Tactical Tailor

Tactical Maturity And Growth

Tactical Maturity And Growth
Aaron Barruga
July 22, 2015


As a young recruit going through the Special Forces Qualification Course, I was naively upset with how uncool I thought training was. I wanted to learn how to fast-rope out of helicopters and hotwire cars; instead I endured months of boring training that emphasized small unit tactics that the Army learned from Vietnam. There was nothing special about this training because it focused on basic infantry patrolling techniques.

During a class about movement formations, an instructor caught me falling asleep. I was appropriately punished with a healthy amount of calisthenics, and afterwards he pulled me aside and said:

“I get it, with you young guys you expect to do something cool, and that’s alright. But first, I need you to show me that you can handle the basic stuff before we teach you anything else.”

Although studying Vietnam-era tactics lacked sex appeal, it formed the invaluable foundation from which I would build combat judgment and tactical maturity.

Tactical Adolescence

Two years later I was a junior Operator in Special Forces. At range events my primary focus was often on how cool I felt wearing body armor instead of the day’s learning objectives. Tied to ego, wearing kit satisfied the most dominant territories of my vanity, but completely obstructed my mastery of fundamental tactical skills.

I spent an obnoxious amount of money on gear during the first year I was on an ODA. Despite being issued shopping carts full of equipment from my Unit, I would still seek out commercial gadgets purported as newer and better. This behavior attracted a healthy amount of criticism and I was often the subject of jokes in the Team Room.

However, my teammates understood the underlying cause of my behavior. Because they too had been “the new guy,” my teammates understood that my behavior was both infatuation and anxiety. In my mind, maximizing the layout (or uniqueness) of my kit correlated with improved combat performance.

Although gear is a prerequisite for battle, it is not be the determinant that influences our judgment. Gear does not lead a chalk of Rangers onto a beachhead in France, or a platoon of Afghan militia in the Hindu Kush. Gear certainly does not help you make hard decisions, in which there are no respectable outcomes.

What Others Think

In Iraq, my ODA was located on a small FOB that was relatively secure. Our team house was the target of sporadic rocket and small arms fire, however, we were able to walk around in normal clothes with just a pistol on our hip. A few compounds from my team house lived a contractor named “Carl” (real name redacted) that would perform logistical tasks for my team. Despite force protection protocol only requiring a pistol for personal safety, Carl wore body armor at all times.

Driving on the camp, body armor. Liaising with other units, body armor. Eating in the chow hall, body armor.

This individual was so enchanted with the idea of combat (something he would not participate in) that he didn’t realize he was portraying himself as a liability. Because he behaved outside of the social norms of our FOB, and lacked professional credibility (in regards to realistic combat expectations), individuals that understood his situation did not take him seriously.

However, Carl was real popular with the lowest ranking soldiers on the FOB. Because these soldiers lacked judgment and were still developing their tactical maturity, Carl looked like the real deal.

My recollection of Carl makes him an easy character to dislike. However, I’m sure that at certain points in my career I was disliked for exhibiting similar qualities. Fortunately I had mentors that would recalibrate my errant focus and misperceived abilities.

In order to mature tactically, we need to reevaluate both the physical aspects of our shooting abilities, and the mental constructions we have about ourselves. If a shooter is incapable of identifying areas for improvement in both of the aforementioned, he is being dishonest with himself.

So… when have you been a Carl?


Aaron is a Special Forces veteran and competitive shooter. He teaches classes in Southern California for law enforcement and civilians. Check out his company’s website and Instagram for more information. (www.guerrillaapproach.com, instagram.com/guerrilla_approach)

This article was first posted at the RE Factor blog and is reposted here at the request of the author and full cognizance of RE Factor in the interest of increased dissemination. I want to thank Aaron and the team at RE Factor for thinking of us.


37 Responses to “Tactical Maturity And Growth”

  1. jellydonut says:

    It’s somehow comforting to hear that even people who make selection can become gear sluts. We’ve all been there!

  2. 11bGTG says:

    Bro, do you even operate?

