Friday, January 20, 2006

The Reagan Difference

Twenty-five years ago this week I was sitting in a tent in Minnesota. The temperature was below zero outside the tent and not much above it inside. I was with the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines and we were in the middle of a training deployment to prepare us for an exercise in North Norway. Below zero temperatures for this rebel are a memorable thing. But, the temperature is not what cements this memory in my mind like the ubiquitous small southern town square confederate memorial statue, interesting, but anachronistic. Half a dozen of us were huddled around a battery powered transistor radio straining to hear the voice of a man we could tell was strong and confident even though the AM station's signal was weak and tremulous. A new American president was taking office and even the most cynical among us had hope that a new American spirit would come with him.

Nearly two years to the day before Reagan took office, I was lying on the ground in a pine barren at Camp Lejeune, NC, trying to sleep, but too excited about my first field exercise with my first command as a second lieutenant. The Marines of 3rd Platoon, Company G, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines (yep, I was at very near the bottom of the chain of command) were probably sleepless that night as well, worrying about how bad they were going to suffer under their new lieutenant. They hadn't had a lieutenant for nearly a year and the corporal from whom I took over the reins of the platoon had been just one in a succession of young NCOs who had been designated platoon commander of 3rd Platoon. It had been an eye-opening first day for me as I had scanned the platoon roster. To say that my platoon was undermanned was true, but was the least of its weaknesses. The year was 1979 and the Marine Corps was reeling from aftershocks of the Vietnam experience. One of our recruiting slogans of the day was, "Quality, not quantity," but you couldn't prove that theory with my platoon. There were only three high school graduates in my platoon...and I was one of them. As a Naval Academy graduate and card carrying "smart guy" (he was smart enough to get through Navy nuke school) Mr. Carter wasn't quite astute enough to figure out that the military for which he was nominally commander in chief, was in actuality a brittle shell of the force portrayed on paper. But, back to my story...

Around 0200 (2 AM, for my civilian acquaintances) I finally fell asleep. At 0205, I awoke to the sound of a hand cranked siren and the voice of our company gunnery sergeant, "Get up Marines, and pack your trash! Platoon commanders report to the CP!" We were the lead company that week for the battalion assigned alert status--known officially as Air Contingency Battalion, but called simply "Air Alert" by the Marines. As I walked up to my company commander, his first sergeant was sagely reassuring him that this was most likely just a drill called by a bored duty officer at Division HQ and would give us all the opportunity to take an air conditioned crap before we headed back to the field.

We had hiked ten miles out to the field the day before, but as we stuffed our gear into our packs, a rare and wonderful sight miraculously manifested itself on the dirt road 100 yards from our bivouac--trucks! We clambered aboard and half an hour later unloaded at our barracks. After staging our gear and giving detailed instructions on who, what, where, when, and how to my platoon sergeant (I was a new lieutenant, remember, and hadn't learned to just say "take charge" to my subordinate NCOs.) I shuffled down to the company commander's office, stepped uninvited through his door and asked, loudly, "What's the scoop, Skipper." I stopped cold in my tracks when I saw that standing behind the desk with the company commander was our battalion commander (LtCol Billy M. Summerlin--a great American, God rest his soul) our regimental commander, and another colonel I didn't recognize, but later found out was the Operations Officer for the 2nd Marine Division. My company commander looked up and scowled, but I was already back-pedalling, thinking to myself, "that's a lot of brass for a drill in the middle of the night."

Colonel Summerlin, the great leader that he was, saw fit to include me in the pow wow--for some reason I'll never figure out, he seemed to take a shine to me from the day I reported into his office. "Lieutenant Gregory," he commanded in his North Carolina accent, "join us." The colonel from division had a city map spread across the desk. As I oriented myself to it, I quickly noticed that the street and neighborhood names were not American. Then I saw the word that I'm sure made my eyes go round as dinner plates--Teheran.

What most people forget about the Iranian hostage crisis is that we were given a golden opportunity to prevent it. In February of 1979, several months before they took it for good, a large group of heavily armed and well organized "students" overran the US Embassy in Teheran. A day or two later, certainly responding to howls of International protest (yeah, right) they abruptly packed up and left. In the meantime, as the Iranian revolution festered, Mr. Carter had the option of reinforcing the embassy in Iran with a full battalion of Marines, or at the very least, a reinforced company of around 200 (the bare minimum that could have effectively defended the embassy compound). But, true to form, he demurred, and the requirement that reached us at the bottom of the food chain was, "Send 60 Marines."

