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On Compassion & Kaizen

· Personal,Kaizen,Improvement

If you've been following along with me for a little while, you know that my "side hustle" is as a serving member of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) Primary Reserves (PRes).  In short, I'm in the army part-time.  If you've been following along a little longer, you know that I started out my military service as a musician, but recently completed an occupational transfer to the combat arms (Armoured Corps).  The circumstances behind my occupational transfer don't belong in this particular piece of writing, but suffice to say some of them were less positive than I would have liked.

Early on in my military career, I noticed how poorly the band was regarded in the eyes of the rest of the military, mostly due to their lack of basic soldier skills as a result of never doing anything beyond basic training.  I decided at that time that I wasn't going to be "that bandie" (a colloquial and not always affirmative term used for a military musician), and following my leadership courses in 2000, started teaching basic training ("boot camp") courses, and never looked back.

This past weekend, my unit was on an army base for our annual rifle qualification shoot, and we were joined by several members of the band, as well as a few of the clerks.  

Prior to stepping onto the firing line on any live fire range, all members who will be shooting - and I mean ALL members - must demonstrate under dry fire circumstances (no ammunition) that they are competent in their basic rifle handling skills, including loading the rifle, readying it to shoot, clearing any basic firing stoppages, and unloading and clearing the firearm.  For those of us who handle the rifle on a regular basis - a few times a month - these drills are so ingrained in us that we could get thumped over the head and handed a rifle and on the word of command "LOAD", we'd know exactly what to do.

But I know from experience that the support trades - especially musicians and clerks due to the extremely non-combat nature of their jobs - are typically not so comfortable with the drills.  Discussions about providing training opportunities aside (this is neither the time nor place to discuss those issues), I know it can be intimidating to be faced with trying to remember a drill one may not have done in months or even years, and wanting to do it safely in order to complete the shoot.

As one of the Sergeants in my unit was running a relay of shooters through these drills before their shoot, I noticed a couple of band members struggling with remembering how some of them went. 

For context, I'm not a particularly compassionate or patient person.  It maddens me as much as anyone that any member of the CAF isn't capable of picking up our service rifle that everyone gets training on, on spec, and can remember how to use it.  However, I also know that a live fire range is no place for impatience, anger, or reactivity.  These folks were here, out in the field with us, and they wanted to do their shoot.  And I wanted them to go on the firing line feeling comfortable, confident, and safe in their drills.

When the Sergeant was done I told him I was going to take the two I'd noticed struggling, and he put the call out to any of the band members and clerks that I'd be doing some review on the handling drills for those who wanted to join me.  I wound up with 8 members fully engaged in improving, and a couple more at the supervisory level who joined on and off to practice as well.

I didn't time how long it took me, but my best guess is that we spent about two hours going through everything with a couple of breaks.  I had the group relax - again, a live fire range is no place for any kind of uncomfortable or tense feelings.  I then started going through the drills, one by one, showing them how they went, then having them do it while I talked them through it, then a chance to do it by themselves with me watching...and in an environment where it was okay to make a mistake.  I was there to help if they did, and there to help guide them through.

I've often been told I'm a good teacher, and without trying to sound arrogant, I believe this to be true.  I understand that teaching is more than just showing and telling: it's about engaging the person being taught in the material, and asking the right questions so that they put the pieces together in their head.  Even with something physical, this is true.  Those things help build the muscle memory needed for tactile skills.

Finally, after we'd gone through everything, and the group was feeling more confident, I also briefly talked through the Principles of Marksmanship as a review.  Now, let me be clear.  I was by no means the best shot on that range nor the best coach.  Many of the men I work with are extremely experienced shooters and shooting coaches, and know far more than I do about accurately placing rounds on the target.  However, on a static shoot from the 100m mark, I can shoot marksman on our first level test, and I've coached a lot of brand new soldiers who have never shot a firearm before.

What I was, to those support trades, in that moment, was someone who was willing to take time with them to make them comfortable.  I talked to them a bit about how I'd gotten to where I was, and even when I was a military musician, the things I'd done to make sure that my soldier skills stayed current, and I encouraged them to do the same.  I encouraged them to talk to their supervisors about coming out and doing more army training with the unit if it didn't conflict with their other duties.  One of the support supervisors who was out was genuinely excited about that idea.

As I wrapped up the review session with these folks, I said something to them that I have said to many troops, subordinates, and friends over the years prior to setting foot on the range: Aim true, and shoot well.  I also said, "Do me proud."

I then said something else...something that was rarely said to me when I was a support trade who came out and "played in the mud", so to speak.  I said to them, "I'm not sure if anyone else will say this to you, so I'm going to say this.  Thank you for coming out here this weekend.  I'm really glad you're here and I'm glad you came out to shoot."  I meant every word.  It's hard and it's scary to show up for a training exercise where your skills are limited and you're not sure how you'll be treated by the other soldiers.  I wanted them to know it was not unnoticed, and that I, if no one else, had faith in them.  As they lined up in their shooting relay before going to the firing line, I gave everyone a fist bump.  I know from experience that a little encouragement goes a long way.

They all shot.  They all passed the qualification.  They thanked me for helping them.

Later that day, one of my supervisors came up to me with a message from the support supervisor who had been participating in the review sessions.  She had wanted him to know, but also wanted him to pass on to me, how much she appreciated what I'd done.  How much I'd made them feel comfortable and welcome.  He told me this and I'm pretty sure I blushed several shades of red.  I'm also pretty sure my little camoflauge heart exploded in that instant.  He and I have had a number of conversations over the last few years, pertaining to not doing something because you are a good person, but because it is the right thing to do.  He has certainly said that, in context to other situations, to me.  This past weekend that came back around to me.  I didn't necessarily help out because I'm a good person.  I don't always feel like a good person.  Some days I'm a right judgemental bitch.  That's neither here nor there.  I will go to the ends of the earth for someone who wants to get better.  Those members who sat in for rifle training review wanted to get better.  I wanted them to be safe on the range and to get better at a basic skill.  It was an unconscious decision for me and my brain had no thoughts of whether I should do it because I was a good person or not.  Helping them was 100% the right thing to do and I didn't have any second thoughts about doing it.

I am a firm believer in the concept of kaizen, so much so that the word is tattooed on my right arm.  Kaizen, loosely translated, means "continuous improvement".   In fitness I ascribe to this, for both my clients and myself.  I also do my utmost to instill it in my troops when I teach basic training or am in a supervisory position.  I always want to learn something that will make me a better soldier, a better personal trainer, and a better human, and I have a burning passion to want others to want the same.  To be continuously learning and improving.

As a lapsed bandie who spent 15 years prior to transferring to the combat arms doing as much combat training as possible , I am nearly as bad as a reformed smoker.  It is hard on me to see support trades who are rusty in their basic soldier skills.  In the past I may not have been kind about the abilities of those who were rusty.  But suddenly being on the other side and remembering what it was like to be in their shoes - remembering how much I was discriminated against, not for my gender, but for my trade - I realized that by being unkind I was part of the problem that I had so badly tried to fix as a bandie by becoming good at combat and soldier skills.  Watching those who had been willing to come out to the range, and spend a couple of days outside doing something they were unfamiliar with - and which was probably scary for them - shed some new light on the situation, and I genuinely wanted to help.  I knew I could be patient with them and I knew I could get them safe to step on the firing line.

The lessons I learned this weekend around compassion and what it can be in the construct of a situation that neither offers nor expects such was invaluable.  Maybe I'm not as much of a bitch as I think I am.  Maybe I've learned to do the right thing in certain circumstances.  And maybe, just maybe, I'm starting to figure out compassion.

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