. They did the Army Water Survival Test, then they did the PT test- a series of calisthenics capped off by a two-mile run.

“When you had to do the push ups, they would say “Your time has begun.” They wouldn’t count, they wouldn’t tell you how you were doing, they stood there and watched you and at the end of the two minutes, they’d say “You’re done.” He’d write something down on his clipboard, and that ended up being the mode for that course.” Howard continued. “The Army usually gives you task, condition, and standards…the whole thing with the SFAS course was that you would get the task, the condition, and no standard. And sometimes the condition would be a little fuzzy, too.”

He told an example of how everyone was told to be at a trail in the woods at 0445, wearing uniform pants, a t-shirt, and they had to have a canteen. The instructor spoke. “You will run down this trail as fast as you can… Does anyone want to quit? Your time has begun.”

Howard furrowed his brow at the memory. “You had no idea if it was a two-mile run, a five mile run, an eight mile run. You had no idea. Your job was to go run, and run that course…One thing that I felt proved to be a challenge for some folk…was that there was no reinforcement, positive or negative…I just remember them (the cadre, JL) standing there, “Do you have any questions? Your time has begun.” And they would stand there and watch you. They want to see what you do, they want to see what you do when there is no-one backing you up.”

As an aside, he told a story from later in his career- it serves to illustrate a typical SFAS event. A trainee was sent out on a ruck march to a given point. At the point were several water jugs of varying weights, the trainee had the task of bringing back a jug, he could choose among them. Well, the trainee lifted each jug in turn, and chose the heaviest one. The cadre were watching, unseen. Later they asked the soldier why he had chosen the heaviest jug. He said that he grabbed the heavy one to help out other guys on his team who weren’t as strong or fast. That type of thinking is EXACTLY what SF is looking for in their candidates. “That’s an example of a guy you want to have on the team.”

“You have to remember that the intent behind this is not to see if he’s a dumb grunt who can get by anything we put in front of him, we want to see what he’s gonna do when there’s no one watching him…there was a certain degree of trimming that happened…anyone who looked a little heavy was given a tape test (where they measure the circumference of your gut JL)…glasses? Eye check…You feel bad about it, but it is what it is.”

“You get out to Camp Mackall, and you do your first week which is called “military orienteering.” It is not land nav; you are basically doing mounted navigation on foot… you had your ruck, your weapon… but you never knew how many points you had to hit.”

“One time I came up to a point, and guys were in the woods with their boots off, eating… “Roster 199, give me your score sheet.” Howard handed over his score sheet, with points from the land navigation exercise recorded on it.

The cadre member handed Howard his score sheet back with a new grid coordinate for Howard to find. Howard looked down the road; he had fifteen minutes left before time ran out. He knew he wouldn’t make it- there was no way. The point was kilometers away. The cadre asked, “Do you have any questions?” Howard shook his head and said, “No, Sergeant.” He started to haul ass down the road in an attempt to make it. Howard hadn’t made it fifty feet when he heard a truck horn. He looked back and the cadre waved him back. Howard hurried back. “Give me your score sheet, go over to the others and follow instructions from roster number 323.” Howard went over to student 323 (Note: no-one in SFAS wears a name tape, everyone has a roster number instead. JL). 323 said, “You’re done.”

It was a devilishly effective mind-fuck. The next guy who arrived had the same thing happen to him. That student, unlike Howard, quit on the spot. The instructor gave the guy kudos for attempting the course, the fellow sat down and he was promptly whisked away, never to be seen again.

At this point Howard came back to the school’s attrition rate. “This wasn’t like any other course in the Army where if you appropriately train and select your soldiers you’ll get a 70, 80 or 90 percent pass rate. This is not PLDC (Note: NCO School, JL), we had to make this clear to the state of Ohio, who thought our unit was all screwed up with a fifty-percent pass rate.”

“In the general Army, the preparation was awful… there was a kid who was a cook from Germany… members of his unit made a bet which day he’d be washed out… turned out to be day three.” Howard recalled that he said to the kid “Do you have any idea what we’re about to go through?” The cook didn’t, and it showed.

