Mindset could very well be the most important self-preservation tool that one can possess. Without the proper mindset, one may as well carry an empty holster. As a practical matter, we think it would be hard to find someone better than Jarion Halbisen-Gibbs to comment on the realities of mindset. His own comes from 14-plus years spent in rough places, and rougher company. In terms of background, he’s a retired United States Army Special Forces Master Sergeant. As a Green Beret, his service has included operations all over the world, and five deployments in support of the Global War on Terror. He received the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross, our nation’s second-highest award for valor, for his actions in Iraq in 2007 while serving with the 10th Special Forces Group. He has been profiled in The Washington Post and many other publications, as well as featured in NRA’s “American Warrior.”
When we inquired after a seminal “mindset moment,” it’s interesting that the anecdote which came to mind wasn’t his, per se.
“We were on a rooftop in Baghdad, and taking fire from a house across the Tigris River. Our 240 gunner called for ammo, and up it comes in the hands of a fairly junior guy, an E4 reservist, I think. This turned out to be a mighty good outfit, but at the time they had no experience getting shot at, and it showed. Here’s this guy shoving two ammo cans in front of him across the roof, and staying as low as he possibly could. Not a bad thing, really, but he could have been perfectly safe in a crouch, and a whole lot faster.”
“He delivers the ammo when what must have been a nightmare becomes real: Our gunner—a good old Alabama boy and very experienced—says ‘keep shootin’ while I reload.’
“It’s that soldier’s transition that contains the real lesson. He was in unfamiliar territory once the ammo delivery was over, rounds were cracking over his head, and it became his job to do something about it. I watched his eyes get a whole new kind of wide, pause, and then snap back. He changed his mindset from apprehension and just plain scared, to one of “Well, okay. Work to do,” and his training took over. He did a fine job until our M240 was back in action.
“Of course, that was combat and a lot of things are going to be different from a carry confrontation. What won’t be different, however, is the necessity to see things as they are, and transition rapidly enough to match your actions up to the requirements of the new situation.”
NRA Carry Guard: Sergeant, thanks for making time to talk with us about mindset, and how it relates to personal security.
Jarion Halbisen-Gibbs: Well first, it’s just “mister,” these days. But I had a good long run, and was grateful for the opportunity to serve my country. An awful lot of what I did in those years—and certainly what outsiders looking in would call “the successes”—were a function of mindset, and most often in the context of a truly great team. As you can imagine, the Army takes that very seriously, and the Special Operations community even more so.
CG: We’ve long admired the application of the Cooper Color Codes as a distillation of mindset essentials, but there’s more to it than that.
JHG: If you’re determined to take self-protection seriously and get nothing more out of the Color Codes than the idea that your eyes always need to be moving, that’s a really good start. But yes, there’s more to it.
When you’re on a team of almost any kind, that team will have its own and somewhat different mindset from what individuals need. A “correct” mindset will be a function of team member skills and their application to accomplish the task(s) at hand. This is why military units cross train in multiple disciplines as much as they do: If the mix is right, it’s awesome what can be achieved with just a few people. For an individual, the problem changes, and usually not to their advantage: They have fewer resources to apply to whatever their scenario happens to be, so their mindset has to change accordingly too.
The priority of having your “head on a swivel” is still first by a big margin, but how you react to what you see may change.
CG: Is this the sort of thing that can be taught and learned?
JHG: Oh yes, or at least I think so; some people are naturally more heads-up as they go through life, and these “self-starters” are at an advantage just as they are in other pursuits. But just about everybody can learn to do it better, and I don’t think anyone could claim to know all there is to know. For one thing, it takes effort; it’s actually tiring. Nobody can be on perpetual scan. There’s no shame in dogs, locks and alarms. You have to sleep sometime!
There’s a connection to physical skills here too. Most important is the understanding that there will always be somebody more badass than you, if you’ll pardon the expression. If part of your mindset is that your training is so good, and your ability to execute so consistent that … well, you get the idea. The hospital, or worse, is what comes next. This is a very different thing from working hard enough and regularly enough to be confident in your skills. Confidence is earned, not granted, and is really unlikely to come from YouTube.
A person who has learned a good personal security mindset is much more likely to see situations that are dangerous as they’re developing, and far less likely to face the disasters of reacting as opposed to acting. They don’t operate with a normalcy bias—a presumption that everything will work out all right just because they so desperately want it to—and then miss obvious signs of trouble. Buried in this is a piece of military learning, too: After-action analysis when things go wrong usually discovers something situational that was missed. It’s much rarer than that “Billy Bob didn’t make his shot.”
If you’re outside your home, this gets worse. Borrowing again, and this is pretty much straight-up, “7-8 Infantry Tactics” too, you don’t want to fight on the bad guy’s ground. The trouble starts in the civilian/personal context when you get those prickly hairs on the back of your neck because you realize that’s where you already are.
CG: That sounds like a primer for “taking the initiative?”
JHG: Exactly, but also the right sort of initiative at the right time. There are a couple of different ways to look at this.
The most important is the proactive awareness we’ve talked about, but of a type that goes beyond an “oh-oh” realization. Not just is something wrong with this situation, but what, specifically is wrong? This is absolutely crucial in determining what you do next—if you do in fact break from observation and assessment to action/response.
