HOW ELITE IS THE COHORT THAT SERVES?
By Andy Weddington
Friday, 19 November 2010
"A young man who does not have what it takes to perform military service is not likely to have what it takes to make a living." John Fitzgerald Kennedy (35th President of the United States)
There was about a dozen of us--the latest batch of salty Fleet Marine Force 2nd Marine Division tested lieutenants who'd reported to Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, for duty and were now amid the Series officer orientation course--meeting for a brief at the Regiment's headquarters. The briefer was a captain--clad in the "Charlie" uniform (olive trousers and khaki shirt with ribbons) who'd, as was said referring to Marines with recruit training battalion experience, "worked the street." He'd been an Assistant Series Commander and Series Commander in Second Battalion and was tapped by the regimental commander for headquarters duty to rethink the scheduling process for training.
In short, and in that day, Regimental Scheduling was responsible for creating and publishing the training schedule for all male recruit Series. Depending on the time of year there could be 18 Series (4 platoons of 60-72 recruits each) on deck or more than 30 (summer). The island was always busy. Sometimes hectic as facilities to support training was a constant and could be in continuous use. The Scheduling office's mission was to ensure the most effective and efficient use of facilities without Series bumping into each other; regardless of how many Series were on deck.
On a wall in the Scheduling office was a giant white board. Printed horizontally across the header was the four stages of training--Forming, First Phase, Second Phase, Third Phase. And vertically was the four-digit number of all male Series on the island. Stretching across the board's three month training window were colored markers representing each phase-specific training event. Of course, schedules differed to preclude multiple Series at the same facility, but in the end all Series tackled the exact same training program.
That white board--best described as a gigantic kaleidoscope--looked complicated. The captain briefed it to the contrary. He said his office of three Marines (including himself) was challenged to keep busy now easily handling what once took more than a dozen Marines to do. Oh, did I mention this was before computers and project-specific software programs were available at that unit level? He was revered as a sort of god in the headquarters building.
Most of us left the brief thinking the quick witted captain was some sort of magician; if not genius. We didn't know enough to think of him as a god. But surely he was the regimental commander's court jester. He was one of those ten-pound brain types only afforded a body for the purpose of hauling his brain around. I later got to know him and we've been friends since--more than 27 years now. And on occasion through the years he's commented on the work he did in Scheduling and how it was not especially difficult to solve. In fact, he'd so streamlined the process that a new Series training schedule could be produced in mere minutes.
His secret was simple--the critical path method with flex. And if a Series officer requested a change, to better suit training, accommodating such was a cinch. Though, as a rule-of-thumb, it was "disapproved" the first time. If requested a second time Scheduling accepted the request as mission-essential and "approved" the change. Headquarters. Typical.
The captain left active duty after completing his Parris Island assignment and went on to solve bigger problems in the financial world. He's still in that line of work. And I guess he's made a dollar or two along the way.
That short story important background to get to the point. Whether he tunes in to this Commentary weekly I don't know for certain, but I know he tunes in on occasion. And once in a while I hear from him. To last week's post, "PRISMS & MARINES", he offered some thoughtful words in a couple of different notes I felt worth pursuing.
"Perhaps the greatest thing Parris Island is able to offer young men and women is that they have substantially more ability than they give themselves credit for. The training forces the participant to go as far and as hard as they possibly can, and then...one step more. It is there that the epiphany erupts in their minds. They can do more, they realize the limits that bound them in past were self imposed. There is always a bit more left. And we cannot minimize the realization that there is a higher calling than one's self. Gung Ho, teamwork, make for a stronger unit, and stronger people. The mother who worries does so because she does not know and perhaps fears what she does not know. You were on the mark to alert her to what she might expect on graduation day."
And later he wrote...
"Along with the idea of the cohort, I also think about the family lines associated with the Marine Corps. You mentioned in your last two blogs the 1% of American youth heeding the call to arms. I think if you look more closely, it might turn out to be an even smaller amount.
This is purely anecdotal, I have no empirical evidence. But to illustrate the point, I look at my own family. I was a Marine, my younger brother was a Marine after me, my son is a Marine. My sister came to live with me at Parris Island, she married a Marine, they have two sons, both Marines, their daughter is marrying a Marine. I was introduced to my wife by her sister, married to a Marine. So the 1% number is accurate on the gross population numbers, but perhaps if you drill down, you find it is the same families across the nation providing her its warrior class. I hope this is not true.
But, as you wrote about the mother, concerned for her wayward son and his choice of military service as he blundered about life in search of meaning. She inferred disappointment with his choice. The implications were that he could have done better, that this was the "end of the road" option he chose. I infer from the tone and content of the blog that this young man came from a family that had few or no veterans in its ranks. That they moved about in social circles that did not include former service members who could be looked upon as role models. So is it possible that we, as Marines, send a strong message to our children and those close to us of the honor, integrity and sense of accomplishment service provides, but the larger population is completely unaware.
