One day this past summer, photographer Teru Kuwayama and I were scheduled to join the Marines’ 1/215 Security Force Advisory and Assistance Team in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province on a trip south down the Helmand River valley. We would visit a series of Afghan National Army bases.
Or so we thought. It was the first day of our embed, and we were greeted by Lt. Col. Phil Treglia, the leader of the unit, one of hundreds of adviser teams charged with readying the Afghan security forces ahead of NATO’s departure in 2014. Treglia is a former member of the Marines’ elite Force Recon who’d participated in the invasion of Afghanistan and fought in two of Iraq’s most famous battles, Fallujah and Ramadi. And he told us we weren’t going anywhere.
We’d missed the briefing, which had taken place the night before when we were flying into the base. Pre-trip briefings are particularly important for excursions where you could end up in the middle of combat. “No brief, no trip,” Treglia said.
I nudged Teru, who’s been covering Afghanistan for the better part of a decade and has tons more experience than me. Maybe Treglia would let him go if I agreed to stay behind. But the commander wouldn’t budge.
At Fast Company, we laud risk-taking among innovators and entrepreneurs. But it’s a different equation among Marines in war zones, who accept risk, but also know that poorly thought-through plans can mean deaths that could have been avoided. Proven leaders such as Treglia have stringent rules for managing risk. The first one he showed us was: Stake out your red lines, and stick to them.
Here are some of Treglia’s other rules:
1. Use checklists.
Before going out on an operation, Treglia pulls out a 3x5 card and runs through a checklist: Check the driver. Check unsecured items in the vehicle. Check under seats. (The blast from a makeshift roadside bomb—known as an IED, or improvised explosive device—will turn anything into a projectile, and you don’t want a stray water bottle ramming your ass and breaking your spine.) Treglia first made up the card as a pre-combat checklist in Ramadi, and he still carries it in a first-aid kit strapped to his body armor. While advisers don’t actively go looking for combat, they know it’s always a possibility. “These are things that if you don’t have them done right, they can cause you extra problems or casualties,” Treglia says.
2. Find friendly ways to keep your team members on the top of their game.
Before every operation, Treglia pulls aside his vehicle driver and repeats this mantra to them: “I plan to die at 99, choking on a chocolate chip cookie, in bed, next to a hot Norwegian blonde. Not in this vehicle today.” (And now that he’s married, he adds that he hasn’t yet figured out how to explain the blonde to his red-headed Irish wife.)
“It reminds the driver that he’s got a lieutenant colonel in his vehicle,” Treglia explains, so that the driver focuses on the very real and difficult task of driving. The giant monster trucks the military uses out on the roads in Afghanistan (called MRAPs, for “mine-resistant, ambush-protected”) are big lumbering creatures and extremely difficult to maneuver. Treglia doesn’t want the driver getting distracted by the intra-vehicle chitchat and not keeping his eye out for IEDs, or, equally bad, children darting across the road. Or losing focus altogether and causing the vehicle to roll over. (And yes, these things, top-heavy and unsteady as they are, roll over as easily as your garden-variety SUV. But he’s funny about it. He nudges the driver, who could be anyone from a sergeant to a lieutenant—in other words, a million tiers down in rank from him—in a way that builds a bond, rather than freezes the driver up or makes him more anxious than he might already be.
3. Stick with your patterns.
After going through his checklist, Treglia bellows out the Johnny Cash song “Folsom Prison Blues.” “I hear the train a comin’,” he sings. “It’s rollin’ round the bend. And I ain’t seen sunshine since I don’t know when.” It’s actually the only Johnny Cash song he knows. He’s not even much of a music guy. But when he was an operations officer in Ramadi, his driver used to sing the song every day. “I watched IEDs hit right in front of me and in back of me,” Treglia says. “I saw entire tanks disappear.” But Treglia’s vehicle never got a scratch. In Afghanistan, his drivers would sometimes get nervous (and who could blame them, what with possibility of running into a mine at any moment). So Treglia decided to add the song to the pre-operation checklist, sort of as a joke. “I said, ‘I’ll sing some Johnny Cash, and everything will be okay.’” But joke or no joke, Treglia has kept to the pattern. “I’m stuck in Folsom Prison,” he sings, sometimes rotating in “Afghanistan” or “Helmand Province,” “and time keeps draggin’ on.”
4. Always carry a hand grenade.*
When troops leave their bases and head “outside the wire,” they pile on tons of gear. Helmet, body armor, rifle, extra magazines, ballistic glasses, radios, and water. And maybe some more extra magazines. Treglia always stuffs a hand grenade in his tactical vest, even though, as an adviser, he’s hardly going to be busting down doors or chasing insurgents through narrow alleys. “But if I have it, I know I won’t need it,” he explains. “And if I don't have it, I know I'll end up needing it. It's my little insurance policy."
*Editor’s Note: It goes without saying, of course, that we at Fast Company don’t advocate folks in the private sector carrying actual hand grenades. Make it a red pen or a thumb drive that you’re hoping never to have to use, okay?