  3. Tank says:

    I certainly had my Carl moments in the Q course. Coming from the 82nd, I thought the most important thing was to run around Bragg with a sterile uniform, no beret, and haircut pushed to the limits of regulation. Looking cool and acting like my shit didn’t stink seemed more important than SUT and other repetitive phases. My mentality was, I got this shit, I’m already a combat vet. My moment of clarity happened when I was pulled aside and politely informed that I wasn’t the best, and I had a long way to go before measuring up to team standards. Furthermore, going out on weekends doing dumb shit and getting hurt, then explaining to the SWCS Commander why I was getting hurt, treating the Q course like a vacation was my wakeup call.

    I certainly kept many tactical companies in business with all the stupid shit I bought, things that nobody else had that showed I was on top of my game and “in the know.” The same shit I bought, years later I was advising new soldiers not to buy , and imparting my supposed wisdom after years of failed gear setups, and useless forgotten gear that adorned my closet walls.

    • Aaron Barruga says:

      I went into Ranger School with the same “I got this” mentality and quickly realized I was not too cool for school, like waaaaaay not too cool.

      • Terry B. says:


        Very well said. I’ve been there too. Although I still haven’t gotten over my obsession with shiny new gear. I’ll have to keep working on that.

        Thanks for sharing this.

        VR TLB

  4. P says:

    It also comes full circle.

    After years of tactical vests/ body armor with all the cool guy pouches attached, drop leg holsters, etc….

    All I really want is a light weight LBE type rig and pants belt pistol holster

  5. Miclo18d says:

    We have all bought our share of “tacticool” gear. My realization was when you are wearing your cool guy gear day in and out, how heavy it was humping up and down mountains.

    I started with a high speed harness with 8 mags, 4 Frags, window breaking tool, compass, gidets and gadgets you name it, I don’t even remember half of it.

    I dumbed down to 4 mags, 2 frags, and a compass in an AK vest I got from one of the Afghans.

    On tour 2 I had learned my lesson and was trying to teach the new guys….

    Everyone has to learn on their own.

    • Nikuraba29 says:

      So experience, first pump to Iraq, I had ten M4 mags, 4 or 5 M9 mags, and two frags. Plus another 6 mags in a BOB on the truck. After taking a tiger swan class taught by JD Potynsky and hearing his experiences, I learned a lot. Then for my second pump it was 4 mags for the M4 and one in the M9. I mean, hey I have more on the truck and it was never more the 5-10 meters away when we were off the FOB.



      • Holler says:

        The total opposite to Carl here. Years ago I took a class at TigerSwan, and not having served in the armed forces I didn’t want to show up all “tacticool, wannabe operatorish” so I went in to class totally stripped down and ended up looking slightly retarded I am sure.

        Had just picked up a FnH FNP-40, ordered a Raven concalment holster and mag holders that took like half the year to get in, but not in time for the class. The FNP-40 was fairly new at that time and holsters were slim pickens. So in order to have a holster I just grabed one that fit fairly decent. Would later find out in class that it would lock the pistol in about 50% of the time and I would have to “work it out”.

        Had on jeans, t-shirt, tennis shoes and an old leather belt. Soggy ground, hot day and halfway through my wet jeans were rolled up my calves and that wet leather belt had stretched under the weight of pistol and wanted to pull my pants down. The tennis shoes were wonderful in the soggy muddy ground also. But! I was the only one who brought sun-screen I believe.

        That was first and last time that happened. Going 180 degrees from Carl is bad too. Learned my lesson to be prepared. I am very functional now with quality gear. Haha.


  6. Dellis says:

    I have never served in military so I can’t say I have been a “Carl” in that sense BUT I have been a “Carl” for a period of time in martial arts.

    It started as a young kid learning karate from my buddys dad who was an instructor at a dojo. He would only teach me and other kids kata’s but I wanted to learn how to do a flying double spin kick!

    So I became bored and stopped. Moved on to Kung Fu, after all, David Carridine was a badd ass, right?. I became bored after I was never taught how to walk on rice paper and not leave a mark…and no flying double spin kick!

