Combat leadership: Lesson learned while deployed to the desert

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Frederick DeFranza
  • 728th Air Control Squadron
Balad Air Base, Iraq, also known as "mortaritaville." This is your first deployment. You have prepared your friends and family, arranged for your household and pets to be looked after, packed everything you thought you would ever need and checked your combat gear twice. But has your unit and, more importantly, your leadership effectively prepared you for combat? 

With 20 percent of the Air Force currently deployed in combat, preparing for combat must start back home during training, not after you arrive in the combat zone. The responsibility of individual and unit preparation lays solely with the leadership of the squadron, specifically the commander. Everyone has heard of the phrase "good order and discipline" and how it is the commander's responsibility to establish this so the unit can succeed, but it is much more complex than that. 

Measuring your success in combat, where the normal stresses of everyday life are amplified times a thousand, depends heavily on good order and discipline. When we are disciplined, personally and professionally, then good order, whether it is in a combat zone or back home, falls into place. 

I grew up in a disciplined (strict, but loving) home. There were expectations for school grades, sports, household chores, and respect for God, country and fellow man. My second home -- the Air Force -- has also provided an environment for me where discipline was instilled, expected and demanded. However, it is much more than just following rules and regulations; it is about character and integrity. The lessons in discipline that have carried me through 18 months of combat are reliability, trustworthiness, dependability and selflessness in word and deed. Being disciplined truly means choosing the harder right over the easier wrong. 

Discipline is digging deep when you want to give up; it is pushing to the end when you think you can't take another step; it is biting your tongue when your emotions want to take over; it is making time for someone else when your own time seems so valuable. Discipline is doing the right thing when no one else is watching because it's the right thing to do; it defines your character. 

I believe the difference between good Airmen in combat and great Airmen in combat is discipline. The good order and discipline that is instilled in their lives every day will carry them through the toughest times. It will carry them through a 120-day combat deployment in 118-degree heat, all while being mortared and rocketed daily. It will carry them through when you as a commander have to tell them they are returning again in four months for another 120-day combat deployment. 

I also believe that discipline is the dividing line in a unit's success in combat. I think disciplined people strive to reach the maximum standards versus the minimum. I think Airmen who are used to operating in a disciplined environment never settle for the status quo; they will always strive to make themselves, their surroundings and their squadron better. 

When Airmen are disciplined, they think hard, listen hard and provide "how we can" not "why we can't" answers to the problems presented them. None of us are perfect and we don't get it right all the time. However, with a little bit of purpose, passion and perseverance -- what I call the "3 Ps" -- we can get it right most of the time. 

There is a saying: it is better to learn from obedience than experience. Simply put, when there are rules, regulations, policies, guidelines and gut instinct to guide you through what is right versus wrong, it is far better to be disciplined in peacetime and learn through obedience than it is to break the rules and suffer the consequences in combat.
So, if you are a leader at any level, I would encourage you to create a culture of good order and discipline now. It will pay huge dividends when you and your Airmen are in combat.