My wife and I were down in Bend, Oregon, the other day, to visit with some friends and to spend the afternoon watching the Oregon Ducks smash helmets with the Wisconsin Badgers in the Rose Bowl. I had no dog in the fight – my alma maters are both mired in long-term football mediocrity — so instead of pulling for one side or the other I played the role of annoying snarky guy while munching on some terrific jalapeno poppers and perfectly smoked – and I really do mean perfectly — short ribs.
It was a great afternoon full of delightfully low-brow conversation.
The host — and two of the other guests — have been my hunting partners for the last several years. We have made a number of elk hunts in various places, some deer and coyote hunts, and three of us made a trip a few years ago to hunt for those legendary wapiti in the high country above Durango, Colorado. Naturally, as we were out in the host’s gun-room before kickoff –-admiring his newly finished 6.5 Creedmore build –- the subject of the Durango hunt came up.
I need to change leads for just a second to explain something: I am a big fan of the debrief, and I’m realizing — now that I have made a hard and long-overdue course correction in my life — how important the art of the debrief remains. A good debrief is tied directly to the discipline required to set goals and make necessary corrections, and that’s true whether you are fixing a shooting problem on the range, changing a tire, or addressing problems in a relationship.
I first came to understand what a real debrief should look like when I was in the Marine Corps. I was assigned to a small-boat amphibious raid company – think: travel light, freeze at night, zodiac raids and grunt stuff. My platoon also had a collateral assignment as the Security Element for what was then known as the Maritime Special Purpose Force. As it turned out, this required considerable additional training, which often pulled us away from our company and into a rarified arena of exposure and opportunities. That unusual experience was not confined to CONUS, but gave us additional opportunities to train with foreign hosts as we deployed overseas and visited various countries.
The MSPF – today this task organization has changed dramatically — was composed of one platoon of Force Reconnaissance Marines, one platoon of Navy SEALs, one platoon of amphibious raiders (my outfit), a sniper platoon, a radio reconnaissance element, and air assets. There was obviously a command element, some other caterpillars of the command, and Navy SBU guys to run the fast boats we often zoomed around on. The unit was tasked with three primary missions: in-extremis hostage rescue, gas-oil platform seizures, and VBSS, or vessel boarding, search and seizure. My platoon served as the security element for the Direct Action platoons: Force Recon and SEALs. We had one squad of “trailers”, who made entry with the DA platoons and provided additional security inside of a crisis sight, and two squads of external security, armed to the teeth to set up ambushes and roadblocks and to keep the shitbirds at bay while the mission was accomplished. Think of us as serving in the same capacity for Force and SEALs as the Rangers do for “Unit” guys in the US Army.
This combined force spent many months training together during pre-deployment workups, and running through a series of schools – shooting schools, demo schools, HRST (helicopter rope suspension) schools, navigation schools, urban and rural sniper packages, etc., — followed by integration-training directed by the USMC’s Special Operations Training Group. All of this pre-deployment training culminated in a huge event known as SOC-Ex, which is where our unit earned its Special Operations Capable designation and was deemed fit to take those skills on deployment. At that time the Marine Corps did not fall under USSOCOM – which changed after 9–11 and resulted in the creation of MARSOC.
SOC-ex was great training because the missions were executed in live environments. We might make a clandestine, over-the-horizon insertion into Long Beach harbor, jump into the back of waiting U‑haul trucks, race off to deploy on a site, execute the mission, then exfil to high school football field for extraction back to the ship by helo. Once, we executed an eye-opening ship-to-shore hostage rescue mission at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories. We trained oil platform seizures on the rigs in the Santa Barbara Channel — fast roping down on the top deck while SEALs climbed up from the bottom — and VBSS missions on a host of different vessels, from rusty refuelers to super-tankers in the Indian Ocean. I have attached a video that tragically shows a crash off the aft-end of the USS Pecos during a VBSS training mission. This crash killed a number of fine men from 1st Force Reconnaissance who we counted as friends and mentors, and who we lived with, trained with, and deployed to the Persian Gulf with as members of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit in 1997.
That was sometimes sexy, and often extremely dangerous training, but it was, in many ways, the post-mission debriefs that had the most enduring value. Because they were brutal. Those debriefs were a staple of the professional warrior’s world that I have carried with me ever since. I brought them with me to police work, and tried to inculcate that same commitment to quality debrief in our SWAT team – with only a modest degree of success because police departments are fickle animals. But for rigorous self-examination, relentless honesty, and a team ethos insisting not on perfection itself but on the continuous, uncompromising pursuit of it, I have never seen debriefs performed better than during those years on the MSPF teams. What made them work was a bedrock understanding that no one could accomplish anything alone, and that because my fuck-up could rapidly become your problem we had better all work together — which is the literal meaning of Gung Ho.
Which may have nothing at all do with hunting, and in particular this lousy trip to Durango I’m eventually getting to. But then again it might, because I am re-committed to asking the same question of myself that John McPhee, the legendary “Sheriff of Baghdad”, demanded his men ask themselves every day: “Am I meeting the minimum standard, or am I meeting the standard I should be meeting?” That’s a far more complicated question than it may at first appear, and its application isn’t confined to planning and executing complicated military or police missions – it might apply just as well to a trip to the grocery store or terrible commute home from work. That’s true because, in this day and age, you just never know what might happen while you are stuck in traffic, roll in for a pack of AAA batteries at Target, or while you sit listening to a holiday sermon in your church.
We have a responsibility to be prepared for the intangibles.
All of which is a long way to get where I wanted to be, which is to say that I think we should expect more of ourselves than we generally do. And I think that is particularly true of people who claim to be leaders in our culture. I expect a hell of a lot from elected representatives and I am now almost universally disappointed, which is one reason I no longer expect them to provide any solutions.
And also because, it seems, a far better course than reliance on the next generation of retail politicians is to expect more from ourselves and so find the means to solve our own problems. Imagine that mindset at work on a large scale. At any scale it is a great way to punch out of what McPhee calls the “Gray Area”, and learn to perform at our peak ability. This seems enormously important to me, most particularly in the mostly banal churn of our daily lives where we least expect a need to suddenly recruit our peak performance.
“Special Forces and Rangers always say they could do everything we do if you gave them the same amount of money. Having served in every one of these units I can tell you this is not true.
However it’s not what set us apart. The true barrier to entry is being smart, adaptable and flexible to the point of ignorance. War is never survival of the fittest. What does this even mean, the fastest runner lives, the guy doing the most push-ups lives?
No, (we) should say survival of the smartest. Being smart on the battle-field is the major difference between the Varsity and the Junior Varsity. When I was a troop sergeant major 2006 I was in charge of 56 men’s lives every night. Hot landing zones, IEDs, fuckhead savages, you name it we encountered it. We never took a wounded or worse. What you never hear about is the successful missions that nothing happened because of meticulous planning and timely adaptable smart decisions by every operator at every level.
Let me break down some combat math for you. More bullets fired at you higher percentage you have of being shot. Less bullets fired at you more chance for survival. Overwhelming the enemy, timely decisions and planning for every contingency leaves the enemy to ‘give up or die’ as the options. Believe me we killed all the dumb guys in the beginning of the war. Besides most humans will surrender, the ones who don’t…the savages, that’s my jam.”
–John “Shrek” McPhee, the Sheriff of Baghdad
End of Part One