    Then came Tae Kwon Do! Now here is an art that is known for its kicks so I knew I would finally learn my flying double spin kick. The instructor though was just about drills, exercise and stretching. I became disenchanted will things martial arts because it was just really boring work, no one wanted to teach the elusive flying double spin kick, damn it!!

    Then one day I drove past a newly opened Ju Jitsu school. This was pre-UFC by some years. So being my own boss I stopped in and observed the students and instructor. I wanted to sign up and give it a shot. So the first night after class we had open mat time. I got my ass severley handed to me by white belts, kids, women and I think a hobbit, not sure. So to gain my manhood back I picked up some nunchucks of which I was pretty fanciful with. My Shihan asked me to strike the bag, I did. I was greeted by the other end of the chuck…to my face!

    I never wanted to return but I did. I was slammed down on those mats over and over, and I loved it. I always failed or quit previously because I had a predisposition on what the martials arts OUGHT to be and not what they should be. In that sense I was a “Carl”. Wanted to look the part but never wanted to be the part. My Shihan broke me down and told me why the foundations are key, simple foundations, and from there you build up.

    So being a gear whore myself I see all this bad ass stuff on SSD and of course want it all, and many times get it. Then I go to train in it and realize it don’t work as I thought it would. I can’t run any better, shoot any better. My Shihan’s voice rings in my head, “There’s no such thing as a flying double spin kick. Only foundations!”

    Wow, sorry for the long post. Great article, thank you.

    • Aaron Barruga says:

      I think that the tactical industry, in a way, mirrors similar dynamics that took place in the martial arts industry in the 90’s, and more specifically in the 2000’s with the increased popularity of MMA. Once UFC became popular, EVERYONE was a jui-jitsu expert.

  7. KellysHero says:

    Great post. But how do we get the new guys to take this on-board as fact and eliminate the need to “learn” this themselves after years of useless spending?

    • Aaron Barruga says:

      I think there’s a normal break in period that is unavoidable. As mentors I think it is necessary to give our juniors enough rope to work with, but not too much in which they can hang themselves.

    • SN says:

      Give the new guys your excess “cool guy” commercial stuff and let them try it out. Saves hem money, and they may find something that is useful.

  8. Disco says:

    Someone told me once that the baddest dude on the field probably wouldn’t agree.
    (That he was the baddest dude).

    Everyone gets that rookie-itis thinking new crap and whatnot will help.

    The guy in cook white jungles with a minimalist LCE and a 30 odd year old compass WILL make you feel retarded with your GPS, 5050 nyco multicam, molle ranger rack and Sierra Club boots.

    Same goes for LE. Some kid will show up with an entire SWAT catalog on his waist and then comes a guy with worn leather, a pistol, a maglite, and one set of cuffs and can literally disperse a crowd singlehandedly.

    Discipline. Lots and lots of discipline

  9. Rob371 says:

    I was definitely a Carl and may still be at some points although I try and be aware of it. I think it was an important part of “growing up” that most of us can’t avoid. I remember thinking that all the cool gear would make me a batter soldier. I bought my own plate carrier, stocks. Even the issued optics weren’t enough for me. I desperately wanted to be recognized as a been there done that guy and set myself apart from the “lowly fobbits”. What happened was my ten mags went down to four after just a few long patrols. My optic mount broke and I wasn’t able to fix it since I had no like parts on hand. I also realized that all the gear in the world won’t make you ready for that first contact as I experienced full vapor lock in the first few minutes of my first tic. Slowly I learned that gear makes a soldier not.

    Looking back I realized that it wasn’t just about looking cool. I was honestly trying to be a better soldier. I just was going about it in a complete ass backwards way.

