A Farewell to the Corps
Colonel Wayne Shaw, USMC, Quantico, Virginia
In recent years I've heard many Marines on the occasion of retirements, farewells, promotions and changes of command refer to the "fun" they've had in the Marine Corps. "I loved every day of it and had a lot of fun" has been voiced far too often. Their definition of "fun" must be radically different from mine. Since first signing my name on the dotted line 28 years ago I have had very little fun.
Devoting my entire physical and mental energies training to kill the young men of some other country was not fun. Worrying about how many of my own men might die or return home maimed was not fun. Knowing that we did not have the money or time to train as best we should have, was not fun either. It was no fun to be separated from my wife for months on end, nor was it fun to freeze at night in snow and rain and mud. It was not much fun to miss my father's funeral because my Battalion Commander was convinced our peacetime training deployment just couldn't succeed without me.
Missing countless school and athletic events my sons very much wanted me to see was not much fun either. Not being at my son's high school graduation wasn't fun. Somehow it didn't seem like fun when the movers showed up with day laborers from the street corner and the destroyed personal effects were predictable from folks who couldn't hold a job. The lost and damaged items, often irreplaceable family heirlooms weren't much fun to try to "replace" for pennies on the dollar. There wasn't much fun for a Colonel with a family of four to live in a 1200 sq. ft apartment with one bathroom that no welfare family would have moved into.
It was not much fun to watch the downsizing of the services after Desert Storm as we handed out pink slips to men who risked their lives just weeks before. It has not been much fun to watch mid-grade officers and senior Staff NCO's, after living frugal lives and investing money where they could, realize that they cannot afford to send their sons and daughters to college. Nor do I consider it much fun to reflect on the fact that our medical system is simply broken. It is not much fun to watch my Marines board helicopters that are just too old and train with gear that just isn't what it should be anymore. It is not much fun to receive the advanced copies of promotion results and call those who have been passed over for promotion. It just wasn't much fun to watch the infrastructure at our bases and stations sink deeper into the abyss because funding wasn't provided for the latest "crisis." It just wasn't much fun to discharge good Marines for being a few pounds overweight and have to reenlist Marines who were HIV positive and not world-wide deployable.
It sure wasn't much fun to look at the dead Marines in the wake of the Beirut bombing and Mogadishu fiascoes and ask yourself what in the hell we were doing there. I could go on and on. There hasn't been much fun in a career that spans a quarter century of frustration, sacrifice and work. So, why did you serve you might ask? Let me answer that: I joined the service out of a profound sense of patriotism. As the son of a career Air Force Senior NCO I grew up on military bases often within minutes flying time from Soviet airfields in East Germany. I remember the Cuban Missile crisis, the construction of the Berlin Wall, the nuclear attack drills in school and was not many miles away when Soviet Tanks crushed the aspirations of citizens in Czechoslovakia. To me there was never any doubt that our great Republic and the last best hope of free people needed to prevail in this ultimate contest. I knew I had to serve.
When our nation was in turmoil over our involvement in Vietnam I knew that we were right in the macro strategic sense and in the moral sense, even if in the execution we may have been flawed. I still believe to this day that we did the right thing. Many of our elite's in the nation today continue to justify their opposition in spite of all evidence that shows they were wrong and their motives either naive or worse. This nation needed to survive and I was going to join others like me to ensure it did.
We joined long before anyone had ever referred to service in the infantry units of the Marine Corps as an "opportunity." We knew the pay was lousy, the work hard and the rewards would be few. We had a cause, we knew we were right and we were willing when others were not. Even without a direct threat to our Nation, many still join and serve for patriotic reasons.
I joined the Marines out of a sense of adventure. I expected to go to foreign countries and do challenging things. I expected that, should I stick around, my responsibilities would grow as would my rewards. It was exciting to be given missions and great Marines to be responsible for.
Finally, I joined for the camaraderie. I expected to lead good men and be lead by good men. Marines who would speak frankly and freely, follow orders once the decision was made and who would place the success of the mission above all else. Marines who would be willing to sacrifice for this great nation. These were men I could trust with anything and they could trust me. It was the camaraderie that sustained me when the adventure had faded and the patriotism was tested. I was a Marine for all of these years because it was necessary, because it was rewarding, because our nation needed individuals like us and because I liked and admired the Marines I served with.....but it sure wasn't fun.
I am leaving active service soon and am filled with some real concerns form the future of our Marine Corps and even more so for the other services. I have two sons who are on the path to becoming Marine Officers themselves and I am concerned about their future and that of their fellow Marines, sailors, airmen and soldiers. We in the Corps have the least of the problems but will not be able to survive in a sick DOD.
We have gone from a draft motivated force to an all volunteer force to the current professional force without the senior leadership being fully aware of the implications. Some of our ills can be traced to the fact that our senior leadership doesn't understand the modern Marine or service member. I can tell you that the 18 year old who walks through our door is a far different individual with different motivations than those just ten years ago.
Let me generalize for a moment. The young men from the middle class in the suburbs come in to "Rambo" for a while. He has a home to return to if need be and Mom has left his room unchanged. In the back of his mind he has some thoughts of a career if he likes it or it is rewarding. The minorities and females are looking for some skills training but also have considered a career if "things work out." They have come to serve their country but only in a very indirect way. They have not joined for the veterans benefits because those have been truncated to the point where they are useless. No matter what they do, there is no way it will pay for college and the old VA home loan is not competitive either. There are no real veteran's benefits anymore..... It is that simple, and our senior leadership has their head in the sand if they think otherwise.
