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Observations, Insights, and Lessons Learned for Future Special Operations Civil Affairs Medics

Photo Above, is from B Co 91st CA BN, Special Operations Civil Affairs Medical Sergeant instructing lifesaving care. (Courtesy of SFC Christopher Bryant, USA)

By Chris Bryant


If you want to learn new things, read old books.[1]

This quote resonates with me whenever I pick up a financial book or the latest exercise science article. I currently teach trauma medicine at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina as an instructor at the Special Warfare Medical Group. For the purpose of this article, I share seven key observations, insights, and lessons learned that are not only bedrock for me, but when followed will set up the next generation of Special Operations Civil Affairs Medics for success.

1. Healthy Skepticism

Most of the time, in the infancy of our careers, we take the word of leaders at face value. We implement practices and habits that may not be in the best interest of those around us or ourselves simply because that's the way we were taught to do something or that's the way our boss likes it. This resonates with the dangerous quote: we do things the way we do, because that's the way it's always been done.

The last decade has brought profound changes to the military medical community. Early in my medical career, I often implemented protocols regarding drug therapy or treatments that I was taught without questioning the science behind them. (Insert any number of examples you can think of from your career here). I implemented these without questioning the effect or harm I may cause to my patients. Competent leaders are produced and to do so we must have soldiers who recognize and implement critical thinking skills and encourage those around them to examine how to find the regulations and protocols, the doctrine that supports their decisions. If you do things this way, you learn and provide reasonable evidence for your decisions. This also produces leaders who can adapt as doctrine and standard operating procedure change.

2. Don’t write people off

You never know the skills and talents others possess. If you don't put them in the right situations or allow them to showcase themselves, you’ll never learn the capability of your peers and subordinates. Throughout my career, I judged a book immediately by the cover and I was often wrong for doing so. Sometimes those around you can possess a talent you may not immediately recognize. Everyone has a purpose and a talent. True leaders determine what that purpose or talent is and put people in ideal scenarios to use those talents. Those around may have an education in vehicles, science, writing, or weapons. Those around you possess experience and talents that only add to your toolbox. The most valuable teammates I had were those that didn't fit the stereotypical model of a special operations soldier. You truly never know a person's journey or story. You can't look at someone and judge their upbringing, pain, loss, and life experience. Take the time to learn about those around you, listen, and hear their story.

3. Fail often!

This is often the most taught lesson within the military. We wait too long to do things because we fear criticism that may come. from our peers or superiors. As an adult, I learned that the opinions of others don’t matter. In certain situations, you must pursue your goals, dreams, and aspirations without the support of those around you. Skepticism, criticism, and doubts hang on your shoulders, but the only way to live is to be true to yourself. Sometimes going on these journeys alone provides a way to build yourself and your internal resilience and adaptability. If you do this, you will come out to the other end, regardless of the outcome, a better person. Another quote I hold dear reads: sometimes, it's not about the destination so much as it is about the journey.[2] Enjoy the journey and enjoy the person you become in the pursuit of your happiness, your goals, and your dreams.

4. Be adaptable

Things change and that's a simple fact of life. Whether it's where we're conducting operations, performing medical procedures, the combat tactics we're using, the campaign strategy, the operating procedures or whatever it may be. Things change; thus, you must always be adaptable, be open to learning new things and how to do them. Understand that going into some tasks, regardless of rank, experience, or age. You may not be the expert. After graduating from the special operations combat medic course, I was training with many young Army medics. They taught me drug protocols and prolonged field care methods I hadn't thought of before. You're always able to learn something new from someone, regardless of rank, age, or background. If you fail to change with the times, you'll be written off and no longer needed. Seek to understand people's opinions and be open to change. Sometimes people fear change and choose not to adapt. They believe that because things are different from how they did it or how they're used to it, it's irrelevant, impractical, and not feasible, but that's not the case.

Bruce Lee had once said "be like water, my friends. As a young soldier, I was told I wouldn't have to be innovative if I was strong. I understood as I got older that being strong and creative is an even balance to being an effective leader and living a prosperous life. Some of my peers still rely on being strong instead of implementing intelligence to face their challenges.

