visitors since 4 oct 2008

Attention To Detail

My good friend E2 has kept FRI alive, which enables me to throw up a post I’m dying to share.  I’m still going to stay mum about where I am, and what we’re up to.  It appears that  we’ll complete our remaining projects in a few months, which will  allow me to tell that story fairly soon…Inshallah from the comfort of my home in America.    So,  last week I got a treat – a chance to link up with my old friend, Col Dave Furness, USMC, who is soon going to take RCT 1 home after a year of dominating southern Helmand.  Col Furness was heading out to look over the positions of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines (Lava Dogs), commanded by LtCol Sean Riordan, who as luck would have it, came through IOC when Dave and I were instructors there.  I needed to see the USAID FPO’s in that neck of the woods too, which provided a perfect excuse for me to tag along.  Catching up with Sean again was an added treat!

LtCol Riordan, Col Furness and Baba T after a 5 hour foot patrol. - We're hurting too but Bushido forbids the display of weakness on the part of commanders

LtCol Riordan, Col Furness and Baba T after a 5 hour foot patrol. - We're hurting- it is just too damn hot - but Bushido forbids the display of weakness on the part of commanders so I had to buck up too or face unending grief from my buddies.

This is why we're hurting

This is why we're hurting and believe it or not that is a good ten degrees below summer norms in the Helmand Valley

When  Dave and Sean  first showed up several months ago,    there was  a  wee bit of hard fighting to do to get this far south, but that turned out to be the easy part.  Terrain and vegetation forced the Taliban into linear defenses.   They tried minefields in front in an effort to bog down the advancing Marines.  But Marines have helicopters, so they would fix the villains with a frontal holding attack and then fly into their rear and chew them up.    Now, Taliban are known for being  rather tactically inept, but they were quick to figure out that move and countered with minefields and fighting positions to their rear too.   So, the Marines started flying into their rear to fix them, a tactic which allowed the Marine infantry in front to flank the Taliban and pin them against the Helmand River.  Fish in a barrel, except for the runners – one thing the Taliban excel at is running away – they look like olympic sprinters when there is a little 7.62 buzzing by them!

Heading out to an isolated patrol base - this picture seems timeless to me - how many times have we seen similar photos from Vietnam?

Heading out to an isolated patrol base - this picture seems timeless to me - how many times have we seen similar pictures from Vietnam or Korea or WW II?

A few months back as they were pushing south, the Marines would run into situations that, for guys like them, are a dream come true.  An ANP commander pointed out a village where his men have hit 3 IEDs in as many weeks and each time the villagers poured out with AK’s  to start a firefight.  So, a few nights later the Marines blow a controlled det on the road to simulate an IED hit and when the villains rushed out with their flame sticks they met what we lovingly call the ‘L shaped ambush’.  No doubt (knowing the Lava Dogs) the villains also met Mr. Claymore, were introduced to the proper use of a machine gun section, and were treated to a 40mm grenade shower from those new and  super deadly   M32′s.  Bad day.  Not many survived that textbook lesson on the proper use of an ambush squad, but those days are long gone.    Rarely now  will somebody shoot at the Marines in southern Helmand, and when they do, it is from so far away that it is hard to notice anybody is even shooting at you.

So the Taliban has returned to doing what guerrillas do when they suck so bad at regular fighting – they rely on the indiscriminate use of  IED’s to fight.  And as everybody in the world (except President Karzai) knows, these IED’s kill and maim vast numbers of innocent Afghans, yet  rarely inflict casualties on ISAF units.

This is why the Marines are able to dominate this part of the Helmand.  The terrain is flat, places to hide are few, and they have much better weapons systems which can reach out a long way.  It is no longer possible for the villains to assemble 200 or 300 fighters like they once did in this area when the British Army first moved in.  A force that size would have so many rockets falling of them they would need shovels and wheel borrows to scoop up what was left for burial

This is why the Marines are able to dominate this part of the Helmand Valley. The terrain is flat, places to hide are few, and they have precision weapons systems that reach out and touch people from a long long way away. It is no longer possible for the villains to assemble 200 or 300 fighters like they once did in this area when the British Army first moved in. A force that size would have so many rockets falling on them that local villagers would need shovels and wheel barrows to scoop up what was left for burial. The Brits didn't have enough manpower, ISR, indirect fire assets, or mobility to really fight in the Helmand. All they had were small units of brave, well trained infantry. Emphasis on brave. They were and are formidable but too few in number to make any lasting difference in a Province as large as Helmand.

