History, Traditions, and Leadership Lessons of Marine Corps NCOs
By Dale Dye
Warriors Publishing Group Copyright © 2012 Julia Dye
All rights reserved.
If your ship doesn't come in, swim out to it!
—Corporal Jonathan Winters United States Marine, 1943–46
The Marine Corps performs a variety of missions, some far beyond the usual amphibious landings and traditional combat campaigns. Now called "special operations," Marines rescue civilians from disasters, both natural and man-made. They board hostile ships much like in the days of the Barbary Pirates. They reinforce embassies throughout the world. In the ten years prior to the first Gulf War, the Marine Corps handled thirty-five of these kinds of emergencies.
To hear Marine Corps NCOs like Sergeant Randy Burgess and Corporal Paul Spies tell it, lots of people see a job that needs doing or a problem that needs solving, but they just sit around complaining. That is just not in the DNA of these two men, who demonstrate the power of initiative and the Marine Corps' attitude toward that aspect of leadership.
Burgess had the thankless task of running a vital motor transport section when the Corps' 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) landed in Somalia to help provide humanitarian assistance to a starving population and keep feuding factions from turning the country into chaos. It was stress-ful and often dangerous, even for accomplished mechanics like Sergeant Burgess.
In 1993, Burgess was stationed in a combat zone in Somalia, where he was responsible for all the vehicles and for keeping them moving. While in a convoy, Burgess got a call: one of the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWV, or "Humvee") was out of control. That was a serious problem. The Humvee was running at top speed and couldn't slow down. Burgess ran to the vehicle only to see it spinning as the driver tried to avoid hitting anything. The brake pads were wearing down before his eyes. Burgess took the initiative and jumped on the side of the Humvee, but he only had what was on his body to fix it, while it was spinning out of control at full speed. Burgess's maintenance and repair protocols never covered anything like this. He had to innovate.
By fall 1992, roughly half a million Somalis lay dead from famine. Hundreds of thousands more were in danger of dying. The problems began in the 1980s when an insurgent group rebelled and proclaimed itself the Somaliland Republic. Tensions intensified as different rival factions proclaimed both Mohammed Ali Mahda and Mohammed Farah Aidid as the president. The resulting civil war, coupled with the worst African drought of the century, resulted in the loss of three hundred thousand lives. When clan violence interfered with international famine relief efforts, an American-led coalition was sent to Somalia to protect relief workers and the thousands of Somalis who were caught in the crossfire of a deadly civil war.
Operation Restore Hope was an American-led, United Nations-sanctioned unified task force (UNITAF) with authority to use all necessary means, including military force, to protect humanitarian assistance and peace-keeping operations. The coalition consisted of thirty thousand American military personnel and ten thousand personnel from allied nations.
On December 9, 1992, the U.S. Marines came ashore in Mogadishu and quickly established an expeditionary infrastructure to facilitate security and the delivery of food to the starving Somalis. On December 11, the Marines established a Civil Military Operations Center near the U.N.'s Humanitarian Operations Center. By doing this, the CMOC quickly became the national focus point for coordination of the military and humanitarian organizations.
The American military contingent covered an area of more than 21,000 square miles. Over these distances, units conducted air assault operations, patrols, security operations, cordons and searches, and other combat operations in support of humanitarian agencies. They also built or rebuilt more than two thousand kilometers of roads, constructed two Bailey Bridges (portable prefabricated truss bridges requiring no special tools or heavy equipment for construction), escorted hundreds of convoys, confiscated thousands of weapons, and provided communications. U.S. Marines also participated in local civic action projects that helped open schools, orphanages, hospitals, and local water supplies. Due to these efforts, humanitarian agencies declared an end to the food emergency, community elders became empowered, and marketplaces were revitalized and functioning.
Ultimately hundreds of thousands were saved from starvation, but unintended involvement in Somali civil strife cost the lives of thirty American soldiers, four Marines, and eight Air Force personnel and created an impression of chaos and disaster.
Up to their ears in the middle of the Somali chaos were young Marine NCOs like Sergeant Randy Burgess. Burgess came from the Ozarks in southern Missouri, where there wasn't a whole lot of opportunity for a young man. Working on local farms, Randy learned to fix all kinds of vehicles as the tractors had to run when the crops were due to be harvested. There was no waiting for parts or for a better mechanic—they just had to make it work. In 1988, while Burgess was pumping gas at a local service station, a Marine Corps recruiter started stopping by and soon became a frequent customer. In response to the recruiter's usual sales pitch, Burgess said, "Don't try to sell me. If I join, it'll be because I want to, not because you came in here and told me to." The recruiter backed off and the two of them just talked.
