Michael Abell

The Army Sent Me to School and I Went Fishing

Michael Abell
The Army Sent Me to School and I Went Fishing

The United States Army Command and General Staff College (USACGSC) is now obsolete. Wow, a school I went to is obsolete. I am getting old. I know. But, it’s been replaced by a similar school with a different name, so I guess it’s all good. Back in my day, the USACGSC was a graduate school designed to advance the art and science of the profession of arms. The audience were young, newly promoted Majors. They were taught the skills required to serve at the field grade level in full spectrum, joint, interagency and multinational operations. In case you’re wondering, a “field grade officer” is any officer in the rank of Major to Colonel. And the “General Staff” portion in the title of the school meant that, after graduating, we were all prepared to work on the staff of a “flag officer” General or even Admiral.

When it was my turn to attend USACGSC, I was busy with a little thing called Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). The turbulence associated with the war made it difficult for anyone to predictably plan their career in the military. Being away from your unit was a tough decision to make and as such, I figured it best that I get my diploma through the “non-resident” version of the school. That meant, I would spend two years getting this degree/diploma, versus being transferred to the school and doing it for months in residence. In hindsight, I’m not sure which was smarter, but it matters not at this point. I was not away from my unit working on school in an academic setting while a war went on. I was busy training with them and doing my job, day in and day out, and going to night school to get the degree.

I suffered through the first three phases. I learned what I had to and did my best. The fourth and final phase was two weeks in residence. It was focused on the tactics of fighting and winning at the battalion level and higher, principally at the brigade level and how that supported the division and corps levels. Sorry, if you’re not familiar with those echelons of the Army. Here’s the VERY short version. The functional element of the Army is really the infantry squad. The echelons of the Army structure go up from squad > platoon > company > battalion > brigade > division > corps > army. If you’re not thoroughly confused yet, that’s okay.


Our story begins on the first day of the fourth phase.

A subordinate instructor, in the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, does the normal house cleaning of going through the syllabus and explaining the parameters of the course. Then the lead instructor, also a Lieutenant-Colonel, jumps into the material. I am sitting in the back of the room, following along, as I’ve done the reading before class and know I’m going to be bored. The trouble begins for me when we start discussing, “Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield” or “IPB”.

IPB is a systematic, continuous process of analyzing the threat and the environment in a specific geographic area. It is designed to support staff estimates and military decision making. The IPB process helps the commander selectively apply and maximize his combat power at critical points in time and space on the battlefield by determining the enemy’s Course of Action (COA). IPB is a continuous process which consists of four steps, which you perform each time you conduct IPB:

1.      Define the battlefield environment

2.      Describe the battlefield’s effects

3.      Evaluate the threat

4.      Determine the enemy’s most likely and most dangerous COAs

The IPB process is continuous. You conduct IPB prior to and during the command’s initial planning for an operation, but you also continue to perform IPB during the conduct of the operation. Each function in the process is performed continuously to ensure that the products of IPB remain complete and valid. Staff Officers must provide support to the commander and direction to the intelligence system throughout the current mission and into preparation for the next.

We were here to learn how to do things like IPB. My problem was I had already done it, in real life, in a unit. I had been a Battalion and/or Task Force Scout, working for the Battalion and Brigade Intelligence Officers, and thus the Battalion and Brigade Commanders. The instructor was trying to teach us from a book, things I knew by heart and had used in practical application multiple times. Mercifully, the first hour ends. I keep my mouth shut. I follow along.

When we return from break to begin the second hour, I take a deep breath and take my seat. The instructor goes to the board and is trying to explain how to orchestrate IPB, specifically how to develop a Reconnaissance and Surveillance Matrix or as we knew it, “the R&S matrix”. I can no longer sit quietly. I raise my hand and begin to explain how the book solution is woefully inadequate. The instructor asks me to, “come to the board and explain.” I do just that. When I finish, the senior instructor calls a break for lunch – early. I am sure that they are pissed at me for being an insubordinate “know-it-all” and they called the early lunch to figure out how to kick my ass. Of course, I don’t worry too much. I figure it will take all three of them to kick my ass.

