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Thread: Lessons Learned In Combat

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    Lessons Learned In Combat

    I originally wrote and posted this in the AAR for my recent carbine course on the Alumni Forum. It has since been published in the March 2010 issue of SWAT Magazine. Feel free to cross-post or share it where and how you see fit, as I want it to have as much of an impact as possible and drive several key points home on those who go in harms way, both on foreign soil (military and PMCs) and here at home (LEOs and civilian sheepdogs). Combat vets and PMCs, as well as police officers and civilians who've been in a gunfight, also feel free to post your own lessons learned in combat.



    Lessons Learned In Combat



    Please note that the purpose of this article is not to "blame" the Marine Corps for my injury, or to whine about my circumstances, but instead to impact in a positive manner all of those who go in harms way both on foreign soil (Military and Private Military Contractors) and here at home (Law Enforcement Officers and civilian sheepdogs).


    I am a Wounded Warrior. I served as a Marine Rifleman during the initial 2003 invasion of Iraq some 7 years ago, and was severely wounded while engaging the enemy in a gunfight on April 12, 2003 in the city of Al Tarmiyah, a small suburb just northwest of Baghdad.

    I just got back into shooting again a little more than a year ago now, and several months ago I attended a Trident Concepts Combative Carbine 1 course instructed by Jeff Gonzales. Prior to attending Jeff’s class I thought I was already extremely competent and deadly with the carbine, but I was very wrong. After completing that 3-day course I can now say with complete confidence that had I somehow been able to attend a Trident Concepts, EAG Tactical, Gunsite, or MagPul Dynamics carbine course (or similar training offered by a quality instructor) before I deployed to war back in 2003, and had been able to learn and put into practice all of the things taught in the carbine courses they offer, I would NOT have been shot in the manner in which I was on that Sunday afternoon in Iraq.

    That's not to say I wouldn't have been wounded or killed later on in my deployment or in a subsequent deployment, but I would not have been shot that day and wouldn't be paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of my life, which ultimately means I would’ve been able to continue taking the fight to the enemy for at least a little while longer… possibly even still to this day. For the Military and Law Enforcement Officer readers, and those who are planning on enlisting in either of those fields sometime in the future, please take a minute to let that sink in a bit.

    The reason for this belief of mine is fairly simple: When I was engaged in combat the day I was wounded, I made several critical mistakes resulting either from training scars or from simply not being trained how to manipulate and fight with my rifle in the proper manner. I’m well aware that the training, tactics and procedures (TTPs) and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) have been greatly improved over the past 7 years since I was wounded, but I guarantee that they are still lacking and could continue to be improved upon. There are some things that can truly only be learned through actual combat, but in my opinion and experience there is a lot of enhanced weapons training widely available in the private sector that is simply going to waste and not being implemented in a unit's training and work-up, and should definitely be included as the "standard" in which all abide by. I believe that it will save lives and prevent a lot of men and women from being needlessly wounded or killed. However, once these skills are attained they absolutely have to be practiced on a routine basis, as gunfighting is most definitely a perishable skill.

    Below is a summary of the events that I strongly feel led to my being shot that day and permanently paralyzed from the waist down. This is not an "official" After Action Review (AAR) of the entire firefight that my platoon was involved in, but rather a small look at only a few moments of combat involving just myself.


    On April 12, 2003, my platoon was involved in a very well executed ambush (the receiving end, unfortunately) in the Iraqi town of Al Tarmiyah. The firefight that ensued would last an astounding 3 hours, which even today is rather uncommon. The firefight was basically my platoon -around 55 Marines- versus roughly 150+ Fedayeen Saddam Fighters, or so I was told several months afterwards. I was also later informed that we killed around 100 of the bastards that day. Thankfully we suffered no Killed In Actions (KIAs), but had several Wounded In Actions (WIAs), mostly from shrapnel from RPGs and hand grenades, with mine being the most severe injury of the day. It was because of engagements such as these that the enemy adapted and quickly learned not to go head-to-head with American forces... or suffer the consequences. Soon thereafter the insurgency began and they started using guerilla tactics, such as performing hit-and-run ambushes and placing Improvised Explosive Devices on the country's roadways to inflict casualties on our side without the grave consequences of head-to-head engagements against us.

