Mission Creep: “a gradual shift in objectives during the course of a military campaign, often resulting in an unplanned long-term commitment.”

I was being sent into kinetic, non-permissive Iraq to circulate through the Camps, COPs (combat outposts) and FOBs (forward operating bases) teaching my Combat Profiling techniques to US troops operating outside the wire.

Before leaving for this “pump” I was approached by members of the DoD (department of defense) to assess the G-BOSS system while I was in-country. Raytheon created the Ground-Based Operational Surveillance System or G-BOSS as a force protection multiplier at the request of the US Department of Defense.

US ground forces were being killed predominantly by IEDs (improvised explosive devices) during that time and that necessitated a new, long range portable surveillance system to combat emplacers. The G-BOSS was trailer mounted and came with an 80 foot or 107-foot tower. I had seen them all over Iraq, normally sticking up over the HESCO barriers at a combat outpost. The first applications of G-BOSS I witnessed were blimps floating above our temporary bases.

G-BOSS was outfitted with a ThermoVision 3000 camera (cool name, sounds like something you would hear on the home shopping network or an infomercial), a Star SAFIRE IIIFP (laser rangefinder) and an MSTAR (target acquisitioning radar with GPS global positioning system). It created a persistent surveillance system with high resolution day and night cameras that also had the ability to record video feeds directly from each camera.

What the DoD (and of course Raytheon) wanted was to be able to say that G-BOSS also increased “situational awareness.” This became evident after I returned from my trips forward and after making my reports the marketing information and on-line declarations began adding, “The G-BOSS enhances situational awareness by allowing personnel to monitor activities in the vicinity of the military installation…” and, “The Marine Corps Operational Test and Evaluation Activity conducted operational tests on the G-BOSS to employ it in relation to situational awareness”. 

Before I left, I sought out G-BOSS training on Camp Pendleton. The course was being taught by former Colonel and United States Military Academy grad from West Point Lee Wakefield. Lee and his partner took me through operating and troubleshooting the G-BOSS. In exchange I had Will Atkinson (callsign Teacher) and Arcadia CEO Shelly Williams teach some Combat Hunter skills to the Marines and US Army Soldiers attending Lee’s courses.

I was hopping from camp to camp teaching when, one night, the unit I was training had their Sergeant Major (SGM) meet link up with me. He told me three things. First, he told me about a ‘Shaboob’. What he meant was a Haboob (an incredible, menacing sandstorm) that was blowing in fast. He said the Shaboob would cover the camp in the next few hours.

 

Second in line he told me about the ‘accident’ that had occurred in front of the COP. The COP in which we stood was partially an old khalat with ancient stone walls, part sandbag and a lot of piled brick, block, HESCO and wire forming a perimeter. I forget the names, now. Ripper, Casino, Shark base, Liberty all of the outposts have cool names but are in essence all reinforced bunkers smack dab in the middle of the shit, minimally manned but armed to the teeth.

The accident of which the SGM spoke occurred when a US Abrams tank took evasive action to avoid an RPG (Rocket) attack and swerved, driving its massive composite armor lined frame over a 1980’s Volkswagen Golf occupied by four locals killing them all.

The accident was only a few hours old and the local population bolstered by the insurgents were already surrounding the walls, yelling and throwing items.

The third and final item, literally the last time I spoke to this Marine, he mentioned that I should go to the armory and draw out more ammo as it was likely we would “be overrun tonight.”

I had been scared before, but this combat vet and his ‘matter of fact’ delivery really did a number on me. A civilian outside the wire on a mission to train now possible going to be killed or captured when the compound is overrun during a ‘(S)haboob’. 

As I walked around contemplating my last will and testament, I decided to take my up-armored-ass, dump pouches filled with topped off magazines, and shuffle over to where the G-BOSS was located. If I lived, I would be able to give a unique report to the USMC about the effectiveness of a G-BOSS during a haboob.

The young lance corporal manning the G-BOSS was gazing intently into the screens. He also had one of the cameras on some sort of pre-programmed ‘loop’ where it would scan near and far, low then high and return to a new spot and “rinse and repeat”.