Eventually, Burgess started asking questions. He wanted to work with his hands, and he wanted to see the world. He also stressed that he wanted to learn something that would translate to a civilian job after he left the military. Not much use for something like a 5974/Tactical Data Systems Administrator in the Ozarks. The recruiter turned to another page in the brochure: Diesel Mechanic. Sold.
Boot camp was tough, but Burgess was used to tough. He learned not to talk. His hillbilly twang came out low and slow, much to the delight of his drill instructors. As soon as he'd open his mouth, they'd start yelling "Faster! Faster!" For the first two weeks, he didn't speak at all if he could get away with it.
Major Mark Shuster, who was a Lieutenant when he worked with Burgess, shared his memories of their time in Somalia. "The interesting thing about Randy is that he was a very challenging NCO. He's from Missouri, he's a backassward hick, but the man could fix anything that I asked him to." Shuster grinned fondly at the memory. "He had very rough people skills. Whether the Marines responded to him or not, I trusted him, to the point where if I needed something to get fixed and I gave it to him I knew it would get done." Burgess regularly displayed admirable initiative.
Initiative means that when something needs to be done, you do it. You don't wait for orders or memos to tell you what you already know. It means staying alert and thinking ahead. It keeps you from being blind-sided by problems you didn't see coming. And it means using what you have on hand to attack those problems. You don't fail for lack of tools, you don't wait for just the right widget to resolve a situation, and you don't wait to see if anyone is looking so that you get the most credit you can.
Initiative means taking that first step. Not just any step—the first step—in something productive that has meaning. It takes a lot of creativity—even for just the simplest stuff.
"We didn't have any paper for letters home ... Marines never have enough stuff. But that was okay. We would take MRE (Meals, Ready to Eat) boxes and cut out a piece of cardboard, write on one side, write 'Free' in the top right corner, and send it off in the mail ... and they made it home."
Members of any of the armed forces of the United States serving in a designated conflict zone can take advantage of the Free Mail system, where personal mail is sent as first class mail at no cost, as long as it is addressed correctly and has the word "free" written in the top right corner. Burgess's mother still has a few of these makeshift post cards from Somalia.
Initiative also played out for Burgess in more important ways while he was in Somalia. "As an NCO, you train up as well as down. Lieutenant Shuster was bitching about they should be fixing vehicles faster or something and I said, 'No way, sir. Can't treat my men like that.'" Burgess was pretty tough with the Lieutenant. His Marines were doing their best, and the challenges they were facing just weren't being appreciated. They were starting to resent the way they were being led, which caused frustration among the mechanics as the stress to get the job done increased. "Lieutenant Shuster told me he needed to walk away and think about what I said." When he did that, Burgess thought he was in trouble.
Shuster remembers the incident when he displayed some initiative of his own. He decided to work on vehicles when he could. Soon enough, he discovered he enjoyed it. Shuster found himself a jump suit, and he put some bars on the collar so that he would be recognizable to others coming into the facility. "So I went down one day, and I told Sergeant Burgess, 'Hey, I work for you today. Tell me what you want me to do, and I'll do it. I'm not your lieutenant right now, I'm just another mechanic.'"
Shuster learned a lesson by going down to work on the line. "If you run a company that makes widgets, if you're running the company, you're not expected to make the widgets. But it's very important that you understand how the widgets are made." It is vital that leaders understand what their teams go through on a daily basis. And it is a great way to connect with subordinates—the people who work for you.
"The best Marine Corps leaders say it all the time: The greatest asset, the most important asset we have in the Marine Corps are the Marines. It's not the trucks, it's not the rifles; it's the Marines. With what we do, with what we need to do, we don't need a rifle. You can kill a man with a helmet. You can kill him with a rock, or a spear, whatever it takes. Mission comes first, people are right behind, but you've got to take care of your people."
By taking the initiative to work on the line with his men—which is not a common Marine solution—Shuster improved his ability to accomplish the mission while discovering how to take better care of his men. The plan worked. The relationships between all the Marines working in the maintenance bays improved.
Shuster wasn't a mechanic, and he never claimed to be. He didn't know that the men had to take off the entire front end of a vehicle to change the water pump. In fact, he wasn't sure what a water pump did. Therefore, he didn't understand why the mechanics needed time to make the necessary repairs. Joining his mechanics on the line helped him lead them better:
"This novel approach worked because now, I was able to understand the maintenance requests, so that when I'm talking to my maintenance guys, and they're telling me, 'Hey, sir, that truck's going to be down for three weeks.' Why? Well, this is what it's going to take, and it's not as big a priority as this, and you start to understand your job better."
That was the real lesson. "Shared hardship is a great tool for leadership. Share the work, be willing to get the grease under your nails, and then, when it's time to be a Lieutenant, go do it," Shuster said. "So the impact with my troops was great. And fifteen, sixteen years later, we still talk about it. And it's nice. And it was Sergeant Burgess that set it in motion."
