Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Ask America's SgtMaj: Courage

Since it's October and the theme seems to be fear and fear related topics...

I was recently asked: "What is courage or valor?  Where does it come from?  Is it innate or can it be learned?"

Naturally, I had some thoughts on this subject:


Courage is defined as what makes someone capable of facing extreme danger and difficulty without retreating. It implies not only bravery but the ability to endure in adversity. 

Valor is defined as great courage in the face of danger, especially battle. Again though, a great display of valor on the battlefield doesn't equate to a great display of character at home.

Courage in and of itself isn't necessarily a great thing. It takes some courage to rob a bank I'd imagine. It takes courage to fight for one's beliefs even if they're suppressive and xenophobic.

I have discussed before about there being two types of courage, moral and physical. Moral courage is by far the most difficult and often doesn't involve any form of physical violence at all. 

Moral courage is doing what is right even when no one is looking. It takes moral courage to take responsibility for your own actions than blame others for your failings. It takes moral courage to choose a life of rigor vice comfort. It takes moral courage to stand and be counted when it matters.

With that in mind, I would argue courage is not innate and must be taught as a matter of consciousness. The individual has to choose valor as a course of action. The comfort based, self centered decision is the easy one which requires no training to make. The other oriented, rigorous choice requires an example to follow and that the virtue of moral courage be taught.

Finally, let me leave you with a fable my Division SgtMaj recently shared with us.

An Indian fable says that a mouse was in constant distress because of its fear of the cat. A magician took pity on it and turned it into a cat. Immediately it became afraid of the dog. So the magician turned it into a dog. Immediately it began to fear the tiger. So the magician turned it into a tiger. Immediately it began to fear the hunter. Then the magician said, "Be a mouse again, you have only the heart of a mouse and I cannot help you."

Ponder this as you carry out the plan of the day.

Semper Fidelis,
America's SgtMaj

Monday, October 6, 2014

Concerning Monsters and Mayhem

October is generally associated with evil spirits, and armies of creeping horrors clutching and grasping at humanity from dark unspeakable places. Traditionally, the use of jack-o-lanterns were a way to protect to the home from the undead and other fiends.

This year I've noticed a lot of people are in fear of things other than banshees and night-gaunts.  A particular group of evil doers has gained some notoriety by posting videos in which they decapitate innocents and encourage like minded thugs to commit "lone wolf" attacks on their fellow citizens here in the United States.

The possibility the bad guys might show up in our hometowns with bad intentions has sparked a range of emotional reactions on social media. Most common seem to be hand wringing remarks like: "This is what I'm afraid of," or "This worries me."

I would be among the last to suggest we live our lives oblivious to any given threat to our society. But I do propose we refuse to live in fear of any enemy who would use it to further their own political, religious, or ideological agendas.

Some things to consider before you let the headlines send a shiver down your spine:

Character - Our enemy has none. This is why we are better than they are. In our culture, the notion of honor has to do with our positive impact on those around us. Our enemy only understands honor as it pertains to saving face.

Concepts like being a 'man of your word' are Western in nature. Culturally, we despise liars and even though lying may not be uncommon it is not viewed as a favorable trait. It is nothing for our enemy to lie as a matter of course. As long as it furthers their purpose nothing is taboo.

“While we will move swiftly and aggressively against those who resist, we will treat all others with decency, demonstrating chivalry and soldierly compassion...” - General James Mattis

The worst any enemy prisoners of war have endured at our hands is water boarding. For the most part, they have been fed and received medical attention with the notion that one day hostilities will end and we would send them home with all their fingers and toes. Our enemy embraces the idea hostilities will never end until all of humanity is under submission. Coming home alive after being captured by our enemy seems to be the very rare exception, not the rule.

In the West, the concept of religion exists to inspire a crisis of conscience. Our enemy uses religion as an inspiration for outrage and murder. 