    We were initially ambushed by Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) and small arms fire from enemy fighters to both our north and south, while dismounted from our Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAVs) and pulling security in a T-shaped intersection. Soon thereafter my platoon split up and punched outward from the kill zone to take the fight to the enemy in both directions. The bad guys weren't expecting us to be so aggressive. But we were Marine Infantrymen, and they had just pissed us off. We were already aggravated as hell that all of the Abrams tanks and Cobra gunships, which were always positioned just in front of us in our column of vehicles during the march to Baghdad (for obvious reasons), had been "stealing" our kills ever since we’d crossed the border several weeks earlier, so we had literally been hoping that some bad guys would poke us with a stick and pick a fight with us.

    About an hour and a half into the fight, I found myself in the backyard of a two-story residence. Five to eight enemy fighters had fled the house after our 0351 Assaultmen fired a Shoulder launched Multi-purpose Assault Weapon (SMAW) rocket into it. About five of them were using an adobe style guesthouse/storage building in the backyard as a makeshift bunker, while other fighters were positioned outside of it. When I entered the backyard, my hasty “plan” was to either find something to use as cover while I engaged the bunker, or to make entry inside the house and shoot out of a window or door. I just knew that I needed to find some cover so I could kill some of the bastards from relative safety.

    As I rounded the corner of the house and entered the backyard, I immediately spotted an enemy fighter roughly 20 yards away at my 11 o'clock, low-crawling away from the bunker and dragging an AK47 with him. I assumed he was doing exactly what I was doing: trying to get into a better position to kill his enemy.

    I stopped moving immediately and began engaging him. I fired at least 15 rounds at him, with most of the bullets impacting his body. Each time I scored a hit, his body let me know it by violently thrashing around. My adrenaline was pumping like crazy, which is why I continued to pummel him with rounds. I had never engaged an enemy that close before, and this was the very first time I could actually see my bullets impacting another human being's flesh. It was just such a shock to my psyche and I didn't know what else to do other than completely annihilate the threat in front of me. The only reason I quit firing is because another fighter stepped halfway out of the doorway to the bunker at my 1 o'clock and began firing wildly at me. I responded by shifting my fire over to him. I fired only 5-7 rounds at him before my bolt locked to the rear on an empty magazine. I scored 1 hit somewhere on his torso, though I have no idea where. He fell backwards into the bunker's doorway and out of my sight.

    I assumed that I had taken him out of the fight for good, either by killing him or wounding him badly. However this assumption would prove to be a huge error in judgment on my part.

    Since my M16A2 was “dry” and I needed to reload, I moved about 10 feet to my right. I knew that I wasn't behind any cover and was just concealed, but I thought that if anyone else came out of the bunker’s doorway they wouldn't be able to see me. Besides, I was just going to quickly reload my rifle and get back into the fight, right? Wrong.

    The Marine Corps had shown me in boot camp how to reload my M16 on the rifle range, but speed reloads and tactical reloads were simply never taught. There was one instance during a training exercise before we deployed where a British Royal Marine, who was part of a team doing a training evaluation on my unit, demonstrated how to reload our rifles quickly and put the empty magazine in our cargo pocket so that we wouldn't waste time trying to put it back into our super-tight standard-issue mag pouches. Not to mention that you never want to re-insert an empty magazine into the same pouch that you are going to instinctively index your fresh magazines from. But we never once went over that or practiced it afterwards, so I didn’t retain it and my body never memorized the motions of that technique. We actually never went over or practiced doing ANY kind of reloads; it was just something you were expected to know how to do: when your weapon runs dry, you stick another magazine in it. That sounds simple, but I've discovered that it's a lot more complicated than that... especially when doing it under stress.