Howard said the instructors provided multiple opportunities to drop out with the quietly stated question, over and over, “Do you want to quit?” Another thing that really struck him was that they did not cajole or motivate, they would simply watch. It was nerve-wracking. “It filtered out the people who physically couldn’t make it, or didn’t have the mindset that would allow them to continue.”

“And once you made it past that (SFAS, JL), that’s when you made it into your qualification course.”

The fun had hardly started.

 

The Journey Begins

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This will be a six-part series.

On an overcast late morning on the 26th of August, I sat down in a parking lot with LTC Howard Pearce, a good guy and proven combat veteran. He’s been retired for a while now, and he has settled into his post-service civilian life fairly well. The interview was informal, conversational. Howard started with his early career, and then he progressed into his Special Forces track training, and then mentioned a few aspects of when he was operational.

From here, I’ll let Howard speak.

“I was in ROTC in college.” This was the summer of 1986. As part of his training, Cadets were authorized to attend one Army school, Howard chose Airborne School. “I went through the Basic Airborne Course at Ft. Benning Georgia.” I asked if he thought it was challenging at the time. “Oh, hell yeah.” “When I went through Airborne School, it was ROTC central… Ninety percent of the students would be five-jump chumps and then never serve again in an Airborne unit.” This was not to be Howard’s fate, but he didn’t know it at the time.

“Most of the enlisted soldiers were probably going to one of the Airborne divisions.”

“You know, one of the great things about military service is opportunity… being in the right place at the right time.” The school happened in the summer between his sophomore and junior year in college, he realized that he was not going to get a scholarship and he needed to pay for college somehow. So, he looked up an Army Reserve recruiter. “I had been back from Jump School for maybe a week.” The recruiter took him to a unit that “needed some cadets.” “I remember walkin’ in there… just out of brainwash central… in Jump School there were the songs, playin’ Flight of the Valkyries as you were walkin’ out.” “It was real intimidating to me at the time, but later on I learned it was a standard Army school. It was not a big deal. I remember SEALS there, who had to go through Jump School, who giggled their way through it… It was truly a vacation for these guys.” But for Howard, the school was “pretty intense.”

So, back at the Service Support Reserve unit, Howard talked with the commander, “the oldest captain I had ever seen.” The officer wanted to “put me in charge of the baking platoon, or something like that.” Howard withheld his judgement until he returned to the parking lot with the recruiter. “No,” he said to the recruiter, “You don’t know me, we are not doing this.”

This experience led Howard to expand his search. He found a Special Forces unit in Youngstown, Ohio, and his first question about them was “Do they jump?” The person he spoke with said “Howard, it’s an SF unit.” Not having a clue what SF was, Howard replied “Yeah, but do they jump?”

Howard went to the unit, was happy with what he found, and joined their ranks as a cadet. And yes, he jumped. He completed his 6thjump, his “cherry jump,” in December of 1986, on his first drill. Howard didn’t know it at the time, but he would remain with that unit until close to his retirement.

The following summer, he left for the traditional junior-senior advanced camp for ROTC cadets. Howard was ambitious- he wanted to attend Air Assault School as well, but the rule was that cadets could only attend one school. It was a share and share alike system. He did get an opportunity to shadow an Infantry lieutenant for three weeks; he did this at FT Carson, Colorado.

Something came up, though. One day he was called in from training, and he learned that an Air Assault slot had come up in his ROTC unit because another cadet had broken his arm. They asked Howard if he was willing to attend. It meant a full summer for Cadet Pearce, but of course he said yes.

