Monday, January 30, 2012

Training is Everything


First Lieutenant Gregory, at the head of HQ Platoon, 31st MAU, ashore in Australia, 1982
Thirty years ago this week, the Colonel, then a salty first lieutenant with three years in an infantry battalion under his belt, executed a set of PCS orders that reassigned him from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina to Okinawa, Japan.

For the 'Bama and LSU fans who may have erroneously stumbled upon this post in a frantic search for pachyderm print toilet tissue or the fifty-yard line, respectively, PCS is neither a herbicide nor an ingredient in corndogs. 

PCS stands for Permanent Change of Station. 

"Permanent," in the Marine Corps, ain't really all that permanent.   Most of the time, a set of PCS orders meant you were going somewhere new and wouldn't stay there much longer than it took for the "newness" of the new assignment to wear off.  

This particular set of orders was going to be the toughest test the Colonel and his young family had yet to face.  He would be separated from them, literally by the bulk of the entire planet, for an whole year.

As he bade farewell to his bride of only five years, and their two toddler sons, the Colonel had occasion to dwell heavily on the decision made mere months previous, at the end of his four-year active duty commitment, to make the Corps his career.  As he watched his family wave to his plane, had it been possible, the Colonel would surely have changed his mind. 

But, he was committed.  Duty called.

It would not be the last time such a call came.

When the Colonel landed in Okinawa, he did just as his orders required and reported to the Commanding General, III MAF (Third Marine Amphibious Force) headquartered at Camp Courtney (one of nearly a dozen Marine camps and bases on the island wrested from the Emperor of Japan's finest in 1945).  

Actually, the Colonel, then just a first lieutenant, remember, never got a chance to report to the Commanding General in person.  A major in the Personnel Section intercepted the Colonel and welcomed him warmly.

"Hey, newby, c'mere.  Let me see your orders."

The Colonel surrendered same, and the major caught the name at the top, "Gregory. Good. Been expecting you. You're going to 31st MAU.  Training Officer."

The Colonel volunteered that he was hoping for an assignment as a platoon commander with 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion (the job for which any infantry first lieutenant worth his salt yearned).

The major waved his hand dismissively, "They're full up.  You're going to 31st MAU. Training Officer."

The Colonel knew what a MAU was. 

Marine Amphibious Unit -- containing a reinforced infantry battalion, a composite (task-organized mixture of aircraft types) helicopter squadron, and a logistics support unit.  The Corps calls it a MEU (E for Expeditionary) now, but the organization remains generally the same.  Embarked on several amphibious ships, this organization's sea-based flexibility and over-the-horizon loiter capability still makes it the National Command Authority's force of choice for a wide range of pop-up missions such as evacuation of an embassy, support of a hostage rescue, or humanitarian relief. 

The Colonel apologizes for the commercial.

The Colonel also knew what a "training officer" was.  Also known as SLJO (LJ stands for "little jobs" -- the Colonel will allow you free reign to figure out the S and the O on your own), "training officer" was usually the euphemism for the junior officer in the Operations Section of any headquarters staff.  Responsible neither for much training nor for much that would remind him that he was indeed an officer, the Colonel had the sinking feeling that the coming year was going to be painful penance for the pure joy that had been his experience leading Marines in an infantry outfit for the previous three years. 

The Colonel could tell that the major with his orders in hand was very unlikely to entertain any assignment appeals.  "Very well, sir.  If the Major would kindly endorse his orders, the Lieutenant will be on his way."

The major was obviously impressed with the Colonel's formality.  "Cut the 'old corps' crap, Lieutenant."  The major cocked his head and squinted at the Colonel in a manner meant to remind this whelp that if either of them had rights to any saltiness it was he, "You even know where 31st MAU is?"

"Aye, aye, sir!"  The Colonel responded in answer to the crap-cutting command.  To the major's question, the Colonel gave what he knew was the only answer that satisfied the definition of one of the most important of the Corps' cherished leadership traits -- initiative.  "No, sir, but the Lieutenant will not trouble the Major any more.  The Lieutenant will find 31st MAU."  