On the autonomous scan camera, I saw an interesting meeting take place outside of a taxi (I assumed it was a taxi based on the unique middle eastern taxi color scheme). While most taxis had drivers that were interested in getting their fares to and from locations, this driver was using the driver’s door as a stable platform with which to balance his arms and the binoculars he was holding which were directed at our COP. Interesting and a fatal mistake as the current ROE (Rules Of Engagement) frowned on likely hostiles with optics. 

The camera continued to pan away from the taxi. I asked the LCPL if he could stop the camera and go back. He was at first incredulous, having no idea who I was to make such a request. My civilian clothes covered by an issued PPE (personal protective equipment) body bunker and weapon threw him.

He complied, and I asked if he could go to the ThermoVision sight. He again complied. I asked him to zoom and soon we were recording a group of 5 men that had arrived in a taxi-style vehicle. Each was armed, one had optics and another had a shoulder holster and was communicating on a radio. This video feed became probable cause to “contact” this likely team of hostiles neutralizing one threat that evening – well before it materialized.

I didn’t have time to be scared after that. We were soon surrounded by more Marines, each pointing and yelling at the screens asking to zoom in on this or that – turning it in to an impromptu game of ‘Where’s Waldo?’

I cannot tell you how excited the Marines were to use the G-BOSS once they had experienced finding bad guys and bomb emplaces while deployed. There were many G-BOSS success stories after that and the experience proved again that training changes behavior!

The Virtual Battle Space.

Founded in Australia in 2001, Bohemia Interactive is a huge software company that offers simulation training. Using high fidelity game technology, Bohemia created the Virtual Battle Space or VBS early in the war on terror. Because I was traveling CONUS and OCONUS to support Combat Hunter I was additionally tasked that while on US bases I would audit how and when VBS was being utilized.   

The goal of VBS was to create a realistic multi-domain, training universe which – when played by pre-deployment soldiers and marines – would “enhance warfighter readiness.

The first time I saw VBS 1 was at the SIM Center on board Camp Pendleton, California a year or two before the FITE-JCTD. I was introduced to it by Marine William Travis Jones III who gave me a down and dirt on how VBS worked and then proceeded to show me how his character (avatar) in the game was riding a motorcycle through the virtual world with a German shepherd seated on the rear-rack. Jonesy was armed with a Russian SVD and stopped at an airfield and jumped into a Russian Mil Mi-24 HIND helicopter gunship.

Jonesy had his character fly the helo across the landscape and begin to shoot up every building and vehicle in sight. I asked what the purpose of this training exercise was and I got a perplexed look.

My point was that the system was being underutilized – literally to play a shooting game – rather than exploited to train Marines how to spot IEDs, identify their emplacers and predict their locations.

Over the next few hours, I was able to learn how to use the simple, amazing VBS architecture to create uber-realistic operations where I could preplan OPFOR (Opposing Forces) emplacing various IEDs and VBIEDs (vehicle borne improvised explosive devices) meant to destroy the approaching US and Coalition forces.

The level of fidelity was amazing, I was able to create urban masking and use camouflage to cover IEDs, emplacing them in locations where – if the US or Coalition forces were trained in Combat Hunter – they were sure to be located Left-of-Bang and defeated.

Jonesy and I enlisted his squad and each were assigned to computer consoles playing either the US and Coalition force soldiers or the OPFOR Red Cell. I was now able to see how important a training tool VBS could be. What it needed was robust, reality-based scenarios to challenge the user.

After that initial exposure I checked the VBS suites at a dozen bases CONUS and another twenty or more OCONUS. Each time my first reaction was surprise when I saw the local E6 running things with a room full of pristine unoccupied computers act out the ‘motorcycle to the Russian gunship’ free play scenario.

I learned fast that the system was amazing but it came without specific directions and mentoring for exactly HOW to best employ it. That changed as I taught the Marines how to use the VBS to create realistic training scenarios with which to challenge their fellow Marines.