Many people wouldn’t think of it as initiative to change your route, or turn around if you just don’t like the look of the circumstances, but it absolutely is. Fear is built into us for a reason, and it’s a mistake not to pay attention to it. Showing fear too overtly is a different matter, and is even an invitation to trouble. Major mindset tip? Don’t wait to act on those something’s-not-right impulses.
No one can be sure how they’ll react under extreme stress until it happens, but what nobody can afford is to let fear take control. Versatile training (and not just with firearms) is a huge help here because—other than that actual fighting experience—it’s the thing that gives you legitimate, earned confidence. It’s what you’ll default to in real danger. Aggressive types can sense this, and calculate the situation may no longer be to their advantage. That’s better for everybody, and another effective seizure of the initiative. No shots fired, either.
Confident alertness will affect your bearing, and that’s another subtle form of initiative. A “hard target” can be unarmed, and a “soft target” armed, and which one you are is a function of the physical presentation your mindset dictates. That hard/soft line can be situational, too: I’ve certainly seen the right amount of swagger work to discourage confrontation, but acting like you belong wherever you are is even better. “Moving with a purpose” is a good shorthand for this—get about your own business (whatever it is), and give others the impression their business doesn’t and shouldn’t concern you.
CG: Now that’s interesting. Can you expand on that link between confidence and the ability to take—or take back—defensive initiative?
JHG: I think it’s common sense, but not applied very often to personal security, and especially not outside of the military and law enforcement. It’s sort of a special case of a larger principle, and a little like working out: Because we’re pretty safe here in the U.S., we don’t “exercise” this connection, and it’s therefore weak and slow when we need it.
Think of it this way: Recapturing the initiative in a self-defense situation is hard because the realization you’re in trouble is a reaction to changed circumstances. The head-on-a-swivel priority is, more than anything, a method to trade distance for time. By identifying disadvantageous circumstances at greater distance/sooner, you have more options. “Sooner” can still mean just a very few seconds.
If you’ve trained consistently to a surprise trigger break, for instance, now you’ve got trouble. This is a good way to run trigger systems while learning what it takes not to move the sights, but in a defensive setting you have to know when your gun is going to go off, and maybe very fast, too. There are even legal and moral issues which make the “surprise” element doubly bad.
The needed precision takes training to acquire the ability—and practice to perform the action—with confidence. A mutually reinforcing cycle over time is the only thing that gives the speed that is key in
regaining the initiative.
“Trained-in” bad habits are the opposite of this, and make the time/distance equation worse. Most everybody knows what I’ll say here: These aren’t limited to poor firearm-handling skills. Being head-down in your phone or absorbed in your music are invitations to trouble if you cross one of those bad-news, invisible lines.
There’s a practical observation to be made about the type of training you should look for, too. The Special Operations community learned a long time ago that we had to break out of our own routines and look at what others inside (Allied Special Forces) and outside our world were doing. Two big things we learned have application to civilian carry and personal defense. First is the importance of finding trainers that will teach you what you want or need to learn, and not some pet topic that they like.
The second thing is not to get lost in minutiae just because it’s easy to assess. Shot-timer performance matters, but so does judgement. Focusing too much on the first can lead directly to tragic mistakes in the second. No mindset that doesn’t take that into account is a good one.
CG: It sounds as though there are just too many variables for a checklist to be much use, or even possible. Are there at least priorities with which you’ll leave us?
JHG: Checklist decision-making will always take too long, and there’s no way to anticipate all the variations. It gets to another ugly truth that’s hard to over-emphasize: The dangerously out of the ordinary will happen, no matter how carefully you try to anticipate. You’re better off cultivating an eye for the peculiar, but even this needs to be adjusted for circumstances, location, who is with you, and things like that. Hoping to wander around anywhere, anytime without encountering trouble eventually isn’t possible. In fact, it never was.
There’s also a fine line to be walked that relates to some important self-knowledge. There’s always a chance you’ll be hurt defending yourself or loved ones, and you have to adjust your risk tolerance with that possibility in mind.
Next, there are going to be things you can’t handle, and the number of these can only be reduced by adjusting your mindset in real time, and continuing, expanding training. Even then, it’s a moving target. Don’t let ego tell you there’s something wrong with beating feet, except when it’s no longer possible.
In that “no longer possible” scenario, fear is the biggest enemy. It’s natural and unavoidable, but also a deadly distraction. Green Berets address this in a way that’s easy to say, but vastly harder to do: “Never Quit.” After you’re attacked, there will be time for very necessary analysis and healing, but only if you survive.
The right carry mindset is a day-to-day business of getting and staying sharp and realistic about what your skills can accomplish. Firearms or weapon skills are only part of a just, honorable formula.
In the end, it’ll be about making time for a last “is this my only alternative?” assessment, and then acting in a way that protects the innocent.
Calm breeds calm; think it through.
Choosing high-quality ammunition designed for the role required is the best step in preventing ammunition-related problems.
I see disasters all the time. But this one was different. And I came away from Puerto Rico with a new commitment to be prepared as best I can for whatever form tragedy might take when it is my turn to go through it.