16 December 2010


By Andy Weddington
Friday, 17 December 2010

                                                       "Courage is endurance for one moment more..."
                                                                                                                                                                            Unknown Marine 2ndLt--Vietnam

Last week's Commentary opening made mention of visiting some Marines and an interesting story about one of them. Today that tale.

The Base Safety manager handed the colonel four or five applications and resumes for three billets that'd proven difficult to fill. In fact, nearly a year's worth of searching had been futile. Either local applicants were not qualified or applicants from outside the area were qualified but not interested in relocating to the desert. It was not so much frustrating as it was disappointing not to be able to staff necessary, and pressing headquarters directed, expertise.

From headquarters there was a sense of urgency to fill the billets. But no matter the headquarters urgency, the billets would not be filled for the sake of filling them. They'd be filled with the right people or remain vacant. Simple as that.

The billets were new--created by Headquarters to mimick another service's program--as more eyes and expertise to mitigate injury and death during training and combat. The ideal candidate was young, fit, and had military experience; preferably in combat arms. A Marine background a big plus.

But the positions were for civilians. Civilians willing to spend considerable time in the field with line units and deploy; yes, to combat zones. Once hired, intense formal training would be the first step toward earning the title, "Tactical Safety Specialist (TSS)."

Of the four or five applicants there was not one fully-qualified, ideal candidate. Several, on paper at least, looked promising but there was a concern with each. But one in particular stuck out from the group.

He was a retired Marine--there's that "big plus." At sixty years old he was, for all intents and purposes, nearly twice the age of the desired candidate. The rigors of field duty being the principle concern.

But he was a Marine that'd served a career honorably and it did not go unnoticed that he'd been awarded, among other decorations, the Silver Star and Purple Heart.

Tasked to fill the three TSS billets and entrusted with authority to hire, the colonel interviewed each applicant. 

The colonel thought the retired Marine's name sounded vaguely familiar but that was about it--vaguely. There was the passing thought of having perhaps once served in the same unit long ago but that was a guess--a guess that proved incorrect when the applicant walked in the colonel's office; the gentleman did not look the least bit familiar.

The two sat across from one another in seats casually arranged around a coffee table. For nearly an hour they discussed particulars and demands of the billet. The colonel, known for directness, asked if he was physically fit enough to keep up with young Marines--many of whom were 40 years his junior? The applicant looked the colonel straight in the eye and said he could handle it.

Typical Marine. And said he wanted the job.

While winding down the interview which had already gone the better part of an hour, and not intending to intrude, the colonel asked about his Silver Star and Purple Heart. The applicant, who'd probably sat long enough, said little--so much as saying there wasn't much to talk about. So ended the interview. The two shook hands.

The position was not offered that day. Age was a concern and there was another point or two the colonel felt merited serious consideration. After thinking it over for a couple of days, the colonel offered and the applicant accepted the position.

The colonel's hiring logic simple--a TSS was going to serve with Marines. The specialist(s) had to be able to complete formal training, have credibility with the Marines with whom serving, and be able to keep up in the field, and be prepared to deploy. Though this particular applicant, this Marine, was three times older than  most of the Marines he'd be supporting he deserved the benefit of the doubt; he deserved a chance. That he was a decorated combat veteran would give him credibility with the Marines. After formal, specialized  training he'd be a good fit to go to work and build a reputation as a safety expert. That is pretty much what happened.

About six months ago that colonel, now retired, was reading a book and came across the applicant's name.  Recognition caused him to pause and think. It took a while but the colonel finally came to realize why the name on the application and resume for the TSS billet five years earlier looked familiar. He'd read about that Marine years before when teaching Midshipmen.

Fast-forward 24 years...

At the USMC Birthday Ball last month that same colonel was speaking with a friend who mentioned the TSS's name and commented he was doing great work. That conversation stirred the colonel to make a mental note to pay the TSS a visit first opportunity. That opportunity came little more than a week ago.

