Welp the Arkansas After Action Review (AAR) is done and sent off and I’ve pulled a few of the more relevant notes together and coupled those with my paraphrased comments below. I was originally contacted in June to spend a weekend with these folks in southern Arkansas and the final request was for someone to observe, evaluate, and fine tune their performance while conducting some small unit tactics they had selected for a 24 hour in the woods training session. Observe, asses, assist. Too easy. Anyway I arrived Friday evening to meet everyone and after some handshakes this is what we had: Eight folks only one of whom had any previous .mil experience (1 guy was commo in the national guard). That commo guys influence was readily apparent at with the solid comms discipline these folks had on their FRSs. Interesting there was also a husband and wife team. The wife kind of held back and didn’t say much but when I asked her about her extra gear she told me it was her aid bag (she turned out to be an EMT). I’m going to call her GI Jane because she seemed to be kinda gung ho about all of this. Anyhow there was a quick rundown of their plan (nothing super complicated – just some basic movement and a few other odds and ends) however in that plan were no pre-combat checks or inspections and no rehearsals. So we fixed that with the remaining light we had and even into the dark. At this point I’m going to introduce a phrase: “Discovery Learning”. Discovery learning is that hard learning that happens when you fail to listen or do your homework. Discovery learning is typically also the result of poor planning.
You really need to conduct PCCs/PCIs. One guy I shall refer to as Carrot Top (remember the sight gag comedian that used to pull endless crap out of his trunk of laughs?) had the largest ruck I’ve seen since Panama. Here’s a partial list of what it had in it from the tome of scribbles I made:
- An air mattress
- A hammock
- A genuine brit basha
- A poncho with liner
- A bivvy with the green patrol bag wrapped in a shelter half complete with rope, pins, and poles
- 3 extra sets of BDUs
- A cleaning kit
- 6 unopened MREs
- A vacuum packed 5.56 bandolier
- A full CLS style bag
- A full 2 QT canteen
- A machete
- Some kind of swap meet chicom small axe/shovel multi-tool thing
- ziplocked admin pouch
- A small gas stove with a spare fuel can
- A compact cookset
I quit there but FFS stuff kept coming and coming out of that ruck like a clown car at the circus. People you don’t need all that extra weight. How often does a poncho break? That’s what duct tape is for. Three sets of BDUs? Two types of cooking devices? Some things are more important than others. Which brings me to my next point:
Focus on the essentials. In this group everyone had a camelback but no water in their ruck (except for me and Carrot Top). I always carry 11+ quarts: a camelback, 3 2 qts. in my ruck, and 2 1 qts on my gear. Did I mention the high was going to be in the low 100s? Hydration is critical and dehydration is bad. If you’re on the borderline of being dehydrated and get hurt not only are the chances of you going into shock greater but you’ll go into shock sooner. Water=Life.
The weight of some of those packs was questionable. Snivel gear is great but c’mon. Ya know what I carry? A poncho, poncho liner, old USGI sleep shirt, and one of the new polypro watch caps. I may break down buy a snugpack eventually but with what I have works till the temps get into the teens. And then the addition of a set of polypros and secondary socks along with my gore-tex gloves will do. Focus on the 3 Fs’ – Food (including water), Firecrackers (ammo) and First aid. Water is as critical as ammo unless you have a handy resupply source.
Have you ever heard of the term “ruck bumping” or “ruck shrugging”? That’s when someone who isn’t used to humping a lot of weight over distance starts bouncing their pack on their back to alleviate the weight. I saw this start happening at the two mile mark. By four miles everyone was doing it. Folks go read Mosby’s words of wisdom right now and then report back. You have to get out and move that distance, run, climb, and crawl with that weight to be effective with it. Lifting weights, jogging, P90x, Pilates, WTFever isn’t going to cut it alone. Your body moves and wears differently with that weight and gear and your muscles will fatigue at a different rate and combination than just working out. By this point Carrot Top was suffering and told me he couldn’t wait to get to their cache and dump some of his extra gear. Lesson learned, lesson staying learned.
