[April 17, 2020] I was told by my second-grade teacher that I had a lot of bad habits that “needed fixin.” Like all the other kids in the class, I was deathly afraid of her, so I just nodded my head in agreement. Truth be told, I did have plenty of bad habits in school, like not studying, misbehaving at recess, and looking out the window during class. Later in life as a soldier, I slowly came to the realization that thinking small was also a bad habit found in leaders.
“As long as you’re going to be thinking anyway, think big.” – Donald Trump, U.S. President
In the run-up to the First Gulf War in early 1991, my unit was preparing for the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Being part of a Combat Heavy Engineer unit, our initial mission was to prepare shelters for brigade and larger-sized units in the combat theater. The Operations Officer outranked me and had proposed building one concrete bomb shelter that was about 10 x 10 feet. I suggested building at several and all of them of wood, much larger, and with huge support columns.
As a Captain and new to the Engineer Branch (recently transferred from the Infantry), I knew it would be an uphill argument. When the battalion commander agreed to the Operations Officer’s plan, I was not surprised. The next day, our brigade commander visited and rejected that plan in favor of mine. The reason, he said, was that we were not thinking big enough. He taught me that thinking small was a bad habit that soldiers could not afford.
As I look back on those days, I believe even that plan was too small. We needed to think even bigger. But, given the rapid attack in that war, there was no need for shelters (we were thinking small). I would not make that mistake again. During the build-up for the Second Gulf War, which began in 2003, my Engineers were combat experienced, better trained, and had bigger ideas.
Our Engineer mission became supporting the mobile strike force by blasting holes in obstacle belts, spanning blown bridges, and throwing up large, temporary enemy holding camps. We would do this with fast-moving wheeled light engineer equipment rather than heavy tracked vehicles. This method gave us the mobility to move anywhere on the battlefield swiftly, assess the need of the combat force, and make adjustments in stride with other missions. We could outmaneuver our heavier combat units because we were so light.
We were thinking bigger but still not big enough. Before I retired in 2014, we changed our thinking again. Our Engineer forces developed a pre-designed “package” of engineer support. We could deliver a large engineer unit, with fuel and ammo, and 50 experienced Army Engineers anywhere in the world with less than 36 hours notice. We could field more than 75 of these packages anywhere for any type of engineer support mission. This new support had never been done before. Finally, we were thinking big.