03 October 2014

Remember Keating: A Five-Year Retrospective, Part 5

This is the fifth part in a six-part series. Read Part 1. Read Part 2. Read Part 3. Read Part 4. Read Part 6.

Five soldiers were pinned down in a Humvee on the COP. The insurgents who were firing a seemingly endless supply of small arms rounds and rocket-propelled grenades had obviously studied how to disable the Americans’ best positions.

The soldiers—SGT Justin Gallegos, SGT Vernon Martin, SGT Brad Larson, SPC Stephan Mace, and SPC Ty Carter—understood they might die trying to escape, or would certainly die if they remained in the truck. Planning their egress, they made their move. Gallegos, Mace, and Martin were all hit immediately. Carter and Larson ran back to the truck. Mace was wounded by both RPG and small arms fire.  As he lay on the ground, bleeding and more exposed than ever, Mace tried to crawl on his elbows toward the Humvee. Carter saw him about fifteen yards away.

SPC Ty Carter
"I’m going to go get him," Carter told Larson. "No," the sergeant replied. "I can see him, he’s right there," Carter insisted. "You’re no good to him dead," was the reply from the senior soldier. They argued, and Carter continued to plea. Eventually, Larson consented, and Carter went out again to administer aid. The two soldiers carried Mace back into the Humvee under fire, and later to the aid station.

Perhaps the most conspicuous, and romanticized, element of the Warrior Ethos in the popular imagination of "leave no man behind." Carter’s persistence and selflessness would earn him the Medal of Honor; at the presentation ceremony, President Obama described Carter’s actions as "the story... of what our troops do for each other," explaining that "he displayed the essence of true heroism— "not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost."

"I will never leave a fallen comrade" expresses two truisms that make soldiers more effective in combat: one, they have received training aligned to social cohesion that helps them enact it, and two, they are imbued with the trust that makes the enactment natural. Both phenomena are evident on the battlefield in cases like Carter rescuing Mace and in the anecdote that began this paper.

Mission Statements serve to focus purpose and create organizational unanimity of goals. In this way, they help an organization allocate resources to for “translating organizational objectives into a work structure so that time, cost and performance parameters can be assessed and controlled.” . In the Army, soldiers are systematically trained to leave nobody behind. While the ethos of rescuing fallen soldiers is not new, its inclusion in a written mission statement as the ultimate line of the Warrior Ethos has encouraged the Army to explicitly incorporate it into large programs, such as Combat Life Saver, begun in 2007.

Perhaps a more elemental dimension of the leave nobody behind ethos is the trust that it instills in soldiers. Sociologists refer to trust in military action as social or unit cohesion, and its power is well documented. Interestingly, trust comes from drill—time spent on organizational action—by unit members acting together. Perhaps counter intuitively, then, drill and rehearsal don’t have as primary benefits preparation for a particular course of action, but to instill trust. Wong, et al., found that soldiers feel empowered to do their jobs when they believe that their team mates support them and will keep them safe.

Trust on the battlefield runs deep, as evident from Romesha’s emotional recollection of his own decision during the Battle of COP Keating. In an interview with Romesha on the eve of the Soldier’s Medal of Honor ceremony, Tapper asked about the importance of the Warrior Ethos:
"Tell me why it’s so important to you that the enemy not get their hands on a dead American soldier. Why does that thought bother you so much?"
Romesha: "Cause they’re ours. I mean, to give closure to the family, you know to have their son one more time. We’re not going to leave someone behind. Never gonna do it."
Perhaps this sentiment precedes action, to some degree, but it is justified and intensified after action. Carter didn’t have any particular fondness for Mace, but said in hindsight that he had to risk his life to save his team mate because they were both soldiers.

It was the ethos in action.

The above was adapted from a paper I submitted in a doctoral seminar in organizational communication. The paper was titled, "More than Mere Words: Enacting the Warrior Ethos in Combat."

Quotes from the Soldiers are taken from The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor by the eminent Jake Tapper. References to enactment, sensemaking, and other social psychology ideas are mainly from the various works of Karl E. Weick. 

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