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Making Sense of it All: A Modern Soldiers Post-War Reflections

By: Capt. Christopher “Matcha” Little

War is a visceral byproduct of failed diplomacy and does not discriminate of either side. War is a strategic entity by nature that begs for existence in a tactical realm. This article will examine a veteran's perspective in the tactical level of modern warfare. This includes leadership lessons learned, examining one's own performance in un-ideal circumstances, and deep self-reflection.

For veterans, war is a tactical mind game that results in more questions than answers. It is personal, yet also impersonal. Some warriors lose close friends, people lose their mental stability, and yet others gain life changing relationships they will keep forever. Experiences in the chaos of war varies so deeply by each individual person at each individual level. The experiences are often times unable to be put into words, yet they need to be told and understood. Continually examining lessons learned, journaling, and sharing experiences are what helped Paul Endris, a veteran from the war in Iraq in 2005 and recent author of Operation Retrospect: A Soldiers Journal in a Veteran's Reunion, help make sense of his time in Baghdad.

Put yourself in the mindset of when you were a 20 year old, were energetic, and had your whole life ahead of you. You've trained with your platoon for the past year and are ready to take on the enemy that your leadership says you will go fight. Optimism and uncertainty are in the air. All you have is your training to fall back on. You arrive to Baghdad in 2005 and see combat for the first time. You start your reason for being there. Fast forward twelve months and you, you have changed. Your friends back home have romanticized the vision of war from the news and Hollywood, but you, you lived it. You are tired, numb, emotionally sapped, and taciturn to your enemy's humanity. The only thing left inside is questions, questions that may go unanswered as you live out your everyday civilian life.

Signing up to wear a uniform incredibly honorable and is a voluntary endeavor. Why put yourself through the pain? It is a question hard to answer. Is it leadership skills, a steady job, serving something greater than yourself, or comradery? The answer will be different for everyone, like the questions of why they joined in the first place. For Paul, in his tour in Iraq, he sought solace in journaling his experience for his roughly twelve month deployment downrange. His writings, is something that helped him and his soldier brothers reunite and bond over some ten years after their "rendezvous with destiny".

Paul had to learn life's lessons quicker and in a more abhorrent manner than his family back home did. He had to learn to trust his team entirely and rely on them for his life and sanity while deployed. His platoon leadership was the gatekeeper for setting the example "to do more than what was asked, and to give nothing less than their all", because others people's lives depended on it. It is a sense of feeling you cannot get elsewhere, except in the tendrils of agonies in war. Paul had an incredible first sergeant whose quality he drew inspiration from.

As a leader, in whatever environment you are in, it is imperative to set the tone for how the organization will function and operate. Set the bar high and do not accept mediocrity and any action or notion below that bar. You set the standard for your troops. This is especially true when people’s lives are in danger. Though Paul, while deployed, was not a leader by rank, he drew from those around him to get through the tough times and became a leader by virtue. He did this through his pen and documenting his experiences, something that unknown to him at the time, would help those same leaders make sense of their deployment ten years later off the battlefield.

He used self-reflection daily to help document the facts as well as his take on the war for nine months. In addition to this, early on in his deployment Paul learned the power of an After Action Report (AAR). This helped him in one of two ways, first it is the ability to find context for future application, and second, AAR's and journaling helped him "...remove the moral ambiguity...and seek personal lessons learned to process our deployment apart from any geopolitical context." This is a technique he used to process what the war meant for him and those in the team. This technique can help you in your work environment as well, in a different less chaotic context.

All of Paul's actions, in addition to his brothers in arms actions and comradery, helped them get home safely and do their part. He left an impact on the war's history for his time there, no matter how large or small. An impact is an impact, even as much as a butterfly flapping its wings, you never know the result of those actions until time passes. Ultimately, rank has no boundaries in wartime and this was an unprecedented time in history for war tactics. "Never in the history of warfare have decisions at the lowest level been so consequential...[their actions] depended on each interaction with citizens of the host nation and enormous discretion foreign to young soldiers. When the last ounce of your soul compel you to shoot, sometimes courage means not taking the shot." There is a lot of trust in the missions these soldiers set out to execute.

Leaders, whether in wartime or not, need to empower those below them and hold them accountable for their actions, but seek a way to not micromanage. Trust is a foreboding factor. Without trust, leadership is just management. Paul and his platoon got through that deployment because of trust. No individual can go through what they went through alone. Only within a team can the job get done to execute the mission and get home safe.

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