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Special Forces soldier wants to see military marksmanship training revamped

Top competitive shooter

Master Sgt. Scott Satterlee believes training should allow failures and uncertainties. Courtesy photo

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Master Sgt. Scott Satterlee is really good at shooting things. He's a member of Joint Base Lewis-McChord's elite 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne), where he's the noncommissioned officer in charge of JBLM's Special Forces Advanced Urban Combat Course.

He's also a nationally ranked competitive shooter, winning top spots in contests around the country.

Satterlee has learned a lot in the world of competitive shooting. It has influenced the way he shoots - as well as the way he now views military marksmanship training. After years of combat deployments around the world, training soldiers and shooting at weapon ranges around the United States, he thinks it's time we revamp the way we think about firearms training.

He says new approaches could save a lot of lives - for soldiers and civilians alike.

Satterlee joined the Army out of high school and has been a member of elite fighting units throughout most of his career. His first assignment was with the 2nd Ranger Battalion before moving on to 1st SFG (A). While many units focus on its soldiers being proficient in whatever weapon they've been assigned, his Special Forces team sergeants pushed proficiency with all the weapons in their arsenal. The range became a central part of life.

Several tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Philippines put his skills to the test. He and his fellow operators launched raids, hunted terrorists and passed on their skills as they trained indigenous forces. These were the sort of sensitive operations that would be attributed merely to "members of coalition forces" during press conferences.

Then Satterlee took on a wildly different assignment: He became the enlisted advisor to an ROTC program at an East coast university, training college kids to be officers. It was very different from the special operations world he left. Training standards and philosophies about leadership were much more conventional and rigid.

One of the biggest changes was that - being a civilian college - it didn't have a firing range. Weapons training, and access to weapons for that matter, was limited. He missed it immediately. To fill the giant hole it left, Satterlee began seeking out civilian shooting groups in his free time.

He got heavily involved in the world of competitive shooting and found a large network of shooting enthusiasts along the East Coast. He found that many civilian hobbyists were much better than he expected. In fact, they were more than good - many of them were giving the special ops warrior a run for his money.

"There were guys in their eighties, barely held together at the seams, who were outshooting me," he recalled.

It was a humbling experience as well as an awakening.

Satterlee explained that competitive shooting used to be modeled around military and law enforcement practices. But over time, philosophies and methods evolved. Competitive shooters began introducing new variables.

These included different targets, where the shooter would have to determine whether it was a threat or not. Shooting while on the move, and trying to hit a target that's also moving, came into play. All were done under time constraints and considerable pressure.

Satterlee said that while civilian hobbyists and enthusiasts pioneered new training techniques, the military has remained "stagnant." He said the Army's marksmanship training has changed little, even as the wars soldiers fight have.

"The Army does okay with the fundamentals," Satterlee said. "But there's no decision making around it."

He explained that a lot of marksmanship training is still centered around "peer-to-peer" fighting scenarios - battles against other uniformed enemies with well-defined battle lines. But contemporary battlefields often bear little resemblance to that conventional paradigm.

Soldiers often find themselves in much more ambiguous settings. Today's warzones are dominated by militias, guerillas and spies. A civilian may give soldiers critical information about the enemy - while a uniformed cop that looks like an ally might shoot them in the back.

Satterlee said that practical shooting exercises force shooters to make quick assessments and act decisively. He said he often wonders how many soldiers might have been saved had they not hesitated to ask for permission to fire when they saw a threat.

"On the flip side," he added, "How many (civilians) downrange might be alive that didn't need to die?"

Those questions are some of the biggest takeaways from his many warzone deployments, he said.

"You can't expect a soldier to adapt to chaos unless he's already been exposed to it," he explained.

He insists soldiers need to be given an environment that simulates the uncertainty of modern warzones, without its lethality. Soldiers need training that allows them to fail safely. He's taken his lessons from the world of competitive shooting and brought them to how he trains soldiers at JBLM.

As a seasoned special operations warrior with years of combat experience, and one of the top shooters in the nation, Satterlee is given leeway to experiment in his training. At 1st Group, he's in an environment that welcomes innovation and creative problem solving. His commanders and peers trust his judgment. It's an elite unit - everyone that comes through his doors for the urban combat course is handpicked.

But Satterlee said he thinks this sort of training shouldn't be reserved just for special operations. He asserts that soldiers, especially new recruits, need to be taught about the complexities of modern conflict much earlier. He thinks that they need to be taught to assess threats and to know the consequences of both indecision and rashness.

He admits that it's a bit harder to give larger conventional units that sort of training compared to smaller and adaptable elite units. However, he thinks that these lessons can be taught with audiovisual aids and gaming-type training like a virtual battlespace.

The challenge of introducing new training techniques and philosophies isn't just logistical - it's cultural. By their very nature, military organizations are highly regimented and steeped in tradition. Soldiers must meet standards and follow rules to maintain order. However, Satterlee said that when certain rules and traditions become outdated, the institution can be painfully resistant to change.

He said there is a tendency toward overly linear thinking that prevents leaders from adapting to new challenges. Senior leaders often reject new ideas out of hand because it's not how they were taught.

"Egos get attached to the process instead of the outcome," Satterlee explained.

But recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have severely bruised many of those egos. As a result, many Army leaders today are far more vocal about reform and surprisingly candid about things that haven't worked. And that means entertaining new ideas.

Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza, commander of JBLM's I Corps, is vocal about the need to train more creative leaders and avoid the mistakes of the past.

"We must adapt faster than that instability," he recently told an audience of civilians and cadets during a presentation at the University of Washington.

That's easier said than done. The philosophy on change at 1st Group is simple.

"If it doesn't work," Satterlee said, "we fix it."

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