Situational awareness

There have been a lot of things to get used to after hanging up the uniform.

  • People don’t use pockets for anything in particular. They just shove their hands in there. For whole minutes.
  • People lean against walls.
  • First names predominate.
  • You can potentially not work out for days!
  • Work doesn’t usually call on the weekends. Pt. 2, coworkers don’t call, needing to be bailed out after a DUI.
  • Saying “yeah” won’t incur extra duty.
  • Walking either on the right or left of someone is completely acceptable.
  • You can walk around, completely *^%$^&@ oblivious.

The last point has been getting to me. I mentioned it to a coworker. I’m actually not too keen on it. People are generally clueless to their surroundings. They bump into things, block doorways, block aisles, cut off vehicles in traffic, talk too loudly, trip other people, knock over stuff, on and on.

In the service, there’s this state of mind called “situational awareness.” It’s almost this Zen-like state, where a service member is imbued with the near-godlike ability to know where he or she is in relationship to the universe.

No, seriously. It’s pretty frikkin’ epic. You may not realize it, but most service members who haven’t gotten away with standing at parade pretty (entire other series of posts) know where they are. It’s awesome!

What does that mean? It means a service member will wait for others to go through doors. He or she will say “sir” or “ma’am” when encountering another human being in the general vicinity. And generally, although American road rage trumps all, they will know when the hell to stop, yield and accelerate when it comes to vehicular traffic.

It all starts at basic training. I remember it well. My particular unit stood outside in the January South Carolina evening air, which, contrary to what you might think, is pretty blasted freezing.

We were told to exit the bus, quick like, arrange our backpacks in an orderly fashion, and extricate ourselves into a line all in a span of about 15 seconds. Of course, you might imagine what happened, all manner of hell broke loose. There was no coordination. There was no consideration. It was every person for him or herself. We bumped, tripped and shoved our way into the drill sergeant’s escalating rage once the requisite 15 seconds passed.

Tests like that were designed for us to fail. Passing the test wasn’t the point. The point was to show how absolutely clumsy and self-centered the average person is. We’re like heifers, chewing the cud, oblivious to the semi trucks attempting to pass us on the road. We’re completely self-centered, expecting the world to pay us mind, pay us heed and worship us at our feet. We have more cars, clothes and money than 90 percent of the GD world, after all, there’s definitely a sense of entitlement that comes with that sort of nobility.

So, it is the job of the drill sergeant (or drill instructor for our maritime friends) to undo the worthless, clumsiness of the average U.S. civilian. Thus begins our quest toward situational awareness.

When a sergeant walks to work, you may see a confident stride and a sharp-looking man or woman; but inside, there are all manner of processes and checklists going off in that person’s head. Every single person that walks into a service member’s viewable area (six paces radius from all living things, for your information) must be checked for rank, uniform, disposition, proximity to others. A service member will see if there’s something in the person’s right hand (which there shouldn’t be, since he or she needs that hand to salute at a moment’s notice), and that hands are out of pockets. Service members will salute, if appropriate (depending on the rank, uniform, time of day). They will check to make sure others are behaving, that they are being respectful. They will stand ready to correct junior troops, alter their course if needed to stay on sidewalks, stop completely if a cell phone rings. They won’t chew gum or eat while walking. They will walk tall, taking 30-inch steps, their hands held in loose fists, as per regulation. They will scan passing vehicles to render honors if officer rank placards are displayed. They will watch for the right time of day to render honors to the flag in the mornings and evenings.

All of it, just from walking to frikkin’ work, is to hone a person’s acumen for situational awareness.

And it doesn’t stop in the states. There are a whole mess of other checklists service members go through in deployed environments.

Over there, weapons must be carried properly, cleaned, uniforms maintained. Service members must keep a sharp ear out for incoming mortars, alarms, approaching vehicles. On patrols, they must watch out for piles of debris in the road, quiet streets before an ambush, influx of onlookers before an ambush, pot holes, wires, discoloration on curbs, orderly piles of trash compared with disorderly piles of trash. Vehicles must be listened to. Is the engine sounding healthy? Do the brakes feel right? Are there fluid leaks? How about the radio? Do the headsets work? Got enough ammo? Got trash bags? Got the stretcher? How’s the .50-cal? Barrel clicked in (learned about that one the hard way)? Sights clean? Pedestal pin in (yet another story)?

When walking around, service members need to know where their barrels are pointing AT ALL TIMES. As they pass each other, as they walk to the chow hall, as they go to bed; is the chamber empty? Has the weapon been cleared? Where are all the other accountable items? Body armor? Ballistic goggles?

Leaders must know when and where incidents occur, in the states, the field or downrange. What time did the rounds hit? What grid location? Whose battlespace are they in? What frequency should they use to call the medics? What’s the alternate in case there’s no response? Where are they? Where’s an alternate route to get around the roadblock?

None of this aimless walking around. A troop’s mind needs to be on, sharp, at all times. Is it, always? Ideally, sure, but all troops are human. There are lapses, sometimes a lot. But they should be paying attention. “Get your head out of your @$$!” is a common verbal exchange as one troop points out the spacial perception lapses of another.

I’m newly a civilian, and while it’s sort of cute it’s also a little unsettling to see how frequently people walk down halls, ear buds in, running into others, or seeing people back into people while looking for birthday cards, or how accidents occur with cell phone users in cars, nearly hitting me as I go to H.E.B. to get toilet paper.

I guess it’s because most people haven’t had the pleasure of having situational awareness drilled into them almost literally. So it remains a quintessential skill possessed by few—that ability to analyze and categorize a dozen characteristics and traits of people, places and things entering and leaving a service members proximity every step and every second of the day.

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About salemonz

Born in San Diego, Calif. Raised as a Navy Brat, I jumped ship and crossed over to the Army. Served as an enlisted journalist for a bunch of years, then helped the DoD figure out what the hell to do with social media. After the Army, now I drift down the river of life, trying not to be a jerk.

5 responses to “Situational awareness”

  1. Nate says :

    Nice. Maybe a little military stint for all would be a dose of good for our nation.

  2. Jason says :

    Nice blog, Josh.

  3. keith houin says :

    Nice. Not to mention that when there is a lapse of SA, it is usually followed by a “sorry Sir/Ma’am” or “my mistake.” And when corrected — a healthy, heard, understood acknowledged — Hua

  4. Joel says :

    True, true, it’s all true. However this post makes you sound like a 70 year old going on about the glory days,”Back when I was in the service…” And though I still wear the uniform I’ve thought about what will stick with me when I get out. Which of the traits that I learned/became during my time will hang around beyond its mandatory sentence. Currently the forerunners in that realm are the desire to have a battle when doing something risky, and AARs. I love AARs.

  5. Mom says :

    Been there, done that…only 6 yrs to your almost 8yrs, but I hear you loud and clear. Excellently put by the way, keep up the good work.

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