During my six-month tour in Kandahar, I lost 6 of my 9 lives. Some brushes with death were closer than others—the closest was being blown up.
In the immediate aftermath of major combat with the Taliban, my squadron was tasked to build a road linking two coalition forward operating bases in what was just an active battlefield. To disrupt our construction efforts, the insurgents would often re-infiltrate the area and plant improvised explosive devices (IED). These bombs were the greatest threat to our forces – doubly so for the engineers, as it was our job to find and neutralize them.
Racing to get ahead of one of my dozers, which was currently unprotected, my eight-wheeled Light Armoured Vehicle struck an IED.
The explosion was so loud I didn’t hear it. I felt the shockwave travel up through my feet, legs, and the rest of my body and a rush of air coming up and out of the opened hatches in the turret where I was standing.
I blacked out momentarily. It couldn’t have been more than a few seconds, as I was still standing when I opened my eyes. The vehicle was engulfed by smoke and dust. Luckily nothing was on fire after the explosion. I was stunned and slow to react. It was as if time had slowed down. I turned left to my gunner and said “what the fuck was that?” No answer.
That was when it dawned on me that we had just been blown-up.
I could start to recognize my body’s physiological response to stress and shock: Tunnel vision, increased heart rate, loss of fine motor skills. I wasn’t thinking clearly. Even if I had known what to do, I wouldn’t have been able to communicate it coherently. My breathing was uneven and I had trouble writing anything down.
In this state, I knew that I shouldn’t get on the radio. Panic is contagious and if my troops heard me on the radio in a disoriented or panicked state, then things would go from bad to worse quickly.
After several years of reflection and consolidating the insights, here is what I learned from that experience.
- Empower your People. The explosion injured three soldiers. Immediately after the detonation, when I was knocked out of commission, my subordinate commanders took over. In fact, soldiers of all ranks took over. Things instinctively got done. Troops on the perimeter continued to cover potential enemy avenues of attack—nothing would distract them from this task. Other troops evacuated the casualties and started to formulate a vehicle recovery plan. In the Canadian Army, we strive to build a culture wherein decisions are delegated down to the lowest possible level. In war, this is an absolute necessity as there is far too much chaos for any one leader to even try to manage on their own. However that initiative doesn’t just materialize when the situation demands. Leaders need to cultivate, nurture, and sustain it well before the crisis hits.
- Resilience Breathing. Before I got on the radio, I remembered my training and performed two cycles of what the military calls “box breathing.” The pattern is to breathe in for four seconds, hold for four, breathe out for four, and finally hold for four. Conscious control of my breathing lowered my heart rate, restored my peripheral vision, and calmed me down. What took longer to come back was my ability to write. My brain knew what needed to be written down, yet I had trouble communicating that to my fingers. My dexterity just wasn’t there. In a crisis, when you’ve been hit hard, there’s no better way to regain balance or composure than by taking a moment to pause, breathe, and reset.
- Own your Experiences. Some things seemingly happen for a reason and some things seemingly do not. I’m not here to debate the concept of fate. For example, why am I still here and relatively unscathed while the guy who was standing next to me isn’t? I don’t know. And if even if I had the answer I’m not sure what I’d do with it. What I do believe is most important is that regardless of how or why something happened, we must own our reaction to it. Own the experience and be a better person for it. Own the experience and share its lessons so others may profit. That is the ultimate hallmark of accountability.
- Gratitude. I now say good morning to the Sun.
To lead others effectively starts with leading yourself. There are steps that you can take before, during, and after a chaotic / traumatic event to prepare, react, and recover accordingly. Most people will never be in a vehicle struck by an IED, but in life, business etc, we all get “blown up.”
When you get blown up, will you be ready?
About the Author
In 2006, then Major Mark Gasparotto deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan as the Commander of 23 Field Squadron. The Squadron provided combat engineer support to the 1st Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group during Canada’s second rotation in theatre. Upon his return home, Mark and 12 of his former officers and soldiers wrote the book Clearing the Way: Combat Engineers in Kandahar, now an award winning documentary film.
Retiring from the Canadian Armed Forces in 2017 at the rank of Colonel, Mark is now the President of the Gasparotto Group.
The Gasparotto Group helps organizations create cultures that develop highly effective leaders and build strong, resilient teams.