From Ranger to the White House

“That boy wasn’t raised right,” my daddy said in a hushed tone, tucking his chin so as not to start trouble, yet making sure that I understood what unacceptable behavior looked like when I saw it. Those were my formative years, and what my father was telling me was that, “if a boy isn’t taught how to act as a child, he will behave like a horse’s rear end when he’s a grown man, or trying to become one.”

I must confess that by the time I reached adulthood myself, I had observed a few men that no kind of childhood rearing could have fixed; nevertheless, Daddy’s theory held true for the vast majority of those I watched grow up. Childhood barriers, consistency, and a clear understanding of exactly what conduct would and would not be tolerated, shaped behavior later in life.

Daddy broke the silence as we drove down the Red Bud Road in his old Chevrolet. “Your word is your honor,” he said. “Don’t ever compromise that.”

I don’t even know if he thought I heard him, because I did not answer. I just listened, and rocked hard in that old bench seat as if trying to help that Chevy climb the hill to Carter’s Dam. I assumed, or at least hoped, that he would reward honesty, so I put the theory to the test one dark night standing in our driveway. “Did you boys shoot those windows out with BB guns?” he sternly asked.

I swallowed hard, bowed my head, and threw a silent prayer to the man upstairs. “Yes, sir. We did it,” I said.

“Get inside the house and wait for me to get back,” he said.

Despite the fact that I deserved it, he didn’t whip me. Instead, he said, “I knew you did it, but I wanted to see if you’d own up to it. The only reason you’re not getting a whippin’ is because you told the truth,” and I never forgot that lesson.

“Quit that foolishness,” he’d say, and that meant to stop at that precise moment. Quit meant quit. A second request would not be issued. Given the fact that you could potentially face a judge for looking overly mean at a child in public today, some folks might consider that harsh parenting. The truth is, he never drew blood or left a lasting mark. He didn’t even have to whip me but about twice in eighteen years – just enough to demonstrate his resolve. There was that time I threw a fit in the shoe store. Momma warned me not to pitch a fit before we got there, but I suppose I thought she was bluffing.

I would not have made a good poker player.

She told the shoe salesman to get my size of a particular shoe. I informed her that I didn’t want those shoes and then pointed to the ones I did want. Decades later I would learn that the price tags on shoes vary substantially. I embarrassed her, and no child ought to do that.

She took me to the car and reminded me that she had warned me beforehand. We swung by Daddy’s work to ensure that I had a complete and thorough understanding of what “Don’t pitch a fit,” meant. We never had a need to relearn that lesson.

The second time wasn’t really a whipping but rather a clarification – a mutual understanding. I was a teenager and had finally evolved into the creature my father had described to me years earlier. “In a couple of years,” he told me. “You will know everything, and I won’t know anything.”

It seemed odd for my father to say such a thing, but he was prophetic! Just like he described, as I grew in age and intelligence, his and my mother’s knowledge diminished proportionately. One afternoon, my mother was getting onto me about something. As was the case in those days, “She just did not understand.” I thought I was clear of that old recliner he sat in. I thought I was out of earshot. I thought I said it low enough, under my breath, so that no one would hear it.

I was mistaken.

In a display of the worst judgment I may have ever exhibited in my life, I disrespected my mother. “I wish she’d shut up,” I mumbled.

The entire house shook as he slammed that recliner down and both boots hit the floor. They say there are times in life – near death experiences – when one can see his life flash before his eyes. I did not see my life on display, but I did seem to think that my spirit had departed my body, so as not to be present when he ended it.

When he got to me, I was fairly confident that it would be my last day on earth. If I did live to see another Georgia sunrise, I was fairly confident that it would be through bruised eyes. He grabbed me by the neck, and when he pinned me to the wall, my feet were about six inches off the ground. Then he leaned in real close and informed me of his God given right to end me.

I believed him, and that is why he never had to remind me of that little tidbit of information again.

Today, I am a planner – a strategist. My work involves things like trying to determine how to deter other nations from exhibiting what the rest of the world considers inappropriate behavior. My father didn’t have nuclear weapons or an army. He isn’t even a big man. He simply refused to have another man look at his boy, tuck his chin, and whisper to his own son, “That boy wasn’t raised right.”

My father knew how to deter bad behavior. He was consistent. No meant no. Quit meant quit. He didn’t count to three. He didn’t draw lines in the sand only to redraw them when they were crossed. Heck, he didn’t draw lines period. I got one shot at listening, but if he only whipped me once during my childhood, it would be reasonable to ask, “Why didn’t I see if he’d say no or quit a second time.”

