DDLLC 2016-003 Operationalizing Troop Leading Procedures

So as I lay there on my back, hands clutched behind my head, staring, watching and listening to the enormous billowing and snapping of this huge army tent, I pondered our situation. My patience was thin.

This was my first deployment overseas. I was a young 1st lieutenant on my way to the biggest journey of my life. It was early January 1991 and my platoon was stuck in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. We had left Fort Bragg only a few days earlier, but I was impatient about getting our stock offloaded from the ships, assessing their repair and getting underway to our assigned battle positions. I wanted to be set for the coming war before it started. I didn’t want to be caught in some transient mode while the initial back and forth missile and air war raged. Time was wasting. Getting any kind of definitive answer on when we’d receive our equipment, exactly where we would go, what exactly the battle plan was or precisely what was to be my mission seemed impossible.

At the age of 25 this was quite inconceivable. We had trained better than this. We were finely tuned when we departed North Carolina and I wasn’t about to sit idly by and allow our skills to rapidly erode. We had worked too hard for this moment in time. Our destiny was now. There was no end-date on our deployment orders. It wasn’t like more contemporary times when you just expected to return home 365 days after your departure. We all just assumed that the quickest and surest way home was through Baghdad. Getting back to the USA would be conditions based. We might be here months or years. It was an unknown. We accepted that. Some doubted we’d return home at all. It was just as probable that we’d all die some awful death under a cloud of ‘dusty-mustard’ and be buried in the sand.

The president had delivered his ultimatum to Saddam and the jig was up. This was it. We knew we had past the point of no return as a country and as a coalition. It was now or never. I was ready, my platoon was certainly ready. Why wasn’t the army?

As I lay there, at the head of a row of about twenty well-beaten army cots, I could hear some of my men laughing out loud as they hovered over a tape recorder and listened to the amusing humor of Andrew Dice Clay. I kind of laughed myself at what I was hearing. But, at the same time, I felt this was just one more distraction of lost valuable time. Maybe they had the right idea. Keep your morale up and remain patient. But that’s not in my DNA.

We had no equipment to train, no clear mission, no known time of delivery for our missiles or the rolling stock to pull them. As far as I knew, a SCUD missile could nail us right here, in this tent. I wanted to go now. I wanted to get on with it. I wanted my unit to be rolling across Saudi and preparing for this fight. I didn’t want to miss it and I didn’t want to be killed before we even had a fair chance to shoot back.

Now, I’m sure this next moment of clarity has hit all my colleagues at some point in their military careers, but for me, I remember this moment as though it happened yesterday. As I searched my brain for a solution, as I played back all my years of training in ROTC, the Basic Officer’s Course, Ranger School and numerous Field Exercises, I was struck by the overwhelming obvious. ‘Hey dummy’ I said to myself, ‘why aren’t you slowing down instead of trying to speed up’. ‘Back up a step and use your Troop Leading Procedures (TLPs)’. Duh, that’s it, I had gotten so caught up in the surrealism of these past few days that I had neglected my own schooling.

Up and to this point in my young career I had been taught tough lessons from tough men. Most of them were crusty Vietnam veterans. Fortunately, they instilled in me the mental tools necessary to overcome this very moment. I could feel it. I could hear the echoes of their voices shouting in my head. I immediately began to feel relieved, as I lay stretched out on this cot. I mentally mapped out my next steps. Why hadn’t I thought of this before? It’s simple. The first step of TLPs is [1] ‘receiving the mission’. I hadn’t received one, so I just sat there waiting. But, I now realized, as though a seasoned Vietnam vet was yelling at me, ‘make one up!’ Just make one up. Take the initiative and use your best judgement and then go with your gut. Once you write your own mission statement with confidence the other seven steps will begin to fall into place. You have the power to bring clarity, I told myself. Surely you can create the five-W’s and get the ball rolling. It was I alone who was responsible for this idle time. I owned these wasted moments. Stop blaming the army and get your act together, I told myself.

But, if it was this simple, then why wasn’t my company commander or any of the other five platoon leaders in the battalion thinking of doing this as well. ‘Screw it’. Simple or not, this is what I had determined I was going to do. Time to lead the way.

