Judgement Call

Subscriber only article.


June 06, 2005

Judgment calls
Trainers’ common-sense approach to using force finds fans in Iraq

By Sean D. Naylor
Times staff writer

FORT KNOX, Ky. — It was late morning on May 9, 2003, as the small convoy of three Humvees pulled out of Baghdad’s Green Zone.

The dozen psychological operations soldiers aboard were not expecting any trouble: Saddam Hussein’s government had fallen a few weeks earlier in the face of the U.S.-led military onslaught and there had been little sign of any organized resistance. That was about to change.

Standing in the cargo bed of the lead Humvee, Maj. Paul Finfrock sensed a different atmosphere on the streets.

“People weren’t really getting out of our way in traffic the way they used to,” he said. “You could just sense that something wasn’t right.”

An experienced Special Forces officer, Finfrock was the PsyOps branch chief on the staff of Brig. Gen. Gary Harrell, the head of Central Command’s special operations command. Finfrock’s mission was to establish a U.S. broadcast operation in Baghdad.

But within a couple of minutes of leaving the security of the Green Zone, his convoy found itself boxed in on one side of a four-lane divided highway by a pair of sedans, one of which was driving directly in front of the lead Humvee, the other directly to the lead Humvee’s right. The drivers of the two cars were clearly acting in concert to keep the convoy in check. They refused to pull over even after soldiers honked horns and pointed weapons at them.

“They had taken control of the movement of our convoy,” Finfrock said.

A few hundred meters ahead, the houses gave way to wooded parkland, an ideal spot for an ambush. Riding in the lead Humvee, Finfrock felt the hair stand up on the back of his neck. He knew he had a decision to make.

Many soldiers in Finfrock’s position would have hesitated. There were two men in the lead car and four in the vehicle driving beside Finfrock’s Humvee, but no weapons were visible. The insurgency that would plague Iraq for the next two years had yet to rear its head. Other than Finfrock, few of the soldiers in the convoy had combat experience. But Finfrock was equipped with more than the M4 carbine in his hands. He also was armed with total confidence that the action he was about to take was the right one.

Prior to deploying to Baghdad a few weeks earlier, Finfrock and others who were going forward spent a day on the range in Qatar, zeroing their weapons and practicing a few “reaction drills” in case they were ambushed in the Iraqi capital. As part of the training, Harrell’s deputy staff judge advocate, Air Force Maj. Dave “Bo” Bolgiano gave the group a briefing on the rules of engagement.

Bolgiano had long believed that the instruction most military personnel received on rules of engagement and the use of force was woefully inadequate. Rules of engagement issued by four-star headquarters often got watered down as each successive subordinate headquarters took a chop at them, so that by the time they reached squad level, soldiers were confused as to how much force they were allowed to use to defend themselves.

The result, in Bolgiano’s mind, made for nervous, timid troops who lacked the training and confidence to take charge of situations before they got out of hand. He was determined not to put the troops he was briefing in that predicament. So he adopted what he called a “judgment-based” approach, rather than a “rules-based” lecture.

“It was the most common-sense rules-of-engagement brief I’ve ever heard,” Finfrock said. “The basis of everything was that, as a U.S. soldier, you never, ever forfeit your right to self-defense. No rule of engagement should ever constrain a U.S. soldier from rapidly and efficiently defending himself.”

Finfrock wasn’t used to hearing lawyers talk like that. Wow, I wish somebody had really laid this out prior to this in my career, he thought.

Finfrock’s decision

The core of the idea that Bolgiano imparted to his colleagues was that if a service member identified a threat, he was entitled to use any force necessary to end that threat. “You don’t have to ask ‘Mother, may I?’ from some general 4,000 miles back who’s not there and not able to judge,” was how Finfrock described the message. “You’re the only one who’s able to judge the intent of the person in front of you that’s menacing you.”

