Thoughts On Combat

by Colonel Dan


The Cowboy Chronicle

June  2005

Below are some lessons learned over more than a few years about life in a combat zone—lessons often times learned the hard way.  I originally drafted these for my son in Iraq and others facing combat for the first time.  I’ve been asked to make them available again since we have SASS members, friends and children deploying, are there now or are facing redeployment.  Please feel free to use it, pass it along or trash it as you see fit.

1. Complacency kills.   Life in a combat zone is boring about 90% of the time and soldiers become complacent.  It’s during periods of complacency that units get hit.  The biggest fight you’ll have is the fight against complacency which can be countered with After Action Reviews (AAR) to the lowest levels--AAR keeps everyone “in the game”.

2. The enemy looks for undisciplined units and avoids those with teeth.  Guerilla warfare seeks out soft targets, hitting units that appear to be the least prepared, least disciplined and most vulnerable.  Outward appearance is the most visible indicator of a lack of discipline and invites trouble.  Troops out of combat uniform, disheveled vehicles and equipment, poorly maintained weapons, unshaven faces etc. are targets of choice.  Guerillas see these groups as unable to respond effectively since the level of discipline is low. Conversely, they tend to avoid units whose personnel are alert and observant, that clearly have their weapons in order: MGs on vehicles always clean, manned and armed and ready for use. Stay sharp.  Look ready.  Be ready.

3. Always keep a tourniquet with you.  Something as simple as a long bandana and a stick works and it saves lives until the wounded can be properly evacuated.

4. Panty hose works.  Iraqi sand is fine dust and clogs up air filters quickly.  By covering air filter elements with panty hose material, you screen out a lot of that dust and it can easily be removed and shaken clean. 

5. Critical creature comforts.  Eye drops, lip balm, Vaseline, sunscreen, hand lotion, body powder, sunglasses and bandanas are all very important and can keep you from being miserable.  You can’t/shouldn’t count on being able to shower regularly.  Body powder where skin touches skin can prevent chaffing and irritation.  Use it liberally.  Apply Vaseline to the inside of your nostrils to prevent capillaries from drying out in the low humidity and bleeding.

6. Cold weather gear is required.  The desert gets cold at night.

7. Hot weather gear is required.  Stay in the shade as much as possible and always DRINK a lot of water even when you don’t feel thirsty.  Never get dehydrated.  The low humidity and 130 degree temps can play tricks on you.   

8. Your weapons are life savers.  Clean, lube and perform function checks every day…without fail!  The Iraqi dust plays havoc with moving parts.  Make sure you clean weapons daily and apply a light coat of dry lubricant (MILILTEC-1 is exceptionally good and available through supply channels. NSN: 9150-01-415-9112), then perform a functions check after you return and before going out again.  Keep your ammo clean too. Dirty ammo can result in jams.  Establish and record the zero settings of your weapons!

9. Trust only those you know well.  This is not a conventional war.  There are no front lines and you don’t know who is packing explosives—man, woman or even child—as we’ve seen far too often. 

10. Avoid Repetition. In this war you’re always observed. Don’t become repetitive in actions, times, routes, tactics, techniques and procedures. A counter-insurgency force that is unpredictable is often avoided.

11. Know the Rules of Engagement.  Make sure you REALLY know and share a common understanding with your chain of command about the ROE.  This can get confusing in a war with no front lines and put regular soldiers in bad spots if they hesitate to shoot or shoot too quickly.  Ask a lot of “what if” questions of your leaders if you’re uncertain.

12. Learn from those ahead of you.  Lessons learned from those that have been there are invaluable.  Pick their brain for tricks, techniques and methods they learned the hard way.  This will prevent you from re-learning those lessons the hard way.  However, be careful and also think for yourself about each one. Does it really apply now?  Times and conditions change.

13. SOPs save lives.  Know the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)…especially quick reaction drills.  When you’re taking fire is not the time to decide what each man should do.  Many individual/unit actions should be pre-determined and second nature.  Such things as where equipment, weapons and ammo is stored, who mans the automatic weapons, what are the driver’s actions under certain circumstances, what are the squad’s actions in the event of an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) incident.  How will you give covering fire to the squad and move under fire?  All such things can be pre-established as an SOP and should be practiced routinely.

14. Know the terrain.  Become familiar with your area of operations.  Detailed map recons, driving the area, knowing multiple routes in and out, good covered and concealed positions for both you and the enemy—all are essential elements of information.  Know it!

15. Know your fellow soldier.  Learn who you can count on and who you can’t.  A word to the wise...

16. Don’t be afraid to be afraid. War is like being in a pen with a big bull. Most times he won’t pay any attention to you but when he does, you’re in trouble.  Don’t ever let your guard down.  The first time you get shot at the only thing you’ll remember is some basic soldiering skills you were taught – you’ll not get smarter because they’re shooting at you.   First you’ll be scared – just realize it – next you’ll get your fear under control – and finally you’ll get an adrenaline rush – each stage of this is equally important to know that you’re going through it – and that you control it – instead of it controlling you.  The last stage may be the most dangerous stage because that’s when you feel you can do it all yourself—you can’t.   Always fight as a team and always keep your flak jacket zipped up. 

17. Trust your instinct – your intuition.   If something seems wrong and the hair is standing up on your neck get ready, something is going to happen – it may not but don’t walk away from your intuition – trust it!

18. Don’t assume you can’t take charge if necessary.  Be sure you know the plan, how to operate the radios and be able to call for support.

19. Make sure you know the plan for Medevac.  The unit should have a plan for dealing with casualties while under fire. Make sure you know how to request medical evacuation (Medevac).  Remember, designated people (medics and combat life savers) should take care of casualties not the closest rifleman. In a firefight suppressing, closing with and killing the enemy is the mission.  Units have been paralyzed by tending to wounded that resulted in more wounded.  Stay focused on the mission and have folks designated to take care of the wounded. One last word—risk men’s lives to recover wounded but never to recover dead, if in doubt recover.

20. Keep your GPS and current maps handy.  The desert is pretty much a featureless place and the urban areas can get confusing.  There are no real terrain features like you’re familiar with in the states and this has been the cause of people getting lost and in trouble.  Keep that map current and GPS handy.  Ensure the GPS has fresh batteries, is calibrated and in good shape then rely on them—it’s your way home.

21. Ensure you have fresh batteries on hand.  The middle of a patrol is not the time to find out your batteries are dying.

22. Carry extra water and oil.  You don’t want to be out on patrol when your vehicle overheats or runs low on oil with none on hand—and you certainly don’t want to ask Iraqis for anything. 

23. Keep tow chain and tire changing equipment on your vehicle. You and your buddies will need it if you get stuck.  If you have a winch, make sure it works well, keep it lubed and that you have the right clevises.   

24. Make an operational checklist and use it.  You can’t remember everything.  Create a pre-ops and post-ops check list and use it to ensure you have everything and did everything prior to going out and took care of everything after coming back.

25. Keep your dog tags, medic alert, and blood type info on you…just in case. 

26. Keep Pepto Bismol tablets and aspirin handy.  You may need this…especially if you get hold of some bad water or food.


Just a few thoughts from an old saddle…


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