    So, what did I do when it was time for me to reload my M16 that fateful day? I pressed the magazine release, pulled the empty magazine out of the mag well and inserted the empty magazine back into one of my mag pouches. This took a couple extra seconds to do, especially considering I was inserting it into a pretty tight pouch that already had a magazine in it. The fresh magazine in the pouch was positioned bullets-up as well, because way too many rounds would fall out of it when I tried carrying bullets down in the pouch. I'm guessing that's because the feed lips on the magazine were worn, but I knew nothing about what constituted a bad magazine back then and especially didn't know that magazines were a disposable component. After indexing a fresh magazine, I shoved it into the mag well until it seated and then finally, after at least 8 seconds, pressed the bolt release and sent another round flying into the chamber.

    I was also looking down at my weapon and gear the entire time I was reloading. Thus, when I was finally done reloading and looked back in the direction of the enemy bunker only 20 yards away from me, the very same enemy fighter who I'd just shot and assumed that I had permanently put down was now standing at my 11 o’clock, at the corner of the bunker, and aiming directly at me with his AK47 assault rifle.

    While I had been performing my slow and nasty reload, the Iraqi had gotten back up to his feet and stepped out of the doorway of the bunker in order to search for the American asshole who just greased his comrade and shot him too. When he didn't immediately see me in my previous location, he moved down the wall of the bunker until he spotted me standing there performing my abortion of a reload, while staring down at my weapon and gear. I had basically allowed... no, invited the bastard to get the drop on me.

    It is also worth noting that I was standing in the classic “known distance” rifle range bladed stance as well, exposing the unprotected left side of my chest to the enemy. At that time the Marine Corps never taught us to square up to the target and take full advantage of our ballistic Small Arms Protective Insert (SAPI) plates. The only "standing" position that I knew of was the bladed one taught to me by my Primary Marksmanship Instructor back in boot camp, which of course is only worth a damn on the “one way range” when qualifying with the rifle during training, definitely not for use on the “two way range” in combat when wearing body armor to protect your vital organs and spinal cord. It should also be known that I was a "double-award" Expert rifleman, which means jack shit in combat.

    To make matters worse, my rifle was in the Low Ready position as well, instead of keeping it pointed downrange and up in my “workspace” the entire time I was reloading. So once I sent the bolt flying home and chambered another round, I actually had to raise my rifle up in order to engage the enemy, instead of my rifle already being raised and at the Ready, pointing downrange and ready to rock following my reload.

    So when I finally looked up and saw him aiming at me with his AK47, I began to raise my rifle in an attempt to put him down for good. But it was already too late. The last thing I saw was a bright muzzle flash from his AK47 as it fired a short burst of 7.62mm projectiles at me. One of those bullets impacted me just under my left armpit, in the exposed area that isn't protected by the ballistic SAPI plates, and tumbled downward through my body. After shredding my spleen (which had to be removed), puncturing and collapsing my left lung, lacerating my stomach and left kidney, and blowing out a large chunk of my vertebrae, the bullet severed my spinal cord at the T12/L1 level, which instantly and completely paralyzed me from the waist down.

    There's a lot more to this story obviously, but this small piece is all that's relevant in this particular article.

    The point of this story is that muscle memory obtained through repetition can be a great thing when the tactics, techniques and procedures that you're ingraining are good and effective ones. But it works both ways, meaning that, for example, if you handle certain scenarios during training in a relaxed and "administrative" fashion, then you can damn near guarantee that you will handle those scenarios in combat the same way.

    For a quick summary, here are the mistakes I made in combat that I believe led to my severe injury and permanent disability:

    • Assuming I killed the bad guy with one shot to the torso area
    • Performing such a slow reload
    • Retaining my empty magazine during the middle of such an intense gunfight
    • Stowing an empty magazine in the same location as my fresh magazines
    • Looking down at my weapon while reloading instead of downrange in the direction of the threat(s)
    • Having my rifle in the Low Ready while reloading
    • Standing bladed and not taking advantage of the protection that my ballistic plates offered


    If you are currently in the military, a law enforcement officer, a Private Military Contractor or even just a civilian sheepdog, I strongly believe it would behoove you to get some advanced weapons training outside of your unit or department. Everything I learned in just the first day of the Trident Concepts Combative Carbine 1 course easily could've helped to prevent the wound that I needlessly sustained... I say that with complete and utter confidence.