"The order of chivalry is more exalted and noble than imagination can suppose; and no knight ought to suffer himself to be debased by cowardice, or any villainous or foul action; but when his helmet is on his head he should be bold and fierce as a lion when he sees his prey."
- King Joao of Portugal, knighting men on the eve of the Battle of Aljubarrota, 1385

We should also recognize any type of chivalric code is an ideal to strive for and human beings often fail to achieve. It is a mark of someone's character if they strive to be better than they were yesterday despite failure.

Consciousness - The 21st Century seems no different than any other time in history in that individuals need to be aware of potential threats around them. The law of tooth and claw insinuates each of us is responsible for our own safety and those in our charge. 

Much is made of the concept of mindset as pertains to combat. Now days I prefer consciousness as opposed to the word mindset. To me the latter seems to conjure the idea I have to get my head ready for action. We should practice being aware of our surroundings all the times. By this I don't mean being "switched on" in combat mode 24 hours a day. Consciousness means being aware of potential threats whether you are protecting your pin number at the grocery store or on patrol in Ramadi. Terrain will dictate the level of possible threats and we should adjust our consciousness accordingly.

"They set by their heads their broad battle-shields,
wood rimmed with bright iron. There on the benches,
hard by each hero, arms were easy to see-
a high battle-helmet, a coat of ringed mail,
a mighty spear shaft. For it was their custom
that they were always made ready for war,
both at home and in war-band, so in either of those
they were equally prepared, if the lord of their people
should have need in distress. That was a brave band."

- Beowulf

Capability -  Capability makes us less afraid. When the monsters come, capability is what makes us able to calmly snatch up a mighty spear shaft and ram it down their villainous throats.

We increase our capability through our own personal training. Whether that be in martial arts, through exercise, or the gun range it's all up to the individual. My personal training includes all three to an extent that in my mind the difference between my open hands and a rifle is all a matter of timing and distance.

It should also be noted the capability to render aid should not be solely regulated to the mere application of violence.

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

― Robert A. Heinlein

As we have seen, any brute can commit an act of violence. This is why capability should be tempered by character and consciousness. These direct when and where we appropriately apply our capability to a given set of circumstances. Character might help us understand our mere presence can diffuse a situation vice punching someone's teeth out just because we can. Consciousness intelligently directs capability or can even enable us to avoid danger entirely. Consciousness might dictate discretion be the better part of valor, although character may occasionally trump reason even when the odds are ten to one against you. Remember Thermopylae!

"[T]he hour is fast approaching, on which the Honor and Success of this army, and the safety of our bleeding Country depend. Remember officers and Soldiers, that you are Freemen, fighting for the blessings of Liberty -- that slavery will be your portion, and that of your posterity, if you do not acquit yourselves like men." - George Washington, General Orders, 1776

With the above considerations in mind we should refuse to bow to fear but conduct ourselves with character and consciousness, applying our capability positively where we can. We are the posterity our forefathers fought for and should acquit ourselves accordingly.

Our enemy desires we live in fear. I will defy our enemy and choose valor instead. Don't be afraid, be ready, both at home and in war band.

Semper Fidelis,
America's SgtMaj

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Sometimes you get what you asked for.

Kilo Company, 3d Battalion, 3d Marines. Camp Liberty, Kuwait, 2008.

Having finally been relieved of our duties in Kharmah we had managed to catch a flight out of Al Taqaddum, Iraq and arrive in Kuwait. There we sat on cots and ate our fill of fat pills at the DFAC until we were called up to continue on the next leg of our journey.

Each company in the battalion was on its own timetable and flight schedule. Every day another company would arrive as we transitioned back to the home of the brave. One night the India company commander came storming into our berthing area. He approached my CO with great concern flapping and pacing as if on fire: "They switched our ULN numbers! We gotta get this fixed!"

I have no idea what ULN means but each of us had a line number which translated to a seat on a chartered flight home. Somehow our company's roster and India's were switched. We had India Company's ULN numbers which in the short term meant we were scheduled to fly out on India's flight. They had been scheduled to get back to Hawaii first and would arrive a day before us. On paper, we now had their flight.