  10. Hoff says:

    I was a Carl during my brief time protecting a slice of our nation’s nuclear weapons. It’s not sexy and it’s as boring as it sounds. Enemy number one was the jack rabbit. I was annoyed with the dated threat briefs and the gear was pretty dated (they had just received the OTV in late 2008 and still didn’t have ACH/MICH in early 2009 when I showed up). I thought getting all the cool guy gear would make me the ultimate nuclear defender. It didn’t. I soon realized that my vest was heavier than everyone elses and it took longer to put on because I thought it would be a great idea to make the OTV side opening. We had a fair amount of ammo, and if the other guy on the 2 man team had a 203 we were taking the 40mm too. Back up team had a 240 with a healthy amount of ammo with it. All this crap on my chest led to more back pain. I took me a good minute after I returned from K9 school to realize I didn’t need have of this extra stuff, Big blue had already ensured I had enough to carry as it was.

    I will say they are some cool guy items that can be worth the money. The two most helpful items I bought out there that actually helped were an ops-core chin strap and some zorbium helmet pads. The stock helmet straps just didn’t keep the PVS-7s where they should be on my nugget. Those straps really helped keep the helmet and goggles secure while driving and moving over uneven ground. The helmet pads were more of a nice thing to have, but mine didn’t freeze and take that minute or two to soften up when I put it on. Much more comfortable when wearing it for hours on end.

  11. bulldog76 says:

    But but gear will out do fundamentals ….. yes I actually have heard this before

  12. majrod says:

    Aaron – Thanks for having the confidence and courage to write about your previous errors. One can only hope that some will listen.

    It’s always about the fundamentals.

  13. Chris K. says:

    Well said. 2 for 2, keep up the good work.

  14. ahhhhhclever says:

    I believe this is one of the best articles I have read on this site. Very informative and purposeful. Thanks for sharing and I could definitely relate

  15. Scott says:

    Well this is food for thought. I collect knives and I am also teaching myself how to use them. I have some sources that I use to learn more, but I am not in a position for formal instruction. The comments on equipment are interesting because of how integral the equipment of knifefighting is to it, since without a knife, you are not knifefighting. It’s also an interesting yet different dynamic because there’s a lot of value in acquiring different styles in order to learn them, yet there is also a common temptation to go for impractical and flashy, both in blades and techniques.

    So like I said, food for thought how to apply what you said about both equipment and also how to grow and become more tactically mature.

  16. jjj0309 says:

    I’ve met over 9000 Carls in my life. Mostly on the internet.
    And I think I’m still one of the Legion of Carls.

  17. Donovan Adams says:

    Great post. In my opinion no matter what you are trying to get good at, basics and fundamentals are the foundation for any possibility of proficiency. The only way to get there is through effective and dedicated practice on your own and with individuals who are capable of proper guidance.

  18. darrel says:

    I am not a grunt at all. I am a pogue through and through, and a self-admitted gear queer, probably the biggest in my entire Battalion.

    I have multiple flaks and all kinds of little gadgets and crap, but honestly, I have always tried to keep my purchases within the reasonable expectations of my capacity in the field. I don’t buy things that I won’t be able to use, or things that I am not prepared to carry. I make sensible and logical purchases that will provide the functions that I need, and be low visibility enough to not attract more attention than necessary, especially from thieves.

    Having said that, I mentioned that I am a self-admitted pogue. I don’t buy gear for any other reason than because it’s my hobby. In a way, the gear I use in the field is just my hobby spilling over into work. It was never a hobby that I developed as a result of some sort of inadequacies in issued gear or tactical necessity. I am really sick of people questioning my gear, asking me what the point is, asking me if I’m a prepper, etc. It’s by far one of the most annoying things I have to deal with on a regular basis.

    So yes, I am a “Carl”, but I never try to portray myself as anything other than an obsessed hobbyist.

  19. Shaun says:

    I can honestly say that i had a bit of the Carl mentallity until I got married and bought a new house. My wife saw how much gear I had bought over the years (half filled a double garage) and work out how much I had paid, I did and she didn’t speak to me for a week LOL (Some may say a blessing), now its a simple belt and harness and a massive money saving and the wife is happy !!!!!

  20. Jon C. says:

    Another bang up post. Humility seems to be in short supply, and if I’ve learned nothing from the last decade plus of incessant combat operations, you have to be willing to be critical of yourself in order to mature and grow.

