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Pride and Discipline
By Donald J. Myers
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2014 Colonel Donald J. Myers, USMC (Ret)
All rights reserved.
The National Ensign fluttered softly in the breeze, and next to it fluttered the Battle Color of the First Battalion, Second Marines. The men of the battalion stood at ease as the microphone was placed in front of the battalion commander. A change of command is a significant event in a Marine organization because as a unit's color is passed from the old commander to the new commander, it signifies the change of authority and responsibility. This was such an event, and the old commander prepared to say his farewell to the men of his battalion.
I knew this day was approaching, and yet I didn't know how I could possibly express my feelings for the men of this battalion. As I pondered, I recalled a video movie, which appeared on TV within the last several years. The movie told the story of two football players who played for the Chicago Bears. They both were gifted players who came from different backgrounds—one was Brian Piccolo who happened to be white, and the other, Gale Sayers, who happened to be black. They developed a close relationship, which extended to their families. One year, Gale was injured and became quite frustrated with his physical progress, but Brian would not allow him to quit or feel sorry for himself. Finally, through diligence and perseverance, they overcame this obstacle, and the bond of friendship grew. Together they formed a duo, which was difficult to stop on the field. Years later, Brian started to lose weight and strength. Neither he nor the trainer could understand until finally he went to the hospital where he was diagnosed as having cancer.
This time Gale remained at Brian's side and encouraged him to continue the fight. Unfortunately, it was a losing battle as Brian grew weaker and weaker. At the end of the season, Gale was honored at a banquet as the most courageous player in the National Football league. As he accepted the award and clutched it to his chest, he began to speak. He thanked all of those present for this particular honor, and then spoke of Brian and his fight against cancer. It was an emotional talk, and as he concluded, he said that this award may be his now, but that tonight it would belong to Brian. And then with tears in his eyes and a tremor in his voice as he looked at the audience, he said unashamedly, "I love Brian Piccolo and would like you all to love him." Now, much like Gale Sayers at a different time and place, as I look at you, I can say unashamedly, "I love the men of First Battalion, Second Marines."
So said the battalion commander as he spoke to his men for the final time. The passing of the Battle Color next signified the official change of command, and the executive officer gave the command to "pass in review."
As the final notes of the Marines' Hymn faded on the parade field and the last company had passed in review, I was overcome with two emotions—sadness and joy. Sadness because I was leaving as the commanding officer of what I considered the finest battalion in the Corps, and joy because the following day I would depart to assume command of the Recruit Training Regiment at Parris Island, South Carolina. To add to the festivities, I also was promoted to the rank of colonel at the parade.
There had been no time to think of Parris Island and the new command since being informed about a month before of the new assignment.
The battalion was returning from Okinawa after being the first unit from the Second Marine Division to participate in unit deployment to the Far East. Accounts needed to be exchanged, troop lists organized, briefings conducted, and the details for troop leave planned. To add to that, we were scheduled to be the opposing unit for another Marine battalion undergoing its final test before it deployed overseas.
Now, as I left Camp Lejeune and headed south toward Parris Island, my attention could turn to the task at hand. I thought back on my own experiences almost thirty years before when I headed toward the same destination as a new recruit. It would be different now! During the intervening years, the Corps and the country both had grown older and wiser—not to mention myself. I attempted to recall the memories from my subconscious and compare them with the intervening experiences over the years.
Two of the officers and several of the staff NCOs (SNCOs) of the battalion had recently served at Parris Island and told me of their experiences. They spoke about the quality of the officers and DIs along with the attractiveness of the local area. It would be a challenging assignment. I saw the change in the quality of new Marines entering the division during the two years that I had just completed with the second Marine Division; they were better. The excitement built as the miles passed. What will it look like? How many recruits are there? The questions mounted as I continued to move south.
The signs leading to Parris Island left much to be desired, and if I had not received directions, they would have been missed. The sun had set, and as I drove onto the secondary roads, the Spanish moss hanging from the live oaks gave the illusion of driving through a tunnel. Where is a sign? Finally, as I went around one more curve, the front gate loomed in the headlights, and I could see the Marine sentry on duty. After driving over the causeway and aboard the main post, I looked for familiar landmarks, but they were all gone except for Iron Mike—a Marine statue commemorating the sacrifices of Parris Island Graduates in World War I. Progress and the intervening years had taken its toll as all the Quonset huts and most of the white barracks had been replaced with modern brick buildings.
