IT'S A SMALL CORPS--A DAMN SMALL CORPS
By Andy Weddington
Friday, 04 September 2009
When first deciding to become a Marine (note I did not say, "Join the Marine Corps") more than thirty years ago, the only Marines I knew worked in the U. S. Marine Corps Officer Selection Office in Raleigh, NC. Major Howard Florence and Gunnery Sergeant Lonnie Tucker were impressive. And their talk about the Corps was intriguing; particularly sea stories about the size of the Corps--small. Both commented over and over, the Marines with whom you train and serve will be friends for life. If you stay in the Corps, your paths will cross numerous times--it is inevitable.
They were right. And, it's not by accident Quantico, Virginia,--home of assorted entry-level, career and professional level schools; for enlisted and officers--is referred to as the "Cross Roads" of the Corps. But the Corps is so small paths cross at every post, station, depot, and base--coast to coast and abroad.
This business of road or path-crossing is an ingredient for building camaraderie that defies description. Even the most eloquent Commandants, in their guidance to the force and annual Birthday Ball messages to the Corps, fall short. But failure is not their fault. For some things words just do not suffice--you have to witness, feel, and live it. Marines know what I am talking about.
As time in uniform marches on you begin to better understand and appreciate just how small the Corps, and how special the camaraderie. And cross paths you do--constantly. And then you retire--and you continue to cross paths.
The Marine Corps has a number of catchy, powerful slogans. Slogans that cause men and women of character to pause and think--to decide to become a Marine or stay Marine. But one in particular embodies all that is Marine--it is perfection--six words, one used twice, tell all: "Once a Marine, always a Marine."
Now the stage is set for today's words...
Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD), San Diego, California is among the most storied posts of the Corps. Rich in history molding young men into protectors of our land's colors--the stars and stripes, the Depot has been in the business of "Making Marines" since 1921--a statement of fact emblazoned on a bronze plaque as you approach a sentry-guarded gate. The Corps has two recruit training Depots--the other, Parris Island, SC--both are hallowed ground. In the words of General Robert H. Barrow, USMC (1922-2008), our 27th Commandant, Marine Corps Recruit Depots are "...where the difference begins..." -- small parcels of real estate--one surrounded by chaos the other tidal swamps--where ordinary people are transformed--in mind, body, and spirit--into extraordinary warriors.
A new commanding general recently came to town. He will take his place in the Depot's history--tending to the mission of recruiting and training those who found the courage, somewhere in the recesses of their being, to volunteer and scramble off a bus in the middle of the night to fill a set of yellow footprints; the Depot's starting point for all challengers striving to earn the title "Marine."
The new commander will follow in the footsteps of some larger-than-life Marines--to include: Major General Joseph Pendleton (awarded the Navy Cross and namesake of Camp Pendleton and Pendleton Hall--the MCRD, San Diego, Depot Headquarters building); Major General Smedley Butler (twice awarded the Medal of Honor and namesake of Camp Butler, Okinawa, Japan); Major General William Upshur (awarded the Medal of Honor and namesake of a Camp in Quantico, Virginia, through which many an officer candidate passed); Major General James L. Day (awarded the Medal of Honor, three Silver Stars, and six Purple Hearts) and the list goes on.
As of 1700 hours on Friday, 28 August 2009...
General James T. Conway, USMC, 34th Commandant of the Marine Corps, ordered that Brigadier General Angie Salinas, USMC, following a successful three year assignment as the first woman to command the Depot, was relieved of duties as Commanding General, Marine Corps Recruit Depot/Western Recruiting Region. The Commandant further ordered that Brigadier General Ron Bailey, USMC was to assume duties as the new Commanding General--becoming the 49th general officer to lead the Depot.
So ordered and so it was--with the Commandant's orders carried out to the letter with a Change of Command ceremony and parade, executed to perfection, in accordance with Marine Corps directives and long-standing tradition. And, for the record, there is not a more impressive site on a military field than Marines on parade. If you have never witnessed the experience go out of your way to do so. You will not be disappointed.
The formation included Marines from Marine Corps Band San Diego, Headquarters & Service Battalion, Recruit Training Regiment, Weapons and Field Training Battalion and the 8th, 9th, and 12th Marine Corps Recruiting Districts. Except for the band, colonels commanded each unit. The Chief of Staff commanded the field. This was not an evening for recruits to parade. No, these were the men and women--Marines and Sailors: recruiters, administrators, logisticians, drill instructors, marksmanship instructors, and corpsmen to name only a few--charged with the serious duties of recruiting and making Marines.
This was an evening to officially and publically transfer responsibility and authority and for subordinates to farewell their commander and welcome a new one; all for the purpose of carrying on the important business of the Corps.
The formal transfer of responsibility and authority between generals Salinas and Bailey was carried out just as past generations of Marines have done over and over--this time with an evening parade. The sequence of events familiar to all Marines; irrespective of generation. From the initiating command--"Sound Adjutant's Call" to "Sound Off" to the generals exchanging physical custody of the Depot's organizational colors to "Pass In Review" and the concluding Marine's Hymn--it followed the Drill & Ceremonies template. As always, it was a lump-in-the-throat moving show of military discipline, precision, teamwork and patriotism.