As I am walking into the classroom after lunch I get an uneasy feeling. Turning the corner of the doorway to take my seat in the back of the room, I see all three instructors talking to the Commandant of the school. “Sunofabitch!” I am sure I’m going to be black balled as a know-it-all knuckle-dragging ass. I tuck my chin and try to look as humble as a newly promoted Infantry Major can and slink to my desk. I overhear the tall pasty dark-haired instructor say, “Well Sir, we really do have one ‘hot rock’ that could help us out of this bind.” I’m not sure what that means and don’t care. The afternoon class is more torture. I am subjected to a senior officer who learned tactics from a book teaching us how to do things. I remain disciplined and don’t say a word or raise my hand. When class ends, I sprint for the door, “Major Abell, please stay.” Dammit too late.

As my classmates clear the room I take stock of their facial expressions. I unconsciously think, “I might have to slap those silly grins off your damn faces.” Then I realize, it is my “type A” hard infantry upbringing that causes me to think like that, which is probably why I’m staying after class. I will need to be cool and listen more than talk. I’ve obviously overstepped my bounds by explaining how we do IPB in the “real world” and have embarrassed the instructors. Maybe the conversation they were having with the Commandant after lunch was about transferring me to another class. I must be the “hot rock”. This cannot be good.

Okay, shit fire. It’s worse than I thought. The subordinate instructors are sitting at the head table on either side of the senior instructor. It looks like a damn Uniform Code of Military Justice hearing. Holy shit, was I that condescending? The lead instructor’s voice shakes me back to reality. I am standing at the rigid position of attention. My gaze is boring a hole through the concrete block wall behind their heads. I speak only when spoken to.

“Major Abell, that was a helluva good explanation on how to build an R&S matrix.”

I remain mute, my gaze hard and fast on the wall above their heads.

“Uh, don’t you think so…Major Abell…hello are you with us?”

I am lost, not sure how to respond, I just throw out an answer.

“No Sir, it was adequate, maybe above average. I could do better.”

The senior instructor lights up and smiles wide enough to shove a Philly Cheesesteak in his mouth and says…

“That is exactly what we were hoping. You’d do better tomorrow.”

Shit. I knew it. Keep your mouth shut and be a better student. You infantry Cro-Magnon.

He continued…

“You see I am a logistician. The other instructors are a Surgeon and a Judge-Advocate. We are infinitely qualified to teach the first three phases, but woefully unqualified to teach tactics.”

I am lost and still wondering when he is going to tell me that I embarrassed him and will be transferred.

I stand mute.

“We talked to the Commandant and although this is very unusual, he agreed. We have been authorized to offer you the position of ‘Adjunct Instructor’ for the entire phase.”

I couldn’t be more lost if I’d been dropped off naked in Sri Lanka without a compass drunk out of my mind.

I respond in kind…

“Sir, please excuse me I don’t understand.”

“Yes, Major Abell I figured you might not. Here’s the deal. We’d like you to teach the entire phase of the course. You’re obviously more qualified than we are, and the Commandant has agreed. He is short combat arms officers to teach this phase and we were all worried that the students would not get the proper instruction until we met you. Now we want you to teach the course.”

Dumbfounded, I stare stupidly into his eyes and selfishly think only of myself, ignoring the tremendous compliment I’ve just been paid.

“Sir, how can I teach the course and take the course?”

He was ready for my elementary question.

“Simple. You’ll get a copy of the lesson plan from me before you leave today. Your homework is to be prepared to teach every day, instead of the normal student homework. Then you’ll have to take the exams. I will not be providing you a copy of the exams and answer keys.”

Again, I’m worried about myself and not the fact that I should be honored by what I’m being asked to do.

“Sir, how will the other students take it? A peer teaching their classes and not doing the same homework?”

“Major Abell, if your other lessons are anything like the R&S matrix class you gave today, without any preparation, your peers will be taking copious notes and so will we. Enough discussion, you seem to agree. Here is the lesson plan. Be ready to teach tomorrow.”

All I could say was, “Yessir.”

I walk out of the room unable to put a coherent thought together. I traverse the distance between the classroom and my quarters in a haze. The only thing I can think is, “What the hell just happened?” When I get back to my quarters, my roommate is at his desk deep into his homework.

“Mike, what happened? Were they pissed you embarrassed them?”

“No man, you won’t believe this. They want me to teach the rest of the course.”

“What? You’re kidding.”