VBS had another essential ‘component’, the ability to create a sense of confidence that the war against the IEDs was winnable. In the work up for Iraq and Afghanistan, training was changing behavior.

The Geography of fear.

When I was a kid, I soon noticed that all of my contemporaries had uncles, aunts and various grandparents. My family was different. We had a few distant relatives overseas and I was limited to my Aunt and Uncle who lived in East Detroit. I was often a lunch guest at their home. Sometimes an overnight guest. They were simple folks and didn’t have a lot of money. The house was always clean. There was a spare bedroom on the main floor of the 800 square foot house. There was also a bed in the basement. I slept there.

The basement was vast and spartan. The light switch was a string that I could barely reach attached to a lone bulb at the bottom of the stairs. The bed sat at the furthers corner of the basement. The distance from the stairs to the bed seemed like a mile. I was so scared to sleep in the basement overnight that I fashioned an arsenal of ‘weapons’ to defend myself and then spread them around the basement floor like land mines to protect me as I slept.

My Uncle Paul worked for Sears as a washer and dryer repairman for over 30 years. Each week his shirts and pants were delivered from the Sears dry cleaners. Sears like almost every profession back then had their employees wear work uniforms. It wasn’t unusual to see various service employees wearing uniforms. From a gas station attendant to the baggers at the local A&P uniforms were everywhere.

Inside of my Uncle’s pressed shirts was a piece of cardboard that had one white, shiny side and one darker unfinished side. These rectangles became my canvas. I would sit at a folding table in the ‘den’ feverishly coloring and cutting out knives, brass knuckles – literally all manner of edged weapons, then hammers and clubs and other impact weapons, and then, finally, I would make handguns from revolvers to semiautomatic pistols – I still have the skill today to draw a variety of weapons that look very realistic and are remarkably to scale.

Creating my 2-dimensional cardboard weapons cache was serious business. I would plan a defense and begin to scatter pairs and groups of weapons in a semicircle around the bed. If I had to defend against the unknown demons that came after lights out, I would never run low on defensive weapons.    

Once the lights went out the sounds of the basement were magnified to frightening proportions if only inside of my head. The old furnace clicking on, first the gas would come on, then the pilot and finally the fuel would ignite and there would be a flash in the dark followed by the loud sounds of combustion. The ductwork would soon expand creating pops and clicks and snaps that I mistook for footsteps of the creatures closing in on me. The anxiety level was incredible!

C’mon in. The waters fine.

Sanibel Island was one of the location shoots for Day of the Dead, Romero’s 1985 classic. Huge fan of all things Dead. Shelly and I got invited down to Sanibel and Captiva by a friend of a friend. We were all coppers and the resort on Sanibel was owned by a retired Detroit cop and his wife.

They offered a weekend for Shelly and I and the kids for an unbeatable price, and Shelly and the clan and I were headed down for Bruno and Nellie Wygonik’s belated anniversary and Bruno’s 90th birthday.

I was surf fishing in the morning while Shelly and the kids were beach combing for shells. On Sanibel and Captiva there are GANGS of old people who are very protective about their beach, their shells and specifically their horseshoe crabs. Don’t believe me? Same is true today and they will fight you for your shells. Surf fishing was new to me but I love all sorts of fishing so I figured how hard could it be?

I waded out and caught a fish. I waded out further and caught a bigger fish. Soon, I was at nipple-height in the surf and each time a wave came in it lifted me up off the sandy bottom and carried me in, then out a little further each time.

Fearing that I was going to lose my favorite fishing briar-pipe (I thought I looked cool, I am certain upon reflection that I looked like a perfect douche) and some gear out of my re-purposed tactical vest, I decided to turn around and start walking back in to the beach.

Just as I noted the large crowd of people on the beach watching me, a huge, black, shiny dorsal fin blocked the sun from the sky and disappeared below the surf.

