A PMP® in Iraq

lessons learned from training for a military mission in Iraq



This paper presents specific project management practices, drawn from training and operations in support of a military mission in Iraq, and suggests how these ideas can be applied to project situations and resolve management issues. The paper focuses on the specific areas of risk management, human resource management, and communications management. The paper specifically translates military training, operational circumstances, and issues from this experience into understandable project terms. The risks may be more dramatic, involving issues of life and death, but a military deployment provides a useful vantage point, from which to gain important project management knowledge.


Learning from Personal Experience

I began managing Information Technology (IT) projects in 1986, and earned the Project Management Professional (PMP®) credential in 2001. I’ve taught on project management topics for 10 years, and managed a wide range of IT projects, including Year 2000 conversion, systems integration, application development, wide area network implementation, database management system and operating system upgrades, and disaster recovery system implementations. Throughout those same years, I also served as a non-commissioned officer (NCO) in the U.S. Army Reserves and NY Army National Guard, following initial U.S. Army Active Duty from 1983-1987.

Recently, my military service allowed me to apply project management principles in highly unusual circumstances, which yielded valuable lessons for managing projects in the future.

I deployed to Iraq as first sergeant for the headquarters and headquarters company of a National Guard Military Intelligence (MI) Battalion (BN) mobilized for Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) III and stationed at Tikrit, Iraq. As first sergeant, I was responsible for 160 soldiers, including headquarters staff, motor maintenance mechanics, cooks, and intelligence analysts. Our unit returned from deployment without any combat injuries, and I was awarded a bronze star for the deployment.

Managing the mobilization, training, and deployment of a U.S. Army National Guard MI BN to a combat zone proved the challenge of a lifetime. I think of it as my Iraqi Project for the U.S. Army.

Project Scope

Challenge of a Lifetime

Our MI BN prior to activation consisted of about 120 National Guard soldiers, approximately 60% or “cadre strength” of our authorized 200 soldiers. Upon mobilization, we needed to immediately organize and train for deployment. At the same time, we had to identify unit vacancies, and coordinate for replacements with other Guard, Reserves and Active Duty Army organizations. As our vacancies were filled, we integrated these new soldiers and worked through the inevitable challenges related to organization, process, training and leadership differences, as well as interpersonal conflicts.

Coincident with the dramatic increase in new personnel, we commenced a rigorous training regimen of combat, peacetime contingency, and unconventional operations. For Guard soldiers, training focused on conducting operations in a combat zone, combat drills, and other physical and mental reinforcement training, to condition soldiers to react instantly to threats and other combat events. Many soldiers also underwent additional skills training for their military occupational specialty (MOS), and to adapt to differences between garrison (peacetime) and operations in a combat setting.

We continued mobilization training for nearly 8 months, prior to a combat deployment that would last 10 months.

As first sergeant, I also retained primary responsibility for personnel issues. This responsibility was delegated to platoon sergeants (40-50 soldiers each), who then delegated to 10-12 person squads. Pay issues were identified and addressed with the BN S1 (administration), and clothing and equipment issues handled via unit supply or the BN S4 (logistics). The average age of our soldiers was around 35, with several over 50, a characteristic that compounded the complexities of personnel management.

Our goal was very simple: we intended to deploy, protect, perform, and return without loss of life or serious injury.

Project Activities

Our mobilization training phase ensured that soldiers successfully completed all training requirements in combat, peacetime contingency, and unconventional operations. Intelligence soldiers would perform intelligence analysis, while other soldiers would perform various support services applicable to their MOS (clerks, cooks, and mechanics). Most soldiers of the MI BN would also be called upon for force protection (security) and other forward operating base (FOB) work details.

Our MI BN Commander decided that we would complete a 550 mile ground assault convoy (GAC) with our organic vehicles from Kuwait to Tikrit, Iraq. Once stationed in Tikrit, we conducted 2-4 logistics convoys a week to other FOBs. In preparation for these missions, MI BN soldiers trained extensively in convoy, defensive, and urban combat operations.

Mission and Project Views

Relevance to PMBOK® Guide Knowledge Areas

The Project Management Institute (PMI) publishes literature for the profession of project management, including A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). My mobilization and deployment with the Army National Guard displayed a high degree of correlation to all the process groups and specific knowledge areas of the PMBOK® Guide: human resource management, communications management, and certainly, risk management. The remainder of this paper will specifically translate military training and operational circumstances into understandable project terms, and suggest some lessons learned.