And in that lack of knowledge and personal experience, they tend to view service as something beneath them, or at least a path less desirable than a doctor, lawyer, social worker or community organizer. To too many people, military service is something others do, just not us.
I haven't come to a conclusion as to how best address the problem. (First, I don't even know if it exists, I am currently making it up in my head). I don't think a draft is anywhere near the best option. A draft would require the military to be more "fair" to everyone. But "fair" would be defined by those not in the military, like Lady Gaga or someone.
So, in summary, I have a half-baked idea that I roll around in my head. Like a dog chasing its tail, only I think right now I may have chased the tail too far, causing rectal cranial inversion. I will continue to mull this over until I can put it into an organized thought."
He just may be on to something.
My paternal great grandfather was Army. My father Air Force and his brother either Guard or Reserve; I can't remember which. One of my brothers is a Marine and Sailor. Another brother a Coast Guardsman. Still another brother's wife Army and their son a Marine. That brother would have been a Sailor if not for a medical disqualifier. My sister married into an Air Force family--her husband and his father fighter pilots. A first cousin is a Marine. Other cousins and uncles Army. A couple of great uncles are Marines. There just might be another Marine or two to come. Maybe.
Generations of Marines in the same family is rather common. I saw it over and over again during my three decades--and still do. Call it carrying on family tradition, sense of duty, whatever. Noted in the news last week a Marine general still on active duty and his two sons who earned the title, "Marine." One of those young men was killed in Afghanistan last week while leading his platoon conducting combat operations. He'd served two tours in Iraq. Tragedy strikes without regard to bloodline or rank. Being in uniform and well knowing the risks and dangers does not make the loss one iota easier. It's tough. And that was clear in a heartfelt letter the general wrote to family and friends supporting them in rough times.
But bloodlines wearing the uniform is not just a reality unique to the Corps. There are likewise generation after generation after generation of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Coast Guardsmen.
My wife is a Sailor. Her father was a Sailor. Her brother was a Sailor. Her uncle was a Sailor. Her great uncle was a Sailor. Her step sister and her husband--Sailors. And those are the first to come to mind.
And we have extended branches of our families that likewise boast of generation after generation of son or daughter serving in uniform. An aunt and uncle come to mind. He's Army. Two of their daughters married military men--one Army, one Coast Guard.
And another longtime Marine friend with family history of service to country, while writing to extend USMC Birthday greetings, opined on the matter...
"Andy, Happy Birthday and thanks for your thoughts on the few among our children who see military service as an option. Perhaps the most compelling good conclusion I can draw is that children serve "despite" the fact that their families do not pitch the military as a top option and many stay past a first term even after combat deployments. This makes me sense that the part missing in America today is the element of "inclusion beyond self" and that is what these "joiners" seek. The bonds of military brotherhood, especially in the stress of combat, cannot be replicated in other types of life and that ideal makes the survivors special and torn. Special because they overcame and torn when that bond is severed, maybe like what a mother feels when the child leaves her body. [My wife] and I have yet to face the anxiety of a child deployed to a combat zone but will in the Spring when our youngest son, an infantry 1stLt U.S. Army, heads to Afghanistan. Although she and I talked about where a West Point education could lead him nearly 6 years ago, that was "some time to come." We shall see the future he writes for himself in the months to come..."
Maybe that 1% is a small cohort of families carrying the load. I, too, hope not. The old captain who cracked the code simplifying recruit training scheduling is mulling it over. If anyone can figure out how to empirically (and simply) prove the case it's him--and this time with the aid of a computer and software at his disposal not a giant white board, construction paper, coloring pens, and scissors. So I am standing by for what else he has to say. Undoubtedly it'll be worth listening to.
Finally, Tuesday afternoon at the White House President Obama draped the Medal of Honor around the neck of Army Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta--a humble Soldier, self-described as "mediocre", recognized for extraordinary battlefield heroism in Afghanistan more than three years ago. I know not of the Staff Sergeant's family's history of military service. It matters not. What matters is there was a day in America when many genuinely understood and appreciated the significance of such a decoration. And likewise the importance of the Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart and others--awards some, making up part of that 1%, earn at great personal sacrifice while often times incurring serious injury and sometimes death. The breadth of public awareness and understanding of these folks selfless actions in service to country needs to change. For Staff Sergeant Giunta, and the likes of him, though a reluctant hero, is just the kind of hero and role model America--especially youth--needs; not just for bravery but character.
In the Friday, 05 November Commentary, "TABLE 6", I noted total U. S. fatalities in Afghanistan for the current calendar year stood at 416. At this writing, during the last two weeks another 35 of America's best have been killed. And many lives changed forever. Remember them.