This past week, a subscriber to the Weekly Profile (and a longtime friend of ours) shared a podcast with us that highlighted a number of concepts we teach in our programs and includes a timely, relevant story that we just had to share.  The podcast is from the Modern War Institute at West Point and features Army Major Tyson Walsh discussing the events of December 2013, when he had a literal run-in with a terrorist inside the wire at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.

The Story

First, I highly recommend that you listen to the entire hour-long podcast so you can hear the story in Major Walsh’s words. Here are the highlights and key points:

  • While out for a run around 3 A.M., Major Walsh observed a person dressed as an Afghan contractor standing at the entrance of his unit’s motor pool.
  • More alert to potential threats because of recent looting that had occurred, Major Walsh was immediately suspicious of the person.
  • While running past the person, he noticed that he was wearing running shoes (something he had never seen an Afghan contractor wear before), and observed odd behavior from him, as he was looking down at the ground and avoiding eye contact with the Major.
  • After running past the person to give himself a few seconds to think through his options, he decided to turn around and confront the individual in an attempt to deter any looting.
  • Upon approaching the person for a second time, Major Walsh saw that the Afghan contractor had the chain and the lock to the motor pool gate in his hand.
  • Major Walsh changed his mind and, instead of attempting to deter the crime, decided to stop it.
  • Major Walsh tackled the individual and, after realizing that he wasn’t just a low-level criminal, found that the intruder was responding to being in a fight like a professional.
  • Major Walsh realized that the person was wearing some sort of vest under his clothes and intuited that he likely had a suicide vest on and a detonator somewhere on his body.
  • Realizing he wouldn’t have time to respond in any other way, Major Walsh killed the individual to prevent the Afghan from detonating his vest and killing both of them.
  • Major Walsh was then attacked by a body guard/lookout that was nearby who responded to help the Afghan being attacked.
  • In the end, as a result of his actions, Major Walsh ultimately interrupted a plan that was being undertaken by terrorists to place IEDs throughout all of Bagram Airfield that would be detonated at some point in the future.

But here is the key takeaway. This incident occurred on Major Walsh’s second deployment. Prior to his first deployment to Afghanistan, he attended the Army’s Advanced Situational Awareness Training (ASAT) Course, which uniquely prepared him for this encounter. While this is not a course our company taught or participated in, it is very similar to the Combat Hunter Course and includes lessons on analyzing the universal signs of human behavior discussed in our foundational book Left of Bang: How the Marine Corps’ Combat Hunter Program Can Save Your Life. 

In hindsight, Major Walsh attributes the ASAT course with helping him identify that this supposed contractor didn’t fit the baseline.  Based on his understanding of what type of behavior and clothing was normal, he realized that a decision needed to be made regarding this anomaly and jumpstarted his decision-making process to figure out what he should do to mitigate this threat.

The Role of the Decision Tree

As I listened to the podcast, there was one thing that immediately stood out to me: how quickly Major Walsh made an initial decision about what to do in response to the recognized anomaly, and then how quickly he changed his decision as information about the person’s intentions became more clear with each additional observation. The speed at which he adapted to the changing situation as he approached the terrorist showcases the importance of protectors having a well-thought out decision tree.

When using the Baseline + Anomaly = Decision observation structure that we teach at The CP Journal, being ready to make a decision and take action on it is critical.  We aren’t searching for threats simply to recognize threats.  We are searching for threats and anomalies so that we can stop the attack before it begins and actually get left of bang. Being ready to make the decision, without hesitating, and to engage the anomaly in some form has to be something that is simulated and discussed as often as possible during training to ensure that you are ready to act when the time comes.

In our Tactical Analysis Course, the decision tree that we teach our military and police officer clients to navigate is accomplished by answering a single question. Once I recognize an anomaly, do I have to kill the person, capture the person, or contact the person in order to prevent something bad from happening?  Kill, capture, contact, in that order, is how you consider and think about ways to proactively address some sort of threat and anomaly in these types of situations.

Which of those three decisions you make is determined by what you assess the person’s intentions to be.  Going back to the example of Major Walsh’s story:

  • Upon his first observation of the Afghan contractor, Major Walsh initially determined that the person’s intent was to steal things off of the Army vehicles staged in the motor pool. Because that intent wasn’t an imminent lethal threat and because the suspect wasn’t yet engaged in the act, Major Walsh determined that “contacting” the anomaly and potential criminal was the best course of action. 
  • It was only upon his second observation of the contractor that he saw the lock to the motor pool in his hand. At this point, he realized that the contractor wasn’t just a potential criminal, but that he was now engaged in the act. His intent was to enter an area (an anchor point) in which he didn’t belong. At this point, Major Walsh changed his decision from “contact” to “capture” because, while it still wasn’t clear that the person was posing a lethal threat, he was actively engaged in a crime.  This decision was immediately implemented as the Major charged and tackled the person.
  • Finally, it was only once Major Walsh was on top of the Afghan contractor that he saw the blasting caps in his hand and was able to feel the vest underneath his clothing. This observation led him to to adjust his assessment of the attacker’s intent for the final time and realize that this wasn’t a criminal pursuit, but one of violence to attack American soldiers. At this recognition, Major Walsh immediately adapted to the situation he faced, and made the decision to “kill” the anomaly.

Making a decision to take the life of another person isn’t something that should be taken lightly, but professional protectors should be able to have honest and frank conversations around this often uncomfortable topic. Not discussing the choices that protectors have to be able to make to stop violence from occurring can lead to people hesitating when they should be acting. In this case, it was because of Major Walsh interrupting this phase of the attack that the military was ultimately able to uncover a much larger plot, get further left of bang, and undoubtedly save lives. 

While the “kill, capture, contact” decision tree is what we recommend for members of the military and our country’s law enforcement officers consider in order to stop these threats, it should be noted that the decision to kill another person is something that is done if it is the only option available to them to save human life.  If there are other options available, we recommend you move further down the decision tree to less-lethal and less-permanent options to protect people from violence. It isn’t very different for security professionals, educators protecting our schools, or concerned individuals seeking to ensure their own safety.  When you identify a predator and someone who has a violent intent, knowing what decisions you have to make to protect yourself and others needs to be a thought process that you have practices and worked through before you find yourself in that situation.

Real-life case studies that discuss the pre-event indicators and the follow-through actions taken to get left of bang in actual scenarios are rare, and I hope that you have the time to listen to Major Walsh’s story about stopping this major attack so that you can consider how those lessons might apply to your own profession.

Subscribers to The CP Journal Academy can read a follow-up article about how the Major Walsh story can teach us about: the impacts of being in “Condition Red,” how engaging with an identified threat impacts your ability to perceive threats from your surroundings, and how behavioral analysis can help you get into and out of Condition Red quickly. Read the article here.