5. Find an outlet

Sometimes you must take a break. After you accomplish something, whether incredible or a small goal like a college class or military school, reward yourself. Find a way to decompress and relax take a break on weekends, spend the day not talking about work, or spend time with the ones you care about and love the most. Whether it be a qualification course, a challenging school, or maybe even college, help those around you and uplift each other. A most extraordinary joy is providing stability for your family and peers and being present for your friends. Put your phone away and spend a Saturday with them doing something new.

6. Find a Mentor

I did not believe in the mentoring mindset for many years. I thought there were better pathways than having a mentor, but there was a time I met a team sergeant, who had led me down the right path, teaching me new avenues for military education and understanding the schools and courses I needed for progression. He had also enlightened me to understand why certain things were necessary for the military, the why behind questioning leadership, healthy thought processes, utilizing doctrine, and evidence-based medicine. Overall, his mentoring has helped me improve my decision-making process.

Later on down the road, I had a First Sergeant who was my rock. He guided and mentored me and others he saw potential to be influential leaders. He gave us complex assignments, put us in tough situations, and challenged us in new ways we hadn't faced before to transform us into better leaders. He always listened and explained things effectively and clearly. He always understood our side; if anything, he taught us that presence is sometimes the most important thing you can provide to your subordinates, leaders, and peers. He was never too busy or in a lousy mood to engage you in healthy conversation. He always knew when something was wrong with you and always had a way of implementing empathy and sympathy in everyone he encountered. Unfortunately, sometimes these leaders aren't appreciated and understood until they're gone. Until we experience bad leadership or encounter leadership that doesn't live up to our expectations. Take these people and appreciate them. When they're gone, you can still carry on the lessons they pass with you when you are in a leadership position, understand right and wrong, and implement change appropriately.

7. Always be a student

Finally, the most powerful lesson you can learn is to be both a professional and a professional student, both of whom a lifelong learner. This lesson aligns closely with the previous observation of being adaptive, but being a lifelong learner stands out as a unique mindset that has served me well. I'm never afraid to admit when I'm wrong. When I'm with my subordinates or juniors, I openly admit I can learn things from them. I emulate their actions and discover new ways to accomplish tasks. Being a perpetual student is not a shared mindset within the military. Having been an instructor for some time, I still get the weird look from students when I review their procedures or hands-on activities to see what techniques I want to use and imitate.

That said, there's always a subordinate, peer, or a superior that can teach you something. Through this mindset, I'm always a student, always learning, and continuously adapting to my environment. The moment we think we know too much is when we are at our most dangerous. However, there's still such a grand scale of a subject to learn we can begin chipping away at learning piece by piece and improving our techniques and skills to formulate us into better operators, medics, and soldiers. Take this with you, and always be a student.


There is a fine and tactful art of being a great disturber. Many confuse passion with anger; angry people rarely back up arguments, angry people scream and leave. Passionate people invested in people, fight for what they believe in. Passionate people master their craft to challenge the status quo and shock the system, eventually launching it into its next evolution. Always be a disturber. Others will judge. Disturbers make the system uncomfortable, but they are needed for organizational success. If you fall into a thinking trap of not implementing these thoughts in your everyday interactions, take time weekly to reflect on yourself. Every Friday, I would sit in the team room and trace the week's events, what I did well, and what I could have done better. Creating an environment that promotes your health, well-being, and growth will enable you to grow and become the teammate, parent, and spouse your family and team deserve.

About the Author

Chris Bryant is a Civil Affairs Senior Non-commissioned Officer currently serving in the Special Warfare Medical Group. Chris manages multiple Instagram accounts that promote Civil Affairs and connect interested candidates with SORB Recruiters.


The opinions, conclusions and recommendations expressed or implied above are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of any organization or any entity of the U.S. government.


[1] Jahshan, Shady, and L Nelson Hopkins 3rd. “If you want to learn new things, read old books: cutdown techniques are well described in the old literature.” World neurosurgery vol. 77,1 (2012): 83-4. doi:10.1016/j.wneu.2011.01.038 [2] Emerson , R. W. (2007). In Self-Reliance. essay, Arc Mano.


2 opmerkingen

Arthur Davido
Arthur Davido
23 aug. 2023

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21 jul. 2023

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