Finfrock definitely felt menaced. He raised his M4 and aimed it at the lead sedan. There are people who will never understand this, but they are not here, he thought. Squeezing the trigger, he fired a single shot through the sedan’s roof, hitting the driver in the back of the neck and killing him. The car slid to the right, careened along the curb for 60 feet, then turned sideways before being rammed at right angles by Finfrock’s Humvee.

The U.S. troops jumped out of their vehicles and surrounded the two cars as a retired Delta sergeant major, now working as a contractor, leveled his rifle at the driver of the second vehicle, which had come to a dead stop. After seizing some papers from the passenger in the lead vehicle, the Americans jumped back on their Humvees, sped up to a traffic circle and turned around. As they drove away, the retired Delta operator saw four armed men in tan uniforms run out of the woodline toward the vehicles, in what appeared to be a vain attempt to get a better angle on the convoy, which had turned around before reaching the suspected ambush site.

Finfrock had extricated his troops from a very dangerous situation, but he gave the credit to Bolgiano.

“I will believe as long as I’m alive that Bo’s briefing and the information he imparted saved us that day,” he said.

Since then, Bolgiano has turned his rules of engagement briefing into a two-and-a-half-day course and taken it on the road. The course blends Bolgiano’s straightforward legal explanation of a soldier’s right to self-defense with tactical instruction from a team of volunteer experts. The aim is to enable military personnel to identify and quickly respond to close-in tactical threats.

The course has received some rave reviews.

After Bolgiano’s team trained the 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized) soldiers in September and December 2004, the division commander, Maj. Gen. William Webster, praised the course, writing to Maj. Gen. Bruce Tuxill, the Adjutant General of Maryland (Bolgiano is assigned to the Maryland Air National Guard’s 175th Wing) and to Brig. Gen. Charles Dunlap, the staff judge advocate at the Air Force’s Air Combat Command, Langley, Va.

“This unique and cutting edge training succinctly blends legal and tactical skills that will provide heightened awareness and survival skills to Soldiers,” Webster wrote. “As we again prepare to deploy to Iraq, it is critical that all Soldiers possess a clear understanding of how and when they may use force in self-defense.”

The most recent stop for Bolgiano’s traveling road show was here at Fort Knox, where two groups of 40 personnel went through the course the week of May 16. The trainees were mostly drill sergeants and other members of Fort Knox’s training cadre, augmented by troops from the Infantry Center and School at Fort Knox; the New Mexico National Guard; Air Mobility Command, Scott Air Force Base, Ill.; and the 820th Security Forces Squadron, Moody Air Force Base, Ga.

‘Action beats reaction’

The first stop for the trainees was a lecture hall where Bolgiano laid out what he sees as “the problem.”

“Most soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are not properly trained on threat recognition and appropriate tactical responses to a hostile act or demonstration of hostile intent,” Bolgiano said.

Much of the reason for this situation, according to Bolgiano, is that many commanders — and therefore many soldiers — demonstrate a fear of using force, indeed, a fear of their own weapons.

Bolgiano, a former Baltimore police officer who shot and killed one man in self-defense and, in a different incident, put another in a wheelchair, showed a pair of harrowing film clips shot from police cruisers of young cops being murdered during traffic stops because they failed to recognize the threat posed by the people they had pulled over.

The lesson learned was one that both Bolgiano and Finfrock repeated in interviews: “Action beats reaction every time.”

Bolgiano was followed on the podium by John Hall, the retired head of the FBI’s Firearms Training Unit. Hall explained wound ballistics, explaining why no individual weapon has so-called “stopping power,” and that even a shot that eviscerates a man’s heart still leaves enough blood pumping to allow him to keep fighting for another 15 seconds.

The bottom line: Keep shooting until the threat has been eliminated.

“Bigger holes better than smaller, more holes better than fewer holes,” read one of his slides.

