Wait, why do you run towards the bullets?

It doesn’t make much sense to the average person why anybody would willingly run towards the source of a fired bullet. To be honest, from the outside, it doesn’t make any sense. However, this is exactly what every infantryman is trained to do and it is expected that they will not hesitate when the situation presents itself.

Getting shot at is a unique experience. Different people react differently to the situation. Some hide behind something that will stop a bullet (cover) and hope the person shooting at them gets bored and goes away. Others hardly register that they are getting shot at and move slowly to a safer place. While some charge in the direction of where the bullets are coming from in an attempt to get to the source before the shooters realize a crazy person just charged their position.

The senses can go a bit crazy when getting shot at – time can feel like it is slowing down or speeding up, sounds become very distinct or everything goes silent, the eyes can lock on specific things such as flying debris or blur everything at once, muscles can seize up or go completely slack. There is no guarantee that a person is going to know how their body and mind will react every time another person is purposefully trying to kill them. Training helps, but it is not an adequate stand-in for the real thing.

Stupid Smile Day
On patrol in Iraq – Likely in Iskandariyah sometime in 2007 or 2008.

Okay, let’s break all of this down a little bit because it is more complicated than the surface makes it appear.

DISCLAIMER: This is a hypothetical situation partially based on real experience but mainly fabricated in my mind to illustrate the title of this post – so keep calm and don’t Monday morning quarterback it too much.

First, let’s outline the situation many infantryman find themselves in during a deployment to a combat theater. A platoon (about 25-30 soldiers) is tasked with a “knock and search” mission within a designated area. Given the confines of the area’s layout, the HMMWVS and MRAPS aren’t able to provide close support and are left with a small detail of soldiers a few hundred meters away from the squads on the ground. To reduce the enemy’s ability to skip out of the back of a house during the search, each of the three line squads (likely 7 soldiers after leaving two with their vehicles) are on three parallel streets, searching houses in line with each other (i.e. each squad is clearing three houses next to each other so no squad ends up in front of or behind the others).

Suddenly, without warning, the distinctive cracking sound of an AK-47 splits the air as dozens of 7.62 MM bullets impact around the soldiers of the squad on the far left of the clearing area. Shouts from the soldiers now fill the air as they reflexively start firing in the direction they think the rounds came from – which isn’t very likely to be accurate. The other two squads pause, consolidate, and begin their game plan to close with the enemy and destroy them.

Unfortunately, the middle squad is now under direct fire from a second enemy position. The sound of an RPK on full cyclic is deafening as it lays down suppressing fire on the middle squad. An RPG impacts a wall close to the squad leader, knocking him down and causing momentary confusion amongst his soldiers. The middle squad is pinned down and cannot effectively move. It’s an old west box canyon made up of mud brick houses and walls – a death trap.

Welcome to an ambush. It is not your friend.

In the situation I have outlined above, you’re effectively fucked if your in the middle squad and not in a great place if you’re in the squad on the far left. The only elements that can maneuver effectively are the squad on the far right and the vehicles. Now, everyone will have a different way of handling this, but, inevitably soldiers are going to have to maneuver under fire (i.e. while getting shot at).

Iskandariya, Iraq
A typical street in Iskandariya Iraq – really, any town in Iraq.

Ideally, the vehicles would be able to flank around to the left of the far left squad and lay down covering fire thus allowing the squad on the ground to maneuver while the enemy is ducking. Meanwhile, the squad on the far right would be able to flank the enemy in the middle zone while the middle squad distracted the enemy with a heavy base of fire. Two flanking elements on opposite sides of an objective requires coordination and great training to accomplish with minimal risk, but it can be done.

Too bad the real world isn’t as clean as a basic tactics manual makes it seem.

The vehicles can’t flank around the left because of an irrigation canal. They can only try to maneuver down the streets the squads are on, but this will simply put them in the line of some very direct fire and result in becoming combat ineffective. Instead, they stage (positions themselves for a particular purpose) as the casualty collection point (CCP) and prepare for a hasty departure. Not ideal.

The squad on the right tries to flank the enemy position in the middle but run into barriers such as walls, ditches, and houses which slow their progress. The middle squad has two wounded at this point and their base fire is dwindling. “Talking guns” kicks in as the team leaders coordinate their team’s firing so there are always bullets going “down range” (i.e. towards the enemy). This helps keep the enemy behind cover (something that will stop a bullet) and not shooting at friendly forces. It is only partially effective on the best of days.

This has left the squad on the left with two options:

  1. Sit tight, return fire, and pray one of the other squads can flank the enemy.
  2. Coordinate their fire, maneuver to the enemy position, and kill them.

In my world, due to training, conditioning, and my own irritation with getting shot at, I always opted for Option 2.

With one team laying down suppressing fire the other team would sprint in short intervals up the street towards the enemy position. After each burst, the team that moved would lay down fire while the other team moved either on line with the team firing or to a position ahead of them. Rinse and repeat until you are at the enemy position. Once in the same place as the enemy an entirely different drill is used to get in the house, clear it, and secure the site – but that is for many other posts.