The Mission is The Project

Consulting company founder John Keane, Sr. consolidated his firm’s 20 years of project management experience into Productivity Management, first published in 1984. Keane considered project management principles so essential to the well-being of his company, the company issued a copy to every new Keane employee.

Productivity Management captured lessons learned, first and foremost the critical importance of definition. Not all things called a project are projects. Many well-intended efforts fail because a problem is inadequately defined, or a solution drives the effort rather than resolves it. Principle One, Define the Job in Detail, starts with the admonition: “the seeds of a project’s success or failure are sown at its very beginning.” So, to begin at the beginning, what’s a project, and how does a combat deployment constitute one?

The PMBOK® Guide defines a project as “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service.”

Mobilizing and training for a combat deployment meets the criteria for a project. Leaders at all levels conduct risk management, although clearly the risk factors they assess and attempt to mitigate are somewhat more dramatic than for the average project. The military leader evaluates threats, those that are perceived, and those unanticipated threats that can be envisioned. That meant conducting training in addition to basic combat skills or job-specific content areas: counter-terrorism, detainee operations, defense support for civil authorities (DSCA), nation and infrastructure building, and other peacetime contingency operations.

The deployment “project” was further complicated by the challenges of the necessary transition of part-time soldiers to full-time soldiering. This certainly affected motivation and morale, but also had more pedestrian effect on day-today work routines.

Project Phases

A work breakdown structure (WBS) for the entire deployment would suggest the following project phases:


  • Activation
  • In-Processing
  • Medical Fitness


  • Operations (Mission) Planning
  • Staffing and Reinforcements
  • Readiness Evaluations and Training Planning


  • Mobilization Training
  • Deployment and Transition

Controlling and Monitoring:

  • Mission Operations


  • Redeployment & Out-Processing
  • Return & Re-integration

Risk Management

The new Army Field Manual 5-19, Composite Risk Management (CRM), formally defines Risk Management:

“Composite Risk Management (CRM) is the Army’s primary decision-making process for identifying hazards and controlling risks across the full spectrum of Army missions, functions, operations, and activities.”

Consistent with the PMBOK® Guide, the Military identifies a five step process for risk management:

  • Step 1 – Identify hazards
  • Step 2 – Assess hazards to determine risk
  • Step 3 – Develop controls and make risk decisions
  • Step 4 – Implement controls
  • Step 5 – Supervise and evaluate

Risk management forms the critical core of everything a military does. Governments initiate military action as a form of risk mitigation (or avoidance). Military leaders conduct risk management appropriate to the level of their responsibilities. Army NCOs are specifically trained to conduct a rigorous form of risk management.

Guard units deploying into Iraq took advantage of several year’s worth of evolving assessments of hazards (threats). Pre-deployment training, command reconnaissance, and outgoing-to-incoming command briefings and information transfers during military Transfer of Authority operations, all focused command attention on risk assessment, developing controls, making risk decisions, and implementing controls. Leaders at all levels supervised controls during ongoing deployment operations, and continually evaluated controls in light of control effectiveness and changing conditions.

Primary risk mitigation controls included equipment re-supply. Unit vehicles that could be used in convoys were up-armored, and the outgoing unit signed over factory-armored vehicles in a military wide program to ensure units new to the combat zone would be adequately equipped. Initial equipment shortages were eliminated with a complete re-supply, with many augmented items from the military’s Rapid Fielding Initiative. A critical component of the RFI was the issuance of Individual Body Armor.

Other risk mitigation controls focused on individual and unit training, as discussed in human resource management below.

Human Resource Management

Human Resource Environment

Mobilizing a National Guard unit for a combat deployment necessarily involved a high degree of human resource management, as people represented our primary and most versatile weapon systems. (“Guns don’t fight wars, people do.”) Each State National Guard is a shared resource between its state and the Federal Government. When federally activated, National Guard units are immediately converted into Federal Active Duty Army units. Though National Guard are often activated for State Active Duty in emergencies, since 11 September they have also been called to Federal Active Duty for international peacekeeping, peacetime contingency, and active combat assignments in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

Most National Guard soldiers serve “part-time” in the Guard, and work in a wide variety of civilian occupations. This diversity of knowledge, skills, and expertise provides the Guard with significant “value-added” capabilities that can be utilized in military missions.