I show him the lesson plans.

“Holy Shit! You’re not kidding.”

He goes back to studying and doing his homework.

I read the lesson plan.

The next morning comes and I am up early. I go for a run, have some coffee, get into my best uniform and head to class. When I get to the classroom, the lead instructor motions for me to sit up front facing the class. The clock strikes the appointed hour and he greets the class. Then he addresses them…

“I’m sure you’re all aware that we have a student amongst us who is a highly qualified tactician and as such we’ve asked him to join the faculty for this phase. To our delight, he’s agreed. Major Abell, please stand and come to the front of the room.”

I join him in front of the room.

“I am not authorized to promote Major Abell to Lieutenant-Colonel, but I am presenting him with a challenge coin for the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. He will be teaching the rest of the course. You don’t have to call him Sir, but he is in charge. What questions do you have?”


The class sits mute.

I stare into my palm and look at the coin with the silver leaf on it. My name is engraved just below the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel on the coin. It is a very nice gift. I am still staring at the coin when the lead instructor says…

“Major Abell, the class is yours.”

I am shaken back to reality. I put the coin in my pocket and focus on the white board and teaching. Throughout the lesson I make zero eye contact with my peers. I finish up the IPB lesson and tell the students to be prepared to finish “mission analysis” tomorrow and move on to the next step of the Military Decision-Making Process (MDMP) if we have time. I thank everyone and start putting my stuff into my satchel, when the lead instructor approaches me, “Damn fine work Mike. Keep it up.”

And just that easy, my first day as an instructor is over. Back at my quarters my roommate is already studying. He asks why I have a six pack of beer in my hand. I crack a beer. I show him the coin. I tell him the lesson plans will be locked in my locker. He is dumbfounded and tells me that I’m a, “lucky bastard.” He asks what I’m going to do for the next couple weeks. I respond, “Well the beach isn’t that far away.” He says, “You’re a sunofabitch.”

The next day’s lesson also goes well. After class, I rush to my quarters, change and jump in my truck. I’m off to the coast. I hit the town of Seaside Heights, NJ and run into Grumpy’s Bait and Tackle.

“Hello, I’m on a short tour at Ft. Dix and have some time on my hands, what’s biting and where should I fish?”

The nice old lady behind the counter looks at me sideways and responds…

“You got a surf rod? The stripers and blues are running.”

“No Ma’am I don’t. Do y’all sell them?”

“Sure honey. Where you from? We don’t get too many y’alls up here?”

“Kentucky Ma’am. I will need a rod, terminal tackle and whatever bait you recommend.”

“Okay, I like a man that is decisive. Here are the rod & reels to chose from. You’ll need to use baitfinder rigs with bunker or squid. I recommend a 2-ot or 3-ot hook.”

“You’re a peach! I will take all this and a beach chair if you’ve got one.”

I leave the store fully outfitted to spend my afternoons on the beach, fishing, not studying. I head due south out of Seaside Heights and into Island Beach State Park. I drive south to the last parking lot, park, grab my gear and head for the beach. I don’t have much sunlight left, so I walk quickly down the beach looking for a place where the waves are breaking closest to the shore. That should be the location where the sandbar is within range of my cast. If I can get my bait in behind the sandbar I should be in business. Whatever gamefish are marauding up and down the cost will be moving in between the bars. I find a spot, set up my chair, cut a chunk of bunker (really menhaden, but bunker is the local name), hook it onto my simple fish finder rig and launch it offshore. The bait finds the water behind the nearest sandbar and I settle into my beach chair.

The beach is almost empty. It’s late afternoon on a weekday. It’s also breezy and cool for a June evening. “Ahhh…”, exhale, relax and chill out. Damn the air smells good and that breeze is nice. I will need to bring a jacket tomorrow. I get lost in my plan for the next day…class is at 0900hrs in the morning. I reviewed the lesson plan for the whole course, but I will get up tomorrow morning at 0430hrs and read the daily plan in detail. Then go for a short run and some sit-ups, shower, teach class, drive to the beach and fish – rinse, repeat for an entire week.

What’s that sound?

A buzzing noise shakes me back to reality.


