07 October 2010


By Andy Weddington
Friday, 08 October 2010

                               "Courage is endurance for one more moment..." unknown Marine second lieutenant


No, not Turner Broadcasting System. And not the cooking abbreviation for tablespoon.

TBS--The Basic School.

That school, aboard Camp Barrett--located 22 miles west of Marine Corps Base, Quantico, Virginia, where newly commissioned (and warrant) U. S. Marine Corps officers are trained and educated. A half-dozen or so training companies totaling less than a couple of thousand newly prepared officers are pushed to the operating forces--Marine Divisions, Marine Air Wings, Marine Support Groups--each year.

Through the years lieutenants have conjured up all sorts of sarcastic titles and light-hearted repartee for describing TBS. For instance, "The Bald Spot" (referring to the short hair sported by lieutenants); "The Bad Summer;" "This Basically Sucks;" "The Big Screw;" and the always popular, "Mickey Mouse wears a TBS watch."

But all joking aside, there's no other school like TBS in all of America's armed forces. All new Marine officers attend. Along with Officer Candidates School (OCS), TBS is the common ground for camaraderie and enduring cohesion--serving a career or not--among the officer corps. Though every generation of lieutenant has good-naturedly mocked the required and necessary right of passage they damn well know the importance of the school. It's serious business.

TBS's 26-week, four-phase curriculum totaling nearly 1,600 hours of classroom and complementary rigorous and challenging field training imbues professional knowledge, leadership, and esprit de corps into new lieutenants. The demanding syllabus and informal interaction with staff prepares them for duty as company grade officers in the operating forces. After completing TBS, and regardless of future Military Occupational Specialty (MOS)--ground or air, each officer has the requisite background in basic warfighting skills to command a rifle platoon. After all, first and foremost every Marine is a rifleman.

A few years ago I asked a friend what TBS class he was in. Without batting an eye his verbatim reply, "Charlie Company 3-76 Best of the Best." He stressed "Best of the Best." Typical. Everybody thinks of their TBS gang as the best. And as you might imagine, ego and confidence is not a problem with Marines; particularly lieutenants. Nor is humility.

The reality is all TBS training companies are pretty much the same--an intensely patriotic, driven, somewhat cocky, exceptionally physically fit, talented group of Type-A over-achievers. For those going on to become pilots--earning 'Wings of Gold'--the condition typically worsens; and for good reason.

At a family wedding in early September there was opportunity to visit with a newly minted Marine second lieutenant, an extended family member, who, at the time, was about halfway through TBS. He was a week away from learning his assigned MOS (first choice being the highly competitive infantry), and duty station; an exciting time.

From his stories, it was clear not much (beyond personal computers, cell phones, etc.) has changed at TBS. He shared a no-frills, modest room with another officer. They had a "brown-bagger" (married officer who resides off base) assigned to their room for the purpose of storing gear and weapon. The training is still demanding. Early mornings, long training days, and evenings at the armory cleaning weapons rang familiar--the feel of a machine gun and whiff of cleaning agents came to my consciousness. Lieutenants still wait around, from their perspective unnecessarily, to be secured for liberty. Sometimes they feel like 'lieutenadates' (a cross between an officer candidate and second lieutenant). And "The Hawk" (Hawkins Room--pub) is still the school's convenient and popular watering hole. All in all the pros and cons he offered sounded all too familiar; as they would to anyone who went through TBS 30 years ago or 50 or 60 years ago or 10 years ago. Not much has changed. So goes the Corps.

He asked what TBS and IOC (Infantry Officers Course) was like 30 years ago? Initially, I thought back to the characters in our company of lieutenants and the instructors. There were some real characters. There are always characters. Then I recalled some of the more interesting training--especially during IOC. Rappelling and SPIE (Special Purpose Insertion Extraction) rigging from helicopters came to mind. I shared with him what it was like to hang by a harness with a chest-centered D-ring clipped to a rope dangling from the hell hole of a helicopter, among a vertical stick of 8 or 10 Marines, and flying many hundreds of feet in the air for 10 or 15 minutes. I remembered the SPIE line laid out under and behind the helo and, after hooked to the line, running forward as the helo moved forward and slowly climbed until we were a flying staggered team along 50 or 60 feet of heavy rope. Then, as we were lowered to the ground, again running and trying to unhook from the rope to preclude becoming a jumbled pile of bodies. Dangerous training. Thrilling. Maybe crazy.

And as I was recollecting something more important and telling dawned on me as to his query. There's a big difference between TBS (and IOC) today and 30 years ago. In those days we were not at war. Today we're at war and have been for approaching ten years. Thirty years ago, amidst the Cold War, we trained and trained hard to fight an enemy--the Soviets--we'd most probably never fight. And we trained for other enemies we might fight but there was nothing bubbling pointing to a specific enemy. But we trained anyway. And not too many of our instructors had combat experience. There were a few Vietnam veterans but they were the exception.

