On Jan. 15, 2003, a phone call abruptly transformed me from a freelance contributing editor to Registered Rep. magazine into an infantry officer — bound for Iraq. As a national guardsman, I was aware that I could be called up for duty. After a few weeks of mobilization training and a brief assignment in Jordan, I found myself, in May 2003, commanding hundreds of convoys up and down the highways of Iraq, one of which is affectionately known to the troops as “Ambush Alley.”
Of all the lessons I shall carry forward from this war, one stands out: Meticulousness is more useful than bravado. It is a lesson I hope to carry with me in my everyday civilian life, as well.
At the risk of trivializing the experience, I have a completely new appreciation for the concept of risk. Running convoys in hostile territory will grant a person that perspective. There was no apparent rhyme or reason to enemy attacks or to the use of the most deadly technique — the improvised explosive devices — IEDs. The enemy would fashion these lethal bombs from surplus artillery shells, sacks of high-nitrate fertilizer and such mundane items as car batteries, doorbells and remote-control garage-door openers. We all knew these devices could disable or destroy our lightly armored vehicles, rendering the immobilized survivors vulnerable to follow-up attacks. This was a risk to be faced at any moment we were on the road — and many of us were on the road everyday.
The enemy buried bombs beneath the road, hid them inside light poles, concealed them inside the carcasses of dogs and sheep. He would place a decoy IED in plain view to get a convoy to stop and then detonate a dozen shells, daisy chained together.
IEDs could not be avoided. Sure, some measures improved our odds. We varied routes and shuffled departure times. But there were only so many roads to our destinations, and only so many ways we could mix things up.
As in any other job, successful good soldiering often depends on a regular dose of good fortune. But behind that superstition lies this truth: Good luck comes to those who prepare. Has the mission commander soberly assessed a variety of risks? Has he made allowances in his timeline for the unexpected? Does he have sufficient reserves to react to unforseeable events on the battlefield? If a unit runs into trouble, is there a rescue plan already in place?
The idea was to ensure that no soldier's life was put on the line without the prospect of a commensurate benefit to coalition forces and to the people of Iraq. Every proposed operation was analyzed against the requirements of our mission. Did an operation help us capture or kill insurgents or their financiers and supporters? Did it help us improve our own mobility and force protection? Did it develop or support our allies in the Iraqi Police and Civil Defense forces? Did it contribute materially to our own quality of life, or to the quality of life of the Iraqi people? Would the operation deliver needed supplies to us or to our allies? We would execute the mission only if the benefits outweighed our assessment of the risks.
But we didn't stop there.
Once we made the decision to proceed with an operation — a raid, a convoy, a patrol — we brainstormed. We tried to identify every reasonable risk. Ambushes. IEDs. Equipment failure. Friendly-fire incidents. Injuries. Radio problems. We even put them on paper. For every potential pitfall we identified, we were expected to have a plan in place that would mitigate the risk.
Counterambush and IED procedures were briefed and rehearsed. We kept soldiers informed on the latest IED techniques. We assigned soldiers to check and recheck vehicles, radios and heavy weapons before they left the gate. Every truck driver signed off on his vehicle every week, even checking the little things. Tire treads. Fan belts. Fire extinguisher pressure. Pins on weapons mounts. We insisted on taking a combat medic on every convoy, and made sure everyone knew which truck he was riding on. Medical evacuations were rehearsed, and rehearsed again.
No risk was simply accepted without a fight. We looked hard at everything we could think of. Our soldiers depended on us to plan for every reasonable contingency.
As we gained experience, risk management became second nature. Risk-assessment sheets became plans, plans became procedures, procedures became habits and soldiers executed without being told to. Believe me, they wouldn't let me forget anything, either.
This is how we manage when the downside of risk is death, and the “risk-free rate of return” is less than zero.
Jason Van Steenwyk is a freelance writer based in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.