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U.S. Special Operations Command turns to BYU researchers for ethics guidance

Marriott School professors author new ethics guide for Special Forces

Special Operations forces train in a field with a helicopter overhead.
Special Operations forces carry out training exercises in this photo courtesy of the Department of Defense.

Leaders of U.S. Special Operations Command have turned to the expertise of two Brigham Young University professors for advice on the high-stakes ethical dilemmas their forces face.

That expertise has taken the form of a new “U.S. Special Operations Forces Ethics Field Guide” written by Marriott School of Business professors Brad Agle and Aaron Miller and now being used to train Green Berets, Navy SEALs and other special operators who make split-second life-and-death decisions.

“There are so many ethical dilemmas faced by our Special Operations Forces that aren’t clear cut and our guide is there to help,” said Agle, George W. Romney Endowed Professor at BYU Marriott. “We’ve had some very experienced Special Operations Forces operators tell us that this is really important and something they have needed. It’s an honor to provide it for them.”

The guide is based off “The 13 Dilemmas” that make up the core of Agle and Miller’s widely popular original ethics book, “The Business Ethics Field Guide.” Those dilemmas include “Standing up to Power,” “Sacrificing Personal Values,” “Made a Promise and the World Has Changed” and “Showing Mercy.” Adapted for the Special Operations Forces audience, the 13 Dilemmas became the 13 Ethical Battle Drills. Battle drills address how platoons and squads apply fire and negotiate commonly encountered situations that require rapid decision making.

“When I heard the concept of 13 ethical dilemmas, my military brain immediately made the connection to battle drills,” said Brian Ray, a colonel in the Army Reserves and Director of the Poe Business Ethics Center at the University of Florida. Ray is a big fan of the original "Business Ethics Field Guide" and uses it regularly to teach ethics courses. “If you can identify the type of dilemma you face, then you can fall back on the types of training you have specific to those dilemmas,” he said.

Ray is also a chaplain assigned to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the most senior uniformed leaders within the U.S. Department of Defense, and played an instrumental role in getting the original Business Ethics Field Guide in front of the right people to help start the ball rolling toward the production of the Special Operations Forces Ethics Field Guide.

It was Ray who presented the book and its principles to Colonel George Youstra in 2019, then the Command Chaplain for U.S. Special Operations Command. Youstra decided that the military not only needed the guidance in the book, but they needed their own version. “He said, 'This is awesome, let’s do it,'” Ray recalls.

The 56-page field guide, published in late 2020, is now being used extensively in training for all Special Operations Forces, which includes personnel from all four branches of the military: Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force.

“You will find that not all problems have easy answers,” Col. Youstra says in the foreword of the new guide. “More important than finding the 'right' answer is how you process and work towards making the best decision while remembering all the implications that our decisions carry.”

After the guide was published and distributed to Special Operations Forces, Agle and Miller were also involved in helping develop training for the warriors. They went on to do the first round of trainings in Tampa, Florida, Coronado Island in San Diego and at Camp Williams in Utah, where there are a number of Green Berets.

Bill O’Rourke, an original co-author for the Business Ethics Field Guide, was also a contributor on the special operations ethics guide. From the U.S. Special Operations Command Chaplain’s Office, contributors include Chaplain Col. Youstra, Commander Lee Rutledge, Master Sergeant Joseph Gibbon, Master Sergeant Howard Crosby, Jr., Technical Sergeant Curtis Oliver and Rev. Dr. John Edgar “JE” Caterson.

Others with ties to BYU who contributed to the project, included M-C Ingerson, Affiliated Scholar in the Wheatley Institution, and Colonel Allen Boatright, Co-Director of the well-respected chaplaincy program at BYU. Col. Boatright is one of six chaplains in the history of the Green Berets who is also a special operator. BYU adjunct professor Barry Rellaford also assisted in the training efforts.

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