In order for a team to bring innovative ideas to their leaders, trust needs to be in place first, so that they believe they will be listened to when they display initiative. In Somalia, trust had been built between the officers and the enlisted Marines. "That's a real key difference in my experience between the military and the civilian world," says Shuster. "There, people will tell you they're micromanaged to death, and there's not that sense of trust, because, my sense in the civilian world is that people are in it for money, and for themselves." But when people are working in a combat zone, it's such a different environment, and it requires a shared mission. Civilian companies function best with a shared mission, but the consequences of a poorly created or communicated mission is less than life-or-death. The Marines in the Motor Transport unit all had the same priorities: Get the job done, stay alive, be safe, and make sure to take care of the grunts, the guys who are out there every single day. Micromanaging is not part of the Marine picture. There's no time for it, and it hinders initiative.
Burgess didn't set out to take the initiative. He just wanted to come to work and fix trucks. He was fully committed to making sure that everything ran the way it should. And he was tough on the grunts. He was tough on his Marines. He wasn't perfect on paperwork, he wasn't perfect on procedures; he just got it done.
What is needed for innovation to flourish for small teams? Support and protection of leadership, access to resources, autonomy, ownership, and the permission to fail. Although often problematic, the Marine Corps more often than not provides just this kind of environment to its Marines, especially in combat.
Because of the uncertainty, disorder, and fluidity of combat, the Marine Corps pushes significant decision-making authority down through the ranks. With an understanding of the mission—the commander's intent—those closest to the action can take advantage of ground-level information not readily available to their superiors. When NCOs have the freedom to take the initiative, individuals can identify an opportunity, take action, and lead others to exploit the objective.
In the words of General Charles C. Krulak, who served as 31st Commandant of the Marine Corps:
"The inescapable lesson of Somalia and of other recent operations, whether humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping, or traditional warfighting, is that their outcome may hinge on decisions made by small unit leaders, and by actions taken at the lowest level."
Sergeant Burgess is used to making decisions and taking action. Once, he was faced with a broken vehicle battery, and no replacements were to be found in Somalia. Fortunately, he never threw anything away. He found some pieces of lead that weren't useful for much anymore, put them in his canteen cup, and melted them down. Then he taped some cardboard to a tube, made a mold on the battery, poured the molten lead, and waited for it to set. Once it had cooled, he had a working battery. He recalled how a little initiative went a long way:
"Now, this is not the accepted procedure for battery repair. But the accepted procedure would have meant another truck down which was not acceptable to me. People in the civilian world ... as soon as they say 'policies and procedures' I know they can't or won't make a decision, and I turn off."
Burgess led in the same way he repaired vehicles. Joe Ford served as one of Burgess's Marines. Serving under Burgess gave him a unique perspective of his sergeant. When Burgess first came to Ford's Motor Transport unit, Ford was a Marine Integrated Maintenance Management System (MIMMS) clerk. That job included updating the status of all equipment for the battalion, ordering parts, and tracking their status. Burgess took over the shop chief position soon after arriving, putting him and Ford together working hand-in-hand every day.
Burgess taught Ford how to stand his ground and argue a point when he believed in it, no matter the consequences:
"If Randy knew he was right, he wouldn't give up, especially when it came to his men. A lot of people like the fact that they are 'in charge' and like to make that fact known. Randy didn't. He would rather everyone worked in unison until the mission was accomplished."
Marine legend has it that STEAL stands for Strategically Taking Equipment to Another Location. It is often a way of life and a key to survival in the Marine Corps, which typically never has enough stuff or the right stuff. There is rarely malice involved, but some Marines "tactically acquire" gear that they need. Rumor has it that there was one thief in the Marine Corps 225 years ago, and everyone else has been trying to get their stuff back ever since.
In 2006, only about 15 percent of the total Marine Corps personnel were deployed to Iraq at any one time, but since then the Corps has deployed about 40 percent of its ground equipment, 50 percent of its communications equipment, and 20 percent of its aircraft to Iraq. Yet, according to a 2005 report by the Marine Corps Inspector General, the Marines in Iraq "don't have enough weapons, communication gear, or properly outfitted vehicles."
One reason for the systemic lack of resources comes from the Marine Corps' unique role within the Department of Defense. Compared to the Army, Navy, and the Air Force, the Corps is the smallest in size and resources. The Marine Corps active personnel, as of July 2010, consists of about 325,000 Marines compared to the Army's 562,400. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Backbone by Dale Dye. Copyright © 2012 Julia Dye. Excerpted by permission of Warriors Publishing Group.
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