Bearing witness were hundreds--coming from near and far--for the ceremony/parade and reception. The crowd included politicians, business leaders, two Medal of Honor recipients, former Prisoners of War, dozens of active duty and retired generals and admirals, sundry dignitaries from all walks of society, and more flavors of family, friends and Marines--active and retired--than there is room here to properly acknowledge. But, as large as the crowd, all were family--Marines and friends of Marines.
Those not familiar with the Marine Corps cannot possibly understand how small the family. So, the rest of this Commentary is a short story for perspective...and, a brief peek inside the Corps...tied back to the two generals in the spotlight.
Twenty-six years ago...
Then First Lieutenant Salinas and I (also a First Lieutenant) were assigned to MCRD, Parris Island. Salinas was a Series Officer assigned to Woman Recruit Training Command (WRTC) and I to the same duties in Second Battalion of the Recruit Training Regiment. In short, we led and supervised Drill Instructors. In those days men's and women's training was carried out in separate commands (today all training falls under the regiment) and there was essentially no interaction between male and female recruits and their respective trainers and supervisors. Besides the physical separation there was little time. As such, I did not know Lieutenant Salinas. But, when meeting her for the first time a few weeks ago, I recognized her from Parris Island days.
My first company commander in Second Battalion, the Commanding Officer of Company F, was then Captain Ron Bailey. In those days Captain Bailey stood slightly under six feet, weighed less than 190 lbs, was incredibly fit and could run miles and miles--fast. Seeing him last Friday evening for the first time in a long, long time--he's no taller, maybe a little grayer--he swears much grayer, does not appear to have gained a single ounce, and still looks like he is able to run miles and miles--fast. Oh, and is still the gentleman I remember--a man who likely has a copy of George Washington's "Rules of Civility" within arm's reach.
A few months ago...
Through a good friend, Colonel Jerry Durrant, USMC (Retired)--a 1970 honor graduate of MCRD San Diego and with whom I served a few years ago--and a Marine if ever there was one, I was able to reconnect with Brigadier General Bailey. Colonel Durrant commanded 2nd Marine Regiment a handful of years back and coincidentally it was then Colonel Ron Bailey who assumed command of the regiment from Colonel Durrant. Colonel Bailey led the regiment in battle in Iraq--a responsibility Jerry had trained his entire career to do. But that is life in the Corps--timing is everything and you move on when the Commandant says so. Again, it's a small Corps. And as fate would have it, Jerry and I, along with our wives, accepted invitations to the MCRD Change of Command ceremony.
Last Friday evening...
Taking a seat a few minutes before the ceremony was to begin, I heard a familiar voice--a voice not heard in years and years but it took me no more than a few seconds to identify. It was the distinctive voice of a Marine I served with more than twenty-six years ago.
Seated directly in front of my wife and me was Sergeants Major James and Gwen Moore, USMC (Retired). The voice was that of Sergeant Major James Moore--then First Sergeant Moore who was Captain Bailey's company First Sergeant.
First Sergeant Moore, in addition to being the company's senior enlisted leader and advisor to the commanding officer, was also a seasoned Drill Instructor. He was an expert training recruits and Drill Instructors. Young officers, if they are willing, can learn much from Non-Commissioned Officers--especially the seniors. First Sergeant Moore taught me volumes about leadership and making Marines--most of the time without uttering a word; he merely did what all true leaders do--he set an example. He left an indelible impression.
And the story gets a little better...
At the same time, then Sergeant (soon to be Staff Sergeant) Gwen Moore was a Drill Instructor and worked for First Lieutenant Salinas.
I was not aware the Moore's would be in attendance--they journeyed from South Carolina; a long way for an evening affair. That should tell you all you need to know about the "brotherhood"--camaraderie--shared between the Moore's and generals Salinas and Bailey. I do not know for certain but strongly suspect it was not a coincidence we were seated near the Moore's for the ceremony. Brigadier General Bailey probably had a little something to do with that arrangement--an attention to detail moment characteristic of his leadership and class.
In short, a memorable evening. A handful of Marines with ties from another day, serendipitously reunited after more than twenty-six years--we crossed paths. And there was many other such "reunions" amongst those in attendance--small gatherings before and after the ceremony as testament, and a phenomenon unique to the Corps. We Marines are a band of brothers like no other--a collective of people bound together in an indescribable spirit whose strength far surpasses mere muscle, bone and blood--forged through personal sacrifice, shared hardship, teamwork, and perseverance conquering what most consider impossible. Simply, do not get in the way of a team of Marines.
Without individuals there is no Corps but, in play, training or battle, the Corps goes nowhere other than as a team. And, that our Corps' membership is restricted to a rare breed is precisely why, it's a small team--"It's a damn small Corps."
With pomp and circumstance done, MCRD San Diego remains in capable hands. Rest easy, America. Your Marines, around the clock, are on duty.
Sadly, the battalion commander of WRTC twenty-six years ago, Lieutenant Colonel Shelley Mayer, USMC (Retired), was killed in a motorcycle accident in April--eerily in, of all places, San Diego County. Otherwise, it's a sure bet she too would have been at the Change of Command. No doubt she was present in spirit. She was only 59. To this day, I remain in touch with one of my two commanders of Second Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Tom Hickinbotham, USMC (Retired). He is still going strong--leading and teaching. Both, exceptional Marine officers.