Blue Forces (BLUFOR) pushed off the FOB late in the afternoon, just as the sun started to make its descent towards the horizon. White Cell “higher command” had issued yet another FRAGO to the patrol before stepping off their LD. Halfway through the week-long field exercise, the strains of the prior days began to make the mens’ legs heavy and the rucksacks became a constant burden. This, in spite of the adrenaline associated with an impending near-ambush a kilometer or so down the lane.

The BLUFOR patrol disappeared into the woods under the direction of their assigned patrol leader (PL) and assistant patrol leader (APL). I listened to radio traffic as they made their way to their objective rally point (ORP) and then on to their objective—establishing the nighttime near-ambush.

It was the third training mission of the day that was to ENDEX with an overnight stay at the designated ORP. I had been with One Shepherd’s men for the prior two days to try to determine exactly what this organization was all about. Over the years, my curiosity had led me to observe various organizations that purported to be head and shoulders above other “pretenders.” From re-enactors to military simulation (MilSim) to paintballers and the perennial Airsoft community, I had investigated them all. What I was seeking, I’m not sure.

As a surprise, I was invited to participate in the opposing force (OPFOR) patrol. Our mission was to make it through the ambush, or at least kill as many of the BLUFOR troops as possible. One Shepherd training is unique for a variety of reasons. One reason is their use of the multiple integrated laser engagement system (MILES) for force-on-force training with real-steel firearms. No other company makes this equipment available to civilians for training. Of course, nothing but a live bullet in a war zone will replicate a firefight, however when MILES 2000/IWS is maintained properly, it is accurate off the AR15 platform up to 800 meters. At 500 meters it maintains a 95 percent “probability kill.” MILES fires in conjunction with blank ammunition and will signal a near miss with a double-beep or a fatal shot with a flat line tone. The shooter’s weapon ID will register on the opponent’s harness if it hit, and shut it down.

Once I suited up and was issued my rifle, the leader of my stick decided that we would postpone the time hacks and move on foot to throw off the expectations of BLUFOR. It was particularly dark that night without the moon. Low-visibility conditions and the absence of a clunky vehicle gave us a fighting chance to survive an engagement, even possibly a near-ambush. Initially, we set out towards our objective of route reconnaissance in a 1964 M151 quarter ton, affectionately called “the Mutt.”

After dismounting, I fell into a staggered column—second man behind point. A bit of helplessness set in, knowing that I did not have the advantage of night-vision devices that so many of the BLUFOR warriors carried. With just iron sights and very little situational awareness, I felt I would be a prime target. Walking quietly, we kept moving forward. I was able to make out a tree line at the side of the road. It had gaps in it and I was looking for the longest, thickest one. A particularly long, thick hedgerow was just ahead. My heart rate started to rise and I started to lose myself in the scenario.

Another minute passed as I tried to orient my rifle toward that area. Suddenly, a flare shot upward with an initial shot followed by the command “Fire!” In less than an instant, fourteen muzzle flashes unleashed towards me. The point man and I were squarely in middle of the kill zone. I tried to pivot towards the hedgerow and fire but I found myself overwhelmed and frozen in place by the explosive, coordinated volley.

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Both of our MILES flat lined immediately and I decided in fair play to assume the position of being “dead.” This was even more unsettling. I spent 10-15 seconds trying to unfreeze myself from shock. I had experienced sensory overload. I had never before seen the flash of functioning weapons fire aimed directly at me.

Just as I took a knee, the assault element burst through an open gate, double-tapping those of us still trapped in the kill zone to make sure we were dead. I winced once again as the AR15s barked and flashed at me. Once assured of our “neutralized” status, the assault team moved toward contact at the rear of our column. A running firefight ensued. Only one of our OPFOR recon team made it out of the kill zone unscathed, under the cover of darkness. The other three were quick casualties.

The BLUFOR assault team leader was an Infantry NCO, a combat veteran of the Iraqi conflict. He quickly returned with his men, continuing due diligence, searching for intelligence (PIR). At this point, I was just thankful he didn’t give me a butt stroke. He simply asked for my PIR, recognizing me as the “embedded journalist” under his white lens tactical light. (Thanks Cole!)

Once the objective was secured, BLUFOR peeled off quickly and headed back to their ORP. The scenario in play included the possibility of an OPFOR follow-on force or enemy indirect fire such as mortars. There was no standing around, high-fiving or discussing the outcome. The BLUFOR patrol left quickly and quietly in a disciplined manner. The entire ambush had taken exactly one minute from initial volley to complete withdrawal under darkness.

