Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Lost Platoon

Thirty years ago this week I took command of my first rifle platoon--a position, privilege, and responsibility for which I had been preparing for the better part of the previous four and a half years. Frankly, I wasn't really fully prepared for the challenge of leading combat Marines. Thought I was. Considered myself the reincarnated combination of Puller, Patton, and Pickett. The sad truth was those Marines needed a leader who would inspire them to better themselves, not battle their enemies. And I needed as much bettering as they did.

On the books a Marine infantry platoon consisted of forty-two Marines and three Navy hospital corpsmen. The platoon--3rd Platoon, Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines--in front of whom I stood for the first time on the 7th of January 1979, numbered not much more than half that. Of the thirty Marines in my first platoon, there were three, count 'em, three high school graduates--and I was one of them. When we went to the field the next day for a three-day exercise, I took 7 Marines--the rest found other places to be, authorized and not. To say that I was disappointed would be just a bit of understatement. Where was the March on Moscow Marine Rifle Platoon I had been promised?!?

I busied myself in those first few weeks of taking charge with attempting to single-handedly turn that platoon into the text-book fighting machine I had been trained to lead in combat. I concerned myself with every tiny detail of those Marines' equipment and deportment, earning the nickname "Fly." I thought it was in reference to my diminutive size and reflexive quickness. Found out later it was because my Marines thought I ate crap and bothered people. It was at the end of that first month that I learned my biggest and most valuable lesson in command. I walked back into the broom closet that passed for my platoon office one afternoon to find my platoon sergeant sitting with his boots propped up on the desk. I asked him, not so politely, what he was doing. He swung his feet off the desk, sat up straight, looked me dead in the eye, and said, "Well, I figured if the Lieutenant was gonna do my job then I had better do his."

My last and lasting memory of Sergeant Herrera is standing behind the barracks at Camp Lejeune listening to him conduct close order drill with our platoon. He had been a drill instructor at Parris Island before his assignment to Camp Lejeune, and had an almost melodic way of counting cadence and ordering movements. I remember reading the summary of his court-martial for "assaulting" a recruit in his service record book. He had been a staff sergeant, selected for promotion to gunnery sergeant--his punishment had been reduction in grade to sergeant. I was lucky to have him.

Never saw my first platoon sergeant or any of the Marines in that platoon again during the rest of my career. I have often wondered at that. It is as if that year was only a dream.

They probably thought it was a nightmare.
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