Seconds later, before fear gripped my chest and forced fresh air from my lungs, another dorsal fin, this one so close that the unseen shark below the water’s surface actually pushed my legs out from under me. Now surrounded by briar-hungry sharks, I dropped my hat, pipe, rod, reel – anything that was unattached – and fled for shore as fast as my feet would carry me.

Have you ever tried to run in the water?

No matter how hard you try, your speed is set and slow. I had never seen so many sharks (actually, up until this fear inducing spectacle, I had never seen a shark outside of the Detroit Zoo exhibit).

I could barely see the folks on the beach cheering for me to survive through my tear-filled eyes. I was sweating and freezing and yelling and crying. I had already imagined going through the rest of my life happy to have only lost an arm or a leg to the onslaught that was surely going to overwhelm me before I made it to safety.

I finally crashed onto the hot sand of the beach. I could hear the cheers of the geriatric crowd that had formed around me – gathered to watch the porpoises play in the water.

A dozen of them.

Straight from the experts; you can tell the difference between a shark and a porpoise in the water by watching how they move their tails and whether you see a second fin.

Dolphins have wide horizontal tails which move up and down while sharks have tall vertical tails which move from side to side. Because dolphins have below the surface pectoral fins, if you see a second fin, it’s a shark. I never recovered my surf fishing gear (or my surf fishing pride) regarding and I have never returned to Sanibel Island.

The chemistry of fear.

Fear is nothing more that the anticipation of imminent danger. The expectation that you might be injured or killed by likely (known, suspected or unseen but expected) threats. There are more self-defense warning pathways into the brain than any other sensor track.

First the sound, smell, or sight activates your distant early warning system (your nervous system) which activates the thalamus and your amygdalae which in turn activate glutamate to “dump” and run its course through the body in a fraction of a nanosecond.

Glutamate is the anion (the negatively charged ion) of glutamic acid. As electrochemical neurotransmitters go, glutamate is the most abundant excitatory neurotransmitter in humans and certainly the most prevalent in the vertebrate nervous system.

Excitatory neurotransmitters carry urgent chemical “messages” between nerve cells (neurons) to control our blood pressure, breathing and increased heart rate necessary to respond to fear and related emergencies.

These messages work both ways. Your brain warns you of something you should fear by sending out excitatory neuros and you sense something scary in your environment and your brain produces the ‘excitators’ to prepare you to fight, flee or freeze.

This fast-acting chemical cocktail creates a reaction in the hypothalamus and in the oldest part of your brain called the periaqueductal gray region which only has two functions, first to jump, second to freeze so as to avoid detection. Your adrenal glands pump cortisol and epinephrine to your limbs and your chest preparing us for the fight of our lives or to run, screaming and kicking to avoid the danger.

So What?

I’m often asked how someone can overcome fear. The answer is that you cannot overcome fear as it is a necessary defense mechanism and largely out of your physical or mental control.

That doesn’t mean you have to be paralyzed by fear. You don’t have to let it own you. Your faith or spirituality can help immensely. Many folks pray for guidance and you can confide your fears in your local spiritual advisor or members of your congregation.

I would advise against taking a page from G. Gordon Liddy and lashing yourself to a tree to learn to cope with a fear of thunder and lightning, or beating to death then eating a rat to overcome your fear of Rodentia – I would say that you can face your fears (and do it incrementally).

Many professionals suggest that you talk it out AND write it out, keeping a journal or diary about those things that scare you or give you anxiety. Most experts also agree that you should research what scares you so that you can understand the reality associated with your fear and the likelihood of whether you are more vulnerable than not to the external source of your fear.

 

 

I would suggest avoiding alcohol to cope with fear. It’ll just leave you drunker with less money and still afraid. Healthy eating habits help as fear is tied to blood sugar.

Finally, exercise and mindfulness are hugely important options.

They will help you deal with the physical and mental stress associated with fear. In the event of a startle response, your physical health can keep you from having a heart attack or passing out and hitting the floor.

More folks have died from falling and hitting their heads than have died from rat attacks and lightning combined.

Train to overcome your fear. Training changes behavior.

  • Greg
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