I had just been through an ordeal of the mind. Dazed and confused would put it mildly. I knew that the chances of overcoming a near-ambush in pitch dark on an open road were nil and would leave me flatlined, but I was completely unprepared for the orderly, overpowering violence of action in the ambush kill zone.
I had just witnessed the powerful effect of small unit leaders vocally commanding the fire and maneuver of a unit in contact with an enemy force. When asked in the after-action review for my impression of the near-ambush, the only word that came to mind was, “Explosive!” As it should be.

Upon returning home, I mentioned on Facebook very briefly that I had been on the wrong end of more than a dozen weapons and a furious assault team. I had family members and friends calling me and wanting to know if I was okay. Had a SWAT team enter a building I was in?

Kriegsspiel Redux
Picture credit: Hae-Jun Larsen

I assured everyone that I had simply been involved in an expeditionary leadership program that leverages MilSim scenarios to achieve their learning outcomes. Predictably, it was at this juncture that people started asking, “Who, what, where, when—and why?” Because I see the inherent value of this type of program, I will try to explain.

Leadership is a prized skill in virtually any organization. Some insist that it is an art form. I tend to think that it is an acquired skill that is developed into an art. Most of us who have served in the military and government organizations know that the typical method of growing leaders is through death by PowerPoint and checking a list of required classes to be billeted to a position or rank. In the private sector, nepotism often reigns, or the person with the most prominent degree gets the job. Sure, the more sane businesses place leaders based on ability and experience. But let’s face it, meritocracies are rare.

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There is perhaps no greater place to learn and prove your leadership ability than on the battlefield, where high-stakes decisions are planned in hours or even seconds. I’ve never experienced armed conflict. My leadership training came through people relying on me to prepare them for a physical confrontation in the ring. Though dangerous, it is not the same as warfare. Leaders in the field focus on not only keeping their men alive but accomplishing the mission, the “commander’s intent.” From a fireteam leader to the four-star general, the military requires the decision-making that moves efficiently in both directions, up and down the chain of command. Savvy leaders focus simultaneously on subordinates under their command, and requirements from the higher chain of command. They accomplish the mission.

If the military, and combat arms in particular, rely so heavily on leadership when the stakes include not just success or failure, but life and death, then there must be inherent value in that model of leadership in any area of our lives and business.

Developing leaders through war gaming isn’t new. In fact, the concept is more than a couple hundred years old. In 1812 Prussian officers developed Kriegspiel, a battlefield game board and a set of rules that created a “fog of war.” Depending on the role of the dice, endless problems would enter the battle plan. Communication breakdowns and unanticipated elements would force the officers to improvise and continue to adapt in order to accomplish the mission. An official observer or game master would keep the game honest and keep notes on the decision-making processes of each officer. It was credited with helping Prussian army subordinates become more independent and responsible.

Today, war gaming has become extremely sophisticated with virtual and complex computer simulation plus large-scale combined operations with live simulation. The intent is to develop leadership competencies from the squad level up to the Pentagon. If it is good enough for our nation’s defense, it follows that it is good enough for anybody who aspires to a leadership position.

Yet, how is it that a team of warriors composed mostly of high school students and 40-something men, both veterans and non-veterans, come together to pull off a well-executed ambush? Not to mention the other tactics I observed these men complete in just a few days of training: far ambush, route reconnaissance, plus establishing security halts and rally points. These are the fundamentals of a dismounted light-infantry patrol. Is it feasible that at a time when the U.S. Army is struggling to add such lessons back into training through the Ranger School and the recently re-introduced Jungle Warfare School, that such training can be found outside of the U.S. military?

The market today for military shooting is saturated with seasoned, professional SOF instructors. Every conceivable technique for shooting in a combat or PSD scenario is available from instructors and the YouTube revolution. For the sake of a smile, I would say that the age of “gun porn” is thriving as a business model. People who seek out the martial art of shooting are often trying to glimpse inside the world of the fighting warrior, in particular the SOF operator.

I, too, belong to a gun club and love the challenge of shooting. But I also recognize that being a warrior involves much more than the transition from a carbine to your pistol in a fight against the clock. Of course, for personal protection, and perhaps in the Spec Ops community, these techniques are needed and useful for high-precision raids. But these techniques make up an infinitely small percentage of the soldiers’ tasks. Basically, they are unique to the individual and not to team competencies.

Christopher Larsen is the co-founder of One Shepherd, a leadership program that dates its inception back to 1981. His varied experience makes him highly qualified to teach warrior leaders—including nine years as an infantry NCO in the U.S. Army, as an instructional designer of history and tactics at Ft. Leavenworth’s Command and General Staff College, and as an advisor to the Iraqi Army’s infantry battalions while contracted through L-3 Communication’s Military Professional Resources Incorporated (MPRI).

