On December 8, 2007, I experienced one of the most dangerous moments of my time as an Apache helicopter pilot fighting against the Taliban. But the lessons I learned from that experience helped us win that day and kept me and my men alive in future engagements with the enemy.
Even though those were combat lessons, those very same lessons can help you ensure your business not only succeeds, but thrives, too.
Those all-important lessons can be summed up by what I call “The Pretzel Maneuver.” Let’s dive in.
Go Where the Bad Guys Are
I was at Camp Bastion in the Helmand Province, waiting to refuel. As I sat there in the cockpit, my mind began to conceive of a new plan to engage the Taliban leaking south out of the conflict area.
“Looks like the tanks are full,” my front-seater, Jack Denton, says, breaking me out of my headspace.
“Jack, what do you think about us heading east from here, then turning north to travel up the green zone?”
His response was pitch-perfect. “If that’s where the bad guys are, that’s where we should be,” he said matter-of-factly. That’s exactly what I was thinking. I just wanted to sanity check it against Jack. Mild-mannered and professional, he may be, but Jack is in no way timid.
I relay the plan to my wingman, Jeff, and his front-seater, Capt. Adam Smoot, and they’re instantly onboard.
Enter the Green Zone
The Helmand River Valley is essentially a big river of green in the middle of a huge brown desert. We call it the green zone, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe. In actuality, it’s where the bad guys hide.
We suspected that enemy troops had been filtering down into the green zone. Now, by flying a patrol over the zone, we were pretty much saying, “Go ahead, shoot at us, and it’s going to be a bad day for you.”
We’d been flying for about 15 minutes without drawing any fire that we knew of, when the common air-to-ground (CAG) frequency erupted. “Apache in the area, this is FOB Rob.”
“This is Arrow 0-6. Go ahead.”
“We got a truck that we believe is launching indirect fire (IDF). We’d like you to check it out.”
“Yeah, absolutely. Send grid.” I’m in the lead, and we both flew to the grid we’d been given by the FOB radio operator. Our plan was to circle back and sweep the area with our sensor, but we didn’t need it. We were able to locate the truck with the almighty naked eye.
Taking a Closer Look
“Let’s go down close and look,” I told Jack. We dropped down to maybe 20 or 30 feet, but saw nothing. No people in the truck. It looked pretty benign, but months of experience here told me they might have hopped out and taken cover in the tree line.
I called the FOB, which was about two or three miles away, and told them we weren’t seeing anything suspicious. I was right in the middle of describing the scene when I interrupted myself. “Rob, standby. We’re engaging. I’ll get back to you.” Muzzle flashed off my nose. Jack was quick with the 30 mm answering back. Jeff could see we were engaging even before I said anything.
As I broke off my gun run and turned on an outbound leg to reattack, I saw the bad guys had targeted Jeff with a recoilless rifle from a separate location. In that moment, it looked as though it was going to hit him head-on. I was sure he couldn’t see it coming at him: the visibility directly down and in front of you in an Apache is pretty crappy.
“Break right, now!” I called, a lot of urgency in my voice. We’d been in a lot of engagements, so this wasn’t something unexpected, but I could see the trajectory was right on target. If he didn’t do something instantly, it was going to hit him, and it was a big round. One of those “you don’t fly away from it” type rounds.
Listen to Your Teammate
Knowing that Jeff had reacted to my warning, my job was to move so I could cover him. I saw the point of origin (POO) of the fireball, so I kicked things off by firing a couple rockets. POO obliterated. In the meantime, he was yanking around to cover me while I shot at what was just shooting at him.
As Jeff came around, he saw something coming at me from yet another POO and directed me to “Break!.” No way he’d say that unless there’s a reason, so trusting him implicitly, I immediately broke right in the middle of my shooting leg.
He had tactical situational awareness on something I didn’t—I had to listen. I already knew I had eradicated that first target. That guy was done, so there was obviously another one out there somewhere. As I come around, looking for it, he says, “You were taking fire from three o’clock; we’re rolling in hot, zero nine zero.”
“Copy, I got your six. Wait. Wait. Break left.” I see him taking effective fire from yet another POO.
Surviving the Battle
They’re throwing everything in their arsenal at us now. Muzzle flashes everywhere, their white sparks looking like popcorn exploding. I yanked my aircraft around to cover him, only to see effective fire coming at him from his nine o’clock.
