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Digging trenches in the rain taught me to always do the right thing, even when no one is looking

July 16th, 2015 | No Comments | Posted in Team Building

In this series, professionals share what they’d do differently — and keep the same. Follow the stories here and write your own (please use #IfIWere22 in your post).

The cold fall evening felt more like winter as our over-loaded mules pulled up onto the west side of the North Carolina hill and we dismounted. Packs, ammunition, and weapons were quickly unloaded from the curious Vietnam-era vehicles that looked like an oversized child’s wagon and pull-started (and often didn’t) with a lawnmower lanyard. I surveyed my “command,” 20 or so vintage 1977 paratroopers, three 81 mm mortars, and enough ammunition (some of it vintage 1943) to conduct gunnery training for two full days.

As a still-new 2nd Lieutenant I knew that while gunnery (essentially mortar marksmanship) was our primary objective, standards mattered, and I directed my Platoon Sergeant to have the paratroopers dig pits for the mortars to fire from. In peacetime gunnery, digging in was largely superfluous to developing skills, but I’d been taught that in combat it was key for survival. And digging would mark me as a leader with unwaveringly high standards.

When you’re wielding a shovel, mortar pits are nothing more than big holes, which after a couple of hours, is what I suspected the troopers considered me. But the task was finite and as the evening grew late, we neared completion with a certain element of relief and pride. The rest of the field time would be relatively easy, and because few other platoons “dug in” regularly, the troopers could take perverse pride in the effort expended.

As the time to begin live firing approached, I got on the PRC-77 radio and called Range Control, the administrative element that coordinated training on Fort Bragg to ensure safety, and requested approval to begin firing. After a moment of silence, the request was denied. Weapons Platoon of Charlie Company, under my apparently incompetent leadership, had set up at the wrong firing point – several kilometers off course.

To avoid moving to a new location (mortar pits don’t move), but more than anything to save face, my Platoon Sergeant and I drove to Range Control to plead with them in person to correct my mistake by reassigning us to the Firing Point we’d just finished digging in on. But we got nowhere. Soon we were driving back to the platoon to tell them we were moving.

My paratroopers were probably disgusted at the news, but hid it admirably, and began the laborious task of reloading the mules and filling in each of the mortar pits – with Staff Sergeant Porter and I simultaneously supervising and shoveling. Around midnight, we were done and after a time the recalcitrant mules started, and we headed to the new site.

It wasn’t far, but by the time we pulled in a light but steady rain was accompanying the frigid evening. The platoon was dirty, tired, and now, increasingly wet. As I walked the new firing point, selecting locations for each of the mortars, the paratroopers quietly unloaded the mules, periodically glancing toward me. The next command was important. Would we dig-in again?

There were powerful arguments against it. We’d already “trained” that skill earlier in the evening; it would take precious time from night firing; we were getting wetter by the minute; and after all, it had been my mistake. Why punish the many for the foul-up of the one, particularly if the one is a 2nd Lieutenant? For a few long moments, I pondered the issue.

Few decisions in my life were as starkly clear as this one. A decision that in the grand scheme of things had almost no importance to anyone, anywhere, was now very important to 20 soggy paratroopers and me. Although no lives were at stake and no fortunes in the balance, a complicated intersection of pride, standards, credibility, and consideration for the welfare of soldiers produced an agonizingly uncomfortable moment that I remembered for the next 33 years of my career.

A couple of hours later, we were almost finished. The rain had beaten steadily down, transforming each shovel full of dirt into heavier mud. But the pits were as I’d ordered, and more importantly, as they should have been.

Like my paratroopers, I was muddy and exhausted from digging, but it felt right.

In the years that followed there were countless opportunities to dig, or not to dig. On more than one occasion, my mistake caused soldiers to dig, move, and then dig again. On hills far from North Carolina, some of my mistakes resulted in the digging of graves. But when the choice arose, there was always a sense of what was right — whether or not it was safer, easier, or more popular.

If I were 22 again, I hope I’d dig.


General McChrystal’s upcoming book, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement in a Complex World, draws upon his experiences leading special forces in a turbulent environment, as well as the stories of those facing similar challenges in private sector corporations, government agencies, and small non-profits. Written with his colleagues, David Silverman and Chris Fussell (partners at CrossLead and both former Navy SEALs), Team of Teams shows how any organization can transform itself into an adaptable network, in order to take on the challenges of today’s world— and win.