Helmand's narrow roads are a challenge for the U.S. military's armored trucks, which occasionally slide off canal embankments. Such was the case in this accident, near Marjah, in Helmand Province. The overturned mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle (MRAP) held the convoy up for half a night as they tried to extract it.

Lt. Col. Phil Treglia

Lt. Col. Douglas Luccio (left foreground) and Lt. Col. Phil Treglia (background) sit in on the Afghan officers' daily morning meeting at Camp Garmsir with ANA Col. Muhammed Salwar.

Lt. Col. Douglas Luccio (left foreground) and Lt. Col. Phil Treglia (background) sit in on the Afghan officers' daily morning meeting at Camp Garmsir with ANA Col. Muhammed Salwar.

Lt. Col. Douglas Luccio (left) and Lt. Col. Phil Treglia (right) confer during a meeting with Col. Khan Baba, commander of the 3rd kandak, or "battalion," and Col. Muhammed Salwar, the executive officer of the 1/215, in Marjah.

U.S. and Afghan troops hunt for insurgents during a clearing operation in Logar Province in the summer of 2013.

Capt. Jake Owens (second from left) and Capt. Juan Rodriguez (third from left) check in with their counterpart, Col. Rahimi Mustafah, the garrison services unit commander for the Afghan National Army's 1/215 brigade.

4 Rules For Managing Risk From A Decorated Force Recon Marine

In Afghanistan, shoddy plans can mean senseless deaths. But Lt. Col. Phil Treglia's organizational principles work in your world, too.

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.

Lt. Col. Douglas Luccio (left foreground) and Lt. Col. Phil Treglia (background) sit in on the Afghan officers' daily morning meeting at Camp Garmsir with ANA Col. Muhammed Salwar.

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.

Helmand's narrow roads are a challenge for the U.S. military's armored trucks, which do occasionally slide off canal embankments. Such was the case in this accident, near Marjah, in Helmand Province. The overturned mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle (MRAP) held the convoy up for half a night as they tried to extract it.

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.

Capt. Jake Owens (second from left) and Capt. Juan Rodriguez (third from left) check in with their counterpart, Col. Rahimi Mustafah, the garrison services unit commander for the Afghan National Army's 1/215 brigade.

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.*

U.S. and Afghan troops hunt for insurgents during a clearing operation in Logar Province in the summer of 2013.

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?

[Photos by Teru Kuwayama]

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11 Comments

  • Almondsfast

    What's with the war-normalizing articles coming out EVERYWHERE. It's okay on TIME, or NYT, Al-jazeera yeah. But Fast Company?!!?? You guys offer such commendably _diverse_ content that I'm beginning to wonder myself if the military propaganda machine is seriously bent on infiltrating every part of the media.

  • BillMcNeely

    I am a former Army Logistics Officer. Deployed to Iraq in 03-04. #4 is important. Whether in business or in war you need something that will allow you or your group to have a bigger impact than what is standard issue. At the same time don't get in the habit of using as a matter of course.

  • Daniel Rogers

    Following patterns is a sure fire way to get get predictable and get killed. Any recon soldier would tell you that. It's probably the first thing you get taught, besides how to do a push up and don't point your weapon at something you don't want to get shot.

    I appreciate the articles over the past few days on innovation in the military but you might want to talk to more than a one group of people. There are plenty of other examples that don't immediately start throwing big red flashing lights in the mind of anyone half way familiar with the topic.

    As an example, you might look at what led to the embedding of advisers within the ANA in the first place. It was a "population-centric" strategy begun under McCrystal which was borne out of those same experiences in Iraq. If you dig into it you might find that it was the largest design centered undertaking to happen in the last few years.

  • Tyler Fastcompany Gray

    Thanks for this. We're obviously not talking about going the same way down the same road every day here. But that doesn't mean every pattern is deadly--routines around safety and preparedness save lives. Not to get too existential, but couldn't "avoid taking the same route every day," itself, be a pattern? You're right about one thing: There are lots of stories of innovation in the military. But more isn't always better in terms of storytelling. In terms of this story, do you feel that drastically reducing the number of advisers with ANA kandaks wasn't innovative in lower Helmand? We mention that adviser teams have been around. We mention that the LNO model has been around. But it's the remix of those elements in this unique situation that yielded new results. Familiar ideas applied to new situations for unique results=innovation.

  • Daniel Rogers

    It's absolutely essential to have the discipline to do the things you know you have to do on a day to day basis.

    It's even more important to be able to identify risks that do not fit within that paradigm and to adapt your processes to account for them. Threats and risks evolve and change, in warfare and in business. If you can't think beyond your checklist, you're done.

    The inherent tension of being a leader in combat is having to provide enough stability to your soldiers so that they can function on a day to day basis while also balancing the need to keep adapting to the environment around you. I think there is a very good management discussion to be had about this tension, which unfortunately gets lost when you say "stick to your patterns".

    Re: What was done in lower Helmand: Tactics can and will change from unit to unit, deployment to deployment. What may have been novel and new in this unit could have been going on for years in others. So, it's hard for me to say one way or another. For instance, I distinctly recall people being embedded directly into Iraqi Army units at comparable rates as early as 2004.

  • Cliff W. Gilmore

    Daniel --

    Thanks for your feedback on this.

    The point about patterns jumped out at me as well. Within the greater context of the series of work E.B. and Teru created here, the need to be aware of security risks at all times seems clear, but in isolation -- especially bulletized as a header -- "Stick with your patterns" does jump out as contrary to good sense.

    I don't want to put words in his mouth, but having served with LtCol. Treglia here I'm confident he meant the bit about sticking with patterns in context of forming good habits and building familiarity and trust within his team.

    Additionally, while this article focuses on LtCol. Treglia and the work his Advisor Team did here in Helmand, he's always been quick to acknowledge two things with me: (1) That the situation on the ground here can change dramatically from one District to the next or for any number of other reasons and (2) That all the U.S. service members, SOF or conventional, facing the challenge of the advising mission here are a dedicated and creative bunch who succeed in no small part due to their ability and willingness to adapt in real time amidst a rapidly evolving environment.

    If you or anyone else reading here are interested in tracking progress of our advising and Security Force Assistance mission, I invite you to follow our Facebook page. We're encourage dialogue there and are searchable at Regional Command Southwests.
    Warm Regards,
    LtCol. Cliff W. Gilmore, USMC
    Regional Command (Southwest)
    Public Communication Team

  • Daniel Rogers

    Thanks for your comments Cliff. I just wanted to be clear on the source of my feedback. It wasn't about Lt Col and his choice of music.

    If you were to ask me the thing that I thought the military does well, it would be not only the empowerment it gives its leaders to adapt and make decisions, but the demand that they do so.

    I've never met a worthwhile officer that would accept "I was just following the checklist" as an excuse from their subordinates. As someone who has long since turned in his camos for a pair of slacks, I'm not quite sure I could say the same about the regular "civilian" world.

  • Hap4302

    It may also be worth noting the "3 Universal Tenets of Marine Corps Problem Solving (and 1 NSFW One)" posted elsewhere in this collection, #3 of which is, "Fall in Love with Flexibility."

    #4 is a good one as well, though admittedly not likely the way I'd phrase it in my role as an official spokesperson.

    Warm Regards,
    LtCol. Cliff W. Gilmore, USMC
    Regional Command (Southwest)
    Public Communication Team
    https://www.facebook.com/regio...

  • Joachim Coste

    Aren't #3 and #4 the exact same? Sounds like a late late night post ;).