Because of a long, flat narrow area, where the population is confined mostly to strips of land in close proximity to the Helmand River and its main canals, the Marines are able to spread out into COP’s (combat outposts) PB’s (Patrol Bases) and OP’s (observation posts) covering the entire AO.  These positions are manned by junior NCO’s and in one PB the senior Marine was a Lance Corporal.   They move positions frequently;  every time the Marines set up in a new one of any size,  local families immediately move as close to the positions as they are allowed and start building mud huts. For them a  small band of Marines equals security and the implicit trust shown by this pattern of behavior is something in which the Marines rightly take great pride.

See the GBOSS tower off in the distance? This picture was taken from a PB which also has a GBOSS - they now have enough ISR that the Marines can watch the entire main road which runs through the Southern Helmand

See the GBOSS tower off in the distance? This picture was taken from a PB which also has a GBOSS - they now have enough ISR that the Marines can watch the entire main road which runs through the Southern Helmand

So if the Marines have been kicking ass out there, why is the title of this post “Attention to Detail”?    Brace yourself  for a confusing yet  illuminating segue.

Back in the early 90′s, LtGen Paul Van Riper interrupted one of our IOC field events because he had been directed to stage a capabilities demo for a visiting member of the British Royal Family.   I think it was Prince Andrew, but may have that wrong.  General Van Riper is probably best known as the man who destroyed the US Navy in a 2002 “free play” staff exercise.  But his reputation back then was as a general who would go” high order” at the slightest provocation.

I recall when he showed up outside the old combat town in Quantico; my fellow instructors and I lined up to salute but for some reason I cut my salute early.  He glared at me as if I were a putrid urine specimen.  And not just a casual glare – he held it for what seemed like hours as my face worked its way through the various stages of red finally topping out at crimson. I remember  observing full Colonels on the side of the road picking up trash (they had apparently been told to have their Marines get this done the day before but didn’t- so now they had to do it).  We saw those Colonels because we had to go back and get clean uniforms for our students and ourselves – after five days   in the field, we were pretty stinky and no member of the Royal Family was going to be forced to deal with stinky Marines.

The General came up with a slick ambush involving a SPIE rig extract which would deposit our students in a LZ just down the road to where the Prince could shake hands and take photos.  We rehearsed for two days, all the while correcting what we thought were very minor issues, but they were defects Gen Van Riper found   intolerable.   Well, the  demo  came off without a hitch – which we expected because we (the IOC staff) were good at this sort of thing.  But one has to admit the 5000 rehearsals Gen Van Riper had insisted on probably helped a little too.   At the time we thought General Van Riper  a lunatic, and his obsessive attention to detail some sort of sick personality quirk.

Boy howdy-were we wrong!

Here’s why: attention to detail saves lives.  It is not something that one can turn on one moment and off the next.  It is a habitual behavior borne of years of practice, and even more years of serious ass-chewing from those above you who know the business.  We had always known attention to detail was critical, but had applied it only when  practicing the deadly arts of war. We were masters at running complex live fire and maneuver training which required considerable attention to detail to pull off.     However, in all honesty we just didn’t apply it in the garrison or classroom setting.  As young officers we thought we could turn it on in the  field because that’s where (we thought) it was important.  What Gen Van Riper and the many others like him were demonstrating to us was that we were wrong – you can never turn off attention to detail.

This night patrol brief started with all the Marines gear on the ground.  They were then searched by their patrol leader and platoon sergeant.  No ipods, tobacco lighters, matches, or any other no essential items are allowed and as every good Marine Sgt knows you inspect what you expect

This night patrol brief started with all the Marines gear on the ground. They were then searched by their patrol leader and platoon sergeant and then instructed to put on their gear one piece at a time and that too gets inspected twice to ensure that every member has what he is supposed to have and knows exactly how much ammo, pyro and grenades are with them and who has what. No ipods, tobacco, lighters, matches, dip, snuff, written material of any kind, or any other non essential items are allowed. As every good Sergeant knows you inspect what you expect and these guys know a thing or two about inspecting.