Oh hell! That’s the drag on my reel. I’ve got a fish. It’s my first New Jersey striper, not quite 10lbs. Man, how cool is this! I take pictures and put her back. The rest of the evening is loaded with fish until I run out of bait. Stripers, bluefish and rays were all biting. Tomorrow, I’m bringing a headlamp, some warmer clothes, plus more bait. I will be prepared to stay later and maybe after sunset the bigger fish will be biting.


The next day, class goes well again. I rush out of there. I stop again at Grumpy’s Bait and Tackle and visit with the nice old lady behind the counter, wish I could remember her name. Soon, I’m back out on the beach and relaxing, in between catching fish. I stay well past dark. I don’t have a place to cook the fish, so everything is catch and release. Sometimes folks walking down the beach agree to take pictures for me, which is awesome because my “selfie game” is weak. Pretty much every night I come home late smelling of the beach and fish. Each night my roommate, who has been doing homework all night, calls me a “lucky sunofabitch.”


Two weeks roll on just like this and before I know it. The course is over. The fishing was very good. I didn’t catch anything big, but I caught fish every evening. I also had a great time teaching class. I really did. I owe a debt to my instructors and the Commandant for giving me a chance and believing in me. I also owe a debt to the Officers and Sergeants that mentored me. They taught me well and I was prepared to teach tactics. But maybe more important – thanks to my Mom and Dad who never ever wasted an opportunity to take me fishing.


Recipe –

This is a very good, simple and inexpensive recipe -


____ A willing soul, a semi-stout heart, good legs, feet and hips – priceless

____ Time Off – up to one week including travel, maybe less

____ No license required to surf fish – yep, no kidding, it’s free.

____ Camping in and around Seaside Heights can be done in tents for about $340 a week, RV for about $400 a week and in a cozy campground type cabin for about $700 per week

____ If you don’t already have it, you’ll need a surf rod/reel combo, your freshwater stuff will not work. A package deal will cost you about $150 and the tackle shop should spool it up with line for you

____ Gas (KY to NJ and back + some in/and around mileage) $200

____ Bait and Tackle - $100 for the whole week

____ Clothes –  you should already own it

____ Camping equipment – you should already own it

____ Park entry fees, $20 per day (7 day trip = 2 days travel + 5 days fishing) - $100

____ First Aid Kit –  you should already own it

____ Food & Water – $250 per person for the week

Total Cost of this adventure: $1,200


Okay, you’ve got to admit the price tag on this adventure is simply ridiculous. I mean REALLY, if you cannot put away $100 a month and do this trip or a similar trip annually, you’ve got bigger problems. I calculated the $1,200 total using just myself going, camping in my RV and buying a new surf rod. This was so relaxing and so much fun. A fish finder rig is ridiculously simply to tie. Slide a 2 or 3-ounce egg sinker, larger is the waves are rolling harder, onto your main line. Tie an appropriately large barrel swivel below the sinker on the main line. Then tie about 4 feet of clear monofilament leader to the swivel and on the other end tie your hook. Circle hooks work best for a couple reasons. One – you’ve got to get out of your beach chair and grab your rod out of the rod holder. By the time you do this, the fish has eaten the bait and hooked themselves. You just reel up tight and don’t set the hook. If the bluefish are running, you’ll need a heavier leader because they’ve got serious teeth, use at least 50lb mono in that case. I spooled up the surf rod with 30lb high visibility monofilament, but honestly 30lb braided line would cast further. I was just in a hurry and used whatever was available at Grumpy’s Bait and Tackle. This adventure was over a decade ago, but Island Beach State Park and Grumpy’s Bait and Tackle are still there. You could make it nicer by staying in a cabin at a campground like Cedar Creek Campground in Bayville, NJ. You can take a day off and do boardwalk on the beach type stuff. There are many different options and things to do in addition to camping and fishing if you’ve got a little more money. I’m not kidding about the fishing licenses. New Jersey does not require a general saltwater fishing license for recreational surf casting, deep sea or bay fishing. However, New Jersey saltwater anglers must register with the New Jersey Saltwater Recreational Registry Program. Check it out at: http://www.nj.gov/dep/fgw/marinelicenses.htm The state park does charge an entry fee of about $20 per day for non-residents in the season. They list on their webpage that surf fishing is one of the most popular past times at the park http://www.islandbeachnj.org/Recreation/fishing.html