“Dragon one-five checking with you. Flight of two A-10s holding south five miles at angels one-zero, one plus zero-zero time on station…” – End credits radio chatter, Generation Kill

Tuesday was like any other day for me. Get up early, get in a cup of coffee (or two) and a workout, and get moving. Part of the afterlife for me involves 8:00 a.m. classes and – true to form – I like to hit the deck running and execute tech checks on the classroom automation before those 45 college seniors drop in their seats to talk business strategy. As their capstone class and the last course they complete before graduation, I want to make it memorable. And the best way to do that is to bring energy to the classroom on a level that R. Lee Ermey would appreciate.

That morning, I was introducing them to a favorite subject: assessment. I set the tone with a quick quote from Banksy – “A recent survey of North American males found 42% were overweight, 34% were critically obese, and 8% ate the survey” – and then dive into the subject matter. I lean into the topic with a “so what” moment, sharing an anecdote I’ve used every time I teach this particular part of the course: “Strategy is about doing the right things. Assessment is about making sure that you’re doing the right things right.”

Assessment is a subject near and dear to anyone who’s spent time putting rounds downrange or gauging the effectiveness of combat operations. My students get a mix of two worlds, with military terms like measures of performance (MOPs) and effectiveness (MOEs) weaved into discussion threads with business terms such as objectives and key results (OKRs) and key performance indicators (KPIs). The seams are transparent to them – my goal is to convey more than what they can glean from a textbook, and a lot of time that means kluging together decades of military experience with business knowledge.

As we wrapped up class discussion, I checked the clock and saw that we were about 10 minutes ahead of schedule. But as an advocate of “train to standard, not to time,” there was no good reason to keep them in class any longer than necessary. Without thinking, I said, “We’re a little early, but we’re going to go ahead and pull chocks,” adding the thumbs-out gesture common in the aviation community. For a brief moment, I thought I would have to explain what I meant, but they started putting away their laptops and prepared to pop smoke

They get me.


The afterlife, as I refer to my post-military career, has been an adventure in suppressing my inner monologue. For the first year, I made a concerted effort to separate my new surroundings from the old. I tried to limit the military idioms that are common to our language. I stopped using acronyms altogether, only to find that I needed to learn a completely new collection. For example, in higher education, BCS is Business Career Services and not Brute’s Chowder Society. Who knew?

As time passed, I eventually gave up trying to be someone other than who I already was. While I successfully purged some of the more colorful idioms I was accustomed to using – as well as avoiding dropping random f-bombs to emphasize them – I found practical use for others. When teaching competitive strategy, I commonly lean into terms such as decisive and asymmetric; while they might be overused to the point of cliché in the E-Ring, they have very specific meaning when you’re facing down an opponent or rival. In the same vein, when we are mired in the depths of strategic analysis, I like to remind them that the enemy gets a vote (or in this case, their rivals). And when a student needs help with a particular issue, it’s not uncommon for me to tell them I got your six.  

Military Terms Make a Good War Story

As my students filed out after class that day, a handful stayed behind to ask questions, get advice, or just chat. A couple wanted to get coffee, so we made our way downstairs to the coffee bar and settled in for a meandering, hour-long discussion that covered topics ranging from graduation to job interviews and a lot of other subjects in between. At some point, I realized that I had drifted into my old self – using terms more familiar to someone in the military – and found myself pondering those I use most.

1. Channel hop or adjust fire.

I’m changing the topic of discussion.

2. That’s a technique or that’s a way.

That’s a remarkably stupid way to do something.

3. Take a knee (and drink water).

Take a break in place. Calm down.

4. Tracking.

I understand what you’re saying. You can stop talking now.

5. Call the ball.

Make a decision. Usually when I’m tired of waiting for you to do so.

6. On station.

Typically used when I arrive somewhere, and no one is where they are supposed to be. “I’m here, where are you?”

7. Moving like pond water.

You’re moving too slowly or standing around when it’s past time to be moving.

8. Squared away.

You are good to go at this station. You are doing what you’re supposed to be doing and doing it right.

9. Oh-dark-thirty.

When I wake up. Usually when the dog gets up and tells me she needs to execute a Class I download.

10. Move out and draw contact or move out and draw fire.

Let’s stop talking and get something done.

11. Check your headspace and timing.

You’ve made a mistake and need to make a correction.

12. Pop smoke and declare victory.

We’ve done all we can do. Let’s unass the AO and call it a day.

13. Make a hole (make it wide).

Clear a path because I’m coming through. Stop standing around where people need to walk.

14. Cut slingload.

We’re done here. Time to move out and draw contact.

15. Goat f*ck.

A lot like a soup sandwich or a technique, but more direct and to the point. Alternatively, I’ll drop a random football bat (and I actually keep on in my office) when the situation calls for it.

Speaking with a colleague – a term that took an entire decade to use without laughing – recently, I listened as they shared a laundry list of easily resolvable problems they were facing, all of which were entirely self-generated. I paused for a moment, then offered a time-tested piece of advice I’d received a time or two myself: you’d best unf*ck yourself

Old Army dies hard. 

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.