“Break right!,” I direct him, and I swear the rounds miss him by feet as he breaks. Big, flaming basketball rounds, recoilless rifle fire, no doubt. I haven’t seen this much recoilless in one spot before, and skillfully timed coordinated firing, too.
Next, I rolled in hot on that POO, only to hear Jeff tell me to break, as I’m now taking fire from—you guessed it—another POO. He rolls in on them, then I cover. This dance goes back and forth like a sadistic tango.
We engage until all our rockets are gone, all our 30 mm is gone, and we’re still taking fire. We’re in the middle of a hornet’s nest, and we are killing every damn hornet who reveals himself.
We finally landed at the end of the day, and that’s when the picture of what happened made sense: that was a sophisticated, well-executed air ambush. By every measure, they should have gravity-checked at least one of our aircraft with that setup.
Own Your Stuff
In fact, if we hadn’t trusted each other to know our jobs, that’s exactly what would have happened. If we hadn’t practiced those maneuvers, time and time again, we probably wouldn’t have made it out of there. Individually, we had no chance. Together, we were only going to come through it if we fully trusted each other’s resolve in their responsibility.
The same is true in business: when you’re facing a crisis, you need to be able to trust your teammates to know what they’re doing and support you. That has to be built into the very culture of the company. For the organization to succeed in its mission, its people can’t try to isolate and insulate from other team members in an attempt to protect their immediate sphere from carnage. The only way to achieve success is for each person to fully support the team’s victory, not their own.
The lessons we learned from that encounter—lessons you can apply to ensure your business not only stays alive but thrives—don’t end there, though. You also have to be willing to own your “stuff” (that’s the PG version, but you get me). We did that in our after-action debrief.
In this instance, our after-action debrief clearly showed there was a fallacy in our thought processes during the fight. I liked the aggressiveness; we need to be aggressive. I loved the mutual support and understanding of what the other bird would do. The fluidity of attack was a beautiful thing. But, we should have known when to break contact.
Once we realized that we had messed up, we held another after-action debrief with all the guys, because everyone needed to learn from our mistake. It would’ve been real easy for us to just focus on the fact that we wrecked house—after all, we did—but there was a bigger lesson that needed to be shared: “Yeah, we wrecked house, but we did it the wrong way, tactically speaking.”
Don’t Shy Away From Tough Conversations
I started off that briefing by drawing on the whiteboard our two little ships, FOB Rob, and then, as best we could recall, the position and sequence of all the enemy fire and our reactions to it. By the time I was done, there were a lot of wide eyes and “holy craps” going around.
What I had drawn was a bunch of curved lines representing our flight paths, and as you can imagine, it was a twist of overlapping lines in an overall ellipse shape. I said, “So, gentlemen, I present to you the pretzel maneuver. Now let’s talk about how this was the wrong way to execute.”
Admitting when you’ve made a mistake—especially when things worked out despite your mistake—isn’t easy. But it’s important. You can’t shy away from tough conversations, and you can’t refuse to admit the truth just because your ego might get a little bruised.
A few days later, the value of owning our stuff and having tough conversations was proven. Jeff got into it again in the same area with another wingman, and this time, they broke contact. But like true warriors, they did not run from the fight. Rather, they fought it from the outside in, instead of fighting it from the kill box out—and they both came home alive and victorious.
Learn From Your Mistakes
When Jack and I had a chance to reflect on the mission, he acknowledged that we had all “gotten pretty complacent and maybe a little overconfident in our ability.” In that deliberate tone of his, he said, “Going to try to stir some things up over there—it was not the right thing to do—from a survival standpoint.”
The same might be true for decisions you make in your business. You might get overconfident and complacent, and that might lead you to make a bad choice. Hopefully, your company has a culture where people watch each other’s backs, even when someone makes a mistake. If it doesn’t, start taking steps now to build that kind of organization. An organization with that structure can thrive even when an error in execution has occurred because the synergy caused by extreme trust can bridge the faulty practice.
However, that trust will only get you through for a time. So, it’s imperative that you don’t stop there. Be willing to own your stuff. Be willing to analyze your decisions, have tough conversations, and learn from your mistakes. Consistently doing those things is a big part of what makes our military so successful. And, if you do them, I promise: they will help your business succeed and thrive, as well.
Written by Lt. Col. Brian L. Slade.
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