"We gotta get this fixed! They have the wrong ULNs!" Perspiration rolled down the India Company Commander's face as he waved his roster around. The idea other Marines might get home before him was an indignity he could not allow. My CO, always cool, replied: "It's alright. We'll take care of it."

This wasn't enough for India. He continued to gyrate and fuss. My boss had to calm him down some assuring him we weren't interested in beating him home. His histrionics were amusing. After he whirled out of our berthing my CO turned to me.

"Tell that bitch to be cool," he smirked.

"Be cool honey-bunny," I replied.

We got the rosters straight and India Company boarded it's precious flight. The plane broke down in Shannon, Ireland and had to be repaired. Though Shannon isn't a bad place to be stranded, a number of spouses and family members awaiting their Marines were not amused. Nor was our battalion commander at the shenanigans of Marines turned loose in the land of Guinness and fine Irish whiskey.

As the days passed, the rest of the battalion landed at the flight line in K-Bay.  Every day the word changed on when India Company might get back. Seems there wasn't enough duct tape and bubble gum to keep their plane air worthy. I sat on the beach drinking locally brewed beer chuckling to myself.

Finally the day came when India Company returned home. They were delayed of course. Instead of landing at the flight line in K-Bay the plane had to stop in Honolulu first. I don't remember the exact circumstances surrounding the stop but I remarked to one of my fellow 1stSgts we could have sent buses over the Honolulu International and brought the Marines back faster than it was taking them to tinker with the bird and fly it over the mountain to K-Bay. We came back some hours later to finally greet the returning Marines days after than they were originally scheduled to come home.

The lesson here? Getting your panties in a was usually just ends up in a mess of wadded up panties. Karma hates wadded up panties.

Semper Fidelis!
America's SgtMaj



Monday, August 11, 2014

Airborne Adventures IV

Jump week. Ft Benning, GA 2003.

Really, Jump Week should be referred to as "bench week" as we spent most of our time sitting on the most uncomfortable benches ever constructed with a couple of parachutes strapped to us. These were purposely designed to cause such discomfort, everyone joyfully boarded the plane without complaint just thankful to be moving again.

As we filed toward the bird in stick order, our lead airborne instructor, a Sergeant First Class and the jump master, grabbed me by the shoulder saying: "Oh no, you're my Gunny. You're going out the door first." Dick. 

As we took off and headed toward the LZ, one of our other instructors was lounging near the open hatch we were to hurl ourselves out of. He casually remarked: "Gunny, you're usually not so quite. All of sudden you don't have much to say."

"I'll have something to say when I get on the ground," I managed.

Everyone is supposed to count up to four one thousand after jumping. I guarantee every first time jumper in this picture is actually shouting: "Ohmygodohmygodohmygod!"

So there I was, watching trees zip past beneath the open hatch of the plane. There were a number of things the first guy out had to do. I hadn't bothered remembering any of them as I was always somewhere in the middle of the stick and always concentrated on being a guy in the middle of the stick repeating commands and doing what I was told.

One at a time each member of the stick would check the gear of the guy in front of him. If everything was good to go he would smack the man in front of him in the behind and shout: "All okay!" This was passed all the way to the front to the first man. The guy at the front of the stick (me) was supposed to knife hand the jump master and shout a predetermined phrase indicating everyone was  squared away and ready to go. For the life of me, I could not remember what in the world that phrase was.

"Everything's cool man!" The jump master shook his head in the negative.

"All's well dude!" This was also unacceptable.

"All ready to go!" Each of these were punctuated with my knife handing the jump master who finally produced a resigned look on his face.

"Ok jackass, how about, 'all ok Jumpmaster.'"

"Yeah, that one!"

It was a long week.

Semper Fidelis!
America's SgtMaj

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Teach the children well

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away I was in an airport on my way to a new duty station. I had just flown from Hawaii to the fine soft winter weather of the east coast. As soon as I got off the plane, another Marine and I changed over into our Service Alpha uniforms. These are sharp looking duds which harken back to WWII and beyond. In the Marine Corps it is SOP to check into your new unit in Service A's.