Today's lieutenants are training and training hard to fight an enemy they are going to fight. And the instructors (officer and enlisted), nearly to the man, are combat veterans; some with multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some decorated for heroism. Some decorated with Purple Hearts. Some with multiple decorations for heroism and multiple Purple Hearts. It's a different day. The lieutenants are being trained by officers--mostly captains and young majors--who have fought the same enemy they will soon face. The enlisted Marines supporting training likewise have their share of combat experience. So, though the lieutenants carry on the tradition of joking about TBS, there's little doubt as to a higher degree of student attentiveness and seriousness at TBS (and IOC) these days. And the joking probably healthy for relieving anxiousness, uncertainty, and stress.

This new lieutenant was impressive. He was fit and confident. And he had the look in his eye and swagger that Marine lieutenants carry--that of, 'I know what I'm doing.'

I purposively slipped in the reminder that whether training or combat, Marines, though seemingly invincible, are injured and killed. Helicopters, airplanes, amphibious tractors, tanks, mammoth trucks, and big guns and rifles shooting live ammunition and grenades and mortars, and all moving individually and usually in coordination, do not know the difference between training and combat. A story or two about 'interesting moments' from personal experience drove home the point. He seemed to be listening.

About a week ago I made mention to a long-time Marine friend about my conversations with this new lieutenant. My friend's son is a newly minted second lieutenant, a graduate of TBS, about to complete field artillery training in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and soon to be assigned to an artillery battalion at Camp Lejeune. My friend's observations are worth sharing. Other than the alias for his son, his unedited words follow...

"As for the conversation with the new second lieutenant. I am not certain how your conversation went, but my experience has been staggering. When "Chase" graduated from the Citadel, I had the opportunity to speak to a number of newly commissioned officers. I cannot begin to express how impressive they were as committed, intelligent, competent young men. It did my heart good to know that this country still produces men with honor, integrity, and commitment in such numbers. These young men also exhibited courage, both moral and physical, beyond what I would have expected or given them credit for.

In my mind's eye, when I was their age, I was rough, tough, hard to bluff and darn good looking, too. But I remember myself as looking older and more mature than these young men looked. But, please, do not be deceived, they are plenty old enough.

Think about it, the 2009 college graduates were 13 or 14 years old when we were attacked by the Islamist Radicals. They have been conscious of our being involved in a shooting conflict for most of their mature lives. And they then knowingly and willingly have chosen the path to the military. When I asked about this, I received a lot of responses, but a common theme was the need for someone to stand for good over evil, there was a common commitment to the American ideal of freedom, liberty, and individual self-determination, and a very strong sense of duty.

And duty is not something you hear a great deal about today. It might be said that duty is almost the opposite of entitlement. The belief that we have an obligation to ourselves and our fellow man is a concept that I feared was waning. It is not, there are still loads of young men and women committed to doing the right thing, even if no one is watching."

And still another friend, a retired Marine, and I last week were discussing the dynamics of our current Marine Corps (and all the services)--where there is a considerable population approaching ten years in uniform and all they know is training for combat, frequent combat tours, maybe a tour of duty away from the operating forces, and more training for combat and more combat. And though it makes for an experienced force, what may be the unintended consequences for these warfighters 10, 25, or 30 years from now? Will the experiences of "youth" haunt them in "old age"?

Which led us to briefly touch upon the thought that a relative few from our populace comprise our All-Volunteer Force (AVF). And that sparked further dialogue about the liberals cries for "social justice," "economic justice," and "whatever justice" from any nutty group in our country who sees themselves a victim and entitled to compensation. Fine. Then how about "justice" when it comes to personal sacrifice and risking limb and life in service to country? Should not those able-bodied--regardless of "status" from where they stake claim in society--seeking "justice" in one arena then be all too willing, perhaps compelled, to offer "justice" in another? Yes. Of course.


Now more than thirty years ago I graduated from TBS--"Delta Company 4-80 Best of the Best."

The inside front cover of our company's cruise book reads as follows...

"In Memorian--Staff Sergeant Dewey L. Johnson, Sergeant J. Davis Harvey, Corporal George N. Holmes Jr.--Marines who died on the sands of Iran in an attempt to rescue our people."

On page 2 and centered below a large Marine Corps emblem are the following words by then Major General John A. Lejeune...

