by Zachary Willey
Sitting alone in the dark of Afghanistan after a roadside bomb tore apart one of my vehicles in my patrol, I wondered what I could do to ensure no officer found themselves in my position.
Could I have been better prepared? What was the leadership lesson?
Twelve months after setting foot in Afghanistan I redeployed with my Soldiers and my unit. My career continued. A few years later, while teaching here at West Point, it dawned on me, that in military education, we often play this stump the chump kind of game. Let me backtrack just a little and explain.
Not long ago, I was sitting in New Instructor Training for the Department of Military Instruction (DMI), and we were re-learning basic terms and symbols and tactics and all of the familiar concepts regurgitated and presented much the same way they are always presented.
One of my classmates turned and whispered to me, “Yo, I’m trying to buy some flashcards for terms and symbols, but there’s literally nothing out there. What the hell, I guess I’ll have to make my own.”
I was like, huh, maybe I should fill the gap!
And that was it. The inciting incident brought together years of experiences into a single moment. I was sitting alone again in Afghanistan; I was sitting in that classroom; I was designing my first product and getting ready for the first launch.
I’ve since read about entrepreneurs discovering the concepts for their products. If there’s a demand for something, you supply it and that makes you an entrepreneur.
A deck of flashcards, though simple and analog, carries tremendous value in a number of ways. First, it is a consolidation of vast amounts of information in a small and mobile package. Second, it summarizes the essentials of a body of knowledge. And third, it lasts. A deck of flashcards obtained as a cadet can last an entire career.
One thing led to another. I found a passion for teaching beyond just flashcards. Concepts came together for me. I haven’t looked back, and the journey is just beginning. It was so quick that it’s wild to already look back and see how many months have passed.
We give outdated and oftentimes ineffective methods of instruction, and then passing or failing, or doing really well, simply comes down to your natural capacity and how hard you study on your own. This is not how it should be. We do amazing things in the Army and our profession isn’t boring.
But why do we force ourselves to make it boring? Why do we make Army education suck?
I came to realize that there is no individual that can prevent the worst while facing a ruthless enemy. We may not be able to prevent every tragedy, but we can certainly prepare ourselves for the next one. Army Flashcards aims to do that.
We should make all of the science of our profession, all of the baseline doctrine and stuff, as easily digestible as possible, and in doing so, we raise the baseline performance of our Soldiers and leaders, if that makes sense. Rather than trying to wrestle their way through the Ranger Handbook, they should be focusing on how to apply it.
I have seen this philosophy validated in my classroom. I’ve since become the course director of military science for the West Point “Cow” (i.e. Junior) class.
My students’ OPORDs are now 1000x better than my students from my first semester—because we stopped pretending that the planning and execution of most parts of platoon operations was an art. Now we treat it like a science, a formula that sets the baseline that you move on from.
It’s something we can plan for. Something we can prepare for. Something we can study for.
The flashcard decks themselves are just one of the many things Army Flashcards is doing. I just finished producing the Ranger Handbook in audio format and should have it on Audible soon. It’s the only version in the entire world.
Why hasn’t the Army done this with all doctrine and schools?
I have articles and videos trying to break down basic stuff like METT-TC and COA Development down to a level that is super easy to understand and replicate.
I have quizzes on my website that make learning and testing yourself on the ranger handbook, terms and symbols—the goal is to make it all engaging. Make it not suck.
I’m trying to start a West Point Department of Military Instruction video series that records the step-by-step implementation of the Troop Leading Procedures and basic patrolling actions, like long halts, ORP occupation, leader’s recon, you name it.
We have a passion for making the military profession the best it can be. We start by helping our soldiers and leaders master the basics. Ultimately, my drive behind doing these flashcards, the Ranger School podcast, and all of the other projects in the same vein that I’m tackling because we can do better.
When I was working to get my flashcards into US Patriot, I got to talk with the COO on the phone, and one of the first things he said was “What’s stopping me from taking your idea, and just making these in-house ourselves?”
I said in response, “Ummmmmm, because I’m a veteran, and we both love America.” He kind of laughed and was like, “Yeah, I wouldn’t do that to you.” I then explained that I already had them made, and already had the whole process figured out, so it would save them a lot of time and stress. I guess it was convincing because now they sell my card decks all over the country.
You can also find them in many Post Exchanges across military installations.
I’m launching a new West Point trivia deck on 10 March that I’m really excited about.
I’m always available for questions through my website and social media. You can also sign up for the mailing list on the website to learn about everything else Army Flashcards is moving forward with.
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on March 10, 2019.