Tragedy in Afghanistan – The Personal Impact of Long Wars on our Military Leadership

I woke to the sound of my cell phone ringing early on a Saturday morning. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and braced myself for what I knew would be bad news on the other end of that line. I didn’t know yet, but this time there was nothing I could do to be ready. A fellow SEAL officer and close friend of 25 years responded to my “hello?” and got right to business. “Jamie, I’m sorry to be the one telling you this, but Job died last night in Afghanistan.”  I felt the breath rush out of my chest and the tears well in my eyes – “how?” I asked. “There will be an investigation, but right now it appears that Job died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head,” he responded, his voice faltering.  For several minutes, the silence on the phone line hid the currents of emotion running through our minds.  My friend broke the silence, “Will you notify his parents? They are in Pennsylvania. I need you there right away.” I knew what I wanted to examine as a Duke Counterterrorism and Public Policy Fellow before my friend decided to end his life. Before Commander Job Price, a loving husband, the father of a nine-year-old girl, the SEAL Team Four Commanding Officer and a truly exceptional man, committed suicide in Afghanistan; I knew. I wanted to better understand how 12 years of war has impacted our Special Operations Force (SOF) culture and leadership.

At its most basic level, the United States Special Operations Force (SOF) is a high performance organization. It attracts, rewards and cultivates talent, ingenuity and to some extent ambition. An individual may not simply join the organization; instead, they must have an established reputation and pattern of sustained superior performance as an individual or in their field before they even begin the screening process. We expend a tremendous amount of time, energy and resources on our selection and training in order to preserve our SOF capability. The dichotomy of the SOF organization is that our people are simultaneously our greatest asset and greatest liability. Captain Adolf Von Schell, a German infantry Captain in World War I eloquently explains this dichotomy when he writes: “The only thing of which we are certain is this: the psychology of the soldier is always important. …Soldiers can be brave one day and afraid the next. Soldiers are not machines but human beings who must be led in war.  Each of them reacts differently; therefore each must be handled differently. Furthermore, each one reacts differently at different times, and must be handled each time according to his particular reaction. To sense this and to arrive at a correct psychological solution is part of the art of leadership.” [1] Leading in SOF is not easy, and the years of war have taken their toll.

We shape our SOF personnel through intense pressure. Our expectation that they maintain a high standard of performance under significant stress is a basic tenant of our culture. We expect a high level of resiliency within our people and further expect our top performers to be our most resilient individuals. We send them forward to war again and again, some individuals with as many as 14 combat deployments.  We design intense training while our personnel are home in order to prepare them to execute a variety of tactical tasks with potentially strategic implications. A potential vulnerability in our culture is one of assumed resiliency in our personnel.  After 12 years of war, we have recently begun questioning this assumption. Even the best men and women in our SOF organization may be vulnerable to the stress of multiple deployments and a general lack of predictability in their lives.

While I have no grounds to imply the strain of multiple deployments was responsible for Job’s death, it has certainly given many of us pause. When one of our best ends his life as the Commanding Officer of a deployed SEAL team, it is our duty to reflect on what, if anything, we can do to prevent this from happening again. Job’s death may ultimately serve as a call to arms for reflection on how our SOF culture and pace may have contributed to Job’s final decision. Before his death, I would have described Job as the definition of personal resiliency and skill. A brilliant man with a remarkable sense of humor, Job turned down acceptance at Yale University in order to attend the United States Air Force Academy. Determined to become a Navy SEAL, he did the unthinkable and requested a transfer of his Air Force commission to the U.S. Navy. The average completion rate of SEAL basic training, Basic Underwater Demolition / SEAL training (BUD/S), is just above 30%. Job put it all on the line, transferred to the Navy and made it through BUD/S. Job served a culture where hard work and self-sacrifice defined great leadership. While these attributes remain critical, we are a more experienced and wizened force. After over a decade of war, we understand that even the strongest men and women among us require balance in life.

SOF Enlightenment

There are positive aspects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for our military culture. Our SOF community has grown through a period greater than World War I and II combined. Our leaders have experienced the challenges of combat, achieved remarkable victories and have dealt with tremendous grief. SOF is poised to enter into a period of enlightenment. We are more capable, better led, better resourced and better trained than ever before. We are not naïve to the paradox of glory and tragedy in war. The “organization man” Thomas E. Ricks describes in his book, The Generals, no longer succeeds within SOF.[2] The gap between leader performance and accountability continues to rapidly close.  Incompetent or self-promoting leadership has been exposed by multiple wars and the harsh reality of combat.  When I entered the SEAL teams in 1996, the average number of deployments for a SEAL Commander was three, my friend Job was on his 13th deployment. Our senior leaders have been in the fight for the past 12 years of conflict. Through historic operations and staggering personal loss, SOF considers human psychology and family resiliency interdependent with our core characteristics of mental toughness, physical strength and ingenuity.

Manpower Policies – Time for Review?

SOF has a unique opportunity to think critically about our culture and our resiliency and make changes before we redeploy from Afghanistan and the tectonic plates of peace-time training and readiness lock back in place. We are poised to examine policy changes in our manpower system that is not always in line with operational requirements. A manpower system that rewards our great performers with the hardest jobs, but does not always measure and adjust for individual and family resiliency. The current assignment system lacks any sort of governor. Many times our men and women move directly from one demanding job to another, sometimes with only a long weekend between duty stations. We must examine how our high performance organization rewards high performance. For our top men and women, people like Job, the current answer is with more frequent and more difficult missions.

Despite the need to enhance our manpower system, the SOF community is well led and has already made great strides. SOF Commanders and Senior Enlisted leaders now categorize individual resiliency as “mission critical.” The stigma of an individual seeking help from a psychologist or chaplain has been significantly reduced. We develop and promote resiliency as an operational requirement and core principle of our culture. We better understand the link between human psychology, leadership and resiliency. Despite Job’s death, I am optimistic that we will capitalize on this opportunity for self-assessment and improvement. I am confident we will modify personnel policies to recognize human resiliency and life balance as factors critical to our long-term success. During a Gettysburg battlefield tour and lesson, my graduate school professor, Dr. Vardell Nesmith, stated “people do what they do for what they think are the right reasons at the time.”  So what made Job think that the right thing to do was to commit suicide while commanding a Task Force in Afghanistan? We may never really know why Job made the decision to take his own life, but I believe close examination of our SOF culture will lead to a greater understanding of our force.  SOF is perfectly staged to consider policy changes to our administrative manpower process to support the operational requirements of our force and personal requirements of our people and their families. This increased understanding may enable the next generation of SOF to thrive in a culture of resiliency, determination and excellence.

The Navy sent me to Duke to broaden my perspective as a Naval Officer. As I begin my second semester, I find myself incredibly grateful for this opportunity. I work each day to provide the students and faculty with a perspective sometimes different than their own and the exchange of ideas continues to be electrifying and rewarding. I marvel at the intelligence and curiosity of the Duke students and am humbled by the professional excellence of the Duke faculty. Through it all, Job’s experiences and personal tragedy have served as a baseline for reflection and motivation. Job was wonderful husband, father, friend and teammate and his memory remains undiminished in death. He would have been great at Duke.


[1] Capt Adolf Von Schell, Staff Corps German Army. Battle Leadership, (Quantico, VA: The Marine Corps Association, June 2007). Lessons on battle command and leadership written by a German officer who served in combat throughout Europe during World War I.

[2] Thomas E. Ricks. The Generals, American Military Command from World War II to today, (The Penguin Press, Oct 2012). How did the Army change so dramatically in the past 60-plus years and what are the consequences for the future of American military power?

 

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