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Backbone: History, Traditions, and Leadership Lessons of Marine Corps NCOs

Backbone: History, Traditions, and Leadership Lessons of Marine Corps NCOs

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by Julia Dye

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Noncommissioned officers stand as the backbone of the United States Marine Corps. The Corps is among the most lasting institutions in America, though few understand what makes it so strong and how that understanding can be applied effectively in today's world. In this insightful and thoroughly researched book, Julia Dye explores the cadre of noncommissioned officers


Noncommissioned officers stand as the backbone of the United States Marine Corps. The Corps is among the most lasting institutions in America, though few understand what makes it so strong and how that understanding can be applied effectively in today's world. In this insightful and thoroughly researched book, Julia Dye explores the cadre of noncommissioned officers that make up the Marine Corps' system of small-unit leadership. To help us better understand what makes these extraordinary men and women such effective leaders, Dye examines the fourteen leadership traits embraced by every NCO. These qualities-- including judgment, enthusiasm, determination, bearing, and unselfishness--are exemplified by men like Terry Anderson, the former Marine sergeant who spent nearly seven years as a hostage in Beirut, John Basilone, the hero of the Pacific, and many others. To assemble this extraordinary chronicle, Julia Dye interviewed Anderson and dozens of other Marines, mining a rich trove of historical and modern NCO heroes that comprise the Marine Corps' astonishing legacy, from its founding in 1775 to the present day.

"Few people have the privilege of serving as a noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, but anyone who is interested in leading the kind of purpose-driven and values-centered life that marks the best Marine NCOs can learn from this book. And anyone in the business of leading people--whether it's in business, the classroom, or the playing field--should study the men and women Dye writes about with such insight. These NCOs don't just teach young Marines; they have a great deal to teach anyone smart enough to read, listen, and learn."
--Ed Ruggero, author of The First Men In: US Paratroopers and the Fight to Save D-Day

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“A primer for life and a classic about values. While certain to be studied in military circles, it actually deserves to be read by all college students.” —Bing West, best-selling author of The Village, The Strongest Tribe, and The Wrong War

“This remarkable book cracks the bone and examines the 'marrow' of leadership. One of the best books ever written about leadership, with powerful, riveting examples and direct application to the business world, or any other field of endeavor. Required reading for every Marine, for everyone who honors and studies our military, and for everyone who studies and strives in the field of leadership.” —LtCol Dave Grossman, USA (ret.), author of On Killing and On Combat

“OUTSTANDING! A great capture of the Marine NCO. This should be required reading for all Devil Dogs. A big 'atta boy' goes to the author. Any businessman, or anyone in a leadership position, will benefit greatly by reading this book.” —GySgt R. Lee Ermey

“Few people have the privilege of serving as a noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, but anyone who is interested in leading the kind of purpose-driven and values-centered life that marks the best Marine NCOs can learn from this book. And anyone in the business of leading people--whether it's in business, the classroom, or the playing field--should study the men and women Dye writes about with such insight. These NCOs don't just teach young Marines; they have a great deal to teach anyone smart enough to read, listen, and learn.” —Ed Ruggero, author of The First Men In: US Paratroopers and the Fight to Save DDay

“Dr. Julia D. Dye has written an absolutely fascinating book on U.S. Marine Corps noncommissioned officers (NCOs)--the backbone of the Corps. Taking fourteen leadership traits that are endemic to what constitutes the essence of a Marine NCO, Dr. Dye deftly interweaves personal stories from the past and present and demonstrates why the Marine Corps remains the elite military service that it is today. I predict that Dr. Dye's book will be required reading for anyone who aspires to improve themselves or, more importantly, desires to wear the earned and respected chevrons of a Marine NCO.” —Dr. Charles P. Neimeyer, Director and Chief, USMC History

“Backbonedefines the spirit and ethos of leadershipexemplified by the few and the proud, theUnited States Marine. Julia Dyefocuses on thecritical roleof the noncommissioned officer as the nucleus for successful mission accomplishment, shegives the reader afascinating insight to the culture, ethics, and tradition thathas molded Marine NCOs as leaders on and off the battlefield for generations.Backbone gives us an understanding ofthe unique metrics that shape Marine NCOs, giving the reader a compelling overviewon what defines, influences, and creates successful leaders. Backbone is a must read for any organization or individual that viewsleadership as being centric to their success.” —Captain Jim Palmersheim, Managing Director, Veterans and Military Programs, American Airlines

“Backbone is essential reading for everyone in a position of leadership--and all who aspire to lead--no matter their walk of life. Julia Dye nails it--and her exemplars are the finest leaders on the planet--people who know the meaning of 'Semper Fidelis.'” —LtCol Oliver North, USMC (Ret.), Host of “War Stories” on FOX News Channel

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History, Traditions, and Leadership Lessons of Marine Corps NCOs

By Dale Dye

Warriors Publishing Group

Copyright © 2012 Julia Dye
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-0117-4



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.

Burgess remembered:

"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.


Excerpted from Backbone by Dale Dye. Copyright © 2012 Julia Dye. Excerpted by permission of Warriors Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Julia Dye, Ph.D. keeps the entertainment industry honest through technical advising and performer training, and helps Hollywood directors capture the realities of warfare. As a partner in the consulting firm Warriors, Inc., she provided weapons training to Colin Farrell for the filmAlexanderand with the military advisory team, oversaw historical accuracy for the HBO series,The Pacific. Dye earned her doctorate in hoplology (the anthropology of human conflict) from The Union Institute & University. She is a frequent consultant for the History Channel, Military Channel and Discovery Channel and is the former Executive Director of the Society of American Fight Directors, and helped create the Los Angeles Fight Academy. Visit her on the web athttp://www.warriorsinc.com and http://juliadye.com.

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