"I wish to impress on all of you that the destiny of our Corps depends on each of you. Our forces, brigades, regiments, battalions, companies, and other detachments are what you make them. An inefficient organization is the product of inefficient officers, and all discreditable occurrences are usually due to failure of officers to perform their duties properly. Harmonious cooperation and teamwork, together with an intelligent and energetic performance of duty, are essential to success, and these attributes can be attained only by cultivating in your character the qualities of loyalty, unselfishness, devotion to duty, and the highest sense of honor. Let each one of us resolve to show in himself a good example of virtue, honor, patriotism, and subordination, and to do all in his power, not only to maintain, but to increase the prestige, the efficiency and the esprit of the grand old Corps to which we belong."

Need another word be said?

Now for an example as to General Lejeune's words and to put the seriousness of being a Marine officer in perspective, and how TBS plays a crucial role not only shaping new officers but ensuring only the best ever lead Marines.

A year or so ago 13 second lieutenants at TBS were dismissed from the Marine Corps. Though it really does not matter, this was an equal opportunity mess--males, females, a couple of Naval Academy grads, and two of the baker's dozen were prior enlisted.

Their dismissal--recommended by the commanding officer of TBS, concurred with through the chain of command, and approved by the Secretary of the Navy--because they compromised their integrity on a land navigation exam. Yes, they cheated. Their breach of personal conduct puzzling because land navigation is not terribly difficult. If you know how to read a map (and terrain), use a protractor and compass, do simple math, and count not much can go wrong. So there was discovered a defect in these officers far more concerning than not being able to confidently and competently navigate terrain. Thankfully the problem was detected and remedied in a school environment.

One of those dismissed said so much as he didn't understand why it was important to learn to navigate by map and compass in this day of GPS. Dopey thinking. How someone of this mentality slipped by the officer recruiter and the intense screening and evaluation program of OCS (or through the Naval Academy) is another discussion. The commanding officer of TBS at the time had an answer for the young officer's comment and thoughtfully offered opinion. In his words, "While proficiency with a lensatic compass is important, their moral compass is of utmost importance to our Corps. Their moral compass must unerringly point to do the right thing at all times. Without that, in my strongest opinion, they don't have the foundation to continue to serve as Marine leaders."

If cheating on something as elemental as a land navigation test what will this officer, and the likes of him or her, do when really under stress? That concern surely weighed heavy on the commanding officer of TBS, the general officers, and the Navy Secretary. Certainly not a chance that needs to be taken when leading Marines; in dangerous training or combat. Thank god these officers were never entrusted with the privilege and responsibility of leading and training Marines.

So, TBS--still making lieutenants. And better. And yet every once in a while there's unpleasant business to tend to to ensure Marines are led by the best.

How refreshing would it be for the American public to not only demand from but enforce a like standard of personal and professional conduct and accountability on those elected to public office; any public office? The country, especially those wearing a military uniform, deserves nothing less. Of course. Justice.

And a closing thought about military service...

Was the AVF devised with the intention of fighting the kind of sustained war our country has faced this decade, and will for some time to come? Many experts argue "no" and that makes sense. So, what to do to spread the burden--to instill ownership of the coveted brand "American" in all--going to the philosophy that you appreciate dearly what you sacrifice and fight for. That is, to ensure our country, not a microcosm of it, is fighting. Something to think about. But not for long--for what shall be done and soon to ensure "justice"--to, if you will, "spread the wealth"--of obligation...of duty? Or might compelling "ownership" be necessary? At some point everyone must come to appreciate, one way or another, the stakes far exceed just winning or losing wars but extend to our nation's sense of unity, safety, and survival.

Post Script

After TBS and IOC I reported to the Commanding General, 2nd Marine Division, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, for duty as a rifle platoon commander--1st Platoon, Golf Company, 2nd Battalion 6th Marines. The aforementioned new second lieutenant, the extended family member, was assigned  infantry. He reports to IOC later this month. His duty station unknown to me. It matters not, exciting and challenging days await and odds are pretty darn good he will lead Marines in a fight.


Tom Carty said...

As a proud graduate of Delta Company 4-80, Best of the Best, your blog brings back many memories. I remember taking the Oath of Office as a brand new 2nd Lieutenant the day we heard about the debacle in Iran, i.e. the Desert One disaster. We had been at "peace" since the end of the Vietnam War and some of our D Co. staff had said that we would be in combat before our Marine careers ended. The bad news opened some eyes and I think we had one DOR the day before commissioning. In 21years of active/reserve USMC service I never did fulfill our staff predictions. I've had the pleasure of meeting some of our current batch of TBS students at a watering hole south of Quantico. Truly the best of the best from America's youth! I discovered through these young lieutenants how competitive it was to become an infantry officer. These young men want to be the "tip of the spear" and it certainly made me proud to be an American!

Bruce said...

Outstanding piece, Colonel - simply outstanding. God bless the United States Marine Corps and all who have faithfully served and are serving.

Steve Combes said...

Well stated Colonel. We were at TBS at the same time although I was one company behind you with Echo company, 1980 with your friend Rob Barrow.