I drove toward officers' country to the quarters of Tom Campbell to spend the weekend. Tom was an old friend who now commanded the First Battalion. We had known each other for years. He had invited me to stay with his family until my quarters were available, but I thought that it would be better only to remain the weekend and then move into the Bachelor Officer Quarters (BOQ). That would give me the freedom to come and go at my leisure and also preclude any signs of favoritism.
Although it was late in the evening when I arrived, Tom was not at home because the officers of the Regiment were holding a mess night (a formal meal) for the departing regimental commander. That gave me the opportunity to relax and catch up with the news from his wife, Nancy. Tom arrived shortly after midnight, and we spoke for hours about the Regiment. He was as I had remembered—witty, animated, and at this particular time, a little tipsy. The evening passed quickly.
The following week was packed full of briefings and tours as I became reacquainted with how we went about the task of making new Marines. Even with that, the time dragged, as I became more anxious to take charge. The officers and drill instructors looked great going about their daily tasks, and that made me all the more eager to get started.
Finally, the day arrived, and again, as I listened to the final strains of the Marines' Hymn, the responsibility of command was mine. There was so much to learn, but the task had an eager participant. A reception was held in the officers' club immediately following the ceremony, which gave my wife, Grace, and me an opportunity to meet both the military on post and the civilians from the town of Beaufort. The importance of that cannot be overstressed—the relationship between the town and the base was important. We would work at keeping that relationship and improving it if possible.
The Recruit Training Regiment is the largest and most diverse regiment in the Corps. My first challenge was to develop a system to rapidly learn as much as possible about the Regiment. Naturally, the men were interested in who I was and how I intended to command the Regiment. The first priority was to tell them face-to-face. I wanted to ensure that they saw me and heard exactly what I had to say.
It was impossible to speak to all the officers and DIs of the Regiment at the same time since there were thousands of recruits to be trained, so I scheduled the talk in two sessions. The first half of the Regiment was assembled in the theater as I entered from the rear. The operations officer, Lieutenant Colonel Sortino, called them to attention as I moved to the front. The theater was full as the officers and men waited to hear what this new commander had to say.
I felt that it was important for them to know why I thought the way that I did, so I took time to describe my background. I stressed the fact that I had been fortunate over the years to have led everything from a squad to an infantry regiment. I had also taught at Officers' Candidate School (OCS), the Basic School (TBS), and Command and Staff College(C&SC). In addition, I had attended all military schools up to the War College, received a master's degree, a post master's degree in counselor guidance, and needed a few more credits for a doctorate. I continued to stress that I had been very fortunate in assignments. Now the difficult part started. What were we going to do?
There were some of the men who had spent several tours on the drill field and had seen numerous commanding officers (COs) come and go. They probably had heard much of what I would say many times. None of it was revolutionary; however, I not only talked but also practiced what I preached. I started by saying, "I do not intend to spend much time in the office. Paperwork can be done at any time, but one can only talk to the troops when they are available. I will allow you to do your job and will not ambush you. We do not need knee-jerk reactions. If there is a slight problem, it does not mean that we will make drastic quick-fix changes, which will hurt in the long term. I do a considerable amount of thinking aloud, and I do not want the Regiment to react to that. If there is anything that I desire to be done, I will say so directly, and it is not necessary for you to attempt to anticipate my thinking aloud.
"To the best of my knowledge, I have never killed a messenger. Let me explain what I mean by that. In the old days when the king or general received bad news, he had the messenger beheaded. We have become much more sophisticated since that time. Now we chew him out, transfer him, or give him a bad fitness report. When that happens, the boss never receives bad news again. His subordinates will not lie to him. They merely won't tell him any bad news in the hopes that it will improve. Unfortunately, bad news never improves with age. I promise you that I will never kill a messenger. Now, on the other side of the coin, I will become very upset if I learn about something that you should have told me. With the quality of the Marines that we have in this regiment, there is absolutely nothing that we cannot fix, and the sooner that we know it, the faster and the quicker that it can be fixed. I know that you have probably heard this before, but trust me. I am absolutely serious.
"We will continue to refine training, and if there is a better way, we will try it. With that in mind, let's talk about the standing operating procedure (SOP). That document was written by Marines just like you and me about how to train recruits. We will obey it, but if there is any aspect of it that prevents us from doing the very best job, we will get it changed. If our rationale is correct, headquarters will support us.
