You may have read the June 8, 2008, Parade magazine cover story, "The War They Still Fight," by novelist Tim O'Brien. He tells the stories of three U.S. Army soldiers severely wounded in Iraq who are courageously rehabilitating their way back to recovery at the Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas. Their stories were both humbling and inspirational.
Take Maj. Jason Waggoner, 39, who lost his left leg to a booby-trapped mortar round. He now wears a prosthetic leg and is literally up and running again. What struck me was his fierce determination and "can do" attitude. When asked about losing his leg, Waggoner said, "I lost it in support of the soldiers on my left and right. I'd do it a hundred times over." He went on to say he hopes to rejoin his unit, which is still stationed in Iraq. "My mission right now," he said, "is to get well." I, for one, wouldn't bet against him.
His words send chills down my spine, and reinforce the powerful, magnetic lure of the team. Teams may include any number of stars; however, winning requires the team working together, not as individuals. This has proven true throughout history, whether in military, sports, firefighting, or law enforcement. The team always comes first, or you come in last.
When it comes to law enforcement, the ultimate team is SWAT, where every member must work together for the success of the mission. SWAT teams almost invariably include any number of hard chargers who must become team players if they want to stay in SWAT.
True team players see the big picture rather than the narrow one. They also see where they fit into that bigger picture and readily accept their role of bettering the team, even at their own personal sacrifice. The same willingness to sacrifice for the sake of the team is universal throughout law enforcement, military, and firefighting.
SWAT has a unique advantage over other law enforcement entities—that of being designed as a team, working as one for the success of high-risk missions. The combination of working closely together and in hazardous duty forges a powerful loyalty within the team and its members. It could be said that SWAT is the equivalent of low-intensity combat involving degrees of guerilla warfare.
The resulting camaraderie is both intense and enduring. This is doubtlessly true for Army Maj. Waggoner and his fierce determination to get well and return to his team. I'm certain that his team remains in close touch with him, briefing their major on the latest news. I can picture the unit's reunion with their major after they come home from Iraq.
The same holds true for SWAT, where injuries are so commonplace that my SWAT unit referred to them as "walking wounded." Members will hobble and drag their way back to continue to be part of the team, only to be ordered to go home. In SWAT, the magnetism of the team is so powerful that those who miss the "big one" for any reason will often feel badly about it for many years.
Why? Because they can't support their team. I've witnessed this phenomenon firsthand with my team many times over the years. Likewise, I've also endured the angst caused by involuntary separation from my team due to injury or illness and can attest to the powerful lure of the team magnet. Call me crazy, but I couldn't wait to get back to my team after an injury. For many team members, it's what keeps us motivated.
Those of us who are members of tight knit teams understand the vital role the team plays in a separated teammate's recovery from injury. The hallmark of a tight team is that they never forget their teammates who can't be with them. Close teams go out of their way to visit and help their separated buddies—something the separated teammate greatly appreciates and never forgets.
To me, the team is all important in law enforcement, particularly in SWAT. Never forget about your separated troops; the success of their recovery may hinge upon your support in their time of need. And always remember, there but for the grace of God go any of us.
Maj. Waggoner summed it up the best when he said that his mission is to get well so he can get back to his unit.