Memorial Day Remembrance, 2014

I wrote this speech to deliver to the Village of Kohler, Wisconsin, as part of their 2014 Memorial Day parade and ceremony.

Memorial Day is dear to Americans because it isn’t about us. Simply put, if we are here to celebrate it, then it isn’t about us — because we are alive to remember. It honors the achievement and sacrifice of our countrymen and women whose service required their very life.

As a Marine, the stories of my forbearers who gave their lives in service are legendary to me. Nearly any Marine can tell you the story of Lieutenant Bobo. Quoting from his Medal of Honor citation: “When an exploding enemy mortar round severed Second Lieutenant Bobo’s right leg below the knee, he refused to be evacuated and insisted upon being placed in a firing position to cover the movement of the command group to a better location. With a web belt around his leg serving as a tourniquet and with his leg jammed into the dirt to curtail the bleeding, he remained in this position and delivered devastating fire into the ranks of the enemy attempting to overrun the Marines.” That occurred in Viet Nam in 1967.

A more recent example is Corporal Dunham. His Medal of Honor citation relates, “…[A]n insurgent leaped out and attacked Corporal Dunham. Corporal Dunham wrestled the insurgent to the ground and in the ensuing struggle saw the insurgent release a grenade. Corporal Dunham immediately alerted his fellow Marines to the threat. Aware of the imminent danger and without hesitation, Corporal Dunham covered the grenade with his helmet and body, bearing the brunt of the explosion and shielding his Marines from the blast.” This occurred in Iraq in 2004.

These young Marines, and their sacrifice, live on in the institutional memory of the service. I first encountered Lieutanant Bobo’s name in 2003, when I underwent Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia. It was the name of our Chow Hall, a place of great importance to us candidates, and our Drill Instructors never wasted an opportunity to tell us the story of the hall’s namesake (usually as part of a larger diatribe regarding our worthlessness and general incapacity to become Marines. Ah, the sweet nurturing environment of Basic Training!). Enlisted Marines also learn about Lieutenant Bobo in their Boot Camp. I know that in time, buildings and roads on bases throughout the Marine Corps will bear the name of Corporal Dunham, and newer generations of Marines will learn about — and be inspired by — his heroic deeds as well.

These two stories from different wars show us that the decision to give what President Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion” at Gettysburg (arguably the first Memorial Day celebrated by this nation) is not made in the moment of stress. Lieutenant Bobo would not have had the fortitude to resist evacuation and direct the fight after losing his leg unless he had already decided, in some deep unconscious center of his soul, that he would give his all for his country. Corporal Dunham could not have jumped on that grenade “without hesitation” and within the five-second fuse of such weapons, had he not already chosen — in the months and years of training and operations prior to that moment –that the success and integrity of his mission and his team were more important than his own life.

This day is set aside to celebrate our nation’s fallen, but not only their final heroic deed of service. It celebrates also their lives, for each of them had the character and courage to dedicate themselves wholly to the rest of us long before we collectively asked them to sacrifice themselves. They represent the best of these United States, the ones who have made our existence and prosperity possible: the Minutemen who faced British cannon and muskets in 1775; the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin Volunteer Regiments who as part of the famed Iron Brigade defended the high ground west of Gettysburg on the first day of that battle, enabling the rest of the Union Army to emplace and finally score a victory which led to the preservation our nation whole; the Soldiers and Marines who faced the unprecedented peril of amphibious landings at Normandy and throughout the Pacific; the heroes of Viet Nam and recent conflicts in the Middle East.

Today I remember the Marines I knew personally who died in service. Some, like Lieutenant Blue, died in Battle. He was as an outstanding officer, who routinely aced physical and tactical tests at The Basic School where we were classmates. He was also known as a “good dude” (in our lingo), which meant he was the kind of guy who would give up weekends to help his fellow students master testable skills, like marksmanship and compass navigation. He already had what the rest of us recent college graduates were struggling to develop: outstanding character. In training, he had all the talent and drive to graduate as the number one student, but chose instead to use his gifts to help his fellow students (and even so he graduated in the top 10% of our class). Our success was more important to him than his own. If anyone understood the importance of character and service at the tender age of 25, when he was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq (2007), it was Lieutenant Blue. Word of his death spread quickly among his classmates, even to those like me who had limited interaction with him during our short time in school together. I believe he was the first of our class to die in the conflict, and he proved the old adage “the good die young.”

I also remember Marines who died in Training. A fellow fighter jock of mine, Reid Nannen, died this year [2014] when his F/A-18 Hornet crashed into the mountains of Nevada, where he was training at the Naval Fighter Weapons School (otherwise known as “Top Gun”). His callsign, or nickname, was “Eyore” because he was always comically pessimistic, but it under-laid his solemn unwavering dedication to the craft of aerial combat and aviation ground support, which had earned him the rare and coveted spot at Top Gun in the first place. He was also known for his dedication to his family, and was survived by his pregnant wife and three children. Although he was only training, it’s easy to forget that  our service members assume serious risk beyond what most non-military folks ever encounter in just training for combat. And it’s important to note that his family served our country in a way as well, suffering his absence when the country needed him to get ready for war as well as execute it, as he did in Afghanistan, and suffering his loss in the deepest way. Memorial Day is for them, too.

