Leaving No Rounds in the Chamber

We highlighted an earlier post by Australian Special Forces doctor in NEWSREP recently and he has posted another must-read piece for not only aspiring Special Operations Forces candidates but for everyone.

This fits in perfectly with our own earlier piece today about never quitting in the face of adversity. Pronk reached the limits of his in Selection and found the will and fortitude to keep driving on and putting one foot in front of the other until he met his goal. This is another fantastic post and we recommend that all of our readers check it out.

There are lots of motivational sayings relating to not giving up until you quite literally can’t go any further—”don’t leave any gas in the tank,” for instance. These relate to the idea that you never quite know when success is right around the corner and just hanging in there for a tiny bit more time might get you to your objective. There are sayings for that as well, including, “The night is darkest just before the dawn,” but I like to think of this one in a more military way and use the analogy of not leaving any rounds in the magazine.

This one stems from the concept of leaving a cartridge or two in your magazine in the combat environment in order to give yourself the option to turn the rifle on yourself as an alternative to falling into enemy hands if all has gone to custard. It is the stuff that gets glamorized in war movies for the most part, but something that I actually found myself pondering seriously prior to my first tour of Afghanistan.

It was assumed that any coalition soldier falling into enemy hands in that theater was in for a particularly rough time, and the thought of a swift ending at your own hand might have been a fairly reasonable alternative. I dismissed the idea outright myself for a couple of reasons. First of all, I was always pretty rubbish at counting the number of rounds that I had shot, especially under the heightened state associated with a tactical situation, and I figured that I would have little to no chance of pulling up with one or two rounds left in my final magazine if it came to that. Secondly, you just never know how things are going to play out.

It would be a terrible shame to turn the rifle on yourself only to have a helicopter gunship show up overhead a few seconds later or a support element arrive to save you only to find you with a rifle in your mouth! In my opinion, I might as well keep shooting until my rifle goes click instead of bang, and then cross that bridge when I got there. I had a lot to live for and I was committed to staying alive at all costs and seeing how the chips might fall in the worst-case scenario. Many years later I had the chance to hear a firsthand account from a British SAS soldier from the ill-fated and much-publicized Bravo Two Zero patrol in the first Gulf War who had been captured and tortured by Iraqi forces and then subsequently released. While his vivid recollections of the torture he endured were chilling to say the least, to his credit he had managed to physically and psychologically move past the ordeal and return back to his role as a SAS soldier. Hearing his remarkable story solidified my stance for future deployments that I would leave no rounds in the magazine if it came to it and see how it all played out. Thankfully it was a decision I never had to make for real.

Translating that metaphor into a far less dramatic application, I had an experience on my Special Forces selection course where my overwhelming desire was to quit but, largely thanks to the motivation provided by another candidate, I managed to push on and fire the last few rounds in my magazine. The event occurred on a section of the course involving a five-day individual navigation exercise comprising long-distance hikes in a national park between checkpoints at the tops of mountains while carrying a very heavy pack. The real challenge of the exercise was a psychological one in that we were provided no indication as to how much distance we needed to cover or how many checkpoints we needed to reach to pass the activity. We were left completely to our own devices and needed to pace ourselves to cover as much or as little ground as we felt reasonable, all the while keeping in mind the fact that there were an additional five days of the selection course to go afterward.

We were under strict instructions not to interact with other candidates during the activity and, for the most part, the individual routes between checkpoints we had all been assigned meant that full days could pass without seeing other candidates, anyway. I had crossed paths with a few others over the first couple of days and we had played by the rules and given one another nothing more than a nod of acknowledgment before going our separate ways. On the morning of the final day of the activity I bumped into another candidate in a deep creek line I was moving along. Figuring that the chance of getting caught was slim, we took the chance of having a quick chat. The topic of that discussion centered on how much distance we had both covered and how many checkpoints we had hit. During the conversation the other candidate told me with a decent degree of conviction that a minimum of five checkpoints were required to pass the activity. Without really questioning the authenticity of his information, I took it as gospel.

We wrapped up our conversation and parted ways, leaving me to ponder my situation. I had hit four checkpoints by that point and my fifth was at the very top of a mountain some 20km away. We were under instruction not to move after dark, which left me with about seven hours to get to it. By that stage, we were a couple of weeks into the selection course and my body was starting to show some wear and tear. I had strained one of my quadriceps muscles quite badly and it was giving me hell with every step. I had started to lose a considerable amount of weight from the intense physical exertion of the course and the limited food provided. My physical deterioration was starting to take a toll on my psychological state. For the first time on the course, I was having moments of mental weakness and doubt. I trudged along throughout the rest of the final day of the activity and was approaching the base of the mountain that my fifth checkpoint sat atop as the sun started to get low on the horizon. By that time I had resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn’t make it to the checkpoint before dark and I had decided to set up camp at the base of the mountain for the night and radio in my location for the scheduled pick-up the following morning. In the final few hundred meters of stomping toward the base of the mountain another candidate came charging up from behind without me noticing and drew level with me, scaring the life out of me as he did so.

It turned out that his next checkpoint was the same one as mine, but unlike me his attitude was positive and despite acknowledging that he wasn’t going to make the checkpoint before dark he was going for it anyway. He urged me to do the climb with him, but I was mentally defeated at the time. When we hit the start of the track leading up the mountain I wished him the best of luck and then found a place to camp for the night and dropped my pack. Although I had made my decision to quit, something inside of me didn’t allow me to unpack my kit to set up camp. As I sat there dejected, I turned my gaze to the other candidate in the distance making his way up the climb to the checkpoint as the sun began to set. I ran all the years of training that had led up to that point through my mind. As I did so it occurred to me that they had all led to that moment and I was in the very process of giving up on my dream. I had the sickening realization that everything that I had worked so hard for and all the sacrifices I had made may have been all for nothing if I didn’t at least give that final climb a crack.

My fifth checkpoint was less than a kilometer away, albeit all uphill, and I wouldn’t get there before dark, but I’d rather take a beating from an angry SAS soldier at the checkpoint for moving after dark than live the rest of my days knowing that I’d let myself down by quitting on my dream. I slung my pack back onto my aching shoulders, and with my lungs and legs burning, I made the best pace I was capable of up the mountain track as the light faded. As it got darker and darker I got more and more frantic, stumbling on the rocky track underfoot as I
raced toward the summit, the close foliage surrounding the track grabbing at my shoulders and pack as I plowed on.

To Read the entire piece, click here:

Photo: Courtesy of Dan Pronk, Australian SF

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