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Gunfighter Moment – Aaron Barruga

Now More Than Ever, Standards And Leadership Matter

The Taliban’s ambush kicked off with the standard barrage of RPGs and machine gun fire. After completing their “mad minute” of initiation fires, the surprise attack lulled and we maneuvered out of the kill zone to coordinate our response.

Unlike previous ambushes, the Taliban either through overconfidence or misreading of the terrain positioned themselves in a wadi. Clear of any civilian structures and risk of collateral damage, they were exposed to the full capacity of our small arms, mortars, and crew served machine guns.

It was the type of fight we begged for. An open engagement with what was an elusive enemy that preferred to fight from the homes of civilians, purposely using them as shields. With a hastily formed assault line of gun trucks, we suppressed Taliban fighting positions and dismounted personnel began prepping mortar fire to contain them.

Everything was textbook, flawless with execution, except one thing.

Prone behind his machine gun, a junior soldier attached to our team wasn’t shooting the Taliban positions.

“Why aren’t you shooting?”

“I can’t see them.”

He was lying, but he wasn’t a coward. He knew where the Taliban were. Everyone did because tracers from our heavy weapons directed fires at the Taliban’s skirmish line.

The fear of death wasn’t what scared the soldier from shooting. Instead, he was afraid of punishment. For doing something wrong and being made an example of by a higher headquarters that readily distributed career ending reprimands. The irony was painful. A highly trained—albeit junior—soldier failed to perform his mission critical task because he was afraid of our senior leadership, not the enemy.

———

Last month, the nation again revisited an uncomfortably familiar cycle of mourning, outrage, and finger pointing after the Parkland Florida school shooting. However, following this specific tragedy, the typical week long news cycle about gun control was pushed into the backseat as a nation cried out against the law enforcement officers that failed to enter the school and kill the gunman.

Civilians, soldiers, and cops took to social media with an unending supply of blame and ostracized the deputies that failed to perform their duties. And just as the outrage was beginning to subside, news surfaced about officers that were actually reprimanded for attempting to swarm the scene in an attempt to kill the shooter.

Despite all of the blame, meme generating, and “I would have run into the school” sound clips; we’re still left with a hard question to answer.

Why did this happen?

During the ambush in Afghanistan, I knew that the junior soldier on the machine gun was competent. He was not afraid, and despite it being a terrible decision, would charge blindly into a compound full of Taliban by himself if he knew he wouldn’t get in trouble.

However, I don’t know the deputies that failed to enter the school in Florida. In fact, few of us do. I don’t know if they were afraid, or confused due to lack of training. But what I do know is that organizations do not fail as a whole because of a single mission. Organizations fail throughout years in which a collection of small and insignificant events compound over time to produce a culture of complacency.

For tactical professionals, the hardest decision to make often isn’t running towards the sound of gunfire. Instead, it can be taking on the less heroic task of attempting to change complacent organizational culture.

As a trooper on the line you never get to choose your commander. As a commander, you do not get to choose which policies your predecessors establish. When an organization fails, the easy answer is for subordinates to blame weak leaders, and for leaders to blame rigid policy. However, pointing fingers  after mission failure tends to yield minimal results because the reality is that complacency must be challenged every day.

It’s in the small things:

-Every time we let a teammate skip out on training for non-urgent personal matters.

-Every time we bend the rules for those that fail to meet physical fitness standards.

-Every time we finger drill mission critical SOPs.

-Every time we ignore negligent discharges instead of enforcing punishment.

-Every time we reward promotions for precedence instead of ability.

-Every time we complain about the lack of quality with department training, but then fail to seek out better methods for acquiring skill.

-Every time we let a teammate improperly configure his equipment (e.g. tourniquet not easily accessible) so that he can instead have cooler looking kit with “do-nothing” pouches.

-Every time we let our ego say “But I’ve been (SWAT/SRT/Special Forces) for “X” years to compensate for performance failures.

During pre-deployment training for Afghanistan, a brand new Green Beret assigned to our company negligently discharged a simunition gun. He wasn’t in a shoot house or in a training scenario. He was just loading the trucks for movement to the day’s training area and got careless. Regardless, he was removed from the company and sent to a staff section as punishment.

Later, during a 2-month CQB train up, a seasoned Green Beret negligently discharged a pistol. Similarly, this wasn’t in the shoot house or during a course of fire on the range. It was while he was clearing his team’s weapons before they were transported back to the arms room. His failure with the ND was both because he finger drilled his checks, but also because a teammate had set him up for failure by lazily placing a loaded gun in an area that was designated only for cold weapons. That Green Beret was not reprimanded because “he’s a good guy.” But because he was not punished, the stigma of his reputation always beat him to his next assignment. A career debilitating black eye that he would not recover from.

