Friday, October 24, 2008

Ole Miss Marines, 30 Years On

Thirty years ago this week, nearly 250 other second lieutenants and I finished six months of post-commissioning basic officer training at The Basic School, known by generations of Marine officers as simply "TBS", and took our next steps toward fulfilling our dimly-lit destinies "in the fleet." We were designated Fox Company, Basic Class 6-78 and began our training in earnest at the end of May 1978. The majority of us were graduates of the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps, hailing from colleges and universities in nearly every state. Four of us in that class were from Ole Miss--John Robinson, John David (J. D.) Henley, Mark Bryant, and yours, truly. Another from Ole Miss--Stephen Foster--was, for some reason I've forgotten, detailed to the next class that began a month or so later. J. D. choked (literally) at the chow hall a couple of months into training and after recuperating, joined Stephen's company to finish up.

For six months a cadre of the Marine Corps' best and brightest captains had driven us through a course jam-packed with everything we would need to know in order to lead a rifle platoon in combat. Regardless of eventual specialty--infantry, artillery, armor, supply, aviation--every Marine officer is trained first as a rifle platoon commander. Then, he or she goes on to follow-on schools (many of them run by the other armed services) to qualify in an MOS (military occupational specialty). The theory--proved in combat--behind this expensive practice, unique among America's military branches, is that in the Marine Corps every other Marine and his specialty exists for no other reason but to support the Marine infantryman on the ground and in the fight, and, in order to understand what the Marine in the mud is going through and needs, every other Marine spends time wallowing at the initiation of his or her career.

When we five Ole Miss Marines finished up at TBS, J.D. and Mark headed to Fort Sill and the Army's Artillery school. Stephen was going to be an M.P., so he headed to the Army's M.P. school. John and I were going to be infantry officers and so stayed right there aboard Camp Barrett at Quantico to attend the Marine Corps' Infantry Officer Course (I.O.C.), where, in the early NorthernVirgina winter, we were going to be, in the words of our TBS company commander, then Major, Wheeler Baker, "miserable, at best" traipsing in cold, wet woods and running live fire assaults on cold, muddy ranges. I loved every minute of it!

Of the five Ole Miss Marines of the class of 1978, J. D. and I were the only ones to stay for a full active duty career. J. D., stationed at Twenty-nine Palms at the time, died of a heart attack in 1996. He had been my roommate our sophomore year, and was one of those guys who was a loyal to his friends as the day is long. It's been 33 years since we roomed together in that tiny dorm room, but I can still hear his hilarious exclamations of exasperation at being made the butt of a joke.

Stephen, Mark, and John left active duty at the end of their four year commitments. Stephen stayed in the reserves and reached the rank of colonel. We were re-united at the Navy War College eight years ago and picked right back up with a running joke we had while in school.

Last I heard, John owns a computer store in Jackson. Mark went to work for the CIA, and in a story Stephen later recounted to me, was asked to play a bit part in the movie "Dumbo Drop" while he was working in Thailand. Stephen was a movie extra, himself, in the film "Blaze Starr."

And, me? Well, I'm still waiting for the call to play the title role in "The Steve McQueen Story."
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