Learning to lead

I was hoping that a few days at home would give me perspective on the NCO development course I just finished, the so-called Warrior Leadership Course (previously known as Primary Leadership Development Course, before the Army's penchant for calling everything Warrior-this and Warrior-that). What has actually happened is that I am quickly forgetting things. This may be for the best.

This was the first time I had ever trained in my home climate. Usually, I end up going somewhere horrible--Missouri, Oklahoma, selected portions of Texas--or somewhere nice but full of hippies (e.g. Monterey). This time, I was right in my own back yard. So of course, it was sunny and beautiful but not too hot right up until we went into the field--at which time it poured down rain. Fortunately, it only did that for that first day, as though demonstrating the potential for deluge before grudgingly allowing us sunny weather in which to train.

The first week was in-processing, PT testing and weigh-in (to no one's surprise, I weigh more than the Army thinks I ought), and then long days of classroom training. Up at 0400, crawling into bed at 2200 or so, depending on the day and how prepared you wanted to be for the next day. Supposedly, the two-week Reserve Component WLC has all of the same tests and required objectives as the four-week Active Component course--we just don't get the extra non-testable frills. We learned and tested on the proper way to conduct Army PT, teach common tasks (mine was "Treat a bleeding and/or severed extremity") to standard, and took an open-book written exam on all sorts of stuff that the Army thinks we ought to be able to find in the various field and training manuals.

I didn't learn anything earth-shattering about myself. I'm not that great at leading PT, but I can remember most of the steps. I'm a pretty fair instructor, but I like to hear myself talk too much. I'm really good at taking tests, even if I don't know the material they're on--I was on the only one in our classroom to ace the written exam.

After a week, we prepped and headed out to the field. Aside from the aforementioned rain that first day, it was not too difficult. Doing land navigation in a rain forest is rather difficult--four-foot-tall brush makes it hard to keep a pace count. Whoever laid out the course was lazy; most of the points were easily accessible by the little dirt roads and occasional foot trails that webbed the area. While they weren't often on the map, the ones that WERE could be used to bring you in close. I never would have pulled out my compass at all if I hadn't been counting on a road (on the map) that turned out not to exist (on the ground). My own fault--for believing the map, and for not keeping a careful pace count. Still got 4 out of 4; it just took significantly longer and put extra mileage on my boots.

After land nav practice and testing and retesting (some people are really not too keen on land nav), we started practicing squad and team maneuvers and orders. The objective of the course isn't to turn us into infantry in a week--it's to give us a base level of skill so we can be tested on our ability to command and control teams and squads. After a few days of training and practice, we started evals.

When my turn came up, I ended up as a squad leader on a co-op mission; I had to plan and execute a mission with another squad leader and squad, something we had never practiced. During the briefing and initial planning, two things became quickly apparent: 1) the other squad leader was an idiot, and 2) there wasn't much I could do about it.

The mission: meet up with a friendly village elder in a village at [grid location] and secure his assistance in location an IED cell within the village. From the summary information we received, it seemed pretty clear that the commander's intent was to remain on friendly terms with the locals. The first thing the other squad leader says to me? "My teams are really good at clearing buildings." Um, yeah. But the idea is to go in friendly-like and ask. "I'm just saying, you know, if it comes down to it, we're really good at MOUT." [Military Operations in Urban Terrain: breaking and entering for the Army.] Roger. We'll keep that in mind.

His basic plan--which was obviously near and dear to his heart and not to be obstructed by little things like the situation, the mission, or reality as we know it--was for my 9-man squad to magically cordon off the entire village while his teams went in and "when it goes down" assault the buildings and find the IED cell.

What are my options at this point? I can spend an hour of our precious planning time trying to knock sense into his head, or I can try to mitigate the damage and at least keep my own teams from total annihilation. Once it is clear that his concept of operation is the only thing he'll consider, I start working on keeping some options open. For one, we're not making a complete cordon with 9 people. I agree to split my squad into teams and situate them carefully to provide external security but also keep them from friendly fire incidents--very difficult when we're working with guys we won't recognize on sight. The plan called for us to lead on the road march--he didn't say it, but subtle signs told me he preferred my team to come under ambush first--split off on arrival at the village and take up overwatch positions while he went in and "negotiated."

Fine. I know my people can do the react-to-contact and react-to-indirect-fire drills in their sleep, so we'll take the lead and they can worry about themselves in the rear. I couldn't get him to decide specifics for our withdrawal from the village beyond a hazy "the same way we came in."

I brief my people. I emphasize fire control and positive ID--the nominal bad guys in this exercise look just like us, after all. I also emphasize that radios or no, we will lose comms and there will be mass confusion: stay with your team leader and don't do anything stupid. My biggest concern was friendly fire--you get dinged pretty heavy in the evals if your guys end up shooting each other.