Kriegsspiel Redux
Picture Credit: Hae-Jun Larsen

Larsen will pick up his PhD in educational technologies and learning psychology next March (2015) from the University of Missouri. He is also the author of multiple books on tactical doctrine, including the widely read Small Unit Tactics SMARTbook (The Lightning Press, 2012) which is institutionalized by all four branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. Through that same publisher, Larsen has just released another potentially influential title, the OPFOR SMARTbook: Red Team Army (2014)—the first of a three-part series on how opposing forces organize, equip, train and fight. Larsen has built a private non-profit expeditionary leadership program in Osage Beach, Missouri with a skilled staff of cadre instructors—half of whom are military veterans.

The program teaches leadership at the fireteam, squad, and platoon levels through live simulation of dismounted patrolling operations. In academia, expeditionary learning was established by the Outward Bound® programs in the 1990s. It incorporates learning outside of the classroom and, as stated, puts the student in realistic simulations.

It is difficult to describe One Shepherd’s program. However, if you were to combine Outward Bound® with the Boy Scouts of America® and the U.S. Army’s School of the Infantry at Fort B`enning, you might gain appreciable insight as to the intent and culture of One Shepherd’s leadership program.

Surprisingly, it is open to civilians. And it is affordable considering regular personal meals, boarding, and ammunition. However, it does require a three-year commitment to fulfill their basic leadership program. Participation in the leadership program can start as early as 14 years of age with no upward age limit. I must admit that I was a little shocked to watch an 18-year-old conduct an AAR of a route-reconnaissance mission and keep on task—getting right to the salient points. He’d been in the program for years and was already performing like a professional soldier.

For non-veterans, expect to make mistakes—everything from silhouetting yourself on the top of a ridgeline to making poor tactical decisions for your team. There is no “smoking” of an individual who makes mistakes at One Shepherd, only further guidance by the instructors, and learning from those mistakes through very public reflections. In this way people attracted to a program like One Shepherd are very much self-motivated. They seek continual improvement. In today’s world, they are seeking a warrior-like experience. Even those separated from the military find a familiar setting.

More than MilSim, One Shepherd employs a modern form of Kriegspiel complete with tactical objectives and outcomes. The program recognizes membership through the required Warrior Basic Course, and then warrior competencies through a pinning ceremony at roughly the one-year mark. The leadership track requires another couple of years of training of two weeks per year (early June and late September), and is similarly recognized through ceremony. This program recognizes the “Lightfighter” scroll awarded at the end of the three years, a total of 42 days of training.

In today’s MilSim world, many different types of people are drawn to the military-themed motif for sport, reenacting history, or the thrill of competition. I’ve found young and old, veterans and non-veterans, combat-experienced to rear-echelon types. Warriors who have served their nation in combat arms unit during war often look with disdain upon the “Wannabe-Walter Mitty” participants. This is perhaps understandable considering the garden variety of individuals attracted to MilSim gaming and training.

Yet, in a former life, I was a professional fighter in boxing and Muay Thai. I spent two months training in Thailand, learning from the best in the world. It wasn’t long, but it was profound. What I learned was that the best in the world perform the fundamentals so well that all the fancy high-speed stuff wasn’t necessary. With rigid adherence to strengthening the mind and body, along with correct fundamentals, they produced the best kickboxers in the world. I went on after my fighting career to be a successful coach to some high-level fighters in the MMA world. They benefitted by my years of training with coaches who had more idea how to fight and win than I did. I studied with the best and emulated them, which created success.

Truthfully, one thing that I was looking for in the program was the classic “tin-foil-hat wannabe” soldier of fortune. I was disappointed. The way the program is structured does not lend itself to suit that type individual. The teamwork and camaraderie goes against the grain of a loner who lives in a world of self-delusion. Many people who surround themselves with all of the paraphernalia of war find it easier to master fancy firearms techniques on their own, rather than to learn the other 90 percent of what success looks like on the battlefield. If a person can achieve leadership mastery in battle, they are likely to be able to transfer those skills into the workplace, on special project teams, to serve in their community, or to coach sports more effectively—you name it.

Following a model of expeditionary leadership programs, it appears that One Shepherd has set a military model standard. Leadership of the highest caliber is needed in just about every venue in our society. Most learning models include stuffy classrooms and PowerPoint presentations until the bulbs burn out. Students learn nothing more than what other leaders accomplished in the past. Yet the most effective way to learn to lead is to get your hands and boots dirty—to put some blood, sweat, and tears into it. One Shepherd is worth your glance, if you have the time to commit.

Good luck to all of you in your pursuits!