Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

10 things I’ve learned that I wish I knew way back before I deployed

By Lt. "Devil Dog" Best Defense guest columnist 1) If you haven’t read the IRAM, PES, JAG, or Awards Manual, then read them. If you have read them once, then reread them. Your job entails a lot more than running Range 410 Alpha with your platoon. Your Marines will do both truly great things and ...

U.S. Defense Dept. photo by Lance Cpl. James Purschwitz, U.S. Marine Corps/Released/Flickr
U.S. Defense Dept. photo by Lance Cpl. James Purschwitz, U.S. Marine Corps/Released/Flickr
U.S. Defense Dept. photo by Lance Cpl. James Purschwitz, U.S. Marine Corps/Released/Flickr

By Lt. "Devil Dog"
Best Defense guest columnist

1) If you haven't read the IRAM, PES, JAG, or Awards Manual, then read them. If you have read them once, then reread them. Your job entails a lot more than running Range 410 Alpha with your platoon. Your Marines will do both truly great things and some incredibly stupid things. It is important to hold them accountable, and the way you do that is through paperwork, both good and bad. Being in the office and doing paperwork isn't the sexy or "high-speed" part of being an infantry officer, but it is more important that you might realize at the moment. Embrace the paperwork. You owe it to your Marines to be on top of your game.

2) The skills and tactics you learned at IOC are, like anything else, perishable. You could find yourself doing anything at your first duty assignment, from rifle platoon commander to working in the S-3 shop. After TBS and IOC your ability to LBS a PEQ-16 or call in a 9-line may slip by the wayside after a few months without practice. Don't hesitate to turn back to the technical and field manuals, as well as Marine Corps and joint doctrinal publications. They are your bread and butter. Read the pubs and manuals and discuss them with your peers and SNCOs so you can speak confidently and intelligently about your weapons, optics, and gear, as well as Marine Corps doctrine. How much time you put into doing your homework will show.

By Lt. "Devil Dog"
Best Defense guest columnist

1) If you haven’t read the IRAM, PES, JAG, or Awards Manual, then read them. If you have read them once, then reread them. Your job entails a lot more than running Range 410 Alpha with your platoon. Your Marines will do both truly great things and some incredibly stupid things. It is important to hold them accountable, and the way you do that is through paperwork, both good and bad. Being in the office and doing paperwork isn’t the sexy or "high-speed" part of being an infantry officer, but it is more important that you might realize at the moment. Embrace the paperwork. You owe it to your Marines to be on top of your game.

2) The skills and tactics you learned at IOC are, like anything else, perishable. You could find yourself doing anything at your first duty assignment, from rifle platoon commander to working in the S-3 shop. After TBS and IOC your ability to LBS a PEQ-16 or call in a 9-line may slip by the wayside after a few months without practice. Don’t hesitate to turn back to the technical and field manuals, as well as Marine Corps and joint doctrinal publications. They are your bread and butter. Read the pubs and manuals and discuss them with your peers and SNCOs so you can speak confidently and intelligently about your weapons, optics, and gear, as well as Marine Corps doctrine. How much time you put into doing your homework will show.

3) Listen to your XO. Coming out of IOC you have the most up-to-date infantry tactics the Marine Corps has to offer, but your XO has been around for a while. Regardless of whether you like him or not, he is the guy who facilitates training and can be one of your best resources in the battalion. The XO is also someone to bounce ideas off of before you turn to your company commander. From FITREPS to letters of instruction (LOIs), your XO has probably written plenty of them and can offer sound guidance and advice. Even if the logistics officer is a fellow lieutenant, don’t run straight to him for the seven-ton you need for training. You’ll be going behind your XO’s back. Use your XO. He could become your best ally, and you might be in his billet next.

4) With that being said, learn to write LOIs, and don’t rely solely on your XO to put all your training together. You probably have a million ideas with what you want to do with your platoon. Great. Do your homework, bounce some ideas off your peers, and then put your thoughts to writing in the form of a LOI. How well thought out and how much effort is put into a LOI can make or break a training evolution. Crap LOIs usually result in crap training. If you’re requesting two boxes of chem-lights, you must put real thought into why you need that many. When you do a confirmation brief in front of the battalion commander he is going to get into the weeds, so be prepared. Do your homework and know what you’re talking about. Before you propose some high-speed, badass training evolution, make sure your Marines and platoon can effectively accomplish their T&R individual and collective events. Crawl, walk, run. Understand and embrace the systems approach to training. It works.