    If you do decide to attend a weapons training course, be sure to take lots of notes and pictures at your class so that you can go back to your unit or department and spread the knowledge to your fellow brothers-in-arms. If you are a squad leader, you have an obligation to ensure that your young Marines or Soldiers can perform speed reloads quickly, know when and where not to retain, how and when to perform a tactical reload, etc. Practice these things until they become second nature and fluid movements; part of that good ol' muscle memory.

    When you attend good courses given by quality companies like those mentioned earlier, these things are taught to you, and they are taught for a reason. These tactics, techniques and procedures are taught this way in order to prevent deaths and injuries like mine. So pay attention and learn in class so that you don't get schooled in the middle of a gunfight instead, like I did.

    Oh and just so you know, the oxygen thief who shot me, along with all of his Fedayeen buddies inside the bunker, was obliterated shortly thereafter with lots of 5.56, a few 40mm High Explosive grenades and fragmentation grenades, and last but not least, one of their very own RPGs that they kindly left behind for us to use against them.


    Semper Fidelis!!

    -Paul



    Train, Train, Train!! And never give up!






    Last edited by RetreatHell; 01-27-10 at 00:04.

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    good read paul..

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    If this thread doesn't deserve a tack, then none ever do.

    Outstanding post. Thank you for sharing that with us.
    My brother saw Deliverance and bought a Bow. I saw Deliverance and bought an AR-15.

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    excellent read paul, pm inbound...

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    Great stuff. I will pass it on to my teammates.

    I think you are referring to Al Tarmiyah, at least that is how I see it spelled. Just north of Baghdad. Been through it a few times.

    Hey, I see you also live in Houston. Maybe we can hook up in November when I get home on leave. Do some shooting at the PSC range, etc. (same goes for any M4carbine.com members in town)

    Oh, and don't forget that Magpul Dynamics is coming to Houston in October.
    Last edited by Iraq Ninja; 09-26-09 at 15:26.
    ParadigmSRP.com

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    Quote Originally Posted by Iraq Ninja View Post
    Great stuff. I will pass it on to my teammates.

    I think you are referring to Al Tarmiyah, at least that is how I see it spelled. Just north of Baghdad. Been through it a few times.

    Hey, I see you also live in Houston. Maybe we can hook up in November when I get home on leave. Do some shooting at the PSC range, etc.

    Oh, and don't forget that Magpul Dynamics is coming to Houston in October.
    Al Tarmiyah! That would be it! I have googled it and found many different ways that people have spelled it. Is there still a pontoon bridge that floats atop the water entering the city? If so, just on the other side of that bridge where a T-shaped intersection lies is where me and my boys were ambushed.

    Send me a PM when you get back in town and we'll definitely hook up, brother.

    And I'll be attending the Oct 10-11 Magpul class. It's approx 2 weeks from today, can't wait! The range that it's at is on a concrete pad, which obviously is a great surface for a wheelchair to roll on. That's where my TRICON class was and the concrete surface really saves my arms from overworking themselves just making it up to the firing line, as on dirt/grass ranges.

    -Paul

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    Very good read ,thank you for sharing your experience with us.

    Semper Fi

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    Damn good read!
    Being a civilian myself, the practical sense of this speaks volumes IMO. If I'm going to have the multiples of mags that I do, it's worthless to even have them without knowing how to properly manipulate and employ them.

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    Paul,

    Not sure if the bridge is there. I don't recall a pontoon bridge. We used to use highway 2 when going up to Kirkuk.

    Did you spend any time in Nasiriyah? I spent a year there, and the locals still remember the Marines. You guys kicked some serious ass in that town. One local told me a story of a lone iraqi insurgent who was running around their street shooting at the Marines. All of a sudden a bomb or rocket falls from the sky and he was gone. My friend then said that he knew the war was lost if the Marines would use one expensive bomb to kill one soldier!