Our first stop on our tour of 1/3′s area was a newly established logistics hub, which was a pigsty.  I had never seen Dave ‘channel’  Gen Van Riper before, but I have now, and man, it is a sight to behold.  He went high order, repeating over and over that a unit that can’t keep its own little camp in order is a unit unfit for combat operations outside the wire.   “If the little things are kicking your ass, how the hell do you expect me to believe you can accomplish the big things I sent you out here to do?”   I’m paraphrasing here because between Dave and SgtMaj Zickefoose, so much ass was being chewed that I thought it best to go hide in the MRAP and didn’t even attempt to write down what they were explaining in the harsh unequivocal terms of infantry Marines.

At every little base we stopped in Dave's cultural advisor checked up on the ANA troops who live and work side by side with the Marines.  Their #1 bitch was lack of leave time which RCT 1 had solved by contracting with an air carrier who could move 300 paxs at a time weekly.  The Regional Contracting  Command came up with a lower bid and that carrier could only move 150 at time and they have never made it in weekly as agreed due to constant maintenance problems.  Gee, I've  never heard of that happening before in Afghanistan.  So now getting the ANA their home leave is becoming a problem again. And for the record there has never been a fratricide or anything remotely like that between the Marines and their ANA  colleagues.  Maybe RCT 1 is just lucky - but I think their just that good - which is better than being lucky.

At every little base we stopped in Dave's cultural advisor checked up on the ANA troops who live and work side by side with the Marines. Their #1 bitch was lack of leave time which RCT 1 had solved by contracting with an air carrier who could move 300 paxs at a time weekly. The Regional Contracting Command came up with a lower bid and that carrier could only move 150 at time and they have never made it in weekly as agreed due to constant maintenance problems. Gee, I've never heard of that happening before in Afghanistan. So now getting the ANA their home leave is becoming a problem again. And for the record there has never been a fratricide or anything remotely like that between the Marines and their ANA colleagues. Maybe RCT 1 is just lucky - but I think their just that good - which is better than being lucky.

There was good reason for Dave’s rant.   The active fighting has been long over, but the dying continues due to IED strikes and the most important factor in countering IED’s is attention to detail coupled with strict adherence to procedure.  As we visited every little PB, COP, and OP in the Lava Dogs AO (there are over 50 of them now), we found that the logistics hub was the exception – each base and outpost we visited after that was spotless (or as spotless as things can be in the desert).   Although the Lava Dogs had mastered the art of maintaining a clean and organized patrol base, Dave and the SgtMaj continued to pound home their message:  the fighting is over, we have tried every trick in the book to lure them into fighting us, but they won’t play anymore and have gone to the IED.  The procedures for mitigating IED’s are well established and well drilled.  They cannot be deviated from, no matter how hot it is, how long you’ve been out, or how far away the next available EOD teams may be.  We must follow the procedure to the letter, no exceptions, because the lives of your fellow Marines depend on it.

Dave made it a point to ask the young Corporals and Sergeants who run these outposts if they needed anything.  The answer was uniform across the entire AO.  "We're good sir but could use some barbells and weights

Dave made it a point to ask the young Corporals and Sergeants who run these outposts if they needed anything. The answer was uniform across the entire AO. "We're good sir but could use some barbells and weights."

Another PN and another "Hey Sir, We're good here but sure could use a barbell and some weights"

Another PB and another "Hey Sir, we're good here but sure could use a barbell and some weights"

By day 3 Dave would say "I know you need weights is there anything else I can get you?"  Well sir we've tried about everything we can to keep our generator going is there a chance for a replacement?  If you know the Marine Corps you can guess the answer to that one.  I think Dave said "I'll be getting weights to you as soon as I can"  Leaving a grinning SgtMaj behind to discuss the virtues of proper generator maintenance in the context of a Marine Corps which prides itself on penny pinching. When the RCT 1 command group roles into these compounds they sleep out in the open with no A/C like everyone else - that's how they roll and let me tell you its all fun and adventure for the first few days but then the prickly heat rrash starts spreading and man that's when the fun meter starts heading right.  The white little tubs are clothes washing tubs - hand crank version - and they work OK.  Better than a flat rock for sure.

By day 3 Dave would say "I know you need weights is there anything else I can get you?" "Well sir, we've tried about everything we can to keep our generator going is there a chance for a replacement"? If you know the Marine Corps you can guess the answer to that one. I think Dave said "I'll be getting weights to you as soon as I can" Leaving a grinning SgtMaj Zickefoose behind to explain the virtues of proper generator maintenance in the context of a Marine Corps which prides itself on penny pinching. The white tubs in the foreground are clothes washers - hand crank version - and they work OK. Better than a flat rock for sure.