Contractors and Outsourcing

Many military specialty functions have been effectively outsourced, such as transportation, large elements of logistics, security, food services, and other life support functions.

The corporations and companies that provide services for the U.S. Military, and specifically, those that implement projects for the U.S., Coalition, or Iraqi Government in Iraq, are among the largest and most professional service organizations in the world. They employ many ex-military, and are able to provide services in the most dangerous and inhospitable places. They are not “profiteers,” any more than other professionals who transition from government to private industry during their careers.

Financial and management process project audits are a regular feature for military and Iraqi Government sponsored projects in Iraq. As a civilian, I performed project audits for many years. Project audits, if executed properly, are demanding, detailed, and can be nearly as complicated as the complex projects upon which audits are performed. But I can’t imagine undertaking that already difficult work within a combat zone, with the added stress and strain of physical danger and potential political instability. Projects in the developing world magnify all the normal factors for risk, quality, change, acceptance, and subcontractor management processes. Most obviously, Opposition Stakeholders have guns.

Training = Risk Management

Risk management will always necessitate a fair amount of training and education of human resources and other project stakeholders. For a military mission in combat, training is the paramount risk mitigation control.

Training Environment

Mobilization training was conducted at a designated mobilization site on an Army base. In our case, we were fortunate to train at Fort Drum, NY, less than a day’s ride from home for the majority of our soldiers.

Conditions at Fort Drum were relatively austere for continental U.S. training, with a continuous 5 week initial training under “lockdown” conditions. Soldiers were confined to base with a half day free each week, and physical conditioning, basic combat drills, and classroom training were strenuous and demanding.

Training Objectives

Individual and unit readiness formed the core objective of unit training. Soldiers needed to physically condition to conduct operations successfully in an extreme desert climate with up to 80 pounds of gear and equipment. Soldiers needed to qualify on individual weapons (M16 rifle, M4 carbine, M249 Squad Automatic Weapon or SAW, and M9 automatic pistols), and crew served light and heavy machine guns (M240B and M2).

We underwent formal external assessment from regional military commands, and were required to achieve 100% certification in several key areas, ensuring that every soldier attended all required training and completed all training requirements, including weapons qualification.

The training necessary for the required 100% individual and unit certification could be completed in as little as 6 weeks, though routinely Guard units conducted up to 6 months of mobilization training. We completed nearly 8 months, as our deployment date was rescheduled.

We conducted additional physical training to better condition our soldiers, with a combination of ruck marches, cross country runs, and water survival skills. We trained 25% of our soldiers as combat life savers, which gave thus qualified individual soldiers CLS bags of bandages, intravenous bags and equipment, and the skills necessary to perform basic lifesaving for wounded soldiers before medical aid was available.

Conducting operations in low intensity conflict environments pose special challenges for unit and soldier training. We placed special emphasis on multiple methods for threat recognition and rehearsal drills that prepared soldiers for immediate response in a wide range of scenarios based on actual conditions in Iraq.

Meanwhile, soldiers underwent job and refresher training applicable to their duties: Staff clerks attended a Battle Staff course; motor maintenance mechanics got our vehicles up to standard and trained up on up-armored HUMVEES and the latest armor add-on kits; our mess NCO-in-charge (NCOIC) attended training on our new mobile kitchen; and our many intelligence analysts attended multiple training events at schools and active duty command locations.

As the U.S. and Coalition Forces missions in Iraq evolve, participants in the “Iraqi Project” take on many new roles and the skill sets required have significantly evolved. As security is increasingly turned over to Iraqi Security Forces, more U.S. military forces adopt a training role, working with Iraqi Army and other ISF. Such training takes place in greatly decentralized settings, often down to battalion, company, and local police department levels. Trained linguists remain in very short supply, even as augmented by contractors. Heavy reliance on local nationals as interpreters introduces additional security challenges and cultural issues.

All of our soldiers underwent cultural awareness and sensitivity training, as well as training in history, culture, geography, and other information pertinent to Iraq and the area of operations in which we would operate. Key leaders also attended a graduate level orientation and training course hosted by the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA.

Communications Management

The U.S. Military confronts modern technology in all phases of operations. In particular, modern communications technology and media provide both increased opportunity and heightened challenges for the Military. As such, leaders of any military mission or operation will conduct all communication management processes.

