Leadership: Fire in the Hole

By | August 5, 2019

[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.

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

18 thoughts on “Leadership: Fire in the Hole

  1. Kenny Foster

    These stories of your challenges and successes (as well as failures) in the US Army make for a fabulous learning opportunity, especially for young leaders just beginning. Best always to learn from others than to make big errors yourself; learning the hard way doesn’t always work out well. Thank you for another worthy, entertaining article.

  2. Bryan Lee

    I really enjoyed today’s blog entry. Keep these kind of articles coming our way.

  3. Dale Paul Fox

    This article by Gen. Satterfield kindles some old, pleasant memories of my time in the Army. He is, once again, spot-on with his article.

  4. Yusaf from Texas

    Great article today. Sparked a number of good memories. Thank you. Well done!

  5. Roger Yellowmule

    “Fire in the Hole,” what a great phrase. I never heard of it before – that I can remember anyway – and thought to myself, great phrase to use! I told my sister and her husband about it and they just smiled at me. Both were in the US Navy and apparently understand it. Great! Thanks, Gen. Satterfield.

    1. Jonnie the Bart

      This is one of the reasons I keep coming to Gen Satterfield’s leadership blog. While most of the things he writes about I already know, occasionally I learn something really new and useful. The articles also reinforces what I know about leadership.

      1. Gil Johnson

        We haven’t heard from you in a while, Jonnie. Hoping all is well with you.

        1. Jonnie the Bart

          Thanks Gil. Just been busy at work and quality time with the family.

  6. Greg Heyman

    It has been said that groups/tribes/societies that roll together toward a common goal are those most likely to survive and accomplish their main effort. The individual must conform or be ousted. The reasoning here is simple, only destruction/failure remains the alternative. Being warned about it (fire in the hole) is a good thing but I will suggest that it is the leader’s duty to ensure there is proper follow-through.

    1. Wilson Cox

      We are all not conformists but whenever we don’t conform, it’s usually in minor ways. That shows we are individuals. But on the big things, we should conform, else danger lurks.

    2. Eric Coda

      Good points about conformity, Greg. You don’t have to be a robot or stiff in personality. You just have to understand that the rules are not here arbitrarily or there to subject people to penalities without thought. Rules exist to make the process easier.

      1. Albert Ayer

        Thanks Eric. You are right. The structure of any group or society is long in the making, made up of social negotiations that were thought through and that have worked! Making changes should be taken with ccare.

  7. JT Patterson

    I say this all the time that I wish I had joined the military but now it’s too late. I do, however, honor those who did serve and always wish them well. This is not simply patriotism or showing respect, its an important idea that must be supported.

    1. Georgie M.

      Thank you JT for honoring our servicemen and women. This is the time to show our respect for them as a large part of our society is going nuts over stupid things (camera pans to snowflakes in college). 🙂

  8. Army Captain

    I agree with you Gen. Satterfield. We are a band of brothers. This means we know how to survive and get the job done!

  9. Walter H.

    Fire in the Hole, what an interesting idea for us today. Thanks. I was in the Coast Guard and heard it too but applied only to explosives.

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