Military life is often plagued by weak martinets who make the lives of their troops a burden by insisting every rule and regulation be followed to the letter.  They use rules and regulations to cover for a lack of confidence in their professional ability to make good decisions; so when confronted with problems they make no decisions, hiding instead behind the letter of the law contained in the UCMJ.   Good commanders insist on attention to detail and following established procedures because paying attention to detail needs to be habitual for it to be effective   – you just  cannot turn it on and off.   To quote Col Furness: “Attention to detail and strict adherence to orders is what keeps men alive.”  But then, he’s no martinet.   As an example: despite  rule 1, you will find dogs on every little base Dave owns.  I’m not sure he knows they are there because he tends not to look at or notice them as he walks into these small, clean outposts.

The local dogs are good for morale, can take the heat better than military working dogs, and have over and over saved mens lives when they accompany their American friends on patrols.  Somebody gets them flea collars, a rabies shot and de-wormed and from that point on they are part of the tribe.  A martinet would put an end to that nonsense instantly because it is against the rules – benefits to the men and mission be damned.  But a commander who understands Napoleon’s maxim “The moral  is to the physical as three is to one” he’ll find a way to work around problems like this by applying the spirit, not the letter of the law.  Besides, the Marines broke the code on local dogs in Iraq so seeing them on every post here is really  no surprise.

So I get onto Dave's MRAP for a brief from his MK 19 gunner and the while time he's talking I'm fiddiling with my camera.  When he finishes I say "I bet I can shoot that MK 19 better than you can" (click).  Is his expression priceless or what?  Then it was "Sir, let me try this again; when the big dog starts to bark you unstrap the ammo cans.  Then you sit and wait for me to yell for ammo, only then do you break the seal and hand the can up.  Then you sit right back down until I tell you to do something different or that I need more ammo.  Got it"?  His expression never changed by the way so maybe I'm not so damn funny after all.

So I get onto Dave's MRAP for a brief from his MK 19 gunner and while he's talking I'm fiddiling with my camera. When he finishes I say "I bet I can shoot that MK 19 better than you can" (click). Is his expression priceless or what? I show him the pic grinning like a village idiot and then it was "Sir, let me try this again; when the big dog starts to bark you unstrap the ammo cans. Then you sit and wait for me to yell for ammo, only then do you break the seal on one can only and hand that can up. Then you sit right back down until I tell you to do something different or that I need more ammo. Got it"? His expression never changed as he went over this for the second time so maybe I'm not so damn funny after all.

As did  Gen Van Riper all those years ago, Dave continues to pound into his Marines’ heads the need for attention to detail.   When “The Ripper” would rip into us we didn’t have the advantage of combat experience so the context of these lessons were lost on us.  Maybe I shouldn’t say “us”  but they were on me.  I think it was Dave Furness (could have been Paul Kennedy for that matter – now a newly minted Brigadier General – making me one of the prouder former Marines on planet earth – I love seeing my friends do so well) who told me the first time you lose a Marine because he was doing something he shouldn’t or had on him something which he shouldn’t (like an ipod or cell phone that suddenly rings at the worst possible moment) you learn instantly to go Van Riper on them because if you don’t, you’ll lose more in the same manner and that will break you.

Killing the Taliban is the easy part of this conflict because, as I’ve pointed out about 100 times in past posts, they just plain suck at fighting and we have become very proficient in targeting and killing people.  Getting the Marines to treat the local people with respect and project friendship and warmth is also easy.  The Marines with RCT 1 are in close contact and living with these people 24/7.  It is in their nature to smile, give kids candy, treat the injured etc…   The only consistent problem the Marines have with the local population is their treatment of dogs and other domestic animals.  Yet despite this, the Marines  cowboy up,  doing their duty as good troops always do.

The only thing the local people of southern Helmand are concerned about, when it comes to Marines, is that they are going to leave soon.  They would much rather see them stay –  This is is told to me   everywhere I go,  and I go just about everywhere in this Province.

Now the hard part of the job is maintaining focus day after day in the heat, dust, and wind of the Helmand River Valley. This is where experienced combat leadership comes into play.  Getting face to face with Marines to hammer home  over and over that they must maintain their vigilance, that they can’t get sloppy just because the Taliban won’t play anymore is crucial.  This is when the hammer has to come out because it is just  human nature to slack off when the pressure is off.  Well, the pressure may be off from the Taliban but it certainly isn’t from the RCT 1 command group.  Which is exactly how it should be.

Be Sociable, Share!

