Hard Lessons in Situational Awareness

July 6th, 2017 Posted by Guns and Firearms, Insurgencies, Intelligence Community, Middle East, Self-Reliance, Terrorism 0 thoughts on “Hard Lessons in Situational Awareness”

Everything I do to enhance my security involves measures to improve my knowledge, my perception, or my ability to act on both.


As we discover The Power of Prudence, we will explore each of these. Let’s begin today with a critical part of our ability to perceive: Situational Awareness.

Situational Awareness (SA) is the receiving of data (through our five senses) about the environment, our processing of it (through knowledge and past experiences), and our interpreting its potential impact.

Here’s an example from my past of both how we perceive and receive information about our surroundings and how we process that into usable information, or at least should:

On 8 September 2006, I found myself waiting near an intersection at a traffic circle in Kabul. I was nervous about being there because as a Westerner, not only did I stand out, I also did not have the protection of an armored car. Needless to say, my senses were turned on, and I was acutely focused on maximizing my SA, looking for the beginning of any threat. First, I observed the traffic in all four directions, including the people walking in or near the circle, and the buildings on each side. Initially, I concentrated on extending my SA as far out as I could see or hear. Then I went back over everything within my view in more detail, looking for subtle signs of anything amiss. Each time I rescanned, I evaluated each piece of information through my senses and categorized it as 1.) not a threat, 2.) a potential threat to be reevaluated, or 3.) a definite threat requiring a decision or action.

One object I noted on my initial scan was a black Toyota parked on the side of the road near the corner opposite me, facing my direction. It was odd because it was an unusual place to park, but I placed it in the “potential threat to be reevaluated” category and kept scanning the other cars and people in my vicinity. I noted that there were two men sitting inside the vehicle and that they were looking at me. I moved on to other people and objects with my scan because I saw no threatening activity inside or around the vehicle. On my next scan of the area nearest me, I took a closer look at the Toyota. I thought it odd that the men remained in the car, and that it was parked where it was, but in Kabul, few paid attention to traffic laws. The presence of the car and the two men bothered me, and I began to have a “gut” feeling something was wrong. As I contemplated the presence of the Toyota and reasons it might be there, I noted an Afghan policeman who was directing traffic on the opposite side of the circle from me. He was directly across the road from the parked car. I was about 20 yards from the car, across the street perpendicular to the one where the car and policeman were. I decided to step behind a large tree that provided a little cover from both the car and at least partially screened me from the view of the two occupants.

My focus returned to the car several times as the gut feeling did not go away. But I had a purpose for being on that corner at that time, and while I was nervous, I stayed where I was and rationalized my choice by thinking that the policeman had to have investigated the car and allowed it to remain. I reasoned that the men inside must be waiting to pick up someone coming out of a nearby building. Meanwhile, the men in the car kept glancing at me, but as an American, I was used to being stared at, so again I rationalized my decision to remain while keeping the tree between myself and the car as much as I could.

After ten to fifteen minutes passed, the person I had been waiting for at that intersection finally arrived. We greeted each other and then walked a few hundred meters to enter a compound and a building inside it. About five minutes then passed. As we settled, a strong concussion shook the building and us, followed immediately by the sound of a large explosion.

I knew the explosion had to have happened close to where we had been a scant five minutes before. During the chaotic activity immediately following, the thought of the black Toyota nagged me. We soon learned that at the circle where we had been, a US military convoy was attacked by a Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED), or suicide car bomb. Two US soldiers were killed, two more wounded, and 14 Afghans were killed and 29 wounded. The IED was the largest in Afghanistan up to that time, and the explosion was the largest since 2001. The trees in the area where I had stood were denuded; the policeman I had seen directing traffic was vaporized; pictures on the news showed the destruction, dead and wounded extending more than 100 meters from the circle.

American soldiers in Kabul, Afghanistan, guarded the area where a suicide bomber smashed his car into an American Humvee. The bombing, yards from the United States Embassy, killed 16 people and wounded 29. Credit Paul Garwood/Associated Press

American soldiers in Kabul, Afghanistan, guarded the area where a suicide bomber smashed his car into an American Humvee. The bombing, yards from the United States Embassy, killed 16 people and wounded 29. Credit Paul Garwood/Associated Press

New York Times Article; 9 September 2006


After the emergency responses had concluded, I approached Embassy officials and asked if the vehicle had been a black Toyota. They were surprised I knew, and I gave them my story. It turned out that just after we left the circle, a military convoy came through from the opposite direction. The Toyota I had seen traveled 180 degrees around the circle, passing a few meters from the place I had stood as it approached the convoy, and detonated. Nobody who was walking, standing, or in cars close to the circle survived.

Needless to say, I was lucky. The two suicide bombers had seen me, and I have sometimes imagined the argument they must have had . . . something like, “See, there is an American just standing there. Let’s do our job now. We do not even know if a convoy will come. Let’s do it now!”

“No, we were told to attack a military convoy, and we need to hit more than one American. He is not even wearing a uniform!” I am glad the side of the argument not thinking I was worth the effort won out.

There are several important lessons from this experience. Today we are going to discuss one, and in the next blog we will break down other lessons about SA.

The most important lesson to learn is what I failed to do. I did not listen to that voice inside about the black Toyota, a feeling I chose to ignore and rationalized away several times. I should have decided to walk away and not leave it to the men inside the Toyota to choose whether I lived or died.

I used bad judgment.

That voice inside that tugs at us or nags us, comes from processing what we perceive through life experiences and knowledge. It is nature’s way of helping us survive. Perhaps our mind registers a subtle nuance in body language, smell, or a slight change to the noises around us. That stimulus registers with our brains and is processed through our Limbic system and helps us stay alive by preparing us for fight or flight.

A simplified description is that it is based partially on subconscious memory and partially on autonomic reactions. It is what causes our eyes to dilate when a door suddenly bangs open, even as we are telling ourselves it is because there is a storm with strong winds; we still cannot stop our body from reacting as adrenaline races through us. I surmise that the gut feeling is when the stimulus is not strong enough to cause an immediate fight or flight reaction but triggers responses that take us a step closer to being on full fight or flight status. We still have the rational part of our brains in control, able to override the Limbic system. Thus, I was able to ignore that voice and override my instincts about the Toyota!

For whatever reason and despite my lack of prudence, I walked away from that incident and learned lessons that I can share with you today.

Bottom line: when you get that feeling in your gut and hear that voice inside, act on it!

Have you experienced times when you heard that voice inside telling you something was wrong? How did it turn out? Write me about it using the comment section of the contact page.

See you next week to talk about the breadth and depth of our SA!

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