Cutting dashing figures, we hung around the concourse waiting for our ride to the base.  Noticing our excellent profiles a young boy saw us and exclaimed to his father: "Look dad! Soldiers!"

"Yes son," the father replied. "But those are a special kind of soldier. They're Marines."

It's always refreshing to see responsible parenting in action.

Semper Fidelis!
America's SgtMaj

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Returning Warrior Brief

Upon returning from our 2007-2008 deployment to Iraq all of us were subject to what we call a returning warrior brief.  The idea is to prepare the Marines minds for the transition from a combat zone back to civilization.

I remember sitting in a theater in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii blandly listening to a parade of subject matter experts brief us on their particular cottage industry. The fact I can't remember anything they talked about is a testament to the impact of their subject matter and their method of delivery.  Most of the people speaking were civilians, few were military, none were even from our battalion. I later remarked to our battalion SgtMaj it would made more of impact if the battalion leadership had given most of the classes.

Two speakers from that week of classes stand out in my mind. The first was a local civilian gentleman who lectured the Marines about not coming back with the 1000 yard stare.

"You're home now. You're safe," he admonished us. He almost seemed angry.

He was immediately followed by a Honolulu Police Officer who briefed us about local crime and recent spat of sexual assaults on service members. A taxi driver was injecting drunken service members who got in his cab and would have his way with them.

This contrary news irked me and I wanted to stand up in the middle of the theater and shout: "The guy before you said we were safe!"  As it was I had to content myself with merely smacking myself on the forehead with a combat boot.

Imagine young Marines grappling with the hypocrisy of being told their combat mindset needs to be shut off back home yet remain Marines 24 hours a day. We tell them to conduct themselves as ethical warriors at all times yet only apply their warrior skills in combat. What nonsense.

After a few days of listening to this stuff I held a company formation and let the Marines know my personal opinion on the matter. I reiterated the nuggets of good information which were passed and I also noted the falseness of being told they were safe yet to keep an eye out for threats within the same hour. I reminded them the terrain had changed from the battlefield as well as the form in which threats presented themselves, but how we evaluated a threat did not. We couldn't respond with pen flares and machine guns but the mental tools were still there to use. 

"Maybe I'm screwed up," I said drawing my pocket knife. "But don't think I don't walk around evaluating whether or not I'll have to use this on someone."

Ball tickets, check. Dress Blues, check. Switchblade, check.
The average civilian will read that and quite possibly be horrified there are Marines on the street who think about possibly using violence on a daily basis. I tend to disagree considering the number of predators prowling the streets right now with the full intent of committing an act of violence.  Having some well trained good guys around seems like a good idea to me.

 It offended me Marines with a bias for action were being told to stuff their vigilance in their cargo pocket. We always tell Marines there is no distinction between a "field" Marine and a "garrison" Marine. If that's the case then using tools hammered into them in order to survive a combat deployment are the same they can use to survive weekend liberty without incident.

I've since encouraged my Marines to use those tools daily and have found it tends to have a positive result both on and off duty. Go figure.

Semper Fidelis!
America's SgtMaj


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Fear not! I am indeed alive.

"KNOW, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars—Britain, Nippon, Burundi, Eire, Iraq with its dark-haired women and cities of insurgent-haunted mystery, Australia with its breweries, Bahrain with its shadow-guarded tombs, Mongolia whose riders consumed obscene amounts of vodka. But the proudest kingdom of the world was America, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came America's SgtMaj, a Marine of renown, black tempered, bright- eyed, rifle in hand, a leatherneck, a smart ass, a swordsman, with gigantic blarney and a gigantic hole under his nose, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his combat boots."


 Rumors the hordes of darkness over ran the perimeter of the Castra Praetoria and left it burning in the ether are untrue. No really, I'm still here kicking evil doers in the taint and performing other exploits. Various projects, commitments (stupid day job) and just plain lack of material have kept me away from my post this summer.

 You may take my excuses for what they are, but sleep peaceably knowing I am back on my watch, writing.

Semper Fidelis,
America's SgtMaj