What the Colonel wanted to, but didn't, say was something along the lines of "I mean, really, Major, I know I'm new on the island and all, and there are a lot of different bases and camps, but it is just a small island, and, while I am hamstrung by a lack of education, having gone to Ole Miss instead of college, I can read well enough to find the sign that says Headquarters, 31st MAU on it."

The Colonel may not have said the foregoing, but evidently the look on his face gave away at least the gist of what was rattling around in his brain-housing group.  The major suddenly softened a bit ("softened" being a term subject to the term, "relative"), and placed a hand on the Colonel's shoulder.  "Lieutenant, I'll save you the effort of spending the next several days reading the signs in front of every building on the island.  There's a plane leaving from Kadena headed for Clark tomorrow morning at 1000.  Be on it.  When you get to Clark, catch a bus to Subic.  31st MAU will pull in to port there in a few days."

While the major busied himself putting the endorsement stamp on the Colonel's orders, the Colonel digested and tried to make sense of the latest bits of data making slow headway through the tangled maze of synaptic connections in the mass of gelatinous goo encased in the bone between his ears.

'Hmmm... Kadena... that's the Air Force base on the southern end of the island.  Put the rising sun on your left when you leave here in the morning.  Right.  Got it.'

'Let's see, Clark, Clark,... CLARK!  That's in the Philippines!  And, Subic is the Navy base there!'  

From previous posts, the thousands of you who regularly imbibe in the literary libations ladled out hereon may remember that the Colonel is afflicted with the serious mallard-happy malady, duck hunting, which manifests itself in frequent forays afield to stand in freezing thigh-deep water and blow mallard-melodies on a kazoo.

Well, not a kazoo, actually.  A duck call.  To the uninitiated, however, a duck hunter blowing on a duck call looks, and sounds, for all the world like an asylum escapee playing a kazoo.

A very loud kazoo.

As a going-away present, the Marines of the 2d Battalion, 2d Marines at Camp Lejeune had given the Colonel a very nice pair of calls -- one duck, one goose.  The Colonel had them in his ditty bag and intended to stay in practice while overseas.

The enlisted man acting as customs agent at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, opened the Colonel's bag and immediately jumped to the giddy conclusion that he had just scored the Air Force Security Police trifecta -- 1) catching someone red-handed with drug paraphernalia, 2) catching a Marine with contraband, and 3) catching a Marine officer breaking the rules.

"What have we here, Lieutenant?"  The airman lifted the lanyard with the calls -- one duck, one goose -- and presented them to the Colonel in his best (but certainly unintentional) Barney Fife impression.

The Colonel snatched the calls from the airman's hand and, before Airman Fife could get the bullet out of his pocket, broke into a serenade of mallard songs that would have brought a tear to the glass eye of any duck hunter in the terminal.

Unfortunately, there were no duck hunters (with or without tearful glass eyes) within earshot.  Just a whole squad of Barney Fife's reaching for their left breast pockets and converging on the Colonel's position with intent to nip it in the bud. 

Undeterred, the Colonel deftly shifted calls and produced a series of happy honks and gronks that would have, in happier times, steered flapping flocks of Canada geese straight down the Colonel's gun barrel.  

In deep appreciation for his talented rendition of the love songs of North American waterfowl, the Colonel was thereupon provided a security police escort straight through customs and right up to the door of the bus to Subic Bay.  

A few months later, the Colonel was sent ahead of the sea-borne 31st MAU, on a SLJO errand that turned out to be his first trip to Oz.  The MAU was headed for Australia, would arrive in two weeks, and the Colonel was detailed to coordinate several training and social events for the week-long port visit to Perth.  

Two weeks to accomplish about two hours worth of errands.

In Australia.

On per diem.

Prodigious per diem.

Best hotel in Perth per diem.

The Colonel could hardly contain his glee upon his arrival in the Land Down Under.  He was wiggling like a puppy at the back door. The customs agent must have detected what he considered nervousness as he dug through the Colonel's bag.

Triumphantly, he hoisted the lanyard holding the calls -- one duck, one goose.  "What 'ave we 'ear, Mate?"

The Colonel rests quite comfortably in the certain belief that he is the first and last Marine lieutenant to have received police escort from Perth International Airport to the Parmelia Hilton.          
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