[August 5, 2019] Sergeant José Hernandez, part of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Division, yelled to his teammates that he was about to blow up a large cache of 155mm artillery rounds found hidden by Iraqi insurgents. It was early August 2003, and the main ground war was over, but the fighting has just begun. Fire in the Hole, he yelled, as his team ducked and he pulled the M81 igniter that set of nearly 5 pounds of C-4 explosives.
Fire in the hole is a warning that an explosive detonation is imminent. Probably used originally by miners, it was needed to warn fellow miners that a charge had been set. As a kid, my friends and I would use “heads up” or “look out.” The phrase is also used to give warning that something explosive (used figuratively) is about to happen.
When my boss walked into my tent during an early phase of the Iraq War, he would often smile and say, Fire in the Hole. It was his way of providing a little humor before he gave us a job that had been determined impossible. On one mission, we were standing by the hood of my HUMMV tactical vehicle discussing how we could secure a large section of a 1st Armored Division outpost when we saw him coming.
His mission was simple in concept; build living quarters for 700 Infantry Battalion troops. The hard part was we had less than 30 days, and it was in the heart of a hotbed of aggressive insurgents. Since there is no Model 6 to house troops, we had to build the accommodations, provide electricity, water, etc. and do it in a secure area. Our engineer section became the go-to place for thorny projects. Our motto was, “we save coalition lives.”
You have to know how to get things done in the U.S. military if you are to survive. You must know your limits, enemy patterns, and your boss’s desires. You also must know how to break the rules and get away with it. Leaders who can do this, and do so repeatedly, are the real professionals. Nothing is more difficult; especially when engaged in combat.
I met many of these men and women, and am proud that I had the honor of serving with them. The greatest compliment I ever received was by a buck Sergeant who said he would be willing to serve with me in combat; anytime, anywhere, anytime. We always got our job done, and none of my men were ever killed. While many were wounded by the enemy, we all came home.
Every time I hear the phrase, Fire in the Hole, it takes me back to the brutally hot, windy, dusty days of the Iraq war. Our fights were often violent. But we maintained our honor and our sanity. This is what leadership is about. We became a true band of brothers.