He attended Air Assault School at FT Rucker, Alabama, home of Army Aviation. “All the pilots who flew us were Orange Doors.” “Orange Doors” were student pilots. “Air Assault School was more difficult than Airborne School in every way.” “Physically, it was tougher… we had a First Sergeant who had a thing about flutter kicks.” I laughed at this point- flutter kicks are the devil, very painful. “Once you get past a hundred, and he’s still rollin’, his boots had to be filled with helium or somethin’.” Howard continued. “I was a young soldier, I hadn’t broken the stupid out of me yet.” He made the mistake of joining the “fast” ability groups for the grueling runs. “The group was runnin’ six-minute miles. They were haulin.” And of course, there were timed road marches.

However, Air Assault School also had a strong academic component, it wasn’t for dummies. “Knots, sling load procedures… written tests, sling-load tests. Wow, that’s where you lost a lot of folk. You had to find the deficiencies on all these things that were slung, even a Gama Goat.” A Gama Goat was an antiquated amphibious vehicle. It was typical Army to throw a curve ball like that at you in training. “It was an indoctrination into the military way of doing things.” He quoted an instructor, with some examples of the confusing nomenclature that everyone had to master. “You will now take your elastic retaining band, yes, that’s a rubber band. When you are securing your kit bag, you will use your slide fastener… a zipper.” He laughed. “I still refer to blue pens as Article 15 blue.”

Howard graduated successfully, and back in ROTC land he had “two scare badges… a double bubble.” What was interesting for him was that while he was attending his officer’s training in college, he was also serving in a Reserve SF unit that had a cadre of Vietnam veterans. So while his badges were a big deal among his fellow cadets, back at his Reserve unit the cadre weren’t impressed. He wore the Green Beret, but he hadn’t rated the Special Forces tab, nor was he authorized to wear the unit “flash,” or the shield-shaped colored patch under the regimental crest or rank.

“Every single guy on the team was a jumpmaster… I learned from them what it was to be SF.” “We were always dealing with small drop zones, with sticks of seven or eight jumpers… the drop zone was only six or seven seconds long.” He continued. “The only person who ever yelled in the plane was the jumpmaster.” This was a real contrast with an opportunity Howard once had to jump with the Eighty-Second Airborne, “It was bedlam, not at all what I was used to.” “I learned that the whole idea behind a jump was to keep your mouth shut, and you focus on being as calm as you possibly can.” Exuberant outbursts “was not the way these guys ran things…we were out here to do things, and to do them well. It really set the tone.”

Until he had proven himself in SF training, however, he was still just a guy.

Interview Preview, 26 August 2018, 1100-1300hrs, US EST.

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Hey readers,

I was fortunate enough to be able to have a sit-down today with LTC Howard Pearce, Special Forces, US Army, (Ret). For his background, see the article a few posts below. We both traveled quite a way to make this happen, and it was nice to have a sit down to catch up with a friend and comrade.

First we had some breakfast and caught up about personal matters. You know, how the families were doing, future plans, et cetera. Then we went outside and had a seat in the grass and discussed Howard’s career.

This guy is a wealth of information, and our discussion covered a wide range of topics over a two-hour period. Yeah, two hours. Airborne School. The Air Assault course. Special Forces Assessment and Selection. The SF Qualification Course (“Q-Course”). SERE School. His first mission. His last. There was a lot of ground covered.

So what my task is over the next couple of days is to break down this discussion into easily digestible bits while attempting not to leave out any color or cool stuff.

The discussion was remarkable, really. He started the interview with his earliest days in the service. As a ROTC cadet he had the chance to go to Airborne School, and he graduated from the course with five jumps and gained his basic Parachutist’s Badge (joining the ranks of what are known as “five-jump chumps.”). Upon his return to ROTC, he made contact with an Army Reserve recruiter. The gentleman tried to put Howard into a Quartermaster unit, where the commander of the outfit (“The oldest captain I’ve ever seen”) threatened to put him in charge of the baker’s platoon.

Well, Howard didn’t feel like baking bread. So, he asked the recruiter if there were any Airborne units around. The recruiter thought about it, and asked Cadet Pearce if he was interested in Special Forces. Howard said, “Do they jump?”

And so the story begins…

Stay tuned- more follows soon.