Examples such as these exist in many forms. Whether its failing to meet physical fitness standards, or misuse of operational funds. Ultimately, if an organization fails to correct small issues, the problems compound and reach a tipping point. Typically, a commander will overly punish a minor infraction in an attempt to set an example for future decisions. Of course, this starts an organization down a path in which trust between subordinates and leadership is eroded.

Returning from our deployment to Afghanistan, we were not greeted by senior leadership that applauded us for a job well done (or for most, a job well endured, because hey, democracy is kind of a hard thing to spread). Instead, we were marched into the battalion classroom and told all the ways in which we would be kicked out of the unit for integrity violations.

As the infractions were explained, we all began shaking our heads and rolling our eyes. The individuals that were made examples of were known for their poor professional behavior. But in the past, instead of being punished, they had been allowed to fail upwards to their next assignment. Although they were finally reprimanded in the end, it was at the expense of establishing policy that impacted every soldier in the unit.

———

Attempting to change organizational policy is a monumental task, and often isn’t one accomplished through a single individual’s career. However, real professional growth occurs day-to-day, and in the grey areas where there are no strict guidelines or rules. In other words, it occurs both when someone is and isn’t watching you.

There is also a difference between rules and standards, and the two must not be considered the same. Rules declare limits, but must not be arbitrary otherwise they actually encourage individuals to subvert or bypass them. However, standards are meant to empower because their achievement indicates superior skill. Organizations that misunderstand these realities will use standards and rules synonymously. And instead of empowering individuals to achieve success, will actually deter them from trying for fear of a reprimand that accompanies failure.

My successes as a soldier weren’t because I possessed natural talent or superior skills. It was because I had direct supervisors that understood how to create a learning environment in which I wasn’t afraid to fail. This allowed me to grow as a noncommissioned officer because I understood the difference between punishment and professional critique. Organizations that fail to separate the two will create a zero sum environment in which troopers are afraid to do anything wrong. Consequently, this handicaps otherwise competent individuals from returning fire at enemy ambush lines, or running towards the sound of gunfire to save innocent lives.

Aaron Barruga is Special Forces veteran with deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Pacific Theater of Operations. He has trained foreign commandos, police officers, and militia fighters. He is the founder at Guerrilla Approach LLC, where he consults law enforcement officers on counter-terrorism and vehicle tactics.

www.guerrillaapproach.com

www.facebook.com/guerrillaapproach

www.instagram.com/guerrilla_approach

Gunfighter Moment is a feature brought to you by Bravo Company USA. Bravo Company is home of the Gunfighters, and they bring us a different trainer to offer some words of wisdom.

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22 Responses to “Gunfighter Moment – Aaron Barruga”

  1. CT Yank says:

    Inadequate training dealing with Active Shooters and a cultural lack of embracing the warrior mindset. Paying attention to details, as you say, is exactly why these massacres will continue. Need to train accepting that evil is out there and adopt habits before the encounter that will prove effective during confrontation. Otherwise, law enforcement will continue to freeze when we need them most as they telegraph to the rest of us they clearly have ineffective training to solve these types of problems. And of course, the typical bureaucrat cites proper training costs too much money so the next best thing is pay a one time charge for wrongful death settlements to the victims families. Disgusting! We are clearly on our own.

  2. miclo18d says:

    Words of wisdom!

    Thanks Aaron!

    DOL

  3. Jason M says:

    Exceptional showcase of lessons learned in the .mil experience than can be applied to all professional disciplines. In the context of the conduct of individuals during the Parkland, FL murders, the author’s premise that organizational culture can either prevent or create these failures is spot on. Hopefully current events will serve as a catalyst for a change in direction for the cultural path of LE agencies. This essay is an excellent seed to be planted in the minds of tomorrow’s LE leadership.

  4. David B. says:

    Concur with most, but not always on the UD issue. Too often, I saw Soldiers getting fried for having a UD in the clearing barrel (why do we have clearing barrels, except for such incidents?) … more importantly, why are we “clearing” our weapons in a hostile fire zone known for Green-on-Blue incidents? Every incident is unique and “zero tolerance” rules are a poor substitute for a leader’s discernment.
    Overall, spot-on as to the importance of leader’s imprimatur on killing suspected bad guys and not judging our men in women in the clear vision of 20/20 hindsight. Well done!

    • Sonny says:

      A review : UD – (Unintentional) that’s when a weapon malfunction causes the round to discharge.

      ND is for Negligent Discharge, that’s operator error.

