Family

My Special Ops Training Made Me a Better Dad

Preparing for the worst, mentoring future leaders — a veteran shares top parenting lessons courtesy of U.S. Army Ranger School

You’ve see me around. You’ve laughed under your breath at me as I’ve taken three little boys into the bathroom and scrambled to keep control. I’m the dad who is struggling with the stroller in the parking lot while I manhandle three stuffed animals, a snack bag, and a very, very smelly diaper.

Or maybe you’ve fled from me in museums as my boys and I move down toward the Stegosaurus exhibit.

Either way, I look very different today than I did a few years earlier. Back then, I was a Special Forces officer, a Green Beret, working in combat zones with foreign military forces in Iraq, Bosnia, and other locations around the globe to secure American interests. Then, I looked cool — and, I dare say, I was cool. I was loaded with weapons, ammunition, a distinctive camo uniform with no patches (a sure spec ops giveaway that fooled no one), and body armor, giving briefings to “important people.” Today, I’m a dad with a mission to raise great little people. And I love it.

You can never control the elements, but you can control how you feel and how to make yourself happy. You can teach this to kids in small steps.

Most of the time, the image of a Special Operations-experienced dad raising children makes us think of the movie “300,” except with more spears and knife play. In fact, my dad gently warned me that I should wait until my boys were “at least five” before I taught them how to shoot. This coming from a man who had rules on how cold it could be (10 below, or maybe -15 if he was tired) before he would drive my brothers and me on our paper route. Contrary to what most of you think, the Special Operations is actually great preparation to being a parent with young kids.

My best parenting lessons came from the U.S. Army’s Ranger School and the U.S. Army Special Forces Qualification Course that I attended back in the 1990s at Fort Benning, Georgia, and Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Ranger School is a 68-day Pain Fest where you get one meal a day, four hours of sleep (if you are lucky), and walk for miles carrying 80-pound rucksacks with no end in sight.

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Ranger School students are taught how to patrol and lead small teams, conduct ambushes, swim through swamps, live in the desert, parachute, and descend rapidly from helicopters on large gym ropes. Ranger School teaches you more than anything else how to lead and survive in combat. After Ranger School, I served in the infantry in Korea and the United States, then went onto the 12 month-long Special Forces Qualification Course with Special Forces Selection, the Qualification Course, and SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) all tied up with one neat and tidy bow.

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Most important to me today, however, was that Ranger School and SFQC taught me how to be a great dad.

Here are five top Special Operations lessons worth sharing:

1.) You Have to Learn to Be Happy, Anywhere, Under Any Conditions
One of the delights of Ranger School was that you were always wet from the swamps, cold from the Georgia mountains, and tired — you had to learn to perform no matter how you felt. Just put on a smile and laugh. You learned quickly to “embrace the suck” with humor. You can never control the elements, but you can control how you feel and how to make yourself happy. You can teach this to kids in small steps.

I remember coming home from a trip and we were stuck in security. Sensing my frustration, my eldest said, “Don’t worry, Dad. We are almost through, then I’ll get you a coffee. Everything will be OK.” It’s great when this principle of happiness is taught back to you. Today, my boys absolutely love bad weather. Snow, rain, and cold make them happy.

2.) Packing Snacks Is Like Packing Ammunition: Always Pack More Than You Think You Need
In Special Forces training, there is a realistic simulation for everything. Think you want more explosives to help knock out an enemy radar site? Here is 30 pounds of simulated C4 for you to carry 12 miles through the woods at 2 a.m. Don’t want to take it? You can jeopardize the entire mission if you do not have it.

In the end, you take 35 pounds just to be sure. For kids, snacks help immeasurably throughout the day. Snacks are cost effective, you can find healthy options, and they are right there — you don’t have to find a store. Just like ammunition, I always bring more; you never know when you will encounter horses that need some carrots. In addition, teaching kids to plan to bring water, milk, and snacks helps start to create a sense of responsibility, independent action, and personal initiative.

3.) Get Lots of Physical Activity During the Day
In both Ranger School and the SFQC, the military combat history of the U.S. Army Rangers was an ever-present guide. Rangers during the Korean War walked up and down the length of Korea’s mountains. In Vietnam, Special Forces spent weeks in the field tracking and reporting on enemy units — all while leading native tribesmen and teaching them to be better soldiers. The lesson for Special Operations is that fitness is a must. You have to be able to run, to ruck (walk miles with an 80-pound pack and a smile), and climb. Kids love high-energy fitness. Parks, hills, swimming, walks in the woods, and sports are great ways for kids to expend their energy and learn the importance of physical activity.

4.) Planning Is Everyone’s Job
In SERE school during the evasion phase, every mission begins with a detailed plan, called an Operations Order. In the Operations Order, everyone learns the entire plan, what the timeline is, who performs which combat tasks, and why the mission is vital. For kids, they love to know what the plan for the day will be. A good plan makes everyone accountable for a successful mission. Finally, in the infantry, we all knew about Commander’s Intent, what a successful mission will achieve. Commander’s Intent helps you prepare for the unexpected. For kids, having a plan is great, but also knowing when to change a plan for some new adventure or an unexpected museum makes the day an adventure. All kids love an adventure.

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At our favorite museums, I will put the littlest one in charge — but he has to create a plan and then lead everyone.  Furthermore, if he sees a new exhibit or something interesting, he is rewarded for using this initiative by being granted a new adventure. Planning is great, but initiative wins the day.

5.) Treat and Train Everyone as a Leader
At Ranger School and in Special Forces Selection and Phase I, everyone was a leader. The Ranger School classes and SFAS are a mix of officers, sergeants, and enlisted, but everyone will lead everyone else on a patrol regardless of their rank. Another aspect of Ranger School was that anyone, at a moment’s notice, could be placed in a leadership position. Not paying attention or bad-mouthing the other guy? Chances are you’d be in charge at 3 a.m. in a thunderstorm in the North Georgia mountains — it’s best to be a team player.

Kids can start developing as leaders from a very young age. The toddler can fill the water bottles and carry them to the car. The eldest can check the diaper bag. The middle child can ask everyone’s snack preference. Kids love tasks and they love to help; giving them ever-increasing leadership challenges makes them engaged, happy, and wanting to help more.

These are just a few of the lessons I think about every time I open a plastic bin in the basement looking for Christmas lights and see an old uniform with my Ranger and Special Forces tabs on it. I find myself smiling and remembering my days at good old Fort Benning and Fort Bragg.

As I raise my kids to be great people and be the best parent and husband that I can be, I remember and apply all those great lessons that my Ranger and Special Forces Instructors taught me so many years ago.

Chad Storlie is a retired lieutenant colonel with 20-plus years of active and reserve service in infantry, Special Forces, and joint headquarters units, and an OpsLens contributor. He served in Iraq, Bosnia, Korea, and throughout the U.S. and was awarded the Bronze Star, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Special Forces Tab, and the Ranger Tab. He is the author of two books, “Combat Leader to Corporate Leader” and “Battlefield to Business Success,” and his work has been published in The Harvard Business Review blog, Business Week Online, and over 40 other publications. He has a BA from Northwestern University and an MBA from Georgetown University. This article originally appeared in OpsLens and is used by permission.

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