"Another topic is integrity. Your conduct must be beyond reproach. You must not only do what is correct, but it also must appear correct. If everyone thinks that you are a liar, then you may as well be one. Let me give you an example of what I mean. In 1979-80, I was assigned to an unaccompanied tour in Korea. For the entire year, I went to great lengths to ensure that I never placed myself in a compromising position such that someone could possibly think that I was being unfaithful to my wife. I shared a house with a navy lieutenant commander, and we had a maid that did the housework and laundry. The last week of my tour, the maid asked if I could go to the gate and escort her daughter onto the post. Her daughter did not have an ID card, and the sentry would not allow her aboard without an escort. I thought nothing of it and went to the gate, where I met a very attractive young lady of about seventeen. As we came on post and walked toward my quarters, we met a Marine captain who gave me a salute and a cheery 'Good morning, sir.' It was approximately 8:00 am, and here was a lieutenant colonel with a very attractive young lady obviously heading toward his quarters. There was nothing that I could say to retrieve the situation, and I could see one year go down the tubes. That's what I mean by perception." The audience laughed because they too knew what was going through the captain's mind. I covered a couple of other items and then opened it up to questions.
Questions were then asked from the audience, and after a short period, the meeting ended. At least they had heard what I had to say, and now they could judge me by my actions. It was obvious from the innocuous questions that they would need more than words before they fully believed what they had heard.
I have always believed that the morale of a unit starts at breakfast in the mess hall. As a result, I had made it a habit over the years to always check the mess hall to insure that it ran like McDonalds—clean, fast, nutritious, and tasty. All four battalions in the Regiment operated their own mess halls, and each mess could seat about one thousand recruits at a time. They allowed ten minutes to go through the line per series, followed by twenty minutes to eat. The recruit series moved through the mess hall in an unending procession. The ability to feed so many in such a short period of time was a tribute to the cooks and DIs.
I entered the Second Battalion mess from the scullery near the parking lot. The recruits on mess duty sounded off with a loud "Good morning, sir" as the cooks looked up from their tasks to see who had entered their domain. I looked around there, checked the serving line, and then proceeded to the recruit seating area. I spoke to several of the recruits and asked questions in order to get their impressions of Boot Camp.
The stomp, stomp, stomp of boots echoed in the building as new platoons continued to arrive. "Ready step, left face, forward march," sounded as the recruit-in-charge issued orders to the platoon to move through the line. All eyes were fixed to the front as they rapidly moved under the watchful eyes of the ever-present DIs.
It was obvious that the recruits were uneasy as I passed among the tables and spoke with many of them. Who is this colonel who seems to be interested in the chow and treatment? Why is he here among us? One could almost hear the questions going through their minds. I stopped at a table and asked, "How's the chow?" It was the same everywhere. They immediately dropped their forks, sat at attention, and responded, "Fine, sir." "Is it hot?" "Yes, sir." Each time, I would tell them to relax and look at me and then spend a moment or two asking where they were from and why they had joined the Corps.
As I continued, I could sense that someone was watching me. The permanent personnel ate in a separate section of the mess, and it was normally full of officers, DIs, and other Marines assigned to the regiment. Now was no exception and they were keenly aware of my presence as though I were an outsider intruding into their territory. Look, the colonel is in the mess talking to recruits, one could almost hear them thinking. And then it immediately dawned on them. The recruits are talking to the colonel. What are they telling him? There couldn't have been a bigger impact if I had dropped a grenade.
After a short interval, I moved into the permanent personnel section and spoke to several of the DIs. They too were uneasy, much like the recruits. "How long have you been on the field, Sergeant?" A tall, neat-looking drill instructor responded, "One year, sir." "How do you like it?" I asked. He went on to give me his opinion of the recruits and the training but remained rather reserved. Better to wait and see what this new colonel wanted to hear. The other DIs watched as we chatted and probably felt relieved that it was not they who had been selected. I remained in the mess for a while longer to ensure that they knew I was interested, and then left.
Later that same day, I had the driver take me to Page Field, which is an abandoned WWII airfield that is used to conduct all the field training. Since it has been unused as an airfield for decades, many of the grassy areas off the runways had been planted with pine trees, which made it quite suitable for small unit tactics. At this particular juncture, the recruits spent five days in the field learning the basic field skills such as fire team and squad tactics, mines and booby traps, hiking, the infiltration course, combat firing, and numerous other techniques. The recruit series, number 1024, was the present occupant, and it ran everywhere it went. There never seemed to be enough time.
Excerpted from Pride and Discipline by Donald J. Myers. Copyright © 2014 Colonel Donald J. Myers, USMC (Ret). Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
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