Skip to main content
Management in Practice

How do you lead when lives are on the line?

Combat leadership involves making countless decisions, with limited information, shifting variables, and extreme time constraints. Colonel Rich Morales ’99 and soldiers from his battalion describe their 15-month deployment in Iraq.

By Ted O'Callahan

More than two dozen Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters dropped out of the night sky, blowing a dust storm into the darkness. It was July 2008. Several hundred U.S. Army soldiers deployed across miles of desert to take control of a string of remote villages in Iraq’s Diyala province. The task force of armor, infantry, and cavalry units, part of the First Battalion of the 35th Armor Regiment—the “Iron Knights”—hoped to stop the movement of arms and explosives through this volatile area.

Previous U.S. military forays had been met with immediate attack. “We came in expecting a fight,” says Major Russell Wagner, then a captain. It was the largest helicopter-based assault in the First Armored Division’s history, but when the roar of the rotors faded, what remained was silence and oppressive heat. At 1:00 a.m., the temperature was still nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Soldiers began clearing houses, a process that went on for hours, then days. They did this while hauling upwards of 70 pounds of body armor, weapons and ammunition, radios and spare batteries. “It is physical work; you’re climbing walls and going through windows. You enter every room prepared for a tactical fight. And once the sun came up, it got really hot,” says Wagner. Hot on the order of 130 degrees.

In the cement-block and mud-brick buildings, they found women, children, and a few old men. Perhaps a sign that the local men were involved in the insurgency. Perhaps a sign they had been abducted by Al Qaeda in Iraq or foreign fighters to intimidate the populace.

Though the expected combat hadn’t materialized, the heat was causing casualties. This added pressure on Wagner to secure a good location for soldiers to recover and to find a suitable combat headquarters for the operation.

An older man who spoke a little English warned him of a mined house about a kilometer away. The soldiers knew that improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were increasingly being placed not just along roads but in buildings too. In planning the mission, the battalion identified strategically valuable structures that were, therefore, the most likely to be booby-trapped. Wagner showed the man an aerial photo of the village. “He pointed to a house across from the compound where I would have put a bomb,” Wagner says. “We put that house off limits and began to clear the other one for a headquarters.”

Colonel Rich Morales ’99, then a lieutenant colonel and the battalion commander, says, “The absolutely most common thing that happens in complex military operations is that you have a detailed plan, then the enemy gets a vote, the weather gets a vote, equipment gets a vote, and you have to adapt.” He adds, “You’ve got a lot of information coming at you. You’ve got to decide what is important very quickly.”

Roughly 100 soldiers occupied the large multi-level house and courtyard as an infantry company command post and battalion tactical operations center. But the old man had never seen his village from above; he had pointed to the wrong building in the aerial photo. The infantry clearing team didn’t detect the barrels of explosives expertly hidden under the floor tiles or the detonating wires running through the walls. The soldiers lying down for their first sleep in 30 hours had been lured into an ingeniously executed trap.

The enemy didn’t get the chance to detonate that house bomb because an alert sergeant happened to notice some copper wires sticking out of the ground in a nearby field that was being used as a helicopter landing zone. The wires were traced back to the house; it was evacuated quickly and quietly under the cover of darkness and demolished the next morning.

“There isn’t a day where you don’t make a decision that could be the wrong decision,” Morales says. But a mission continues without pause, so there isn’t room for nagging doubt. “You have to keep your head no matter how bad it gets. You can’t let it eat away at you. And it didn’t. We really didn’t let it sink in, how catastrophic those losses could have been, until we were back in Baghdad.” Still, the weight of what is at stake takes a toll. “It’s very hard to get a great night’s sleep when you know that the decisions you’re making, and it sounds dramatic, but in that context, they have life-or-death consequences,” Morales says. Those decisions were everywhere for the first days in Diyala.

Just a few miles away, Captain Jon-Paul Hart’s soldiers were isolated from these events, and dealing with their own issues. As a forward outpost, they had fewer supplies and were running out of the water bottles they had carried out of the helicopters in body bags. As the soldiers waited for resupply, there were so many heat injuries that they used their entire supply of 40 or 50 saline IVs.