      A clearing barrel doesn’t excuse an ND, it just catches the bullet.

  5. Nate says:

    If I’m understanding your points correctly, you’re saying we must create organizations where people aren’t afraid to fail, but also deal with failure to meet standards firmly. I think that’s asking a lot of the individuals in an organization to both understand that failure will have consequences but also not to fear those consequences – that kind of mindset takes high level emotional maturity that is honestly pretty rare, even among the “elite” folks you’re talking about here.

  6. Ben H says:

    I must confess that I think a lot of Gunfighter Moment submissions here miss the mark, even if they’re well intended. That said, this is an excellent collection of insights, with implications that are applicable throughout both the military and LEO environments. Really well done, Aaron.

    • Invictus says:

      Barruga’s submissions don’t miss. If you haven’t, hit the tags and check out all of his submissions. Well worth the time.

  7. Nate says:

    What’s the point of a comments section if you’re only going to allow the ones that explicitly agree with you?

  8. U.S. Tactical Supply says:

    Another Great Article on SSD. One of the Many Reasons SSD is the place to go for news and info for our industry.

  9. Stash says:

    Great read. I heard a good quote recently along the same lines: “The culture of an organization is shaped by the worst behavior its leaders are willing to tolerate.”

  10. 9Baller says:

    It’s funny that some of those bullet points are referred to as “small things.” If you’re in an organization that allows skipping training, failing the physical standard, finger drilling SOPs, and ADs, your best option is to leave. Can you influence up, down and sideways for the better by being a good example, sure. Are you going to make a lackluster organization great? I’d argue no. High standards are one of the intended consequences of a high cost of entry. The unfortunate reality is few are capable of serving in an elite organization and fewer are willing to pay their pound of flesh, and keep paying. Those that are and do know that the “small things” are anything but.

  11. Jack Boothe says:

    A well written and cogent piece. I wish something was included though: how to handle the zero defect mentality when it comes to human performance. You can build widgets to six sigma standards, building humans to six sigma standards is hard, if not impossible. How you handle mistakes and the corrective actions taken to reduce their recurrence is very important to optimal organizational performance. Is throwing someone out who had $100K+ spent training them from an organization for one mistake, minor or egregious, what does that do to unit morale, aggressiveness, initiative, or more importantly overall performance?

  12. Ken says:

    Few of us are better than the context that produced us. If you function in a punitive ROE environment, you will act with dangerous constraint. If you react to news with emotions, rather than reason, you will fail and join protests. If you take a knee, strip off the stress , assess, think and prioritize, you may fail, but you will fail having mentally succeeded, and that is all you can ever do, apart from never failing to do what i have just described.

  13. Rob Chan says:

    Can someone explain what finger drilling means?

    Also, everytime I read Aarons posts… what a smart dude who can articulate his points very well.

  14. Darkhorse says:

    There are two types of organizations- those who think from the bottom up and those that are directed from the top down.

    You basically have zero ability to control anything other than yourself/team in a top down driven organization and unfortunately, that is where SF finds itself in the hierarchy of special operations.

    Police departments are top down driven organizations, bottom line. And until the higher ups decide to fall on their swords for more training dollars and resources, we (the USA) will continue to have under-trained police officers responding to major crisis. In some major cities (if not all) it’s more cost effective for the city to pay a family 3M dollars in a wrongful death settlement than it is to effectively train it’s police officers. That’s the sad but very real truth.

    In regards to the shooting in Florida, if you’ve never been in an urban gun fight, you need to just keep your mouth shut, period. Sounds and the reports of weapons are very confusing in and around structures and hard constructed buildings. To think that a person hears gunfire, can instantly identify it’s source, then pulls a service pistol and charges into the building isn’t in ANY SOP I’ve ever heard of nor does it make ANY sense. That’s just sheer stupidity- and thinking that THAT is a proper response is just plain stupidity too. I highly doubt that the police department in Parkland Florida or the police officer/s in question were trained at such a level that a solo response would have made a difference or would have saved any lives.

    Proper training breeds instinctual response, not hesitation.

    I feel horribly for these men. It goes to show how out of touch the public is with what they expect from a police officer. Truthfully, there would be very little time for a police officer to “police” in order to train them to the level required to be that proficient.

    Just this morning, police are responding to incidents in Texas wherein, they’ve set off trip wired devices. Does Parkland Florida train all of their police to respond according to those types of threats? What if the steely eyed barrel chested hero police officer charged into the school and set off a device that ended up killing more students?

    Lastly, police officers are NOT warriors. They are police officers. The use of deadly force is hugely different than ROE to kill enemy combatants. The use of the phrase “warrior mindset” in regards to police officers makes zero sense. I have the highest respect for our police officers. It’s a job I surely wouldn’t want to have. They do an incredible job for having such limited resources.