In the end, soldiers have made the conscious decision to move a distance (with or without cover) while an enemy is trying really, really hard to kill them.

So, just to put a bow on this post:

  1. You run towards the bullets because running away is very rarely an option (the enemy wins and that causes much bigger problems).
  2. Sitting still and waiting for help isn’t always an option because help might not be able to get to the enemy.
  3. From personal experience, the enemy does not respond well when insane soldiers run straight towards them instead of cowering in fear – this is an advantage over the enemy.

Not all infantryman who make it through training end up being able to do this in the real world. Are they cowards? Maybe. Should they be kept in their position within an infantry unit? No, but they will because barring gross negligence that is provable it’s a game of “he said, she said”. It’s unfortunate that there is not a better way of handling these situations. Again, this is for a future post.

Have you ever been shot at? How did you respond to the situation? Tell us all about it in the comments section and remember to like, follow, and SHARE this pot with all of your friends who wonder about getting shot at!

Army Infantry Reboot

Post 8 - PTSD
Me in Iraq, circa 2008

I was scrolling through my LinkedIn account yesterday and ran across an interesting article detailing changes coming to the training regiment for new infantry soldiers. Though I have been out of the Army for 10 years, I still feel a personal sense of responsibility to remain aware of current trends in the army. In the past decade, a focus on drone capabilities, developing and introducing new technology to all facets of the force, and what the next war will entail typically hold headlines. However, a vital flaw in our army’s readiness and capacity to fight wars began to form while I was still in uniform: poor training and preparedness of new enlisted infantry soldiers.

In the article, Brigadier General Christopher T. Donahue (Infantry School Commandant) mentions the need to ensure ” that the right people are being selected for the Infantry Branch”. They need to be intelligent and capable of handling austere conditions at their worst and for long periods of time. Many assume that only those who failed to get a high score on their entrance exam (ASVAB) join the infantry, but this has always been a misconception. “The right people” should not simply refer to intelligence, but also the ability to assimilate into the army structure without losing their ability to critically think.

Donahue mentions that infantry soldiers need to be able to continue the fight even when everything goes sideways with or without guidance from superiors. Just because the radio was shot or pierced by shrapnel does not mean you pack it up and go home – you have to complete the mission objective. To do this, you must have good on-the-ground leadership as well as soldiers capable of (and willing to) think critically.

Due to the need for boots on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan too many waivers were issued for individuals who had no right being in the army, let alone the infantry, in the early to mid-2000s. Felons, no diploma/GED, assault charges, and other waivers permitted young men to enter the army without any real dedication or commitment to the organization or its mission. This permeated the army with undisciplined, rebellious, dangerous individuals – some would go on to great careers that changed their lives while others refused to grow up. These individuals took away from those who joined to serve, fight, and close with the enemy with honor.

As a leader for a majority of my service, I regularly received new soldiers who were straight out of Basic Training. As the years in Iraq and Afghanistan ticked by, I noticed a significant decrease in these soldier’s professionalism, basic soldier skill sets, and general discipline. These new soldiers could barely fire a weapon or execute basic fire drills (infantry maneuvers) safely – it was mind blowing to me.

Donahue is experimenting with a significant increase in the amount of time new infantry soldiers remain at One Station Unit Training (OSUT – the combination of Basic Training and Advanced Individual Training). More time in a strictly training environment will do these new soldiers some good and take some of the burden off of regular units upon receipt of these soldiers. The most difficult thing to do is get a new soldier, straight out of Basic Training, ready for a deployment – I hope these changes help.

Another major improvement will be to marksmanship qualification and training. Moving from the out-dated model of foxhole and prone firing positions to a more realistic prone supported, prone unsupported, kneeling, standing approach is long over due. In the real world (i.e. war), you don’t get to choose the best position to fire from every time and practicing different positions does help.

The next thing that needs to happen is the line units (regular infantry, not Rangers or SF) need more advanced and regular marksmanship training. This should include situational awareness training (shoot/don’t shoot scenarios) as well as advanced tactics and firing positions. It’s a misconception by the general public that regular infantry soldiers simply sit on a firing range and plink away for hours on end with an endless supply of ammunition. I can count on one hand how many times I had more than 40 live-rounds of ammunition for live-fire exercises (not qualification ranges) in the 6+ years I was in the army.

A final point that should be addressed (though it is not included in the article) is soldiers of the 21st century still need to learn how to do things without technology. A GPS is great until the batteries die or the screen is shattered and unreadable. Personal computers and future exoskeletons are wonderful until sand and grit break the CPU or lock up a joint. Soldiers will always need to know how to navigate with a paper map and a compass. They should know how to shoot their weapons accurately with iron sights. They need to know basic first aid when they don’t have an expanding bandage or Quikclot at their disposal. Knowing how to accomplish the mission when you don’t have modern conveniences is a very important skill set to maintain.

I applaud the army for its efforts to improve soldier readiness through training and a better selection process. I hope those who are currently serving in war zones around the world see a positive impact from these changes.

Did you serve in the infantry? What did you observe as some of the greatest weaknesses or things of greatest importance to be improved? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments and don’t forget to like, share, and follow this blog!