The colonel wandered into the unit headquarters, having been told to ask the Marines on quarterdeck duty where to find "Safety Dan." A lance corporal walked the colonel through the building's maze to Safety Dan's  office.

The office trappings were typical of any retired Marine proud of service to Corps and Country. The two Marines--picking up where they left off five years earlier--shook hands and sat to visit for a few minutes; in chairs but not configured around a coffee table.

And so the colonel told the back story of how Safety Dan came to be hired.

The book noted earlier is titled, "Hill 488"--the story of a 1st Recon Battalion 18-man (16 Marines and 2 Corpsmen) patrol during the Vietnam War. The time frame--mid-June 1966. In short, during a long night of fighting an overwhelming enemy force estimated to be battalion size, the recon patrol engaging sundry weapons and eventually resorting to hand-to-hand combat killed a couple hundred North Vietnamese enemy; some as close as five yards to the recon patrol's position.

Not all of the Americans survived.

That unit is believed to be the most decorated in American military history. There were 13 Silver Stars (4 posthumous), 4 Navy Crosses (2 posthumous), and a Medal of Honor--awarded to Staff Sergeant Jimmie Howard, USMC--the patrol leader. All 18 were awarded the Purple Heart.

One officer stated Hill 488 was “The Alamo with survivors.”

Daniel "Dan" K. Mulvihill (a lance corporal on Hill 488)--Safety Dan--was the applicant the colonel  interviewed and hired to be a TSS. The unusual name Mulvihill had stirred a distant memory before the interview but by no means did the colonel associate him with that battle 39 years earlier.

During their recent visit, as with most folks who have nothing to prove, he was quick to tell the colonel that today's Marines in the regiment have accounted for themselves extremely well under fire. And he told the colonel he wondered if in his day he'd have been able to carry the combat load of today's Marine.

Each generation wonders but Marines, regardless of generation, have always done what had and has to be done. That will always be the case. Always.

Ray Hildreth, author (along with Charles Sasser) of "Hill 488", was with Dan Mulvihill during that battle.

Post Script

That colonel who interviewed Dan Mulvihill for his current position? Most likely you've already figured it out. And his performance testament there's something to be said for nearly three decades leading Marines and being able to read people. In the end, my gut instinct was he'd succeed against the odds (of his age). He did. Again. And this fight nothing when compared to the one for his life when a mere kid. Marines, young or old, are tough.

Author's Endnotes
"Safety Dan" Mulvihill is currently assigned as the TSS supporting 7th Marines Regiment of the 1st Marine Division (his parent unit in Vietnam)--assigned to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, California. The spark in his eye and voice testament of his passion for what he's doing. He looks like he has no problem keeping up with far younger Marines.

He showed me a cherished framed photograph--Dan was in his Dress Blues, to his port stood First Sergeant Jimmie Howard, USMC (Retired) wearing his Medal of Honor, and to Howard's port stood Mulvihill's son in his Dress Blues--he'd just graduated from recruit training. Sadly, the Mulvihill's son was killed by a negligent driver in 2005 (shortly after Dan was hired as a TSS). As you might imagine, that's a tough one for him to talk about.

Howard earned a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts during the Korean War. Little could he have known the value of that combat experience leading a recon patrol fighting for their lives some 14 years later. For his Medal of Honor Citation: http://www.cmohs.org/recipient-detail/3305/howard-jimmie-e.php

Pick up a copy of Hildreth's book--a page-turning first-hand account of battlefield leadership, the fighting spirit of Marines and their Corpsmen, and courage and heroism. That there were survivors from that recon team is beyond remarkable.


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Unknown said...

I actually got to meet Dan Mulvihill when I was at CAX in 97/98. I was augmented to 5th Marines and he was in the same billet as me. He actually had his wife bring out his Silver Star out so I could see it. More than 15 years later and I still remember him vividly!