We celebrate the men and women who have died for us because we recognize that the highest and best use of freedom is in the service of others. Some wars we fought to carve out and preserve a spot of freedom on the earth to call home, these United States, and some wars we fought to bring freedom to others. But the men and women who died in our wars swore their lives to protect that freedom, firstly for us, but also for others less fortunate. I ask you all, as I would ask any of our countrymen, to enjoy this day as Americans — enjoy our freedom, our happiness, and our prosperity at the dawn of summer. Enjoy barbecues, enjoy some pick-up basketball games, and enjoy this time with your families. Enjoying our blessings is how I believe fallen service members want us to remember them.

But while enjoying this Memorial Day holiday, I will also honor the fallen with a quiet personal toast of my beer. I invite all of you to do the same.

Restoring the Meritocracy, or addressing concerns about the US Officer Corps

Recently Mr. William Lind published his latest article, and as usual it was provocative. Titled “An Officer Corps that can’t score,” it argues that the United States military has lost the competitive edge in combat for the following reasons:

  • An ego problem, the apparent perception of US Officers that they oversee the best military that’s ever existed;
  • A personnel problem, that officers are punished for creative thinking and innovation (and the mistakes that invariably accompany such a mindset);
  • A staffing problem, which shortens command tours of duty so everybody on the bench gets a chance to play, if only for a short period of time; and worst of all,
  • A moral problem, in which officers support and perpetuate the status quo to protect their careers–notably a problem the US Military did not have after the Vietnam conflict (according to Mr. Lind).

Certainly these are serious accusations. Mr. Lind’s article sparked a great deal of response, too. Several active duty officers penned articles which asserted indignantly that there *is* a great deal of debate in the military regarding staffing, weapons acquisition, force structure, and other ‘big picture’ issues. What is conspicuously absent from the responses, however, is a critique of the personnel situation–which, as the lynchpin of Mr. Lind’s argument, probably deserves the most thoughtful consideration.

Mr. Lind’s own history plays a big part in his critique as well. I’ve never met the man, but if you’ll indulge in a little amateur psychology, I would say that Mr. Lind very much has a dog in this fight. He was foremost among what he calls the most recent wave of “reformist innovators,” and highly praises his contemporaries Col Boyd (USAF) and Col Wyly (USMC), with whom he generated much of the intellectual foundation of so-called Maneuver Warfare. He also helped introduce and develop the theory of Fourth-Generation Warfare, an extension of Col Boyd’s definitive and much-lauded omnibus theory of combat “Patterns of Conflict.” Anyone who is a bit startled (and/or stung) by the opening line of his article, “The most curious thing about our four defeats in Fourth Generation War—Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan—is the utter silence in the American officer corps,” ought to at least realize that Mr. Lind is aggressively applying the theories of warfare that he developed and championed to his very broad-brush of a statement about our apparently constant defeats.

The predictable–and justified–knee-jerk reaction by junior officers in the US Military is that Mr. Lind is wrong, and that there is anything BUT silence about the struggles and outcomes of these so-called “Fourth Generation Wars.” Indeed, in my own experience there is a lot of debate about technology (drones, bombs, tanks, and their efficacy) and tactics regarding the most recent conflicts in the Middle East. That is all very good. But I think Mr. Lind hits the nail on the head when he criticizes the military–particularly the officer–personnel system. And while there is a lot of debate about that issue as well, it’s usually conducted in hushed voices and away from field grade and higher officers.

Complaints about personnel issues usually center around field grade officers focused on achieving the next rank (and running their subordinates into the ground to get it), or general officers trying to maintain their reputation to their civilian masters with an increasing administrative burden of annual training and paperwork accountability. To the uninformed, it just sounds like bitching, but hearing enough of it reveals that both types of anecdotes coalesce around one central issue: today’s officer cadre does not have either the time or resources to focus on warfighting.

How has this come to pass? At the danger of theorizing ahead of data, I have some suggestions:

  • First, during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts we created a whole sub-combatant-command for each location, complete with Joint Force Commanders, Functional Component Commanders, Service Component Commanders, and associated staffs. This effectively doubled the requirement for staff officers in each of the four major service components. In addition to being top-heavy, it prevented the whole coalition from having any true cohesion as a unit, because new units were revolving in and out under a joint commander who, in addition to directing the whole campaign, also had to administer the vastly increased relief-in-place and transportation requirements of such an ad hoc system. Imagine if Patton had new armored and mechanized units rotating in and out of the 3rd Army throughout 1944 and 1945. Would he have been able to build such a successful and dynamic fighting force?
  • Second, as a corrolary to the first, there are career requirements for officers appointed to joint commands. The demand for those officers has forced the services to cut career billeting corners to get enough qualified officers to meet the demand. That is a recipe for “check-the-box” leadership and careerism from start to finish.
  • Third, most services made a decision to shorten deployment times in order to ease the burden on servicemembers’ families. This was a social decision, and it may not have been a bad one. However it did create a ‘revolving door’ in nearly every unit in the military, as whole combat units turned over from year to year and had to be assigned places in the supporting establishment, which in turn was bloated beyond needs and suffered the same ‘revolving door’ effect. The Army alone experimented with year-long deployments in the hopes that more time in country would allow greater innovation and success in the counterinsurgency fight; I’d be curious to see if there were any positive results.
  • Finally, Congress has micromanaged the benefits of servicemembers to the point of restricting officers from shaping their force. I doubt anyone in the military, including me, would complain about pay increases, money earmarked for better base gyms and housing (including ‘in country’), and a reduction on sexual assault and/or suicide. The problem is the way Congress has enacted these changes. Forcing them down the military’s throat creates a culture of ‘yes-men’ who must “support and defend” the Constitution by bowing to each new decree of a prime Constitutional institution, Congress, no matter what that does to already scarce military resources. Sergeant Major Barrett’s comments, while tactless and insensitive, demonstrate the frustration of many military leaders that servicemembers need meaningful combat training, expensive as it is, more than they need administrative sexual assault training and fast-food joints on base.

The prevailing sentiment among junior officers is that the military is directionless, or maybe more specifically suffering the pull of too many ‘missions’ at once. There’s Congress, forcing social changes and shutting down government. There’s the so-called “War on Terror,” which carries real danger but no real reward–neither Congress nor the Services themselves seem to care much about it anymore. There’s the Administration, preaching a “pivot to the Pacific” and a drawdown, which ominously promises more tasks for the military to accomplish with fewer people, and there’s the innate sense of honor in the services themselves that expect the officer cadre to keep all these masters happy and still field fighting units.

In this context, I will speak heresy to the die-hards and state that there’s small wonder junior officers in particular keep their heads down and try not to screw up (i.e. bring all their servicemembers back alive with comparatively little regard for ‘the big picture’). It also explains why so many veterans of the recent conflicts look back nostalgically on the simpler world of their combat tours, when they had a single direct mission and a feeling of accomplishment.

So what sort of reform would make Mr. Lind happy? I’m not sure, as he simply bemoans US Officers’ lack of creativity and moral fibre, but I have some suggestions on that score as well. But first, I’ll point out that some of the best ideas have come from much more creditable sources than me. Go there, and explore.

My ideas are pretty simple. There is a romantic conception floating around that the military is a meritocracy–in other words, the officers who are best at their jobs should be the ones that get promoted. The shortened command tours, vast administrative requirements, and glut of officers in the services effectively obscure the good officers from the mediocre, lowering moral and motivation. I believe that the best leaders in today’s military truly seek a chance to lead and to show their mettle, so I propose the military make a few structural changes to recover a merit-based promotion system.

  • Lengthen command tours, including the tours that are required for command screening, to 3 (or 4) years. This would first of all require existing commanders to put a lot of thought into the junior officers they promote, knowing that the officers they evaluate highly will eventually control a combat unit for three years (instead of 18 months), and would allow existing junior officers a lot more time to develop and lead their troops under the guidance of one Commanding Officer. 
  • Longer tours help mitigate the ‘zero-defect mentality,’ a colloquialism which refers to the reality that one mistake in an officer’s career is enough to prevent him/her from making it to the next step, because he/she will always be compared to other officers with no such mistakes. It’s a lazy way to evaluate, because the positive effects of the officer with the mistake may be greater than those of his/her peers, and may indicate greater potential. But at least with a full 3 years of observed time, officers will be able to recover from mistakes–and their seniors will be forced to consider which of their subordinates are best suited for further opportunities, knowing that maybe only one will have the opportunity.
  • Longer command tours also permit greater unit stability, which will increase esprit de corps, has been shown to reduce things like suicide and sexual assault, and will certainly increase combat effectiveness.
  • Increasing tour length will be essentially meaningless if officer staffing remains high, because right now it seems like every officer gets the chance to move on regardless of his/her performance against peers. As part of the draw-down, the military as a whole should reduce officer staffing to the minimum level required for service administration, starting with Generals and working down the rank structure (and this reduction should occur before any enlisted personnel cuts, in accordance with good leadership practices). The military should also eliminate the additional joint force staffs located in Iraq and Afghanistan. This will be an unpopular step, as many generals will be forced into retirement, many more field grade officers will be forced into early retirement, and many junior grade officers will not have the opportunity to continue in the military past their first tour. It would help ensure, however, that only the best officers in each rank will remain–reinforcing the idea of the military as a meritocracy.

Actual, active duty officers have much more specific lists of things which need to change, most of which revolve around their ability to train their servicemembers. And we should listen to them. But we can’t force current officers to change their way of thinking–most of them have been shaped by the questionable leadership environment that Mr. Lind notes for the entirety of their career. We can, however, collectively change the game–we can stop playing that ‘everybody gets a chance’ and start giving our officers the space and responsibility to fully lead their men and women. That’s why most of them sought a commission in the first place.