  21. Riceball says:

    I’ll admit to have been something of a Carl back during my time in the Reserves, but this was back in the ’90s before there was a lot of cool gear to get. Because of the limited market, and being a Reserve Air Winger, the only “cool” gear I rocked was a pair of goggles, a helmet band, a knife (more hassle than it was worth since the mini-PX at Camp Wilson didn’t allow K-Bars or other knives inside), and butt pack. If I was still in I’d probably have bought any number of other items like gloves, better eye pro than issue, and who knows what else.

    As far as Carl himself goes, could the reason why he wore body armor everywhere he went been paranoia and not because he thought he was cool? Could have been that some time in the past he was in what was supposed to be a secure zone and it came under attack, making him wish he had worn his body armor at the time. So afterwards, he made a point to wear his body armor everywhere he went, no matter what, so that he’d never be caught with his pants down, so to speak. Me, personally, I hated wearing the old Kevlar (PASGT) flaks so if I were in a similar situation and saw a bunch of SpecOps types running around with no body armor I’d almost certainly do the same, provided that my unit authorized it.

  22. Jon, OPT says:

    Great write up, in many ways; this article is something a lot of new guys in the Regiment need to read.

    I’ve tested tons of gear, and always had about twice as much as I needed on any deployment, but I can’t say I was ever a Carl, in fact I avoid the topic of gear in my workplace and avoid soliciting peers.

    The whole gear craze is a relatively new advent to those of us who’ve been in since before 2001. When I left the Infantry in 1998 being able to get a hold of a LC-2 SAW pouch was considered pretty freaking awesome, they were vapor-wear back then. When I got to my first ODA I was wearing LC-2, and was dabbling in dedicated chest rigs. In that first three years of team time I went through three loadout vests, LC-2, MAV 2 pc, and FLCE, after that I started my company but stuck with pretty much the same pouch array trying different vests or rigs.

    I’ve always held that on average there are two kinds of guys entering SF, those who want to work as a part of a team; and those who want to wear what they want, collect TDY, and push appearance standards to the line; basically, individuals and team members. At some point, most of these guys cross over, but selfishness will always exist within the organization.

    Contrary to popular belief, most SOF guys aren’t gear fanatics, most just use what they are issued, and are far more focused on the mission and the team, and their free time revolves around family. There was once, and probably still is an existing assumption among those who care to have an opinion on the matter that every guy on an ODA knows all the companies out there, the best gear, etc etc. That is simply not true. I know SF guys that know far more about baby and child gear than the kit they wear, or mountain biking gear, or snowboarding gear, or, and especially, hunting and fishing gear. Just because joey SOF uses an item, doesn’t always mean it is worth a fuck.

    But I digress…

    Jon, OPT

  23. SRez says:

    This post kind of undermines the Soldier Systems site. I guess when a company boasts that something was developed for a “special” customer, it’s really just for the newbie “Carls” in the unit?!?

    • Jon, OPT says:

      How so? Developing an item based on a needs statement is a very long shot from “in use by xxxxx”. Boasting SOF use of an item is a very old advertising ploy. Saying an item was developed for a customer (whether one sees this as boasting is usually subjective) requires actual design, testing, approval, etc.

      Jon, OPT

      • majrod says:

        I think he was being sarcastic.

        • Jon, OPT says:

          Considering the amount of bashing going on here lately I figured it was another trollish attack. There’s a fine line between sarcasm and passive aggressive, next time I’ll use my Google internet tone interpreter.

          Jon, OPT

  24. Grump says:

    Still sound pretty obsessed with what folks think, not to mention self-congratulatory for not being like “that guy.” What one person wants/needs at a given time isn’t the same for somebody else. Doesn’t mean you’re better or worse. If you ever look back years from now and don’t think you were a dick, then you haven’t learned much. If you think that now you’re finally “mature,” then you haven’t learned much. You’re never in competition with anybody but yourself. Work on that and let others judge themselves.