I ate one sweet, plump blackberry today. Of the dozens, I put into my mouth, only one reminded me of summers past, fall walks, fall peddles, and great pies. The waves of autumn roll at the horizon, advancing small laps of hint in to these New England hills. That inspired the Sunday walk. I set my mind on adventure, returned with discoveries of old lessons freshly learned.
In Iraq, bosses assigned me to an unattractive unit. The work meant being outdoors with a mix lot of soldiers, U.S. construction contractors, and assorted third-country nationals. My year of imagined air conditioning and fingers dancing on keyboards gave way to walking kilometer on kilometer on kilometer. We dug holes, filled in holes, dug the next hole, and repeat. Variations came with standing poles and rigging antennae. I stood, walked, and drove small sections of Iraqi roads over and over again. In a year, we lay nearly 25 miles of fiber optic cable throughout metro-Baghdad.
My supervisor, a major brought to the mission the gift of leadership and humor. In the years prior to our arrival the support of remote communications infrastructure fell on young officers. My major looked closely at the end of his career having been enlisted for a decade. As an officer, he trained for several other professions before signal (computers/communications). Digging holes in Iraq, then filling holes in Iraq became an opportunity for my boss. Within months, we became darlings of the support side of the division. My major illustrated with each kilometer of progress, that we united families. Soldiers called home free. Soldiers visited with children over video links. Company commanders connected completely with division, videos moved, meetings occurred remotely and soldier’s safety and morale improved. He amplified our success, illustrated our vital role, and fed our needs for recognition and praise.
I never once regretted walking an Iraqi roadside. Soldiers drove in heavy vehicles (well, except for ours who sweated near a ditch). I met every company commander, every battalion commander, every brigade commander along those roads. I stood in rooms during operational briefing.
I witnessed units fail. When units failed soldiers died, soldiers were injured, objectives left unmet.
I witness identical units with identical capabilities succeed. Successful units often held happier soldiers.
My major created a happy and successful unit. The difference, I observed, often originated with the leader.
My lessons from Iraq, I thought contained, only the lessons of good leadership.
Today in my woods, I demonstrated leadership that kills. I made one mistake. I kept right where left was correct. We stepped beyond the end of the trail for what I knew to be about 20 feet of ungroomed mess before rejoining my own trail system.
I was slow to admit my error.
I failed to turn around.
I failed to assess my situation accurately.
I even failed to read my digital GPS map. Our subsequent path described an arc of 270 degrees around our objective.
I recognized that I was blinded by the terrain but I didn’t take the next step – which should have been backwards. I pushed on, regardless of the hazards. I clung to a GPS and a map. Forward, ho!
New England woods often resemble real jungle. The brambles of blackberry and raspberry exceed my own height (I stand just shy of 2 meters). The crown of a deep New England wood yield little. Maple leaves, ash leaves, and huge white pines mask the horizon and most of the sky. Brambles slow progress to near zero, they cut at face, at legs, at arms. They grab clothing. Thorns embed in skin to create wheals. It becomes scary because it traps the body.
Wisdom escaped me whilst I focused on my mistakes. I focused, to near exclusion on duty. My duty to lead us free, to get us home on time and safely. I had already failed.
I step forward and the foot fall from behind lands a 2 cm thick blackberry stock with thorns onto my bare calf, then catches my heal. This as I grasp at yet another berry stuck tight to my black Under-Armour tee-shirt. Pulling free snags the shirt leaving rents. Lifting bramble from breast and belly slows progress and embeds thorns in fingerpads. Alternatives narrow.
Alternatives narrow. Vision narrows.
And, I lead us in a mild circle exacerbating bad, slogging slowly into the land of misery. No release, no relief in sight.
“Did you know that soldiers were once trained to lay upon barbed wire to let their mates walk over their backs?” I spoke aloud. This measure of sacrifice I evaluated. I never yielded point. My mistake, my scars. Slowly, I recognized my actual error. Not the missed left, but the hubris, the tunnel vision, the growing desperation, the increasing isolation.
I gave up my map and GPS. Anger blinded me worse than the terrain. I pushed with tunnel vision looking at the map after three steps. I saw the arc I was making, yet failed to correct. I continued to make the same errors in navigation. I continued to make the situation worse.
I gave my map and GPS back. I led on. I sacrificed my legs and arms to open a small trail. I oozed blood from every exposed inch of skin.
From behind, I heard, “Keep the sun to your right.” I moved left.
Before me, I saw a tangle of plump berries. I nibbled. I finally, sweetness! The voice behind steered. I used my body to open a modest hole through thicket after thicket. Anger and hopelessness softened when I gave up and accepted the ever-present help of those near.
Back on my own trails, we sat. I shared jerky and water. We breathed and rested before the last kilometer home.
Our Sunday perambulation carried me through a decade of successes and failures. Of note, that when we sat on a rotted log to share jerky and water, I noted that I carried two forms of communication: a cell and a two-way radio that linked us to a huge regional dispatch center. I carried water for a day. I carried food and toilet paper. The failure still came to us when I failed to turn around, to assess objectives honestly, and understand the suite of risks. No one died today on our walk.
That said, the two of us on the walk buried at least three this year during our duty hours. We routinely stride into other-people’s-emergencies. There are always risks. I need not standing on a roadside in Iraq to remember that one, two, three bad decisions kill, kill even the most prepared.
My memory of the walk emphasizes the bitter, soured flavors of all other berries I tried.
My companion suggested I write this. In sharing, I taste only that one sweet berry.