On Christmas Day 2001, we went out on our first patrol in Afghanistan. We spent all afternoon packing our gear and were ready for anything. We had the Mark 41 automatic grenade gun, which launches a series of mic-mic (40 mm) grenades. It’s like shooting a machine gun, only instead of bullets, you’re firing a string of grenades. We had rocket launchers and LAW rockets strapped all over our vehicles, as well as a .50 cal and an M60 machine gun. Our comm antenna was hooked up so our comms guys could link into satellite, and we were all outfitted with night-vision gear. We were, in other words, loaded for bear.

The environment was not the sand desert of Kuwait but a rough, high desert terrain. Just outside Kandahar, it was more plains than mountainous, the largely flat area far more manageable for our vehicles than what we would experience later on, farther up north. We had two EOD guys with us, Brad and Steve, as well as our new Air Force CCTs, another Brad and Eric, who were solid, mature guys and fit in right away. Chief Dye had clearly made the right move firing the younger pair back in Oman.

On the ride out we didn’t encounter anyone, but the journey was a little hairy nevertheless because we kept seeing red rocks everywhere, which we assumed signified mines, or at least the possibility of mines. We’d stop, our EOD team would dismount and scope everything out, then they’d get back in the vehicle and we’d keep moving forward. Progress was slow and tense.

We had set out in the early evening, maybe 2000 hours (8:00 P.M.). After six or seven hours of this halting progress, we’d hit all our checkpoints and hadn’t seen anything worth noting. By now it was two or three in the morning, time to lay up for the night and get a few hours’ sleep. We had just come to a river and were looking for a good spot to cross. On the other side, we could see a series of massive, beautiful, dark red sand dunes that rolled on for miles. They were gorgeous, like something you’d see in an epic film. 

Right in the midst of the dunes, I noticed a small cluster of trees. I was in Lt. Chris Cassidy’s vehicle (now a Navy SEAL Astronaut), and I saw that he was focusing on this cluster of trees, too. Alarm bells went off quietly in my head. This was something we’d been taught in sniper school: It’s human nature to gravitate to an object of note in an otherwise featureless stretch of landscape. If you’re looking at a wide-open stretch of beach, for example, and you see a cluster of rocks and not much else, you’ll automatically gravitate to those rocks. That was exactly what was happening with Cassidy and that little cluster of trees nestled into the endless stretch of sand dunes.

As snipers, we were taught two things about this. First, it’s a natural tendency to be drawn to that unique feature. Second, fight it! Do not give in to the obvious. Not only do you not want to be predictable to the enemy, but you also don’t want to be accidentally compromised. If you are drawn to that landscape feature, other people will be, too — and those other people might be there right now. Or they might be drawn there once you’re settled in and starting to relax.

I sidled over to Cassidy and said, “Hey, LT, that’s not a very good option. No doubt other people have been there and will use that place to hole up. We’d be better off going out into the open, setting up our own camouflage netting, and camping out on the sand dunes.”

He fought me on it. “No,” he said, “we’ll go own that area. We’re out in the middle of nowhere. There’s no good reason to think that there’d be anyone else holed up there.”

I didn’t like it. I mean, why would we want to take the risk? Sure, we could bring serious firepower to anyone we might run across — but still, why do that when there was an entire open desert available to us? I could see that everyone was tired and wanted to get some shut-eye, and yes, choosing that cluster of trees as our site for the night would make setting up camp quicker and easier, which would translate into getting to sleep sooner, which might even translate into getting a slight bit more sleep. I understood all that — but I still thought that none of this was any reason to take the easy route. 

We had a short, heated discussion. “Point taken,” Cassidy finally said, “but this is the decision we’re making.” After fording the river, we headed for the cluster of trees. 

As we started setting up, I shone my flashlight on one spot on the ground  — and sure enough, there at my feet was a fire pit. I nudged Cassidy and pointed with my flashlight beam. “Hey, LT,” I whispered, “there ya go.” It was as if we had followed Fodor’s Guide to Terrorist Afghanistan. It wasn’t just that one fire, either. THERE were fire rings everywhere, a few days old at most. Some forces, God knew who, had recently stopped by these trees and camped out exactly where we were standing right now. Fortunately, there was no one there at that moment. But there easily could have been. 

“Goddammit,” said Cassidy, and he nodded. He knew I was right. We set up a watch and pitched our camp.

I relate this not to toot my own horn but to make the point again about our training. Sniper school simply makes you into a better operator. It trains you to pay attention to things others might miss, even other Navy SEALs, and it trains you to pay attention when others might get lazy. Sniper school squeezes the lazy out of you. It forces you to make good decisions even when you’re tired. I saw similar things happen many times over.

One thing about Cassidy I really appreciated: He wasn’t afraid to admit when he’d been wrong. To me, this is one of the strongest marks of great leadership. Nobody is always right. Great leaders use that to learn and improve, instead of fighting it.

The patrol was otherwise uneventful, and we headed back the following day, patrolling as we went, and worked our way back to camp by evening. Although nothing much happened, it was good to shake out the cobwebs and get ourselves moving out in the field.