The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.


June 17, 2010

Name: Charle Sherpa
Posting date: 6/17/10
Deploying to: Afghanistan
Hometown: Boone, Iowa
Milblog: Red Bull Rising
Email: Sherpa at

I've recently begun listing off all the lessons I've learned while wearing my country's uniform for more than 20 years. Here's a start:


I wish I'd maintained the clarity and perspective I had after I first deployed. Everything was simple, especially when you applied the criteria used for declaring an "significant event" in the Tactical Operations Center (TOC). Downrange, if a soldier or civilian was at risk of losing life, limb, or eyesight, you had yourself an emergency. It was time to coordinate medevac, move people and equipment, and wake the commander up. Otherwise, it wasn't something to get all spun up about.

It works for parenting, too. Especially after some sort of spill.


Here's how backwards planning works: Identify the deadline by which something must happen, then identify in reverse each step required to get there. I once thought this was obvious -- until I found myself working on a church committee. The group was headed up by fellow congregant who was a professional "process manager." He was very good at identifying "inputs" and "outputs," and not so very good at setting deadlines. Drove me insane.

The Army teaches you how to avoid the trap of analysis paralysis. State the mission -- the who, what, where, when -- then, plan to make things happen. Then, make it happen.


Also known as the "one-thirds, two-thirds" rule: To optimize their chances of success, your teammates need twice as much time as you will in making the plan. Take one-third of the remaining time for yourself, and allow them two-thirds of the available time for preparation and rehearsal. Give people as much information as you can as early as you can. That way, even if your plans change, they'll be further down the proverbial road than if you had horded information until the last possible moment.

The best plan at the last minute will likely fail, because people need time to make it their own.


When we were dating, Household-6 took me on a reunion trip with some former backpacking camp counselors. Given my Army training, I spent whole days freaking out about wearing bright colors, banging metal, and traveling in non-tactical formation. After I figured out that we were more likely to be attacked by a bear than with hand grenades, I was able to lighten up a bit. (Get it? "Lighten"? I crack me up.)

In uniform, however, I still try to minimize noise and light while out in the field -- even though I'm probably standing right next to the biggest inflatable structure in the forest, along with enough loud-humming power generators to power a small building. Even given these conditions, I trust that my red-lens flashlight will keep me safe, unheard and unseen.

I am like a ninja that way. A ninja who lives in a circus tent.


Here's a confession: I gave up trying to lose the habit of speaking in radio-telephone lingo a long time ago. Instead of "bye-bye," I close my telephone conversations with "OUT." When I call someone -- even a good friend, I'm likely to identify myself like I would on the radio: "Friend? THIS IS ..." For the record, Scout, they're called "procedure words" or "pro-words."

Years later, I knew I'd married well when Household-6 was about to give me some information over the telephone. When she told me to "PREPARE TO COPY," I fell in love all over again.

ROGER, honey!

I realize it all sounds a little silly, of course, but there's some family tradition here, too. Maybe that's really why I keep doing it. For the longest time, for example, my parents would talk over little Sherpa's head by using the same international phonetic alphabet the Army would eventually teach me. Example: "Time to give Sherpa a Bravo-Alpha-Tango-Hotel."

Take the first letter in each word. Get it now? I sure didn't.

Even if a kid can spell, the phonetic alphabet adds another layer of encryption. Used in short bursts, it's a parental Enigma machine.

In another example, I remember listening to my mother talk to my overseas Air Force father via some sort of telephone-to-radio link. It was a Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS) call, that reached all the way into our kitchen telephone. I remember that Mom had to say "over" at the end of each thought, to let my father know it was his turn to talk. I also remember wondering how, exactly, my father was on Mars.

"I love you, OVER ..."


Whether you're on guard duty, or standing in some hours-long formation while 16 bloviating general officers wish you luck and give you advice, it's a good idea never to lock your knees. People pass out that way.

You can stand for hours with your knees bent slightly. Think of it as skiing, without the hills, the scenery, or the fun.


Some of my basic Army training took place at Fort Lewis, Wash. That's when I learned that parts of Washington state qualify as sub-tropical rain forest. It rained and drizzled constantly.

We had meager rain gear in those days -- a rubberized poncho was about it. The worst part of the experience was when you were still a little dry, and you started to feel the soggy, creepy cold crawl up your skin: Your boots got wet, your socks got wet, your pants got wet -- you got wet. After that, it warn't nothing but a thing. You still had to watch yourself for trench foot or hypothermia, of course, but the worst thing about getting wet wasn't the water, it was getting wet. Everything after that was just more of the same.


I remember seeing a squad of infantry introduce themselves, one by one, to an audience of us new recruits. Each one sounded off with name, rank, and their function on the team: "Grenadier," "rifleman," "radio-telephone operator," and the like. After naming their position, they'd rattle off their responsibilities: "I am responsible for ..."

The squad leader stepped forward last. "I am responsible for everything my squad does, or fails to do."

I can't tell you how many times I've waited to hear a political or business leader say something like that. Step up, say your name, take ownership of what happened. Tell people what you'll make happen, and let yourself be judged on performance.

Be responsible.




Amen to that!

Bravo Zulu.
And, I agree with Steve. The world would be a better place if each person stood up and admitted their mistakes. Thank you for the post and your tireless service. Over.

This allows military personnel and their families to make Long Distance International calls on their cell phones saving thousands in international charges.

Please forward this and help a man or woman in the military keep in touch with their families and loved ones today!

Thanks for the reminder, yeah, wouldn't it be nice to know who is in charge - they once were the folks leading.

Bravo Alpha Tango Hotel - yep!

This would make a great commencement speech!

Great reminders!
Thanks especially for I'm stuck on a project and needed to be reminded to plan backwards. Now I'm not so stuck.

Agree with mamaworecombatboots - this is a great commencement speech.

Hey thanks for this, I literally made a copy of it to save to refer to. Some of it was good reminders, other parts captured things I've known but never articulated that well. A few of them were new ironic lessons. The ninja with a circus tent thing made me bust out laughing. However the truth is that's good practice, & good tactical behavior.

The clanging civilian hiking thing, well it's common. However that excitement & freedom to discover new things in peace is why you do what you do. Enjoy it, but it's worth pointing out to people how much more they can observe with quiet observation of the environment around them. They can hear more new things, like birds & animals they're unused to, if they don't scare them off with a lot of clangor... However not all the time is going to be quiet time, especially around kids. That can take some getting used to.

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