I didn’t test those waters because I believed he would punish me. No, I knew he’d do it. He would wear me out if I didn’t listen. That is what we call deterrence. He didn’t have to whip me because I knew that if I showed my rear end and did not listen, I’d wind up on the receiving end of some fatherly aggression.

That I can recall, he never uttered the word leadership, but I sure did learn a lot about leading and human behavior growing up. I think a few of our nation’s leaders could learn a few things from my father. It doesn’t matter what kind of military or weapon systems a nation possesses. If the other fellow doesn’t believe that you will use them, he’ll see if you won’t count to three. He’ll test you to see if you’ll redraw that line in the sand. Whether you are leading a child or a nation, until no means no, you are going to spend a lot of time renegotiating artificial limitations.

Fighting Human Nature to Survive in Combat or Business

Fighting Human Nature to Survive in Combat or Business

Turning Vulnerabilities into Strengths

For decades, I have successfully harvested wild game using primitive archery tackle. My success has come largely as a result of my understanding, and ability to exploit, an animal’s natural tendency to establish patterns. Despite our understanding of the innate vulnerabilities associated with routine behavior, we humans are no different than the quarry we pursue. We are creatures of habit with a natural desire to establish battle rhythms and steady-state operating procedures. Predictable schedules are comforting, but dangerous in combat and business alike.

Steady-state is an unvarying condition in a physical process. The very idea of an unvarying condition should send shivers up any leader’s neck; nevertheless, almost all organizations desire to develop a predictable, unvarying operating rhythm. When we become predictable in combat, people die. When it occurs in business we get outmaneuvered by our competitor. Yet due to our tendency toward predictability, we almost unconsciously establish a steady-state rhythm.

For the past fifteen years, military units have been conducting transitions, one unit to another, in Iraq and Afghanistan. We call the process right seat – left seat rides. As a leader, I would direct my unit to adopt the procedures of the unit we were replacing, but after a short trial period we would immediately being questioning all assumptions. To everything we do, ask why. That was our mantra.

My desire to question the procedures in place was not because I did not trust the unit we replaced, but rather because I wanted to prevent us from making the mistake of becoming predictable. The 21st Century operational environment changes rapidly. We face a clever, thinking enemy, therefore, we must never grow comfortable with our processes and procedures.

On January 6, 2009, Task Force Pale Horse assumed responsibility for four Afghan provinces (Nuristan, Kunar, Laghman, and Nangahar). We replaced our sister squadron – 2-17 Cavalry. For months on end, 2-17 Cavalry had conducted resupply missions in the Korengal Valley during daylight hours. The Korengal is a small valley with multiple combat outposts that could only be accessed by helicopter. The resupply missions generally took four to six hours of repetitive turns with CH-47 Chinook helicopters.

We assumed responsibility of the Korengal resupply mission with the intent of trying to find a safer way to conduct it, but we were too late. On January 17, 2009, despite feeling uncomfortable with the idea of multiple turns in the Korengal during daylight hours, we executed the resupply mission. Having patterned our behaviors, the enemy was lying in wait. On that cold, rainy morning the enemy executed a complex air ambush on our Chinook. As they shot RPGs and heavy machine guns at the helicopter, they filmed it from multiple locations. We lost one American soldier and a brand new CH-47F Chinook helicopter. The enemy capitalized upon their success by releasing a propaganda video.

From that point forward, we conducted all resupply missions at night. 2-17 Cavalry had been equipped with CH-47D helicopters, which did not have glass cockpits with large, color cockpit screens, and moving map displays. On dark nights the pilots were limited to navigating the deep, dark Afghan valleys using night vision goggles. 2-17 Cavalry was forced to constantly balance environmental risk with enemy risk. We should have immediately questioned their risk analysis paradigm, because we were the first unit equipped with the new CH-47F, which gave us the ability to mitigate the risk of darkness in the mountains. The systems in the CH-47F used GPS to display the helicopter on a color screen map display. Our pilots flew with night vision googles, but the display was so good they could have flown off of the image on the screen. We waited too long to reassess our procedures, and our patterns cost us dearly.

Weeks later we struggled to understand the complex network of trails that the enemy used to travel back and forth from Pakistan to Afghanistan. I knew that their trail system was like an interstate highway system, but Google maps had not yet reached the Hindu Kush.

I woke one morning in early February to find a fresh snow on the ground. Overnight snow had fallen on the mountains along the Afghanistan – Pakistan border. Suddenly, I remembered my success hunting deer in the snow. Deer use the same trails when walking to and from water sources, food sources, and bedding areas. When it snows, their paths are easily discerned. Like the deer I had patterned in the snow, I knew that we would be able to clearly follow the mountain trails in Afghanistan.