Planning, Information Distribution, and Performance Reporting

Military doctrine, army regulations, unit standard operating procedures, and command and other directives prescribe formal military communications, in terms of content, format and reporting requirements. However, new technology and communications tools offer new methods for information distribution and new capabilities and insight into performance reporting. Military leaders largely consider the same set of communication technology factors as described in the PMBOK® Guide:

  • the urgency of the need for information;
  • the availability of technology;
  • the expected project [mission] staffing;
  • the length of the project [mission]; and
  • the project environment.

Our MI BN would conduct a full range of communications, from urgent battlefield situation reportsin the form of the acronym SALUTE (size, activity, location, unit/uniform, time, and equipment), to battle update briefs for senior commanders. In addition, the BN would create administrative, finance, staffing, readiness, maintenance, and even recruiting and retention reports that are the paper underpinning of the modern military. Increasingly, a wide variety of metrics are maintained on an ongoing basis to report readiness, effectiveness, and other aspects of performance reporting. Work sections were trained in standard reports, formats, and standard office software tools. (Soldiers grouse about Powerpoint almost as often as they complain about food, demonstrating how “computerized” the U.S. military has become.)

Computers, internet access, secure and open systems networks were available to our BN in Iraq, via official and non-official communications. We knew our authorized staffing, even if it took us several months to reach full strength, and we knew the mission environment and the expected length of our deployment.

Since 9/11, military deployments are more frequent and inevitable for National Guard soldiers, in support of the many United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions, OIF, or Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF in Afghanistan). Military units in the U.S. are strongly encouraged to form and maintain family readiness groups (FRG), consisting of dependents, veterans, and community resources who volunteer to serve during overseas deployments. In addition to Unit Newsletters and in some cases, online websites and web logs (blogs), the FRGs form the primary mechanism for formal communications to military families during deployment.

Manage Stakeholders

For a Guard deployment, leaders must pay particular attention to an expansive consideration of stakeholders. Primary are civilian leadership and military command at all levels, and the military organizational structures themselves. For a company first sergeant, I reported to my company commander, a captain, mindful that he and I reported to a battalion commander (lieutenant colonel) and a command sergeant major (CSM), who themselves reported to a division commander (two star general, with his own CSM). Ultimately, they reported to the multinational force (MNF) headquarters of coalition forces, as well as Joint Services and Department of Defense Command organizations. Military organization is all about stakeholders.

To the extent that U.S. forces deploy overseas, stakeholders certainly include host nation populations, civilian government, and security forces. In Iraq, there are multiple ethnic groups, communities, and enclaves. The ISF include the Iraqi Army, border guard, national and local police forces, and other security organizations. In such a scenario, every soldier is a diplomat. Many soldiers have gone beyond their official duties, and organized diverse non-profit, charity, or other medical and civic aid to Iraqi communities, including medical appeals and emergency operations, toy and shoe drives, and education and school supplies.

Depending on the specific location, military missions can include United Nations and non-governmental organizations and non-state actors who are important stakeholders in the military mission. Some other important stakeholders operate less visibly, and there are such people as opposition stakeholders. Unlike most projects, in our deployment to Iraq oppositional stakeholders sometimes carry weapons. Media representatives should also be considered stakeholders, no matter their point of view, or the degree of “neutrality” of the specific organization represented. Many media outlets employ stringers, both for better access and for economic reasons These individuals sometimes seek and maintain undue influence, and may be under the control of enemy combatant organizations.

In the case of the military and their family stakeholders, as well as the public as a whole, morale is a vital objective of project communications. Media, on the other hand, may discount military public communications as “biased” or propagandized, and devalue military reporting in favor of more “objective” media sources, although it remains objectively unclear who such sources might be in a modern combat environment such as Iraq. Understandably, the military and those who serve advocate for better public access and outlets for “good news” to balance the bad. Military authorities are enhancing military access to new and alternative media, Internet sites, YouTube and other streaming video, and blogs. Informal and unofficial communications abound as well, including the online diaries of military blogs (MILBLOGS).

Regardless, perceptions often prove more important than fact for many stakeholders. This correlates with what many non-military project managers experience. Further complicating any objective assessment of the situation is the difficulty associated with data points and trends. If bombings and attacks form the basis for identifying significant activities, the data point obscures the significance of the white space in between data points. In the context of Iraq, that white space can indicate the simple absence of violence, or the mundane nation building tasks of infrastructure, rebuilding, civil projects, education, medical care, etc.