These kinds of changes will force leaders at all level to focus on quality, not qualifications; it will force officers to make tough evaluation decisions after years of watching their subordinates develop. Ultimately, only the top 20-30% will have a career each tour, which will ensure that only the most effective officers run our military.

When our nation’s security and American lives are at stake, isn’t that what we want?

Wings of Gold

I did it. I earned my Wings today. I capitalize it because it is such a big deal to me: it has been my goal for the last 18 months. I am the Marine Corps’ newest Naval Flight Officer / Weapons System Officer. I completed two flights today, and shortly thereafter I was doused with champagne and ice water to celebrate. The Flight School Adventure is over. What makes this even more memorable is that I winged with a classmate who was also in my company at TBS. He crewed the other aircraft – since our last events are BFM, or “dogfighting” events, we always go up in pairs – and though I got the best of him in our engagements today, neither of us would have made it this far without working together. Tomorrow another classmate gets winged, and we are looking forward to celebrating together this Friday after the ceremony.

Perhaps I should back up. When I transitioned from the T-39 to the T-2, I my remaining events comprised three different kinds of flights. FAM flights came first, designed (through a simple air navigation mission) to give me the time to get comfortable in the new cockpit and aircraft. WEPS flights are low-level air-to-ground flights meant to provide practice operating as a section, or as two aircraft in one flight. For the rest of my career, almost every single flight will have at least two aircraft in it. The third kind of flight is BFM, which stands for “Basic Fighter Maneuvering.” These are the most fun. We depart the airfield as a section, head out over the water, fight each other until we get low on gas, then come home. Today I completed my final BFM flight first, then flew my final WEPS flight. Experiencing both kinds of missions made for a fitting wrap-up.

The T-2 is perhaps the ugliest aircraft ever built, at least when sitting on the ground. In the air it seems much more aerodynamic. It is also, literally, a vintage aircraft. It was designed in 1957, and the last modification we have was probably completed in the late ‘60s. We still fly it with genuine ‘60s flight instruments, too…no computers here, which can be frustrating. For example, the instrument which shows our aircraft heading and navigational information actually drifts over time, and requires constant correction off an old-fashioned wet compass. Every 10 minutes of flying—less if there has been any kind of maneuvering—we must readjust our navigation displays. It is ironic that this instrument is so unreliable, considering how important it is to fly the right heading, especially when a) flying in very busy airspace (so you don’t hit another aircraft), b)flying in clouds (when you can’t see) and c) when flying an approach (so you actually find the runway). Another crazy feature of the T-2 is the Electrical Disconnect Switch. Since the T-2 was designed as a pilot trainer, somebody thought it would be a good idea to enable the Instructor (presumably in the back seat) to simulate a total electrical power failure. So they installed a switch that actually shuts off the generators and the battery – so it doesn’t so much simulate an Electrical failure so much as cause one. Then, of course, you become an emergency aircraft with no way of navigating or communicating…and oh by the way your engines may fail without the electrical spark plugs, which means you either have to airstart one of them or eject. Brilliant.

Idiosyncrasies notwithstanding, the T-2 is a pretty perky little jet. We routinely pull up to 6 Gs during turns and Aerobatics, and it low over the ground it flies really well. During WEPS flights hug every curve of a road at close to 400 mph, then execute a high-performance pull, roll inverted, dive in at our “target” to deliver weapons, then pull hard up and away again. It is fun, dynamic, and physically draining – imagine trying to keep your head up looking around and your arms moving around a cockpit when they weigh five times more than usual! Yet BFM flights are the most fun, not only because you are fighting a buddy, but also because you continually operate the aircraft in high-G, high-performance flight. You might pitch up to arc over the top of your opponent or slice around in a max-performance turn to get behind him, or (if you’re in trouble) you might “unload the jet” (go to zero-G flight) so as to accelerate quickly. In this kind of flying, the only instrument you watch is the altimeter, because you are upside down as much as you are right side up, and the only thing that matters is not hitting the ground. It is extremely exciting flying. It is what I signed up to do. But before I could get there, I had to complete the obligatory aviation simulations.

T-2 Simulator Events are pretty low-key. The instructors are all former military pilots who work for Lockheed and have a contract with the Navy. Some of them have fought as long ago as Korea , and many have ejected at least once from their aircraft. One of my instructors flew the now-obsolete F-8 Crusader, now distinguished as the last American fighter jet designed with guns as its primary weapon system. It was fast, though, and my instructor told me that a peer of his was flying around at Mach 2.4 when the wind blast sheared his canopy right off the aircraft. Desperately trying to slow his jet down, the pilot was pulling the throttles to idle and putting out the speed brakes when the wind pulled his upper ejection handle out from the top of the seat, and ejected him at Mach 1.7. He was hopelessly out of position and slammed by wind traveling over 1,000 mph, which caused his knees to break so badly that his feet were slapping against his helmet visor while he parachuted down. The pilot lived to fly jets again, though my instructor had this comment: “that man does not walk like you or me anymore.”