The road march began. We took simulated indirect fire and reacted well, bringing our simulated casualties with us and sending up a simulated situation report over a simulated radio net. We continued on. I was mildly gratified to notice that the other squad degenerated into chaos during the "fire" while mine stayed on track.

The real problem came when, still about 600 meters out from the objective village, my squad came under sniper fire from the right flank. Per SOP, my teams got on line and one started flanking. I was a little slower reacting and ended up playing catch-up with the assaulting element. We all got bogged down once we started cutting brush, and wound up catching nothing and losing contact with the supporting team. I spent a few precious minutes consolidating and getting status from my people, and then tried to contact the other squad leader.

When I finally got him to answer, SGT Jackass had continued on mission, content to let me run around in the woods while they approached the village along the road. They were now preparing to enter--were we ready to provide security? I get my teams moving--we're closer to the village than the road at this point, and I know of some trails we can use to come right to it, having been lost in this area during land nav a few days prior. I let him know that we are moving and will take several minutes to arrive and get set up.

So they move right in. At this point, things get hazy and noisy and confused, but from the AAR [after action review], they apparently rejected the friendly approach entirely and started clearing operations on buildings. Bad guys reacted. Smoke was everywhere. Gunfire abounded. Civilians were shot. Blue on blue (e.g. friendly fire) occurred. Good times, in other words.

We approached the village from the trails, but I wouldn't go inside without knowing where the good guys were. No one was answering the radio on the other side any longer. My alpha team leader--an infantryman who had actually done MOUT in Iraq--was very hot to go in and start clearing, but I kept everyone outside. Self-defense and targets of opportunity were fine, but I wasn't walking in there not knowing where the friendly squad was.

They called the end of the exercise after a few minutes of this. The AAR was harsh, but the vast majority of it was devoted to the idiocy of the other squad, the leader of which died after standing exposed with his back to the bad guys.

Things I got dinged on: no recon planned prior to entry (which wouldn't have happened anyway, but we never even planned one) and leaving behind a "wounded" soldier on one of my teams. In my feeble defense, I'd initially been told he was dead (and thus could wait) and forgot that his status had been upgraded (by the instructor) to badly wounded. Also, as the wounded soldier himself pointed out, we thought we were still in the thick of the fighting, which is not the time to provide first aid.

The main thing that gets emphasized during this sort of training is that it's better to do a halfway right thing now than the perfect thing too late. Few things are as demoralizing as the guy in charge freezing when lead starts flying.

After our squad's day being the good guys, we spent a day being the OpFor [opposing forces] for the other squads being tested.

By Thursday afternoon, we were packing up tents and gear and heading back to garrison. Friday was spent cleaning weapons and turning in gear. I'd put over 600 rounds of blanks through my SAW; it was absolutely filthy. On the plus side, I have a lot of experience cleaning it, and it gave me an out to avoid other lame details: "I'd love to help you with that, but I'm still cleaning the machine gun."

I achieved some minor distinction at graduation. A 90% average overall with no retesting or negative counseling and in the top 20% of the class landed me on the commandant's list. The primary benefit of this is that I didn't have to march in during the actual ceremony, but rather was already seated toward the front. As far as I'm concerned, and award that doesn't involve a coin is an empty honor.

Overall, pretty interesting, with a few minor quibbles. Despite their assurances, some of the instructors treated us like privates even if they called us "Sergeant" to our face. I have been condescended to by better people, and I didn't like it then, either. It seems a little silly spending so much time doing woodland ops considering our current operational climate. Setting off artillery simulators at 0300 was pointlessly annoying--possessing no bunkers or anything to run to, we decided our tents were either a) armored, in which case we could continue sleeping, or b) tents, in which case we were all dead and could continue sleeping.

The real benefit was in filling in some of the gaps of institutional knowledge that I shouldn't have had after four years into the military, and getting to compare notes with other junior NCOs and find out how things are done elsewhere. I've come to realize just how few people really get to be involved in combat operations--almost everyone had a deployment patch, but very few had seen bullets fly. I'm a little more confident in my ability to fake being in charge. I've actually had a little practice at planning missions now, and it's not impossible--merely difficult.

Of course, in my line of work, even on the off chance that I get to go tactical again, I would not have more than 4 other people in my care, and if we're doing infantry-style ops, things have gone REALLY wrong. Still, it was good experience, and probably the last tactical training I'll ever get, so I'm glad I had the opportunity.

So far, my Memorial Day has consisted of getting up late, making a coffee run, and catching up on some web comics. I might be inclined to take part in something organized--I think Memorial Day has been tragically trivialized from its original meaning--but it's a little late in the game now, and I'm frankly just happy to be home with my family again.