by Andy Weddington
Thursday, 12 July 2012
"Get off your butt and join the Marines." John Wayne
A few days ago, sitting at a gate waiting for a plane, I overheard a conversation between two gents behind me. A young Marine lance corporal was asked by a guy who looked to be in his 30s what unit he belonged to. The Marine told him then asked, "You a Marine?" The guy responded, "Yes." Next words out the of the lance corporal's mouth, "What was your MOS?", were heartwarming for it's the only question necessary to reveal frauds. The guy said, "I was an MP (military policeman), fifty-eight hundred..." then went on to detail units and duty stations. Everything he said was accurate. And he was fluent in our lingo. The lance corporal knew he was credible and so on went their conversation.
Turns out the older guy left active duty as a lance corporal after four years and now wishes he'd stayed, "If only I knew then what I know now," he reflected. The lance corporal told him he was thinking about a career, and his new acquaintance recommended it as they continued to talk while walking to board.
A few minutes later the gate agent called for Group 2.
After passing through first class, and looking aft to the plane's port, I noticed seat 21A was filled. "I was hoping for a petite woman (for the room)," I said while settling into B. He laughed and said he was hoping for the same and sorry to disappointment me. The ice broken, he noticed the gold embroidered eagle, globe, and anchor on my green cotton ball cap and asked if I was a Marine. "Yes, sure am, though now retired."
He said his son was reporting to Officer Candidates School the next day. And went on to say he'd heard from him a couple of times the past few days and he'd admitted to being nervous. "Good," I told him, "He should be nervous. He's about to face one hell of a mental and physical test of leadership."
Thinking about what his son would face in less than 24 hours took me back to reporting day and stirred memories. So I told a couple of quick stories about what happened in the squadbay those first few hours including a hilarious one about long-haired Warren, the 6' 4" southern California surfer dude, who, when sarcastically asked by our platoon sergeant, a good eight to ten inches shorter, why he was even there confidently replied, "Dude, I'm gonna fly helicopters." That sincere but poorly timed reply sparked snickers from nearby candidates and a remarkable few minutes of vocal wrath from the gunnery sergeant who cncluded with something along the lines of, 'We'll see about that' before he moved to the next candidate.
I suggested it might be a good idea if his son did not make any such bold declaration, goal or not, on day one. Dad agreed.
Anyway, turns out the young man is a rising senior at the Citadel and if all goes according to plan he'll be commissioned a second lieutenant next June. That is, if all goes according to plan. "If" is huge when used in the same thought or sentence as OCS (or recruit training). The Marine Corps does not casually hand out emblems and the accompanying title, "Marine." The complementary set must be earned--the old-fashioned way. And even the rare distinguished honorary set (resting solely within the authority of our Commandant to award), though identical in look and sound, are not quite the same.
Many who think they'd like to give Marine Corps OCS a try don't make it past initial administrative screening. That is, young officers deem them not Marine material. So just being slated for one of the competitive, coveted slots to ship to OCS is an achievement. Then you have to prove yourself.
OCS is an ordeal. It's a test of strength--mental and physical. It's a test of courage. A test of endurance. A test of heart. A test of guts. A test of being able to think and lead under stress and when exhausted. Every waking minute is under the watchful and critical eyes of Marines--enlisted and officer, these days most likely all combat veterans--who know exactly what they 're looking for as raw material to make Marine officers (at The Basic School, and follow-on schools). They are screening. Constantly. And they are evaluating. Constantly. And they are uncompromising.
The Dad asked if I'd mind giving his son a call. He felt encouraging words from someone who's been through what he's about to face may be helpful. I told him I'd be happy to--that though I tackled OCS thirty-two years ago I didn't think the program had changed all that much. And so he asked questions about what it was like and I gave some insight as to what his son would face day-in and day-out for the next 40+ days. And assured him it'd be an experience unlike anything he's done, even at the Citadel, in life. And that he'd never be the same.
After landing we bade farewell. And about a half hour later, following a bite to eat, I made that promised phone call. His son answered his cell, third ring, with a hesitant greeting; not recognizing the name on caller ID.
Following introduction by rank, name, and service, I said the word was out he had orders to report to OCS tomorrow. Sounding puzzled--but already oriented to military protocol (probably at home and definitely at the Citadel), "Yes, sir" and "No, sir" were ingrained in his vocabulary--he acknowledged such and confessed to being nervous. As to his father, I said, "Good. You should be. It's healthy. And I'd be concerned if otherwise."
Only then did I offer having met his Dad on an airplane that morning. I told him my only advice centered on attitude and effort--keep a good attitude and give everything your best effort, always. And I reminded him that most likely all the Marines would be combat veterans, knew what they were looking for in leaders of Marines, and would be tough. "Work hard," I said and then wished him well before signing off.
He sounded good. He sounded excited. And, yes, he sounded nervous. Instinct is he'll make it. But you never know. OCS is a time and battle-tested rigorous right of passage purposely designed, and ever being fine-tuned, to detect and exploit even a hint of weakness. Some conquer. Many do not.
I then sent his Dad a short email closing the loop. And about a half hour later received a kind note back saying he'd just gotten off the phone with his son who was pretty pumped a stranger, a Marine officer, took time to call and offer encouraging words. And Dad thanked me, too. Well, of course, that's what Marines do. Even such a small gesture goes to our Corps culture of camaraderie. He's not a Marine yet but likely will be one day in the near future and that call he'll long remember and one day will have opportunity to make himself.
It's unlikely my call squashed any nervousness. I hope it did not. That was not the intent, anyway. But maybe something said was helpful for getting through those first few hours and that first chaotic day or two; especially at night when, just before fatigue gives way to slumber, thoughts of "What am I doing here?" momentarily haunt.
Dad, a top-level leader in the ministry did not serve in the military but has a brother in the Navy, is proud of his son. Certainly. And that was evident. As he is of another son who's a Sailor. And a third son, still in high school, at home keeping an eye on his brothers. Vegas odds are the youngest will don a uniform, too. Better examples do not come to mind.
Hearing of these brothers what came to mind was a recruiting poster from the early 80s--General Robert H. Barrow, Commandant at the time, with a serious gaze and clad in camouflage utilities standing with hands on hips asked a question through the caption: Are there any more like you at home?
Graduation is mid-August--17th or 18th. I forget if Friday or Saturday. It used to be Fridays. It does not matter. Dad and Mom plan to be there. Brothers, too, I suspect.
Maybe there will be an incoming email, or call, after graduation. I'll let you know.
Warren Wise, forever a dude, was tagged by the platoon with the moniker "Be-bop." He was my bunkmate throughout OCS. A fine Marine, he did go on to fly helicopters--CH-53-Sea Stallion (don't know for certain if our platoon sergeant, the gunny, knew but probably--Warren was the type who likely sent him an inscribed photo standing in front of his helo). Mutual aviator friends said, "He was a great stick." After leaving the Marine Corps, Warren captained big jets for U. S. Air. He died winter 2001. Damn cancer. We miss him still.
On the day's second flight I sat beside a petite young woman. A recent college graduate, she could not converse about the Marine Corps. But her stories about backpacking across Europe with a couple of friends during the latter half of May were interesting and entertaining. Though an outdoors type, she was not Marine material. Oh well. A few good men. And far fewer women.