Even in the shade of the mud-walled sheep corral that served as their base, they were sweating and coated in a grime of wind-blown dust. The villages sit on a desert plain cut through with irrigation canals. The channels had been dry so long that they were overgrown with brush. With few bridges crossing the network of canals, Hart was, in effect, at the center of a maze.

On the second day, Hart rationed the unit’s water. That decision might have seemed unduly harsh later that day, when he watched from a rooftop as a convoy of three vehicles bringing new supplies negotiated the maze. Then there was a silent flash as a mine blew the front end off the lead vehicle. The vehicles were still far enough away that the sound of the explosion took a few beats to reach Hart’s unit.

A call on the radio let Hart know everyone in the convoy was alive and that they would regroup in the remaining vehicles and get to Hart’s unit by dark. Eventually, the convoy started moving forward again. Another flash. Another delayed boom. Again a call saying that all were alive, but with only one vehicle remaining, the convoy had to turn back.

Soldiers are trained to be comfortable being uncomfortable, but the lack of water was becoming dangerous, especially after sandstorms prevented a helicopter water drop. By the time vehicles made it through with a resupply, a non-commissioned officer under Hart’s command had suffered seizures as a result of dehydration.

What followed was a long, frustrating week for the soldiers of thinking that the road was clear, then having another mine go off. Over the course of the operation, several soldiers were wounded and evacuated and Task Force Knight lost several dozen vehicles. An engineer in the brigade was killed by a mine while clearing roads to support the mission. The soldiers were angry. As Wagner describes it, “They were getting punched but weren’t able to hit back.”

The company commanders, each leading 80 to 100 soldiers, had to keep the troops focused and positive while figuring out responses to the bigger problems. “Each company commander is solving 90% of the problems they face,” Morales says. Because commanders can’t always communicate efficiently and easily with each other, the battalion commander works as a nexus to both prioritize and synchronize resources and knowledge. “I’m trying to give the commanders as much information as possible, both intelligence and context, so they can see patterns and communicate laterally,” Morales says.

“It was very important to solve the ‘we’re getting blown up as we move down the road problem,’ but I couldn’t get fixated on that,” Morales says. The opposition aimed to set up obstacles that would distract and batter the U.S. forces enough that they would settle for a reduced goal, leave areas uncleared, or simply quit. Morales had to keep the big picture in mind. “Our mission was to find the network that was planning and synchronizing operations, and dispatching suicide bombers and IED materials from out in the middle of nowhere, disrupting the lives of millions of people in Baghdad.”

The soldiers also had to engage the local Iraqis who had been brutalized by Al Qaeda in Iraq. The area had seen kidnappings, shootings, and decapitations. The locals knew that interacting with the U.S. military would open them to reprisals. They had little motive to trust the soldiers who had appeared from out of the sky one night.

“Unlike our operations in Baghdad, where we had a relationship with people, we just appeared in Diyala,” Morales says. “When I met with the community and religious leaders, there was outright hostility. They said, ‘There’s absolutely nothing going on here that has anything to do with Baghdad. We’re just simple farmers.’ That’s how that relationship started.” Morales saw it as his duty to develop these relationships in the service of the longer-term mission. “Trust isn’t a switch you flip.” he says.

To make progress, Morales needed soldiers prepared for a fight but also able to contribute to building positive relationships. “It was important to explain to the younger soldiers the huge distinction between targeting foreign fighters—true extremists who, under anyone’s definition, are murderers—and the population, who is going to be stuck there once we leave. The fact that they’re not smiling at you doesn’t mean they’re bad people,” Morales says. “I made certain every soldier understood that the definition of success was not pulling the trigger. Of course, you’re going to fight to defend yourself or to accomplish a specific offensive mission. But for the most part, our unit culture drove priorities that stressed the stability of Iraq, training of its security forces, and working with the Iraqis to make it a safer place long after U.S. forces are gone.”