The plan, as the colonel from Division explained, was to launch a reinforced rifle platoon aboard a C-141 from our air station at Cherry Point, NC, and fly to our Air Force base in Incirlic, Turkey. There, the Marines would board Air Force CH-53 heavy lift helicopters and fly to an airfield in Teheran, and then go by bus or truck to the embassy. The platoon would be leaving from Cherry Point in just 6 hours, the colonel explained to my company commander, who looked up and barked, "First Sergeant, give me a company roster!"

It just so happened that while there were two other lieutenants in our company at the time, they were both away at schools and I was the only officer platoon commander available. Naturally, I quickly surmised that my platoon would be the one to be reinforced and sent. I volunteered, "Third platoon will be ready to go in an hour." Ignoring my input, the company commander turned to Colonel Summerlin and said, "I'll pick 60 of the most experienced Marines from the company and lead the force myself." I was stunned, and very disappointed. Here was the opportunity that all brand new lieutenants in training are told might come in the middle of the night--the reason to train hard and learn and prepare. Colonel Summerlin must have seen the look on my face, because he paused on the way out the door and quickly assured me, "Stay ready. The rest of the battalion will probably follow--this is too big for just a platoon."

Golf Company's reinforced platoon left on the second Air Force C-141 to arrive at Cherry Point that next day. The first one broke on arrival--the Marine Corps wasn't the only service suffering from post-Vietnam maintenance maladies. While they were in the air, the Carter administration announced the plan to the world. Never mind the fact that was a huge operational security blunder--the biggest mistake was that the Carter administration had not asked the Turkish government's permission to use their territory for this expedition, and they balked. The aircraft and its 60 combat-ready Marines diverted to our Air Force base at Lajes in the Azores and my company commander and his hand-picked unit spent the next couple of weeks playing softball in what was officially and euphemistically called a "Pos Check," whatever that meant.

No Marines reinforced the embassy in Teheran that late winter and spring of 1979 and when the ayatollahs leading the Iranian revolution saw America's weakness in the world they gave the green light to the well-armed and organized "students" who stormed the embassy gates a second time and took the embassy staff "hostage." So began a national nightmare, marked each evening on network news broadcasts as "Day..., America Held Hostage." When Mr. Carter did finally relent to attempting a military rescue operation, it ended disastrously mid-way through one of the most complicated operational schemes ever devised by American military planners. I once heard a veteran of the Israeli commando raid to free their hostages at Entebbe remark that "America tried to copy our concept too closely. If it were my operation, with over a year to plan, I would have smuggled the people and equipment into Teheran required to tunnel into the embassy compound from across the street." Gotta love Israeli commando common sense...

I actually heard Mrs. Carter in an interview a few days ago, say that she was proud that her husband finally got the hostages back all alive. That's not the way this Marine remembers it. I remember hearing, on that AM radio, in a tent in Minnesota, immediately following Ronald Reagan's first inauguration speech, that the ayatollahs had released the hostages. The distinct impression that we Marines, and the rest of the attention-paying world, had was that the prospect of the new conservative American "cowboy president" unleashing an all-out attack on Iran was real enough in their minds to encourage them to get rid of the motive. In retrospect, 25 years later, it probably was a matter of the ayatollahs having gotten all of the America-shaming mileage they could get out of the situation and they waited until Carter was no longer president to get one last parting shot at the weakling.

Reagan followed through on his inaugural rhetoric. By the end of his second term in office, the change in the spirit and capability of Americans in general, and the American military in particular, was striking. The Marine rifle company (180 of America's finest young men) I took command of as a captain in the summer of 1987 could have run circles around the entire regiment (2000 Marines) to which I had belonged in 1979. Most historians and commentators focus on the material side of the "Reagan Military Build-up." The real difference was in the young people, who, inspired by Reagan's optimism and pride in America, committed, in unprecedented quantity and quality, to serve our nation as soldiers, sailors, airmen,...and Marines.

Despite my fondness for the exploits and accomplishments of Teddy Roosevelt, and in defiance of the Democrats' insistence on the greatness of FDR and JFK, this Marine will always consider Ronald Reagan the greatest American president of the 20th Century.
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