Despite the sea stories, sim events are graded and can be stressful. My last sim was with an instructor who I had flown before. Though he is widely regarded as one of the nicest instructors around – in the lingo of flight school, a “Santa Clause” – I have always performed poorly with him. He wasn’t mean to me or anything, but for some reason I never, not once, had a good flight with him. Remarkably, he only failed me once. At my Intermediate Graduation, where I graduated first in my class, he pulled me aside afterward to ask incredulously, “How, out of all of these students, did you graduate first?” Anyway, when he walked into the T-2 student lounge to pick me up for my final sim, he stopped in his tracks, looked at me appraisingly with a funny little smile and said, “So we meet again.” Fortunately, I had a fairly decent event (though certainly not my best), and afterward he handed me my gradesheet, saying, “Well, you’re free of me forever.” We had a good laugh about that.

One little side adventure I had during this phase was a trip to Washington, DC. This took place during my three FAM flights. It is nice to do them “cross country,” because not only do I get experience flying outside of Pensacola (which I am very familiar with, but I can travel to cool places for the weekend. The flights themselves are pretty low-key, too: I am only responsible for basic navigation, a skill I have been working on since the first phase of training. Friday we flew to NAS Oceana (at Virginia Beach), and then my student partner and I rented a car to drive to D.C. We had a good time: I spent an entire afternoon in the National Gallery, saw a bunch of old friends, and generally relived the days of TBS when I visited DC every weekend. Sunday morning we drove back to Oceana and took the two quick flights home. Travel is one of the benefits of Aviation.

And now, this upcoming Friday, I will officially receive the Wings of Gold. I am near the end of my time in Pensacola , and that makes me just a little sad. I have grown to love it – everything from the beautiful white beaches to the friendly dumpy dive bars has made this an interesting and entertaining cultural experience. I will leave some good friends behind as I move on, but that’s part of a military life – and it isn’t really new. My old room-mate John has gone to California ahead of me, though not to San Diego, and another old room-mate will shortly move from Jacksonville to Whidbey Island, and yet a third has deployed to Iraq. I was nervous when I first moved down here – I only really know one of the guys I would be living with, and practically no one else in the greater Pensacola area. But shortly after moving in, my other room-mate approached me in a bar and said, “I don’t know how to say this, but I really wasn’t sure if living with you was going to work out or not. I didn’t really get along with you at Notre Dame. I’m pretty surprised it has gone so smoothly so far.” I guess that sounds like a mean thing to say, but I had felt the same way. And now I have many good friends from this Pensacola experience.

Enough reflecting. Tonight it is time to celebrate my newly-earned Wings of Gold.

Birthday Ball and Road Trip

As you may or may not know, the 10th of November is the birthday of the Marine Corps. Since 1921, every Marine in the world has celebrated that date. Usually this is done by lavish ball, but for Marines in the field (or Iraq) it simply means a special meal of an ordinary MRE. No matter where a Marine is, on this date he or she will commemorate with other Marines our many years of professionalism, warfighting excellence, and esprit de corps. Although the celebration doesn’t always take place exactly on the 10th, it always includes a reading of the Commandant Lejeune’s original birthday message, a reading of the present Commandant’s message, and a cake-cutting ceremony using an officer sword,  where the the first two pieces cut are given to the oldest and youngest Marine present, with the the oldest passing the first slice to the youngest to symbolize the passing of tradition. Our Ball was held at the Richmond Marriott, and it was a special night. Our guest of honor was Colonel Regan, who (with two Navy Crosses) is one of the most decorated Marines alive today, and great festivities. We finished the celebration with a trip to the bars in our uniforms. It was exceptionally good to be a Marine.

The week that followed was short and painful. Because we receive 96 hours of liberty for most federal holidays, we were scheduled to end our week Wednesday at noon. However, we had the two largest tests of the curriculum on Tuesday and Wednesday, and many clases to prepare us for our “war” coming up next week. Evidently the “war” is quite a realistic – there will be role-players simulating angry mobs, families, small children, news crews, and (obviously) fanatical insurgents. We use MILES gear, which is a high-quality laser-tag system that will “kill” an opponent if you correctly sight in on him or her with your rifle and pull the trigger, so the combat is realistic. It sounds very exciting, though (as usual) there will be little food and sleep. Oh well. Bring on the suffering. It makes me a better warrior.

But now I sit writing to you from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, cosily nestling up to beloved academia and reminiscing. I just attended a Shakespeare class with an old high school friend (who attends this university), which re-fired my desire to explore the rightness, wrongness, and purpose of humanity at large. The whole point of college, as I saw it, was to determine one’s future, and not in the vocational sense (which is the epidemic cheapening of our higher education system) but rather the moral sense. How do I go about becoming a good and happy person? How can I be good and happy throughout my life? Perhaps the insight of Shakespeare, Aristotle, and Keats might help.