    • El Terryble says:

      You don’t need training to know that when you are the School Resource Officer, and someone comes to your school and starts shooting students, that your duty, your ability to look yourself in the mirror and consider yourself a man, requires you to enter that building and stop the shooting or die trying. Any kid who grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons and John Wayne knows this.

      • Darkhorse says:

        If that’s your position, why train at all? Just everyone run amuck because all you need to defeat this threat is the ability to not think and charge into an unknown situation because hey, it’s kids.

        And when the untrained cop charges into this scenario, and starts cracking off stray rounds and one ends up in your child’s neck because he can’t shoot worth a damn, that’ll be cool too, right?

        You seem to think that cops can shoot. You’re wrong, which means stray rounds flying all over a school packed with kids. Maybe you come from a place where shots off target don’t count for anything but that’s not the world I come from.

  15. AR says:

    I’ve spent 13 years in LE, much of it on the training side, and I am afraid of what things are going to look like in 10 or so years. Speaking directly to this article, one of our local agency academies just had two recruits FAIL their academy PT exit standards. It’s a state requirement they pass for certification, so they were tossed.

    Apparently, some phone calls were made, and somehow a day later, the two were back in class and an email went out to the dept explaining how those state standards are in place so the tech colleges can weed out people who aren’t subject to the “high hiring standards” that this agency has. For what it’s worth, and this is not a jab at female officers, both recruits were females with additional diversity boxes on their applications… the same as the commander who oversees the academy. Maybe there is a reason to keep them, but what is the perception that will precede them wherever they go? That they made it because of preferential treatment.

    Now fast forward ten years down the road. Are these two going to be capable of running into a school to confront an active shooter? Based on what I know, they shouldn’t have even been cops. That same academy was prohibited this year from making recruits do PT when they screwed up. A recruit muzzled a training officer with a loaded rifle, and he made them run for it. The recruits complained and the commander abolished PT as a form of discipline.

    I hate to say it, but with the direction we are going, I am afraid we are going to see more failures like Parkland. We don’t need SJWs or BLM activists to screw things up for us, we as LE are shooting ourselves in the foot as it is.

  16. El Terryble says:

    The Parkland shooting at Douglas Stoneman High School is endemic of a massive failure on an institutional and, ultimately, societal level. There was a failure to act and to do ones duty at school level, up to the Broward County Sheriff to the FBI(which is well on its way to disgracing itself irreparably due to the actions of a few top level leadership and agents), down to the RSO Scot Peterson. Twenty years ago if something like this would have happened a mob of parents would have driven Scott Israel from the Country and Scot Peterson would have hung himself rather than face life as possibly America’s most infamous coward. They have the saying, “If you see something, say something.” Well the problem is that people have been saying something, but vested interests reap profit out of the status quo. Scot Peterson made $101,013 the last year recorded by the IRS, and retired with a $60,000/year pension as a school resource officer. I have a college degree, attended law school, and spent two years on the streets of Fallujah and walking along the Syrian border; and I don’t get that. And I know I work harder than Scot Peterson ever did. I also got a speeding ticket going 80mph in a 60mph last week going North on I-85. Why do I have to pay for speeding when Hillary Clinton violated the Espionage Act and bleachedbit here hard drives and Peter Strzok still has a job at the FBI in HR?

    The problem isn’t some E-3 or E-4 that has a negligent discharge, Hell, they signed up to do a job 99% of American’s won’t or can’t do. The problem is a Supreme Court Justice that makes prayer in school illegal and makes it legal to kill a baby in the womb after the first trimester. The problem is politicians who call returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan “domestic terror threats”, but abandons the Middle East to the Jhadists, but went to a church where the pastor said “G** D*** America”. The problem is with military officer’s and government officials who kowtow to these politicians. The problem is with corporations who forget that their first duty is to the American, not their shareholders or the bottom line. The problem is the American People whom have forgotten their God, the accomplishments and teachings of their ancestors, and what it means to be an American and to live your life with simple human decency and to do what is right in the end

    http://thefederalist.com/2018/03/20/scandal-behind-florida-school-shooting-federal-coercion-not-guns/

    http://thefederalist.com/2018/02/27/parkland-underscores-americans-pay-garbage-government-job/

    http://thefederalist.com/2018/02/23/parkland-officers-hesitation-stop-shooting-pattern-police-cowardice/

    http://thefederalist.com/2018/02/26/sheriff-scott-israel-exemplifies-the-failures-of-our-institutions/