outside-the-boxMy experience with “thinking outside the box” was formulated during my time as a Marine Scout/Sniper with 1st Battalion 4th Marines “Whatever It Takes”, honed during my second deployment to Iraq with 2nd Battalion 2nd Marines, and executed with precision during my time in the Special Forces Qualification Course with the 20th Special Forces Group. That being said, each opportunity to think outside the box brought with it the juxtaposition of prosecution from the military or survival and mission accomplishment.

As a Marine Scout/Sniper operating inside enemy territory with only a spotter, a few day’s rations, and limited ammunition and weapons, we were taught by our senior H.O.G’s (Hunter  of Gunmen) and our elite instructor’s that in order to accomplish the mission and survive in the process we had to rely on our skills in field craft, teamwork, S.O.P’s, and ability to “improvise, adapt, and overcome.” Inherent in that term is the concept of “thinking outside the box”- the box being rules, assumptions, and conformity.IMG_5171

Our Scout/Sniper School instructors tested our ability to embrace and execute this highest of all military skill sets by constantly sending us on missions that were impossible to accomplish under the established rules. It was inspiring to see their reactions when we stepped outside the box to circumvent the rules we were told were absolute. They were proud that we took the initiative to analyze the situation and possible solutions and then take the risk to apply techniques outside the parameters of the established rules.

During my first tour in Iraq in 2003, I experienced firsthand the reality of military and political groupthink (a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics- Merriam Webster), thereby presenting me with the moral dilemma of being the perfect Marine or “thinking outside the box.”

Although there are many examples from that time, one specific instance drives home the point of the consequences of playing by the rules or “thinking outside the box.” After “Mission Accomplished” was declared, all Marines were ordered to hand in all explosives (grenades, 203 rounds, smoke, TOW missiles…. everything). We had won the war and peacekeeping wouldn’t necessitate explosives. However, my team was still conducting four and two man missions alone in the cities with our asses hanging in the wind.

My decision to have my pointman hold on to one 203 illum round was based on my analysis that we were in a country divided by religious and social sects who had violently opposed one another for centuries, augmented by an opposing military force that had simply gone underground. It may seem that my decision to disobey an order from a 4-star general was simply insubordination, but a calculated decision to operate according to mission accomplishment and survival instead of set guidelines required “thinking outside the box.”

My team probably couldn’t get away with holding on to all or most of our equipment that went boom. That many explosives would leave a visible footprint on our gear and in the sleeping area we shared with the Commander, XO, and First Sergeant of the company we were attached to. Plus, even if we used a grenade or 203 round to save our lives or accomplish a mission, we would most definitely end up in Leavenworth for using them. However, we conducted all our missions at night and an illum round could still save our lives without killing or injuring any civilians and wouldn’t leave a lasting footprint that would be used against us.

But what would one 203 illum round really accomplish in the big picture besides sending us to military prison? I chose my team because they all showed the ability and will to “think outside the box” during the two selections I ran for the sniper platoon as Chief Scout. As members of my team, I forced them to “think outside the box” during training and missions. We got heat from the battalion Sergeant Major, company Gunny’s and First Sergeants, and were constantly on the verge of receiving Page 11’s or NJP’s.11425118_10101679196483787_1404395281716687003_o

But one night, my pointman decided to take the initiative to lend our one 203 illum round to someone going on a vehicle patrol. He didn’t ask me. He didn’t even tell me. Early in the morning, somewhere around 0200, that patrol was caught in a complex ambush in the city of Haswah on the southern tip of the Sunni Triangle of Death. This ambush was nothing like what the higher-ups or anyone else expected from a few ragtag Fedayeen who wouldn’t give up. The insurgents initiated the ambush with an I.E.D designed to trap the convoy in the kill zone. They then opened up with close range automatic gunfire from the buildings on the left side of the convoy and from the berm on the far side of the canal on the right side of the convoy. This meant that they could lay down effective fire from opposite sides without hitting their own positions. It also meant that the Marines couldn’t initiate close ambush protocol by rushing the attackers. They were caught in the kill zone with nowhere to go.

The insurgents made the mistake of disabling the second Humvee in the patrol, allowing the first Humvee to escape the kill zone. It just so happened that in that Humvee was the Marine with the one 203 illum round in the entire company. I didn’t find out until later that that Marine employed that illum round above the kill zone causing the insurgents to disengage for fear of being seen and overrun.

Because that one decision saved a squad of Marines in the summer of 2003, I continue to this day to “think outside the box” in everything I do even though everyone around me tells me to play by the rules. For even the smallest and most unassuming decision of your life can save someone’s life even though no one can see it coming.

EGA by Deviant Art, “Semper Android”

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About The Author

Mike credits his early military training as the one thing that kept him disciplined through the many years. He currently provides his expertise as an adviser for the DoD. Michael Kurcina subscribes to the Spotter Up way of life. “I will either find a way or I will make one”.

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