    Matt from MAST is a friend of mine and the sponsor of the Magpul class. I wish I could attend. Take good notes so I can pick your brain later...
    ParadigmSRP.com

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    My son Jeff took his oath this summer, joined the delayed entry program, and goes to USMC boot camp in June. He has read everything you've written here and will continue to. He is taking this VERY seriously.

    I hope it's OK for a Marine dad to say Semper Fi. If not, well Semper Fi anyway!

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    Paul I do agree that the current training (or at least when I did it) isn't all that great for work ups for deployments. Good to see that your still pulling triggers. Take care and Semper Fi
    "There are only two kinds of people that understand Marines: Marines and the enemy. Everyone else has a second-hand opinion." — Gen. William Thornson, U.S. Army

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    Thanks for sharing your story and great AAR for TTPs.

    The Army has modified their marksmanship program in an attempt to simulate a battlefield. Getting Soldiers in Basic Training to shoot on the move and do mag changes while on the move and finding cover, but unfortunately, it's a day late and a dollar short. IMHO, all of the services should send some folks to a couple of these civilian courses taught by some former Tier 1 folks and adopt what they learned and apply to Basic Training and Boot camp. I wonder how many other combatants have suffered or will suffer in the future due to a lack of practical gun fighting skills.
    For God and the soldier we adore, In time of danger, not before! The danger passed, and all things righted, God is forgotten and the soldier slighted." - Rudyard Kipling

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    Thank you so much. This will be shared with some cadets that will be shooting the 3 gun at River Bend next weekend.

    This thread could go a lot of directions. There are some major TTP issues raised so I have a question about one and if it's judged to not belong here my apologies in advance.

    Scenario is not exactly Pauls but one that might include training in use of the dump pouch.

    Why the training emphasis on the tactical reload with immediately placing the magazine in the dump pouch vs letting it hit the ground and get back to condition 1 (or full capacity) asap - then if safe to do so, pick it up and put it in the dump pouch? I understand the need to retain magazines in the military/combat environment. But surely that's not priority 1. (?)

    This sounds to me a little like that Newhall incident that LE learned so much from about conditioning to save the brass. (CHP shootout long ago).
    "Whatever it's for; it wasn't possible until now!!!" - KrampusArms

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    That's getting saved, printed and read by every leader in my company.

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    Best post in years.

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    Quote Originally Posted by JHC View Post
    Why the training emphasis on the tactical reload with immediately placing the magazine in the dump pouch vs letting it hit the ground and get back to condition 1 (or full capacity) asap - then if safe to do so, pick it up and put it in the dump pouch? I understand the need to retain magazines in the military/combat environment. But surely that's not priority 1. (?)

    This sounds to me a little like that Newhall incident that LE learned so much from about conditioning to save the brass. (CHP shootout long ago).
    Well this whole dump-pouch thing is all new to me. I think it's a great option if your gear setup and situation allows you to wear it.

    I see what you're saying about letting the mag drop on the deck and picking it up vs tossing it in the dump pouch during a tactical reload. But if you did that, it would then be a speed reload, and nothing more. The only time you would perform a true "tactical" reload is during a lull in the fight, if you have the spare time and you're not engaging the enemy or being engaged by the enemy. If you are still in the fight and your weapon runs dry, or you are keeping a really good round count and you know your magazine is almost spent, you would do a speed reload and just let the magazine drop on the deck and insert another one. But there's really so many different situations and scenarios that would call for them to be handled differently on the fly. Like everything else, our particular situation at the time dictates your actions and responses.

    For example:

    Say you are in the middle of clearing a house full of scum bags in the Battle of Fallujah, and your weapon runs dry while you and your boys are engaging the enemy and the enemy is engaging you. You would just drop your empty mag out of your weapon (hopefully behind decent cover and with your mates covering you with plenty of 5.56 from their rifles), let that bitch land wherever the ****, and then insert a fresh mag and get up and running again. That would be an example of a speed reload and also when NOT to retain your magazine. However, once you cleared the house of bad guys, you could return to the spot you dropped your mag and pick it back up if you felt you had time and safety on your side.