Here’s a sad one. It wasn’t hard to find the cache. Nope, by the amount of shit strewn around mixed in with hog ruts it’s was pretty easy to tell something had been there. And judging by the age of the ruts and debris it hadn’t been recently. More points:
- Don’t site your cache on a game trail. Game (including hogs) had an extraordinary sense of smell. Something in that cache smelled enough like food for them to rut it up despite being buried almost a foot down. People are not the only danger to your cache.
- I asked my host how long had it been since he checked the cache. 2 Months. People you have to check them frequently. Not too frequently but often enough to recover anything that might have been damaged. In this case all of that ammo might have been saved if my host had discovered it earlier. How often? Depends on the weather, how well you stored it, and how trafficked the area is by not only people but animals as well.
- Don’t crap or piss near your cache. I found an obvious cathole that had been rutted up within twenty feet of the original cache point. Folks animals smell crap they also smell food (especially hogs). Pissing may be taken as a territorial challenge and once they have the scent of man a male animal will do everything he can to purge his territory of that scent including destroying your cache – which is going to have your scent on it.
- A single cache isn’t a good plan. In this case what was supposed to be a water supply turned out to be an empty USGI 5 gallon water jug that the hogs had chewn the cap off of. All of the ammo in the cache was unserviceable after being in the rain and mud for so long.
Poor Carrot Top managed to wrap his extra gear in his basha and hang it in a tree. We’ll revisit that decision later on. So we rerouted and moved to a secondary water source – a spring a half mile further in. By now formations and discipline had become lax and people were grumbling. So I grabbed my host (the defacto leader) and suggested some halt time for an attitude check. To his credit he’s a good motivator and got everyone to refocus so once that was settled away we went in search of what I’ll refer to as “The fountain of squirts”.
Once we got to the spring I was pretty adamant that the purifying stuff these guys had probably wasn’t going to be good enough (There was a distinct sulfur smell to the water and I insisted this wasn’t safe to drink despite the pur tabs they had) and I even offered to split some of my water with them while telling them about what could happen, etc. Most took me up on the offer but two didn’t. That would weigh heavily (or fluidly depending on how you look at it) on their participation later on. At this point it was emergency time. We weren’t going to have enough water after they killed my 2 quarts to make it through the next 24 hours in that heat.
Time for plan B. GI Jane whipped out a zip lock bag containing her cell phone (battery removed – smart gal). She assembled it and after a short move managed to get signal. So she called her mother and asked her to meet her with one of her water jugs at an intersection in two hours. Problem solved – +2 for GI Jane. After she stowed her phone I threw the idea this would be a good logistics exercise and that there’s the possibility the signal had been tracked and that we should move to a position near the intersection post haste. Two miles – not a problem. Except as we almost got to the intersection as if choreographed the two guys (one of which was my host) that drank their “purified” water from the spring developed some pretty nasty stomach cramps. Uhh huh. Discovery learning can be even less pleasant than normal in a situation like that. So we occupied an RP (in this case Runs Point) while GI Jane and Carrot Top (who volunteered just to dump his lightened ruck) went out to link up with their water drop taking all of the empty canteens with them. It’s at that point I became concerned for our two sick pups and went out to check on both of them. Yup no way was I going to let them stay out in this condition – they were already starting to get pale and their heart rates were up there along with a lack of blanching on the extremities – all signs of dehydration. So I gave them some chewable Imodium (what, you don’t pack Imodium in your gear? Am I the only person on earth that does?) and told them to get it together they were outta here. I then shagged and caught GI Jane and her mother and explained the situation. Those two went to the emergency room with an explanation they had been out scouring deer runs (I know – kinda a sick pun eh?). So now we’re down to 6 + me and have water on hand. Lessons here:
- If you plan on using a natural water source get it checked beforehand. Most of the time you can get it checked pretty cheap by taking a sample to the county extension agent.
- Pack water. Lots of water. If you don’t drink it someone else may want/need to.
- Having an evac plan during training is just as critical as any other time. Plan on dealing with different kinds of casualties both ambulatory (walking) and non ambulatory.
- Have an alternate logistics plan in place. GI Jane rose to the occasion and kept her head about her when our ad hoc leader was “indisposed” and created one on the fly. Bra-freaking-vo! Once your initial logistics plan goes south (as these folks did in a grandiose manner) keep looking at it. In her case GI Jane had the foresight to order a consolidation of water, gather the empties and send them back with another logistics drop scheduled for the next morning (before our scheduled ruck out).