I sat up. I gathered my SCUD bag, dawned my coveted maroon beret, double-checked to ensure I had my Beretta 9mm securely fastened in my leather shoulder holster and I went out to find my platoon sergeant. We had some work to do.

Maybe my sluggish ability to reason a solution was just the jetlag speaking. I remember the pilot, upon touching down, reminding us over the intercom to set our watches back two thousand years. As we exited the aircraft and stumbled down the long steps from the doorway onto the asphalt, I got my first strong whiff of Saudi air. My thoughts raced back to all the books I’d read on Vietnam. Many servicemen had written about their first memory as being the smelling of the jungle, the unique and strange sensation. Those that did second and third tours remembered it vividly because it always immediately transported them back in time to their first experience. Years would go by before I would return to the Middle East. But, it was ever so true that once you inhaled that first breath off the plane, you knew without a doubt exactly where you stood. Home was now more than seven thousand miles and two thousand years away.

As I moved outside I could smell the moist air blowing across our peninsula from the Persian Gulf. I could see in the distance, off of shore, one of our naval fleets. They were just grey stoic giants. This gave me some sense of comfort knowing, if we weren’t ready yet, then maybe they were. I could hear the afternoon prayers as they echoed in the breeze. These always sounded pleasant to me and to this day, although very foreign to me, they give me a sense of peace.

Without further hesitation, I policed up my platoon sergeant and told him my intention. We went to work gathering our thoughts and locating a suitable location to build a gi-normous terrain model. Why not? We had tons of space. So we might as well use it. From there, I sent him out to begin issuing a verbal [2] Warning Order (WARNO) to the platoon. With this, he told them when and where to be for the issuance of the final Operational Order (OPORD).

Fortunately for me, I had a couple of assistant platoon leaders in my Air Defense Assault Fire Platoon. So I was able to employ them both into constructing the terrain model and assisting with the [3] tentative plan. At this point, many actions were occurring simultaneously and my feeling of being on-the-right-track continued to grow. We had finally harnessed ourselves back into a living, breathing, fighting team. We were back on the right trajectory. The [4] necessary movements of personnel and equipment were underway and the alignment of my platoon toward receiving this formal order was well underway.

My delivery of this particular OPORD would be my first in a real combat, non-training environment. I wanted it to be my best performance. We used water bottles, yarn, compasses, 3×5 cards, shovels, wire, just about anything we could find laying around to build a realistic model of our final objective. One thing missing for me prior to the issuance of my order would be an actual [5] reconnaissance of the site we would initially occupy as our battle position. No big deal, I’d just do this later. Our spot was a few hundred miles away, so it just wasn’t feasible for me to send out a recon party or better yet go myself. So instead, I whipped out my trusty 1:50,000 ratio map and would use this to describe and help everyone visualize our route-of-march and terrain.

Together with my platoon sergeant, two assistant platoon leaders and some other key personnel we [6] completed our plan. With an impressive model of our battle position complete, photos of friendly and enemy aircraft, our map and some brief rehearsal, we were ready to [7] issue the order. As we began our delivery, we became center stage for every other bored soldier and leader in earshot. My commander and first sergeant listened to our delivery. I took this as both a compliment of my leadership and testimony to their cluelessness. I hoped they might learn a thing or two by our example.

The final step in TLPs is [8] supervising the activities and adjusting the plan along the way. In a few days time I’d get the opportunity and lead a small party north toward the Wadi Al-Batin. There, we’d scope our future initial spot of earth to occupy. We’d mark our coordinates and leave a couple of poor souls to guard it until we returned.

Throughout the entire war we never received a written order. We relied on word of mouth and cryptic transmissions across faulty radio systems. We didn’t have the benefit of email or texting or for that matter, copiers and faxes. In stark contrast, spin ahead twenty-five years, as the Chief of Plans for US Division South in Basra, Iraq I was responsible for the completion of an order that was several hundred pages in length and included supporting animations, slides and visual displays beyond any Desert Storm comprehension.