Contrary to many historical wartime situations, oppositional stakeholders in Iraq don’t seek, don’t need, and don’t expect military victory in a classic sense. They seek media attention, shock, intimidation, and the reactions of civilian, government, and military organizations. Many seek to foment a civil war where none would exist without such provocation or incitement.

Conclusion: Lessons Learned

Human Resources

The mobilization and deployment of a National Guard unit to Iraq offered many opportunities for lessons learned. One of the most important is the critical need to manage Guard & Reserve soldier expectations in the heightened “operations tempo” of a post 9/11 national security environment. For better or worse, National Guard forces serve double duty in responding to State emergencies and National Security missions. Deployment lengths are obviously dependent on overall staffing levels, but to the extent that deployment requirements can be stabilized, units and personnel can adjust personal and professional lives to such requirements.

From a training and readiness standpoint, Guard leaders at all levels should take the time to inventory hard and soft military and civilian skill sets. Many civilian skills and trades offer significant “value-added” in peacetime contingency and nation building operations. Given the sometimes high profile and international aspects of modern military deployments, the Guard needs to continue to build and disseminate public affairs and other “diplomatic” capabilities throughout force. On the hard skills side, combat drills and other forms of rehearsal-based training are essential for survivability.

Training mitigates, avoids, and changes individual responses to events and outcomes, but training will not eliminate all risks. Some risks will not be visible nor anticipated; and mitigation strategies will not always yield the expected reduction in risk potential. Leaders must teach concepts with some specifics, if roles are variable or undefined. As a leader, I must know my people, know what they bring to the team, and train them to self-improve.


The U.S. military has rightfully increased emphasis on information operations (IO), and it is of critical importance for all soldiers to know there is an IO war that we can lose. As it does for combat operations, an “asymmetric response” works well for data, too. Too much information can be better than too little, but without effective strategies for “mining” data, creating automated alert mechanisms, or otherwise screening vast amounts of information for priority information, critical data will be lost in the pile.

From a public relations perspective, the military must build and maintain relationships with mainstream and alternative media, and find ways to “recruit” or incent journalists with military backgrounds. The U.S. Military serves as one of the finest professional organizations in the world with the highest of ethical standards: we hold our own accountable far more effectively and honestly than other governmental and non-governmental organizations. Public relations is a theater of operations, and public perception of the military and its proper role is an important aspect of communications. Project success can often be as much a matter of perception. The military needs to fight against stereotypes and prejudices among the non-military, and continue to stay on point with aggressive messaging that gets our side of the story out.

The target audience for communications include the broadest conception of stakeholders, including military families, partnerships with traditional media, MILBLOGS and other alternative media. Relationship building must be continuous. Transparency needs practice, and widespread awareness throughout the force. The military must identify, and learn the processes and potential value of informal networks. With Internet, mobile and other high technology communications ubiquitous, Operations Security (OPSEC) can be a legitimate concern. However, implementation of OPSEC should enhance and not reduce soldier accessibility to communications.

A Definition of Project Success

Much has been said, and much more will be said about Operation Iraqi Freedom, but for my Iraqi Project for the U.S. Army, I modestly propose the following definition of project success:

  • 100% unit and soldier readiness certified
  • No absent without leave (AWOL)
  • Recognition of outstanding Intelligence mission accomplishment
  • Best-in-theater motor maintenance operations, 95% fully mission capable
  • No combat injuries or losses
  • No soldiers left behind

In the end, we achieved our goal: we deployed, performed, and returned without loss of life or serious injury.

642nd Military Intelligence Battalion Unit History (2005). Troy, NY: Published privately by 42nd ID, NY Army National Guard.

Burden, M. (2006) The Blog of War. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Keane, Inc. (2002) Productivity Management: Keane’s Project Management Approach. Boston, MA: Keane, Inc.

Nuding, J. (2006) Projects and Propaganda. Retrieved on May 9, 2007 from http://dadmanly.blogspot.com/2006/09/projects-and-propaganda.html.

Nuding, J. (2005) Patterns of Analysis. Retrieved on May 9, 2007 from http://dadmanly.blogspot.com/2005/09/patterns-of-analysis.html

Project Management Institute. (2000) A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK®) (2000 ed.). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

U.S. Army. (2006) Composite Risk Management, Field Manual (FM) 5-19. Fort Monroe, VA: U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC).

© 2007, Jeffrey C. Nuding
Originally published as a part of 2007 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Atlanta, Georgia



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