- If you plan on living on the land and aren’t packing Imodium (or Benadryl for that matter) relook your meds. I did some discovery learning of my own as a young pup in Honduras back when our fix all was some really nasty stuff doc called “dyna-gel”. Trust me Imodium is more effective, lighter, and much more palatable.
At any rate refocused and back on task we stopped to conduct a quick AAR. Up to this point movement had been good and despite the little attitude problem performance had been passable. One issue I did notice is the apparent lack of understanding of common hand and arm signals. I brought this up and turns out everyone had been studying different sources they had found on the web. Understand that a voice can carry over 100 meters and silence is the key to not being discovered when you don’t want to be. It pays to get everyone on the same sheet of music beforehand. A good exercise is having someone script out a series of hand and arm signals and pass them through your little party seeing what the guy at the end comes up with – sort of like that message drill in Jr. High.
Next up they wanted to rehearse crossing danger areas. Not a problem. We found a nice isolated wide trail and I climbed up to a nice vantage point in a nearby tree while they executed. We ran into problems here. Remember we’re two guys down (one of whom was their smart guy at stuff like this), and they hadn’t done much in the way of practicing this drill. So we recocked and did the crawl-walk-run thing a few times then I turned them loose to work it for a while. Here’s my scribbles from that activity:
- Pause, get used to your surroundings, and listen and look before committing to crossing a danger area. Don’t setup camp but take enough time to ensure that it’s clear.
- Accounting for missing members during movement and drills is critical. By not doing so you end up with people not adjusting fields of observation and fire as the far side presence built and the near side shrank.
- Don’t bum rush across the danger area like a raging bull. You’ll make a lot of excess noise and may run right into something you don’t want to. “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast“. Once committed go don’t hesitate and don’t stop.
- Rehearse what to do if you run into a presence in the middle of the drill. In one instance a truck came down the road and the “oh shit” factor went up. Plan and rehearse things like this to alleviate that.
Next up we found a decent open area and I watched them go through a dry break contact drill. They had the basic concept down however I did note some problems:
- No Rally Point announced, just their codeword for break contact.
- Way too many sweeps with weapons.
- Weapons not on safe when not covering/firing.
- Nobody was sure who/when smoke should be popped.
- Use of simulated suppressive fire was minimal.
WTF Lizard – weapon not on safe? Hey man “My trigger finger is my safety“. Yeah maybe – but stay your ass away from me with that mentality. I’ve been on the receiving ends of a Negligent Discharge (ND) more than once by some nitwit that watched Blackhawk Down one too many times. The method I teach with is that the only time you sit with the safety off is when you are situated in an ambush position. Any other time that small metallic click is probably going to be ok considering the noise that’s going to immediately follow it. During any drill you have to have some basic info burnt into your brain. Who’s where, where and when do I go, and what am I doing all at any given time. But it’s a leader task to announce a rally point. After the first iteration we had folks scattered all over a couple of acres which is indicative of “RUN AWAY!” like some piss poor Monty Python Break Contact Drill (without the funny walking).
At this point the group hit me up for some extra time – All through Sunday night – we were originally supposed to ENDEX (end exercise) on Sunday morning. They would work the logistics but wanted to run some more. Not a problem I got shit else to do on labor day weekend. So I sat down plugged in some basic lanes and scribbled some simple FRAGOs (Fragmentary Orders) to set them up for success. So we walked through setting up a Remain OverNight (RON) and then at dark they executed it pulling security all night. The plan was to break Sunday in half on two lanes. The first was a simple area security patrol in which they would hit a larger hostile force and have to break contact (I didn’t initially tell them about that last part). The second was to move out and setup an ambush. The system I used was to give them the FRAGO then have them move out and execute dry until I thought they had it down enough to go live. The patrol and break contact went pretty well. The ambush took some discipline work on their part. On the second iteration I purposely let them sit for a couple of hours in the heat and stew in their own juices to get a feeling for just how boring it can be. I stood out back and watched them sit and scratch, slap, wiggle, sniffle, you name it. When we talked through it they were already aware they were making too much noise and moving too much. So we did it again – and better this time. The live fire execution went ok was well. The final exercise was a a night movement to an ambush position followed by another movement to a RON. There was still an hour or so of daylight left so I scouted out an excellent area to establish an ambush. Map marked and I got back and scribbled out a quick FRAGO.