I drove from Quantico to Charlottesville on Wednesday to visit the University of Virginia, purposely avoiding the interstates to travel on the less travelled and more scenic US Highway system. In a breathless swirl of colored leaves, I discovered the Appalachian Mountain and their foothills, a dramatic and steeply rolling hills country covered with forests still unfolding the climax of autumn. The landscape was patched with horse pasture and tended fields, and occasionally I would pass through a small picturesque town.

The University of Virginia has a pretty campus. The purpose of the visit, though, was to vist a college friend doing grad school work there. It was good to touch base with her and hear what it’s like to pursue academic studies, instead of suffering through field exercises every other week. We went to dinner, then the next day I continued into North Carolina.

This was my first exposure to the south: the near-indecipherable accents spoken here, the casual omnipresent politeness (there was even a sign welcoming me to Durham which had a large orange addition asking me to “Pardon the Construction”), the coverage of Nascar on FM radio. But the charm was undeniable, especially at UNC–it’s very noticeable how friendly people are. When I went out with the other college kids, it just looked like everyone was having so much fun. I mean, people were friendly at Notre Dame, but they didn’t seek to include their bar neighbors in whatever conversation they were having. And the weather was great.

It was healing, in a way, to see these friends, too. Sometimes the best form of relaxation is merely stepping out of current life with some friends, and enjoying new places and old memories. That wasn’t exactly the purpose of this weekend especially after the Birthday Ball and my residual Marine glow. And though their results seem mutually exclusive, together they were just what I needed. And now I am ready for our upcoming war.

Lessons in Aggression

So the week before last was a “Classroom Week,” and we endured many long TBS classes about Urban Combat, called “MOUT” (Military Operations in Urban Terrain), and the skills associated with it. We also had a “Junk on the Bunk” inspection (JOB), which means that you must display all (and I mean all) issued/required gear on your bunk to prove that your gear is clean, serviceable, and combat effective. It also is a way of measuring our discipline: our gear must also be tidy and presentable. So we all spent several long nights scrubbing our gear outside under the hoses and letting them dry. Overall a rather irritating week.

The subsequent week (last week) we spent at the MOUT facility, a three block square “city” constructed of concrete cinder-blocks. To get there, we hiked 12 miles with a signficantly heavier pack than we usually do, which pretty much destroyed the company. I, like many, ended up with the extra weight that other Marines had to shed to keep up – the ironic reward of hacking the pace. Fortunately, we got some rest that evening: we built a fire, barbecued some burgers and listened to a leadership discussion by a battalion commander who had been to Iraq twice. The next day we learned about, and conducted, several convoys, fighting off ambushes by simulated insurgents several times. Wednesday we practiced room clearing, tactical movement through urban terrain, and urban squad operations. Yesterday we conducted a platoon attack on several buildings, and today we practiced running vehicle checkpoints before coming back to barracks (where I am writing this now).

This was all much more interesting than the previous squad and platoon attacks. The first reason for this is that we used simunitions, which are essentially paint-balls fired from an M16. They mark you when they strike you, and they sting. They add a realistic element to the combat exercise, because you know when you’ve been hit and you begin to really think about things like cover and concealment. Furthermore, our aggressors, the CIs (Combat Instructors), are enlisted infantry marines with combat experience who LOVE to shoot at young officers. They were a talented and motivated foe.

The most important lesson of the week was aggression. Aggression is brutally necessary in MOUT. The instructors say that “inside a building is dangerous, outside is lethal.” Since every street or terrace is overlooked by windows and doorways from adjacent buildings, you are most exposed outside. Therefore, you sprint, and I mean sprint, from building to building, slamming into walls and rolling off, diving into windows and doors, and generally being aggressive and motivated and beating yourself up in the process (which is what a bunch of twenty-something males want to do anyway). It is ridiculously fun. Inside is even better: You are liable to be fired upon from corners of the room, from down stairs, from trapdoors above. It is incredibly manpower-intensive because the nature of buildings exponentially magnifies the amount of usable space and obstacles the enemy can use to fight. For that reason, you clear hallways and rooms in teams of two or more, stacking up in a column outside the door in a tight column, then you burst into the room together with guns blazing, hoping your combined firepower overwhelms the enemy. It makes me excited just thinking about it (though I recognize the deadly nature of this type of combat in, well, real combat). Often we would suppress the room with a grenade (we used practice grenades which sound like the real thing but don’t spread shrapnel) before busting in. And this goes on (exhaustingly) from room to room to room, in every building of the city.

This particular FEX had another benefit: Hot Chow every night. Hot Chow is a magnificent event where they truck out cases of steaming food, all for to serve you an entire dinner cafeteria-style, which after days of MREs is incredible. We also got sufficient sleep, for the first time on a FEX: we went to bed shortly after it got dark (7:30 PM) and woke up before 6 AM. It all felt very healthy and wholesome, in fact. The only bad thing about this recent FEX was the cold rain we had all Thursday, and the cold all day Friday. It was pretty comfortable otherwise.

