Updated: Apr 22, 2020
By Matthew Peterson
I remember standing in formation on a training field at Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) San Diego as a Drill instructor (DI), hands on his hips and Campaign Cover masking his eyes, glared upon us from the elevated wooden platform. Next to him was a rucksack and a dummy—a lifeless, plastic body. He dumped the ruck’s contents on the platform and picked up a combat boot. He held the boot over his head and belted out in that sharp gravelly voice that all Drill Instructors are seemingly issued, "Alright Recruits, can anybody tell me what this is?"
We all shifted our eyes from side to side without moving our heads, was this a trick? Someone finally yelled, "Sir, it’s a boot, Sir!" We all held our breath.
The DI unholstered his knife-hand and aimed it in the direction of the voice, “It’s not just a boot!” he bellowed, "IT’S A WEAPON!" With that, he began beating the dummy with the boot. "A dedicated Marine can crush a man’s skull with this boot." Next, he picked up a T-shirt. "What’s this?" he demanded. There was a pause. “IT’S A WEAPON!” he blared and began choking the dummy with the twisted T-Shirt. It went on like this with everything in the ruck—the entrenching tool, a sock, a toothbrush—each time screaming “What is this!” and the recruits replying louder and louder, "IT’S A WEAPON!"
The lesson that day was, anything a determined Marine can get his hands on is a weapon. You are never unarmed; you are limited only by your imagination. Although I left the Marines more than two decades ago, this lesson never left me.
When I first came to Civil Affairs, I had the honor of serving in the 83rd and 84th Civil Affairs Battalions. Both were recently activated, and formal training opportunities were sporadic and limited. Teams and companies scrounged to build training without those sweet Special Operations Major Force Program 11 funds and prepackaged training programs. Some decided to bellyache about unfairness, to complain, to give up, to reclass. Others grabbed the proverbial boot, T-shirt, or sock and made it a weapon! We got into whatever courses we could. Whether it was online, a “Big Army” course, whether we developed it ourselves, or from a different branch of service, it didn’t matter. We did FEMA courses, Coursera, Security Cooperation, visited Emergency Operations Centers, Fire Departments, emailed experts, contacted other services, and reached out to friends.
Upon transferring to a G9 position in Korea, I was told to get ready to be a “party planner." Rather than accept this fate, I sought an online certification in UN Logistics and Security Cooperation in my spare time to add value to the unit mission, elevate the importance of the G9, and gain relevancy in a multi-national theater.
After moving on to the 95th Civil Affairs Brigade, I still remember the lessons I learned at MCRD and in my prior Civil Affairs assignments. I take every opportunity to sit in on a seminar, do an online course, read a book, or do some self-study. When assigned to a combatant command (COCOM) outside of my regional expertise, I enrolled in a JKO French course online and scored a 0+/1+ on the DLPT after the 80-hour program. I listened to podcasts, as well as read journal articles, books and research papers to get familiar with my new area of operations.
We should remember that the weapons platform does not make the Soldier, nor the funding method, nor the method of learning. Humans are always more important than hardware! One of the most ignorant things I’ve ever heard regarding internally sourced team or company-level training (which includes online training) is, “That’s just not SOF.” These detractors should invest some time and read some history of Special Operations and other warriors who have operated in austere environments against a superior enemy.
Russell Volkmann, an ARSOF founder and leader of the Philippine resistance movement in World War II, never went to a high-speed school. Admiral Milton Miles, the founder of the Sino-American Cooperation Organization in World War II China and the precursor of the Navy SEALs, never attended a formal civil engagement course or unconventional warfare seminar. The Apache Indians never got a Ranger Tab, and Comanche never got a Combat Infantryman Badge. The enemies that we will face someday on the field of battle will likely have researched their methods via smartphone and the internet. They aren’t in it for badges, ribbons, or a cool story. They don’t have the luxury of special funding programs, training pipelines, and specialized gear. They take what we throw away and fashion it into deadly weapons, turning airplanes into missiles and soda cans into improvised explosive devices. They turn their weaknesses into strengths and turn our actions into weaponized narratives that motivate and mobilize populations. They are resourceful and determined.
Today, as many of us are teleworking, I’ve heard some complain about not having anything to do, while others complain about the value online training. You get out of a thing what you put into it. An online training course may seem as useless as an empty soda can, but if you are resourceful, you can pack that can with other discarded items; broken glass, rusty nails, ball bearings, and the explosive element of determination and disciplined initiative. The truth is, you are never truly unarmed—you are simply fooled by the limitations you put on yourself. If there is an online course, a webinar, or other training programs where you can learn just one thing, gain one insight, absorb a bit of useful information, then do it. Pick up that mouse or that book. Remember, "IT’S A WEAPON!"
Recommended Resources for self-study:
Joint Knowledge Online
o Senior Enlisted Joint Professional Military Education (SEJPME) I & II
o Search for language and advance language training programs
o Courses are free unless you want a certificate
o ICS 100, 200, and NIMS 700
Joint Special Operations University
o Introduction to Special Operations Forces
o Irregular Warfare
o Joint Special Operations Task Force Level 1
o Joint Fundamentals Course (CEP 1)
o Enterprise Management Course (CEP 2)
Peace Operations Training Institute
o Many free courses including Civil-Military Cooperation in Peace Operations
Defense Security Cooperation University
o Filter course catalog for “distance learning.”
SFC Matthew Peterson is the NCOIC of 97th Civil Affairs Battalion, Human Network Analysis Section. Before this assignment, he served as the Team Sergeant on CAT 121, Bravo Company, 91st Civil Affairs Battalion, the G9 NCOIC in 19th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, as well as on Civil Affairs Teams in the 83rd and 84th Civil Affairs Battalions. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in History, East Asian Studies, and Languages from Minnesota State University Moorhead, an MBA in International Business and Finance from Oklahoma City University, a Graduate Certificate from Joint Special Operations University, and has a Tier 1 certificate in DoD International Affairs. He has served in The Arabian Gulf, Afghanistan, Japan, Philippines, Korea, and Burkina Faso.
The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied above are the author's and do not reflect the views of any organization or any entity of the U.S. government.