5) Don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to. There are a million LOIs out there that could be perfectly applicable for the training that you want to accomplish, but don’t just blindly turn in someone else’s work. I’ve seen battalion LOIs with other battalion’s letterheads and even dates that weren’t changed. What do you think officers and SNCOs who read those LOIs thought about the effort that was put into the training evolution? With everything, do the prior preparation, planning, and homework so when you brief higher you earn their trust and confidence. When writing, either orders or LOIs, always remember that words mean things. This point was beat home at IOC, but make sure you remember it in the fleet. Stick to tactical tasks, and make sure you fully understand what the definition is of those tactical tasks. For fires understand EFSTs. Don’t say, "destroy" if in actuality the desired effect should be "neutralize." Can 60mm mortars actually "destroy" a T-72? Know the difference. All this sounds obvious, but there is no quicker way to sound like a jackass in front of your company commander or the battalion commander than using a word in the wrong context. Be clear, concise, and to the point in your writing. Proofread, rehearse orders and briefs, and bounce your ideas off your peers. Oftentimes you only have one opportunity to make a favorable first impression.

6) If you find yourself checking in as the Weapons Platoon commander and the FiST leader a) be humble, b) do your homework, and c) let your CO and Weapons Company CO mentor you. You have a lot to learn. IOC is an incredible institution, but as good as you may think you are at nonstandard SEAD after a week of practice, your job as the FiST leader is much more challenging than you think. In reality, you have two bosses in your CO and the Fire Support Coordinator, and don’t forget the FAC that will be pissed at you because your air just went bingo because you couldn’t get your shit together. Assemble your FiST team and get to work. There is a huge amount of responsibility in this billet, and if you find yourself on a combat deployment, depending on your battalion, you could be a mini-FSCC clearing fires for your company. Learn and understand your communication nets, pick your FAC or JTACs brains, hit the fire support pubs, and practice, practice, practice. You’re a second lieutenant in the senior platoon commander’s billet, and the learning curve is steep. You don’t have time to wait around for CAX or EMV to get your FiST team on the same page. There are a lot of great AARs that discuss the role and employment of the FiST leader and FiST team. Read, reflect, and study from them.

7) More than likely, you’re never going to have as much ammo as you did at IOC. It just isn’t going to happen. However, that doesn’t mean you should sit around and complain because no one cares. Just because you don’t have ammo doesn’t mean you cannot conduct solid training. Just like it was beaten into you at IOC, you have you be creative, work some deals, but ultimately plan tough, realistic, and standards-based training. Worry about what you can control at the platoon and squad level. There is no need to beat a dead horse here, but there is plenty of training you can accomplish without live-rounds so that when given the opportunity to run ranges your Marines are set up for success. Reread points 3, 4, and 5.

8) Don’t expend all your energy on company- or battalion-level decisions because 9.9 times out of 10 you can’t control them and have little or no influence upon decisions at that level. What you can control though is your platoon and how prepared they are. If you worry too much about the big blue arrows or how jacked up one of the shops is, then you’ll never accomplish anything. Concentrate down and not up. Serve as a buffer between your Marines and the company/battalion. Train, teach, and mentor your Marines, and you will find success as a platoon commander. It is not about you.

9) Remember that there is more to being an infantry officer than just tactics, training, and administrative work. The emotional health and well-being of the platoon are not inclusively issues for the platoon sergeant to handle, but issues that fall on your shoulders as well. For many of your Marines, boot camp may have been the first time they were away from home. Being away from home, adding in the stress of a marriage or relationship that may not be the most stable in the world, can create serious issues. For many Marines they have never had anyone to truly look up to. It is important that you are that figure and mentor. Does that mean you should listen to every qualm a Marine has with his girlfriend? Probably not, but you need to get to know your Marines. Talk to their team and squad leaders and the platoon sergeant, and find out what issues there might be on the home front. Find out who has a family, girlfriend, or fiancée. These aren’t things that you should just let the FRO and platoon sergeant worry about. Showing genuine concern means something. Work ups and deployments are tough on relationships with family, loved ones, and friends. Even if you have a yearlong work up between Bridgeport, Coronado, Fort Pickett, and EMV, the Marines are going to spend a lot of time away from home. Though it is easy to forget, being an infantry officer is more than just tactics and putting rounds down range.

10) Have fun. You’re probably going to have more fun as a platoon commander than you will any other billet. If you’re fortunate you might get another opportunity, but for most of us, there is only one opportunity to serve as a platoon commander. It is easy to get sucked into the office, but get out and spend time with your Marines. You will probably never again have an opportunity to have such an immediate impact on the lives of young Marines as you will as a platoon commander. You’re going to want to pull out what little hair you have on most days, but don’t get caught up in what is wrong with your company, battalion, etc. To reiterate, concentrate down and not up. Teach your Marines something new every day, make them better Marines AND better citizens, and remember to be humble and to have some fun in the process.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.