As they progress through their initial enlistment's that are four years or more now, many conclude that they will not be competitive enough to make it a 20 year career or don't want to endure the sacrifices required. At that point they decide that it is time to get on with the rest of their lives and the result is the high first term attrition we currently have to deal with. The thought of a less than honorable discharge holds no fear whatsoever for most. It is a paper tiger. Twenty years ago an individual could serve two years and walk away with a very attractive amount of Veterans benefits that could not be matched by any other sector or business in the country.
We have even seen those who serve long enough lose benefits as we stamped from weaker program to weaker program. This must be reversed. We need a viable and competitive GI Bill that is grandfathered when you enter the service, is predicated on an honorable discharge and has increasing benefits for longer service so we can fill the mid grade ranks with quality people. We must do this to stop the hemorrhage of first term attrition and to reestablish good faith and fairness. It will allow us to reenlist a few more and enlist a few less.
The modern service member is well read and informed. He knows more about strategy, diplomacy and current events that Captains knew when I first joined. He reads national newspapers and professional journals and is tuned into CNN. Gone are the days of the PFC who sat in Butzbach in the Fulda Gap or Camp Schwab on Okinawa and scanned the Stars and Stripes sports page and listened to AFN. Yet our senior leadership continue to treat him like a moron from the hinterland who wouldn't understand what goes on. He is in the service because he wants to be and not because he can't get a job in the steel mill. Three hots and a cot are not what he is here for. The Grunts and other combat arms guys aren't here for the "training and skills" either. He is remarkably well disciplined in that he does what he is told to do even though he knows it is stupid. He is very stoic, but not blind.
Yet I see senior leaders all of the time who pile more on. One should remind them that their first platoon in 1968 would have told them to stick it where the sun doesn't shine. These new Warriors only think it.......He is well aware of the moral cowardice of his seniors and their habit of taking the easy way out that results in more pain and work for their subordinates. This must be reversed. The senior leadership must have the morale courage to stop the misuse and abuse of the current force. The force is too small, stretched too thin and too poorly funded. These deficiencies are made up on the backs of the Marines, sailors, airmen and soldiers. The troops are the best we've ever had and that is no reason to drive them into the dirt. Our equipment and infrastructure is shot. There is no other way to put it. We must reinvest immediately and not just on the big ticket items like the F-22. That is the equivalent of buying a new sofa when the roof leaks and the termites are wrecking the structure.
Finally let me spend a minute talking about camaraderie and leadership. I stayed a Marine because I had great leaders early on. They were men of great character without preaching, men of courage without ragging, men of humor without rancor. They were men who believed in me and I in them. They encouraged me without being condescending. We were part of a team and they cared little for promotions, political correctness or who your father was. They were well educated renaissance men who were equally at home in the White House or visiting a sick Marine's child in a trailer park. They could talk to a bar maid or a baroness with equal ease and make each feel like a lady. They didn't much tolerate excuses or liars or those with too much ambition for promotion.
Someone once told me that Priests do the Lord's work and don't plan to be the Pope. They were in touch with their Marines and supportive of their seniors. They voiced their opinions freely and without retribution from above. They probably drank too much and had an eye for beautiful women as long as they weren't someone's wife or a subordinate. You could trust them with your life, your wife or your wallet. Some of these great leaders were not my superiors --- some were my Marines. We need more like them at the senior levels of Government and military leadership today. It is indeed sad when senior defense officials and Generals say things on TV they themselves don't believe and every service member knows they are lying. It is sad how out of touch with our society some of our Generals are.
Ask some general you know these ten questions:
1. How much does a PFC. make per month?
2. How big is the gas tank on a Hummvee?
3. Who is your Congressman and who are your two Senators?
4. Name one band that your men listen to.
5. Name one book on the NY times best seller list.
6. Who won the last Superbowl?
7. What is the best selling car in America?
8. What is the WWF?
9. When did you last trust your subordinates enough to take ten days leave?
10. What is the leave balance of your most immediate subordinate?
We all know they won't get two right and therein lies the problem. We are in the midst of monumental leadership failure at the senior levels. Just recently Gen Shelton (CJCS) testified that he didn't know we had a readiness problem or pay problems.... Can you imagine that level of isolation?
We must fix our own leadership problems soon.
Quality of life is paid lip service and everyone below the rank of Col. knows it. We need tough, realistic and challenging training. But we don't need low pay, no medical benefits and ghetto housing. There is only so much our morality should allow us to ask of families. Isn't it bad enough that we ask the service members to sacrifice their lives without asking their families to sacrifice their education and well being too?
We put our troops on guilt trips when we tell them about how many died for this country and no hot water in housing is surely a small sacrifice to make. "Men have died and you have the guts to complain about lack of medical care for your kids?" The nation has been in an economic boom for damn near twenty years now, yet we expect folks in the military to live like lower middle class folks lived in the mid fifties. In 1974 a 2nd Lt. could by a Corvette for less than his annual salary. Today, you can't buy a Corvette on a Major's annual salary. I can give you 100 other examples...An NROTC midshipman on scholarship got $100 a month in 1975. He or she still gets $100 in 1999. No raise in 25 years? The QOL life piece must be fixed. The Force sees this as a truth teller and the truth is not good. I stayed a Marine despite the erosion of benefits, the sacrifices of my wife and children, the betrayal of our junior troops and the declining quality of life because of great leaders, and the threat to our way of life by a truly evil empire that no longer exists. I want men to stay in the future.
We must reverse these trends. There will be a new "evil empire"eventually. Sacrifices will need to be made and perhaps many things cannot change but first and foremost we must fix our leadership problems. The rest will take care of itself. If we can only fix the leadership problem....Then, I still can't promise you "fun" but I can promise you the reward and satisfaction of being able to look into the mirror for the rest of your life and being able to say: "I gave more to America than I ever took from America....and I am proud of it."
Semper Fi and God Bless you