The battalion discovered large caches: 50-gallon drums filled with explosives, mortar tubes, and weapons buried in fields as well as tunnels and fortified bunkers stockpiled for extended fights. “Showing the locals these sites opened their eyes,” Morales explains. “As a consequence of doing that, we got a lot more cooperation.”

When Task Force Knight began the mission in Diyala, it had already been deployed in Iraq for several months. In fact, most of the unit remained in Baghdad, continuing a civil/military rebuilding effort in Bayah, Rashid, and Doura—areas that make up one third of the city, where some two million people live. Restoring control and establishing a permanent American-trained Iraqi presence in Diyala was critical to rebuilding Baghdad, but it stretched the battalion to operate in two areas. The soldiers had to be efficient with the tools at their disposal.

Morales had learned in Baghdad how important it was to push beyond brief social interactions to let the Iraqis know their priorities were being taken into consideration. “A community leader really wanted me to go to an all-day celebration for a tribal elder,” he says. “I knew it was important, but I had 10 places I had to be. Nevertheless, the best thing for me to do was to spend an entire day drinking chai and meeting people’s families. There’s a great picture, which I’m sure someday will be good blackmail material, where I’m dancing the ritual dance of the community, in all my gear, of course. The protective guys were making sure no sniper took me out.” He adds, “Someone could make the argument that day was wasted. But that’s how you build trust, even if it’s a little counter-intuitive.”

During their time in Diyala, the Iron Knights did enter firefights with insurgents. They also captured many likely suicide bombers, including several women wearing fake pregnant bellies containing explosives. In all cases, the priority was capture over kill. “When you capture somebody, you’re able to then understand what motivates them,” Morales says. “You’re able to learn. That’s how we were able to dismantle entire networks.”

Throughout the “kinetic” mission in Diyala, Morales and his staff had to pay attention not just to immediate crises but also to the ongoing management of the 850-person organization his battalion represented. “There’s this misconception that it’s easy to lead in the military. You just tell people what to do,” Morales says. “Fifteen months is a long time to try to lead an organization by compliance leadership. It doesn’t work. It’s very corrosive.” So the tasks of assessing and developing platoons, companies, batteries, troops, and the officers and NCOs leading them continued. The troops’ morale was, not surprisingly, a constant concern. Morales spent time talking with every one of the platoons in the task force. He hosted monthly “open mic” calls in which he fielded questions from families back home in Germany; the battalion sent a weekly newsletter to friends and families worldwide. The ongoing communication with the solders’ personal networks served as a way of making sure families understood what their soldiers were doing and how valuable their support was to the Iron Knights’ success.

For the battalion leadership, 18-hour days, seven days a week, were the norm throughout the 15-month deployment. “I never got eight hours of sleep,” Morales says. “It was one long day with intermittent naps. I don’t know many commanders that do it any differently. It’s a very dynamic, dangerous, and demanding environment.”

Nonetheless, Morales describes his time leading the Iron Knights as the best job he will ever have in the Army. At the same time, the experience was so challenging that Morales can tell you, as other soldiers can, exactly how many days he was deployed: 1,087 days in Iraq in three deployments over five years.

When things were hardest, he thought of what mattered most to him, the reason he was doing the work: family and friends. And he tried to spend time with the soldiers in his command. “It’s so rewarding to be out and around your soldiers. If somebody smiles at you when they’re caked in mud and anxious to share with you the thing that they figured out that nobody else had and they’re 21 years old, but they’re responsible for an entire neighborhood of Baghdad…it’s almost indescribable. To feel you’re part of that, that’s a pretty good feeling.”

The Iron Knights battalion suffered numerous injuries and lost a soldier to an explosive device in Sadr City during its 15-month deployment in Baghdad and Diyala province. The battalion left Iraq in 2009.
Rich Morales is now a colonel and is attached to the Defense Attaché Office of the U.S. Embassy in London while he pursues a PhD in Strategy at Cambridge University.
Russell Wagner is now a major and is an instructor at the Maneuver Captains Career Course at Fort Benning.
Jon-Paul Hart, also now a major, is doing graduate study at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.
Two officers who served under Morales’ command, John Perez and Zandra Minor, are among the 11 veterans and active service members currently studying at Yale SOM.