I told my operations officer to launch several teams of scout helicopters. “I am going to take a team out as well,” I told him. “With this fresh snow we will be able to trace which trails they use to get to each location in the central Kunar and Pech River Valleys. Let’s go plot their trails.”

As predicted, hip-deep trails were obvious in the fresh snow. We were able to trace trails from the Pakistan border to specific river-crossing locations, villages, and remote valleys. Like us, the enemy was predictable. They used the same trails and generally traveled at the same times each day. We patterned our adversary rather easily, thus enabling our intelligence team to focus our future operations with pinpoint precision.

For centuries we have known that the enemy prefers to attack just before dawn and right after sunset. Drawing on that knowledge, we developed a procedure called “stand-to,” so that we are not surprised when the enemy attacks. Yet almost without exception we conduct our command post shift changes at the exact same time. It seems absurd, but we are creatures of habit. Back home, we begin work early in the morning, so when we go to war we bring the day shift on bright and early. Why would we schedule a daily shift change at the exact time we expect the enemy to attack us? Without processes that force us to systematically question our behaviors, we unconsciously pattern ourselves.

The lessons are clear for military units. Do not pattern yourself. Establish procedures that force your organization to systematically question the relevance of your processes. Resist the urge to establish a “steady-state.” Rather, create an organization that evolves with the environment. Private and public businesses are no different. Do not grow dangerously comfortable with doing things the way you always have done them. Constantly question your marketing strategy. Just because it increased sales last year does not mean that it will this year. Carefully evaluate your overhead. Innovate, evolve, and remain relevant. Otherwise your competitors will outmaneuver you. They will find a way to make their product faster, or cheaper, or both.




Six Years Ago Today – September 8, 2009

Six years ago today was one heck of a day for PALE HORSE. We began the day at 0400ish with a battalion air assault into the Shuryak Valley. By daylight our Apaches had killed around a dozen enemy fighters. A few hours later two of LTC Brian Pearl’s men had been injured and required a medevac. The only way to get them out was using the hoist, which would take time and exposure. CW4 Michael Woodhouse and CW2 Ray Illman were teamed with CW2 Adam Stead and CW4 Patrick Benson. As the hoist mission was being conducted, the medevac came under enemy fire. Adam dove his helicopter between the enemy and the medevac to try and kill the insurgents, but the enemy shifted fires to their helicopter. Patrick Benson was shot through the leg and Adam was shot in the head. The aircraft pitched up and rolled, but Patrick was able to regain control of their helicopter. With his leg literally exploded in the cockpit, he flew the Kiowa out of the valley. The medevac followed them to COP Able Main. Patrick was able to safely land on the tiny LZ. Both Adam and Patrick were treated and evacuated. Amazingly, Adam regained conciousness, but he had a long road ahead.

Jimmy Blackmon & Adam Stead before a mission in Afghanistan

Jimmy Blackmon & Adam Stead before a mission in Afghanistan

Also, that morning a patrol was ambushed just outside Ganjgal Village ultimately resulting in the loss of three Marines and one Navy Corpsman. CPT Will Swenson and Dakota Meyer would later recieve the Medal of Honor for their actions in that battle.
Amazingly, Adam, a North Georgia College graduate recovered. He and his wife, Carrie Hope Stead are the proud parents of two boys. After several surgeries, Patrick Benson also recovered. Both are now retired. Patrick, Adam, and Carrie were kind enough to share their story in PALE HORSE.

On this day (July 17, 2009) – Watapur Valley

Six years ago today Private Joshua Dow and Private First Class Eli Casas lay wounded in the Watapur Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan. Staff Sergeant Jonathan Wedemeyer suffered from a fractured ankle. Their platoon sergeant, Sergeant First Class Henrique Ventura, call for help and Pale Horse answered that call.

Spraktes on the cable (hoist)

Spraktes on the cable (hoist)

Ventura and his men were surrounded by enemy forces and pinned down. They could not move. While Kiowas and Apaches went to work on the enemy, flight medic, Staff Sergeant Emmett Spraktes, prepared to hoist down into the middle of a full on firefight to do what he could to help the wounded. He did render aide, and much more.

By sundown, Emmett Spraktes had conducted multiple hoists under fire. Dow and Casas both recovered from their gunshot wounds and Wedemeyer healed as well. As for Spraktes, he was awarded the Silver Star for heroism in battle. Find their story in PALE HORSE – Hunting Terrorists and Commanding Heroes with the 101st Airborne Division. Preorder your copy today.

The Watapur Valley

The Watapur Valley