And that is all I have for you. It’s a short post for two weeks’ worth of events. And I have little in the way of reflection. I am melancholy at heart, as I always am when autumn gives way to winter. It is still several weeks until the happier times of snow and holidays. But I continue to try to adapt along this journey, and hopefully come ever closer to personal contentment and the virtue necessary to be a good Marine Officer.

Wetness, Coldness, War, and the M240G

When you go into the field here at TBS (and I assume anywhere else in the Marine Corps), you must reconstruct time and reality. It is a monumental task. Over the past week, my company conducted FEX III, the most war-like of our evolutions. I slept only 14 hours over the entire week. Like any experience of suffering and privation, a FEX exposes one’s character in a way that all the little luxuries of society (like beds and showers) can prevent. Since part of the learning experience of a FEX is experiencing the kind of privation that happens in combat situations, there is no extra time built in for personal needs; for example, we must eat when we can and often go without food.

What makes all this especially demanding is the fuzzy thinking of food and sleep deprivation, considering that everything about the FEX requires focus and discipline–the long midnight security watches, the planning of attacks, or the act of sneaking up on enemy positions for reconnaissance.

We spent four full days in the field, plus a morning dedicated to leaving. Monday we were helicoptered in and set up a defense, which we maintained until Wednesday morning. On Wednesday, we conducted a grueling Movement to Contact, a platoon daylight attack, and a night ambush. On Thursday, we conducted a night attack. Every night we manned LP/OPs (Listening Post/Observation Posts), stood Radio Watch, and kept a Marine posted on every Squad Automatic Weapon for security. In the daytime we conducted security patrols, reconnaissance patrols, and held strong points. We engaged in combat with our peers, captured POWs, and suffered casualties.

Although the first day was clear, the rest of the week proceeded under steady rain and steadily increasing cold. We slept in wet sleeping bags (when we had time), we woke up frigid at all hours in wet clothes, we lay prone in ice-cold water, we sat in chest-deep fighting positions that slowly filled with mud. I cannot remember being warm, although many times I achieved a sort of comfort simply by moving around. Yet for all the misery (or maybe because of it), our unit camaraderie increased.

This week, I pushed far beyond my previous limits physically, emotionally, mentally, and morally (by morally I mean ‘in matters concerning my will and morale’). Despite the cold and wet, I am proud to say that my platoon and I went about our business in a more professional manner than we ever had before. During the movement to contact, which is a method of clearing terrain of the enemy, we hiked through thick woodland at a fast pace with full load (70-100 lbs) on our backs, diverting units as needed to engage whatever enemy we encountered. It requires discipline to drop packs in precise order under fire, to engage the enemy with aggression, and then quickly retrieve the packs and run to rejoin the formation. It requires personal discipline to know   your job exactly each time an engagement occurs. And it requires discipline to continue onward when you’re cold, wet, tired, and hungry. But we did it. During the night attack, my squad and I crept to within 60 meters of enemy entrenchments without being detected, achieved surprise, and suppressed them with fire so our comrades could assault through. During the night ambush, we took down an order in driving rain, crept through dense underbrush in 0% illumination without the aid of lights or NVGs, ambushed a convoy, raided the trucks, and transported our spoils back in the same manner, and even resisted a counterattack by the enemy. Sitting at my desk, writing, I find it hard to believe that I and the platoon could have accomplished so much, even with the memory of all those events so fresh.

It is thrilling that we did it–we accomplished the mission, in spite of physical hardship. And that is the greatest feeling in the world. My captain once told our platoon, “mental and physical toughness will take you a long way,” and he was right. It was the mental and physical toughness of my platoon that enabled us to perform our jobs despite the poor conditions and our thinking enemy. Truthfully, every single one of us was discouraged and thought of quitting at one point during the week. But we covered for each other, and inspired each other, and sometimes had to kick each other in the ass to get moving. We were greater than the sum of our parts, and that sustained us. That made suffering seem incidental, except as an excuse to complain. And it made me feel truly like a Marine for the first time.

A few characteristically reflective moments stand out for me, the first being the helicopter ride in. The helicopter is an amazing machine. When you get in, and the engines wind up, it feels like there is no way the rotor can lift the aircraft. You seem to hear each individual rotor blade hitting the air as the aircraft struggles to lift off. But in the air, it is different – we made some turns so sharply that I could literally look straight down to the earth through the windows on the opposite side of the fuselage from where I was seated. Exhilarating? Absolutely.

Another such moment, oddly, was firing the machine gun. I may have mentioned already that I carried the M240G medium machine gun through the night attack, which included about 3 km of hiking to various control points (again, through dense forest), 1600 meters of creeping through woodland in the dark to get in position, and one glorious minute of firing. In fact, though I hated the M240G as a burden, it fires so beautifully that I forgave it everything during the attack. I felt in that moment like I would never love a woman as much as I loved that weapon. It’s 7.62mm (.30 calibre) high-powered rifle rounds make a lot more noise than the smaller caliber M16 and SAWs (5.56mm/.2229 cal). It has a higher rate of fire and great reliability. I felt like Rambo. It was wonderful: the first burst I fired was supposed to be 6-8 rounds, but it ended up being closer to 20, because it felt so good to be pulling the trigger. I don’t think I will ever forget the sight of that machine gun eating its chain of ammunition, or the feel of its buttstock slamming my shoulder, or the brightness of its muzzle flashes. It was (and I don’t use this word lightly) terribly beautiful.