The night mission was interesting. This was a first run FIGO (Fuck It Go Live) operation with loaded weapons – no rehearsals outside of the assembly area we’d occupied after the last ambush. Movement was slower than I’d have liked it to have been but I chalk that up to lack of experience. Practice will make them better. They did manage to occupy the ambush location and at around midnight I used the last of my 4th of July Pyro minus one whistler to set things off. Since nobody had night vision and they didn’t have any notional mines to initiate it it became a “fire where I fire” exercise led by tracers I gave to GI Jane. The performance was improving and spirits were high at this point. Movement to the RON and night security went OK with one incident. See I have this really weird sleep cycle where I can’t sleep for more than two hours straight. After two hours I’ll either let myself go back to sleep or stay awake. At about 0330 (3:30 am) I caught both the guys that were supposed to be on watch asleep. That last whistler later after everyone was shocked awake I gave those two their boonie hats back (hey in the old days I used to use a red sharpie on sleeping guards – I must be getting soft). Standing watch is boring, mind numbing work – but it has to be done and done to standard.
Monday morning on the way out we stopped at the original cache location to pick Carrot Tops gear up. Folks it just can’t get any better than this. Apparently he had left a pack of Ramen noodles along with his other stuff in that basha and the raccoons had gotten to it. They had also pretty much torn up everything else because it smelled like food. Chalking it up to a loss there was a long walk back in with a lot of info still sinking into heads. After we got back and cleaned up we sat down in the evening and went through my notes in a good long protracted AAR. Overall everyone was happy considering the setbacks they had.
Overall not a bad time nor experience. There was a lot of discovery learning that happened but overall everyone seemed to come out of it with a greater appreciation for what it takes to operate in a small unit and the level of planning and training you need. I’ve got a few other notes here in the tome of scribbles that I’ll throw out there:
- 2 spare pairs of socks aren’t enough in wet and humid environments. Carrot Top was the only trainee that had enough (hell I think he packed his entire wardrobe). I have a spare set in my buttpack and three in my ruck and I went through all of them.
- Water, Water, Water. Don’t let water become a critical issue during training. Want for or worry about resupply is a huge training distractor.
- Drop your preconceived notions about who is capable of what. GI Jane stepped up at the loss of the defacto leader and took charge. Beforehand they had never been placed in a crappy situation as a group so leadership had never been readily apparent outside of their defacto leader. Piss Poor conditions coupled with a liberal dose of Murphy is one way to breed cohesion and develop leadership.
- We got lucky when it came to insects. I’m still kinda puzzled about the lack of bugs on this trip. I didn’t break DEET once after initially putting it on before heading the rest of the time we were out.
- When you’re planning training think about “what is the worst possible thing that could happen” at any given point. Contingency planning can really come in handy at times.
Now in all fairness to this group they have only been working together for a couple of months. A lot of the foundations were visible but the only way to really get the full effect is get into the woods and work it – this trip was the first time they had been on an overnight. Leverage everything you do as a training event. Putting in a cache? Doing some ruck PT? Make it a training opportunity.
Some trainers notes:
- As always let the leaders lead and point them when need be.
- Be ready to pull some training out of your ass. I have a book I keep in my ruck on trips like this that has a lot of basic info in it. I use that in some instances (like this one where we ran another 24 hours) to hand over for them to use as a reference.
- There’s some good substitutes for military pyro when training like this. I usually stock up on fireworks anytime they’re on sale. Be creative – I use things like a string of blackcats in a coffee can to replicate hostile fire. I got some of those jumbo smoke balls and they work pretty well at adding an obscurant to training. Some of the aerial para flares are a good substitute for the real mckoy.
All in all a fun and productive trip. Although there were a lot of setbacks these folks were able to overcome adversity and troop on. IMHO that makes them winners. Now that they’ve seen what training looks like they’re a little better armed to plan and establish their own training and I’ve been asked to come back in the fall and if I can juggle my schedule I will.