    10 comments to Attention To Detail

    • Ron Peery

      Good to see you back, even if it’s just a cameo appearance. Outstanding post.

    • jwest

      1. Three peers I knew: Christmas, Stackpole and Van Riper.
      2. All were highly decorated junior officers and all achieved the rank of LtGen.
      3. People downtown are still in shock about LtGen Van Riper’s reaction, when they overturned the results of Millenium Challenge 2002.
      4. That was compounded by the Iranians showing the tip of their naval sword, swarming one of our vessels in January, 2008.
      5. On a personality basis, thought he was the least likely of the three to achieve high rank.
      6. Most of the high rankers are at least as facile at political warfare as they were in the trenches. Credit the USMC on LtGen Van Riper!
      7. In poor units, attention to detail comes from the bottom up.
      8. A simple matter of survival.
      9. Know a fair amount about that, am sorry to say.
      10. Just putting on the uniform immerses you in a world of details. Exposure to combat intensifies that.
      11. People exiting the service find those skills give them a leg up on their co-workers -and drive their spouses nuts.
      12. As in, “What time is it?” “It’s 3:24PM” “!!!”
      13. You are kinder to the Brits that most of the Marines I have talked to who replaced them in Helmand.
      14. The consensus was that they made fine targets.
      15. Army types, associated with Operation Charge of the Knights in Iraq (vic. Basra in 2008) had similar or less complimentary opinions.
      16. Am not so much in the trashing allies business as am coming to the conclusion that most of our allies are getting a major ride on our coat tails.
      17. Two things about that: they are ingrates and we are not going to continue securing the free world.
      18. They did not support us voluntarily in either location -they were arm twisted into doing so. Exclude the Australians from that assessment. Those SOB’s would pay to go to war…
      19. Counterpoint is our supporting the European foolishness in Libya.
      20 Am sure the Georgians are impressed by all these goings-on.
      21. Enough ranting. Take care.
      V/R JWest

    • Good to see you back Tim! Great post and it sounds like the Marines are doing good things out there.

    • another great post. Thanks for keeping the light on the darkness.

    • BadSport

      Thoroughly enjoyed this post Tim, as I have E2′s posts in your stead… Many points well taken in all recent posts;

      “… attention to detail saves lives. It is not something that one can turn on one moment and off the next. It is a habitual behavior borne of years of practice and even more years of serious ass chewing from those above you who know the business….you can never turn off attention to detail”.

      Having been raised in the domicile of a career Marine Corps officer, I witnessed this on a daily basis, and I was ingrained with the same mentality (…which I’m sure was at least half his goal). When the house was cleaned every Saturday morning, commencing at 0630 sharp, you didn’t clean around furniture. Furniture was moved, and all areas were thoroughly cleaned before returning said furniture to its designated location. You did not dust just the outside of lamp shades, you did the insides as well… I could go on and on, especially with tales of ass chewings related to attention to detail. We (boys) always felt we took the brunt of his Marine mentality. The Marine Corp only had to deal with him 8-10 hours a day, we got the other 14-16 hours.

      I know these “domestic examples” may sound trivial to some in comparison to life and death situations, but my point is one of concurrence with the idea that attention to detail is a “habitual behavior borne of years of practice”. That is indeed a fact, and I am glad to read that the practice is well entrenched from the top down.

      As an aside, your photo “heading out to an isolated patrol base” is mesmerizing. I totally agree with your assessment.

      As always, safe travels to you and your team.

      BS

    • ken

      Its ALL about attention to detail, thanks babaT for a great post, and getting back on the blog. And creds to E2 for posting as well… Stay safe brother !

    • RJ

      Prior to your retirement from the Afghan theater, my question is directed to those medical personnel who were killed some time back that you personally knew:

      Who did this? Were they caught/killed? If not, why not?

    • Ken Clark

      Tim, glad to see you’re still above dirt. I enjoyed reading this post and hope you and all of the Marines stay safe. This story “Attention to detail” will benefit me and others in Law Enforcement to stay on there “A” game and save lives back home. Much Appreciation to you and our Marine brother!! KC

    • Well it’s about time. We were waiting for this blast of wind. I will not say hot air, however that is the expression the Marine gave you when you told him you could shoot that MK19 better than him. Priceless.

      Yes, training, over and over again. I would think a lack of daily training would be the result of poor leadership, and also could lead to a lack of morale. And worse, haphazard response when the need is at its greatest.

      Great point!