    Now say you just cleared a house full of bad guys (i.e. killed every last one of them), and you were now about to move on to the next house and do it all over again. Since you're now in relative safety, and the immediate threats are now taken care of and then some, you would perform a tactical reload and stow the partial mag in your dump pouch/cargo pocket/gas mask bag or wherever else you have free space other than your ammo pouches that contain fresh, full magazines.

    And, of course, you would need to ensure that you didn't mix partial mags with empty mags in the dump pouch either.

    I think that while in training, this really needs to be emphasized though. The leadership needs to make damn sure that their Marines/Soldiers know when and when not to retain empty and partial mags during combat. This was where one of my training scars developed.

    It was driven into my head ever since boot camp that you do NOT by any means lose your gear. After a while I feared losing my gear as much as I feared pissing off my company Gunnery Sergeant! That shit always stuck with me. Whenever we were training out in the field, we were expected to never lose anything, regardless of our training environment or any other factors. My entire company of Marines once had to stay several hours after liberty had started for the rest of the battalion and walk on line in a large field searching for one dude's bayonet. We didn't stop searching until we finally found it, then we could leave to go out.

    Who cares about a $15 bayonet or magazine? A disposable magazine at that?!

    The way training should be conducted is whenever you're training you should act as if your life is on the line in combat. So if you perform a speed reload in tall grass out in the middle of a big field at Camp Pendleton, CA, drop that mag on the deck and keep going! Don't retain it just because you're afraid of losing gear and could get thrashed or written up or even NJP'd by your superiors. I mean, sure you should genuinely attempt to look for that magazine after the training op is over, but if you don't find it, so what? At least you didn't retain it so that you didn't lose it out of fear of being punished harshly, which in combat in Iraq could very likely lead to you retaining it in the middle of a firefight when you should just drop the damn cheap piece of aluminum on the deck.

    No one in the military has any problem when fighter pilots in training drop hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars or ordnance during a weeklong training operation. But God forbid the jarhead grunts on the ground lose one of their "high-dollar" aluminum GI mag (which should be PMAGs by now too... just sayin'). The high-level leadership within our govt and military all say that the reason we are investing Billions of dollars into Unmanned Aerial/Ground/Sea Vehicle Programs is simply in order to save the lives of the grunts and other personnel on the ground... why not invest just a few million in something as basic as magazines for grunts on the ground so that they don't have to worry about getting their asses chewed out if they lose couple during training (which could in turn save their lives in combat)?

    BTW I'm not trying to assume what your level of knowledge is concerning reloads and dump pouches by any means, and I apologize in advance if I came off like I was assuming anything about you, because I'm not. I'm pretty sure I understood and answered your questions (and then some), but I could've misunderstood them too I guess. Also my apologies for ranting on a bit by the end

    -Paul

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    Quote Originally Posted by RetreatHell View Post
    snip
    Also my apologies for ranting on a bit by the end

    -Paul
    Dude, I think you're entitled to a little ranting.

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    Quote Originally Posted by RetreatHell View Post
    It was driven into my head ever since boot camp that you do NOT by any means lose your gear. After a while I feared losing my gear as much as I feared pissing off my company Gunnery Sergeant! That shit always stuck with me.
    Unfortunately that's a common story. Stuff done for the sake of administrative purposes has a way of biting good guys in the ass in a gunfight.

    Also my apologies for ranting on a bit by the end
    Rant away, my friend. You've earned the right.

    Your situation demonstrates clearly that weapon manipulations matter. They may not change the course of a war, but they can make a big difference in the individual situation of a single ground pounder caught in the suck. There is, after all, no guarantee in combat that you'll be backed up by a squad of your buddies should you encounter a nasty problem.

    In various forum discussions about the best way to do X or Y I often hear people say that it doesn't matter. Your unfortunate situation shows that it does matter and that all those "little things" that top level trainers teach can make a world of difference, even if it's just in one guy's life. Your story serves as a wakeup call in that regard...one that hopefully lots of others will heed.

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    Thank you for your service and posting a great read.

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    Enjoyed it. Fantastic information. Thanks for your shooting dedication and service bud.

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