But now, it is all a pleasant memory. I am stuffed with food and enjoying the inordinate warmth of my barracks room. My dry rack is calling. And so I will finish wallowing in the excitement of a successful exercise and dream of it instead. Somehow, the memory of completing a tough job (or jobs), and doing so well, makes ‘home’ all that much better.

Experiencing Autumn

Week 16 has passed here at TBS. It contained two of the more important graded events of the course, the Endurance Course (E-Course) on Friday and the Land Navigation Final today (Saturday). Both events were difficult, but I passed each with high scores. I have tonight and Sunday to recover, and prepare for FEX III, which kicks off on Monday. It will be our hardest exercise of TBS. Welcome to the Infantry.

The E-Course is designed to test an officer’s physical stamina and ability in a simulated combat environment. It a series of three events ran in sequence: the Obstacle Course (O-Course), Echo Trail, and the Stamina Course. The O-Course is about 300 meters of low and high obstacles that require climbing over, ducking under, and vaulting. It is a test of upper body strength and upper body stamina. It is completed by climbing a 30-ft rope. Echo Trail is about 2.5 miles, and travels relentless over (it seems) every hill in Quantico. The Stamina course is much like Echo Trail, though it is about 3 miles long and interspersed with higher obstacles every several hundred yards, including a 20-foot Jacob’s ladder and a hundred-yard low-crawl course under barbed wire. With the exception of the O-Course, we must perform the whole thing with about 35 lbs of gear and a rifle. If you complete it in 60 minutes or less, you “max” it (get the highest possible score), if you take over 80 minutes, you fail. Most Marines are gasping for breath by the finish of the O-Course, only two minutes into the event…and the following 6 miles or so bring you to the edge of your endurance. Physically, it is the hardest thing I have ever done.

Final Land Nav is also strenuous, but in a different way. You are given seven hours to complete the event, and most people require that. In the morning, you are released into a 30-square kilometer training area, and you must be back at a pick-up spot (on the perimeter of the area) by a set time that afternoon, or you are disqualified. There are ten boxes for you to find with your compass and your map. These boxes, as before, are little red metal ammunition boxes mounted on posts, with numbers painted on them (so you can identify which ones you found). Despite their color they are hard to see – you have to get within 50 yards or so before they are visible. They are often a kilometer or more away from each other, and the terrain is very hilly, so a lot of hiking is involved. My route today took me over 20,000 meters, which does not account for the distance I covered actually searching for boxes once I found their general locations. A handy conversion website puts that at about twelve and a half miles, which is no small distance, especially off roads and over hills. However, despite the pressure to pass and the constant hiking, I found the experience breathtaking.

Though I was superficially concerned with finding my assigned boxes, my time in that forest felt like a sojourn apart as I wandered and was casually awestruck by the climactic, glorious throes of autumn. I started the day in a twilit wood, its pale-gold leaves faintly luminous in the promise of sunrise. I have no memory of mid-day, for this late in the season the afternoon seems to begin almost immediately, so low through the sky strides the sun. Areas of mostly bare scrub spoke of the coming winter, and the occasional copse still bearing rich greenery recalled the fading summer. At some point I ate lunch at the intersection of two creeks, the veiled land rising in autumn colors about me, and as I did so it started to rain. It was a hurried, spitting, autumn rain, released in fitful bursts from the fast-scudding clouds above. The later hours of the afternoon were dominated by the slanting sunlight dodging down sporadically between clouds. As I emerged from the woods at last, I was struck by fierce slanting sunlight emanating from a rich blue sky.

But the leaves! Though most lay dead on the ground, they defiantly blazed deep russet and red beneath my grateful boots. I crunched steadily through this wreck of foliage, breath misting before me, and everything in sight was fragile and aflame with exquisite and bracing melancholy. The approaching death of winter carried an air of tragedy, as though it were possible to be sad among such beauty, but if it was a contradiction it seemed natural enough. The light, the leaves, the cool clear air, and the solitude made one memory of sadly human glory. It feels as though I spent today wandering, dreamlike..

Of all victims of the Pathetic Fallacy, I am the most willing and gullible. I am often struck by how alive the world seems at times; not so much external to me but in a dynamic relationship–actively interacting. There seems a great communication at work, mediated by God: I feel strongly that I learned something over the course of the day, nothing perhaps that can be tidily comprehended or put down in writing, but something that manifests deeper than my intellect. It will germinate slowly, no doubt, unheeded by my conscious mind, for now I must focus on other things like the upcoming FEX and my required preparations for it. Yet because of my journey today, I bend to work with a lighter heart. I am refreshed.