Next, it was into the building housing Fort Knox’s engagement skills trainer, in which pairs of trainees aimed M4s at large video screens playing scenarios that forced them to make difficult split-second “shoot/don’t shoot” decisions.

After taking his turn in the EST, Sgt. 1st Class John Cardiel, a drill sergeant with A Company, 1st Battalion, 46th Infantry Regiment here, said he was finding the training “very useful” and would “absolutely” recommend the course to others. He said that because multiple layers of command often tinker with rules of engagement, this creates confusion among young soldiers about what is actually permitted in self-defense. “A private is easily overwhelmed by multiple rules of engagement,” he said.

The class next moved to the range for a half-day of live-fire instruction on moving and shooting drills designed to more closely replicate how pistols and carbines must be used in combat.

On the range

As a ragged line of 10 trainees advanced down the range, weapons raised, their instructor, Staff Sgt. Ethan Cole, a member of the Army Reserve’s Small Arms Readiness Group, shouted constant corrections.

“Both eyes open! Both eyes open! Keep scanning … GUN!!!” At the word “gun,” a rough volley of single shots rang out as the trainees fired at targets just 10 feet away that showed men holding weapons raised and pointing toward the shooters.

Beneath the trainees’ feet, a carpet of spent 5.56mm brass shone in early afternoon sun, testifying to the importance Bolgiano places on these combat-oriented live-fire drills.

Bolgiano’s trainees fired 90 rounds of 5.56mm and 215 rounds of 9mm each during the course, in addition to 75 rounds of reduced-velocity “simunition,” or training ammunition.

“We want people to become intimate with their weapons,” Bolgiano said.

The day concluded with a series of force-on-force checkpoint scenarios in which groups of instructors tried to outwit the trainees, with everyone using simunitions.

“This is probably the best training I’ve received in 15 years,” said Sgt. 1st Class Layton Gilroy, during a break.

He saw action in Iraq with 3rd Infantry Division and is now in A Company, 1st Battalion, 81st Armor Regiment.

“I don’t know where else you’d get this training unless you’re a Ranger or something,” he said.

“This kind of training really helps,” said 1st Lt. Clint Graves, who served in 233rd Transportation Company in Iraq and is now in C Company, 1-46 Infantry. “This is unique and really tailored to what they’re doing over there.”

The last day of training consisted of close-quarters combat and room-clearing drills in a shoot-house, plus more checkpoint scenarios, this time using vehicles. Most of the training focused on getting the trainees to be more confident about taking the first shot. When trainees in the room-clearing drills shot targets representing Afghan civilians, the instructors did not come down hard on them.

Bolgiano is sensitive to — and rejects — any charge that he is training troops to be “trigger happy.”

“When they gain confidence in their skill set, they’re less likely to shoot people who don’t need to be shot,” he said.

A home for the course

The Air Force officer’s ambition is to institutionalize his course. His instructors now are all volunteers. Bolgiano is working with both the Army and the Air Force in an attempt to find the course two permanent homes: one at Air Mobility Warfare Center at Fort Dix, N.J., and the other at the Combat Readiness Training Center, an Air Guard facility in Savannah, Ga. He estimates that it would cost $500,000 to establish the course and $150,000 in recurring annual costs.

But first, he must fight what he terms the “not-invented-here syndrome” in the service bureaucracies and convince senior leaders of the course’s value.

As Bolgiano works the corridors of power, he could do worse than draw on testimony from the likes of Webster and Lt. Col. Jim Larsen, who commands 1-46 Infantry here and was instrumental in bringing the course to Knox.

“I strongly encourage that a ‘way ahead’ be explored that would provide Major Bolgiano the necessary authority and means to continue this training throughout the joint forces,” Webster wrote in his letter to Tuxill and Dunlap.

Asked how Bolgiano’s training compared with other pre-deployment training he had received on rules of engagement, Larsen said, “There is no comparison. This is the best ROE training that I’ve had in my 25 years in the Army, hands down.”

Similar threads