Snow on the Desert

How do you keep a positive mental attitude in a tough situation?

There are few situations tougher than when an aircraft goes down and everyone onboard is lost. Being part of the response to something like that tests you mentally, emotionally, and professionally. When it happens in training, we control the crash site and can deliberately recover any remains and conduct a thorough investigation. When it happens in combat, what we can do is shaped by where the mishap took place.

We faced a situation like that in late January of 2012 when I was deployed to Afghanistan’s Helmand Province with 2d Battalion, 4th Marines. Late one afternoon around dinner time, a helicopter that was resupplying some of our remote outposts experienced mechanical problems and crashed on the border between the Musa Q’alah and Kajacki districts in an area that was definitely outside of our security bubble. I called the Fox Company commander and explained the situation, and in a remarkable piece of flexible leadership, he and his Marines raced out and secured the site. He beat the Taliban to the punch, preventing them from exploiting the incident for propaganda purposes. Equally important, his actions allowed the proper evacuation of the air crew’s remains by other helicopters.

About 48 hours later I arrived at the site with my security detail that was led by Lieutenant John Rehberg, and a team from an aviation support squadron. We relieved Fox Company of their responsibilities and the aviation Marines recovered sensitive equipment and recorded information to support the mishap investigation. We received harassing small arms fire throughout the day, but John and the Marines he led made sure it was ineffective. Their efforts allowed the aviation support team to focus on their mission. That made a big difference, because the weather report deteriorated throughout the day. We needed to get moving so that we didn’t get stuck and expose ourselves to a range of other difficult situations.

A few hours before sunset we finished with the crash site, the demolition charges were set, and John got us organized to move out. Soon after we departed, the rain that had been falling turned to sleet and then into snow. We were moving at a slow crawl across open desert in a column of vehicles of all kinds. And of course, just as it was getting dark we arrived at a wadi with steep banks. The weather was going to get worse and worse over the next couple of days so we had to get across right away.

The way John Rehberg took charge of that operation was one of the finest small-unit leadership case studies I ever witnessed. He made sure the crossing site was secured, explained what we were going to do to all the vehicle drivers, and then personally supervised the movement of each vehicle across the gap. This was no small feat, as almost every vehicle had to be winched up the slippery far bank of the wadi. No matter whether the vehicle was an MRAP, a 7 ton truck, or a crane, he made sure each vehicle and all the people crossed safely. At night. In a snow storm. After skirmishing with Taliban all day.

I’ve thought of those events often over the years, wondering how John did what he did. He joined the battalion as a brand-new Second Lieutenant late the previous spring, and in less than a year he went from shy and inexperienced to someone who quietly radiated confidence.

I think these are some of the ingredients that helped him make this transition:

1. John showed remarkable commitment to constant self-improvement. While this is a hallmark of all Marines, he showed particular desire – along with obvious progress. He grew as a leader because he was determined to grow. When the time came for him to step up, he was ready.

2. John worked on building his team constantly. He showed true servant leadership toward the Marines in his platoon, doing everything he could to make them better individually and as a team. They knew he cared about their welfare, so when he asked them to do hard things, they trusted him and they got it done.

3. Up at the Mountain Warfare Training Center they talk about a positive mental attitude so much they’ve reduced it to an acronym. John personified this PMA. He grew up in Michigan so maybe he likes the snow, but that night when he was making sure the vehicles were getting safely winched out of the wadi he almost made it look fun. His every word and action communicated “let’s get the job done.” I think for him the steep sides of the wadi didn’t look like a chasm, they looked like a speed bump. And due to his positive attitude, everyone he was leading that night saw it that way, too.

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