Thursday, February 28, 2013

Lt. Col. Kevin M. Clifford, Marine

The 31st MAU Lieutants' Protective Association; November 10, 1982; Aboard USS Bellau Wood, somewhere in the Western Pacific.  From left: 1stLt Powers, 1stLt Clifford, 1stLt Gregory, WO-2 Marzean, 1stLt Bartow, 1stLt Sullivan.

The Colonel has a heavy heart and a smile on his face as he writes this.

Earlier this week, an old Marine buddy from his first few years in the Corps was brought to the Colonel's mind by the loose collection of cognitive cells in his brain-housing group dedicated to nostalgia. 

Kevin Clifford had, at one point, been as close to the Colonel as any brother.  To the Colonel's discredit, he had allowed the miles and years of separation since to result in a break in contact.

There had been sporadic reconnections over the years but no contact in at least ten. 

The Colonel tried an internet search for his old friend a couple of days ago and found his obituary.

The terse announcement indicated that Kevin had died of natural causes late last month. 

The news shamed the Colonel.

A friend like Kevin -- a Marine Brother like Kevin -- deserved the Colonel's presence at his funeral. 

Kevin and the Colonel had been in a company of 250 brand new second lieutenants who had been prepared for service as leaders of Marines at The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia, during the sweltering spring and summer of 1978.  The Colonel doesn't think they even spoke during those six months -- different 50-man platoons, and different career choices.  The Colonel was headed for the infantry; Kevin became a ground supply officer.

In January of 1982, the Colonel (then a first lieutenant) was assigned as the Training Officer on the staff of the 31st Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU), after three years of leading Marines in an infantry battalion at Camp Lejeune.  A couple of months later, then First Lieutenant, Kevin Clifford, joined the staff. 

At first handshake, Kevin and the Colonel seemed to have very little in common.  Kevin was from Chicago, educated by Jesuits at Quincy College, and, in the discriminating world of Marine infantrymen, NOT infantry -- worse a supply officer. 

Supply officers are a subset of the larger collection of a group known as logisticians -- the bane of infantry officers' existence.  

Logisticians tell infantry officers "no."  Logisticians poke gaping holes in the best laid plans of infantry operators.  Logisticians consider themselves professionals in the practice of the art and science of war -- infantry tacticians are amateurs.

Infantry officers consider logisticians to be out-of-touch, rear echelon softies, who spend their days kicking boxes and counting beans. 

It didn't take long, however, for Kevin's quick wit, professionalism, competence, and Colonel-rivaling initiative, to break down the Colonel's stone walls of bias and disdain for all things not infantry.

As they were the two most junior officers on the staff, Kevin and the Colonel shared a tiny stateroom in the behemoth amphibious ship on which the MAU was embarked.  As the amphibious squadron sailed hither and yon across the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean carrying two thousand Marines from exercise to exercise, Kevin and Colonel made it each of their missions to educate the other on the error of his ways.

One of the best educations the Colonel ever got in his career. 

In February of 1983, the Colonel was reassigned to the staff of The Basic School.  A scant four years after graduating, but with two "fleet tours" under his belt, the Colonel (selected for, but not yet promoted to captain) was now teaching lieutenants.  A couple of months later, Kevin Clifford walked into the office space the Colonel shared with several other instructors.

The Colonel will never forget Kevin's greeting,

"Hey, remember me?  We used to be friends."

Mind you, only a few months had elapsed since the last time they had seen each other.  The "We used to be friends" line was reprised many times over the next ten or fifteen years.

In the prodigious amounts of spare time available to Marines embarked on amphibious shipping sailing hither and yon on the high seas, Kevin and the Colonel learned much about each other's upbringing, hobbies, faith, and plans for the future.  The Colonel introduced Kevin to the comely and kind-hearted Miss Brenda via the cassette tapes sent back and forth in those days before near-instantaneous e-mail and inter-continental cell phones.  The Colonel thinks even now that Kevin looked forward to mail call and the next tape from Miss Brenda as much as the Colonel did.

The Colonel opined frequently that Kevin's never having wet a hook or forayed afield for furred and feathered game was a serious deficiency in his claim to manhood.  Kevin opined frequently that the Colonel's never having learned to play golf left much to be desired in the Colonel's manhood department.

At Quantico, Kevin and the Colonel went in together on the purchase of a small jon boat suitable for navigating the local lakes and estuaries off the Potomac. 

Kevin took to bass fishing and duck hunting like a natural.

The Colonel and golf -- not so much. 

Kevin and the Colonel often talked about a business plan for their retirement -- buying a bunch of land and opening a hunting/fishing lodge catering to high-dollar clients wanting to "get away" as much as wanting to hunt and fish.  The Colonel would do the guiding and Kevin's quick wit and world-class sense of humor would provide the after-field entertainment. 

The Colonel still thinks it would have been successful.  Kevin would have made it so.      

The last contact the Colonel had with Kevin was nearly ten years ago -- a couple of one-line e-mails over the Marine Corps' intra-net.  Shortly thereafter, they both retired from active duty.

Kevin's obituary mentioned he was an avid golfer.  

The Colonel wonders if Kevin, living in St. Petersburg, Florida, ever went fishing, again.

The Colonel isn't looking forward to the next twenty years -- there are going to be way too many weeks like this one.      

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Recruiting Victories

The Colonel never really paid any attention to college football recruiting, in general, and Ole Miss Football recruiting, specifically, until this year.

Frankly, there never really was any reason to pay attention to Ole Miss Football recruiting...

Until this year.

A little over a year ago, Ole Miss hired a new head football coach -- Hugh Freeze.  At that time, the Colonel opined, for the reading pleasure of the two dozen of you who regularly waste precious rod and cone time perusing posts hereon, that this bright, young, energetic coach would, in all likelihood, not be able to transcend the entrenched intransigence of the University of Mississippi's pathetically ineffective athletic administration, nor be able to excite, let alone expand, an apathetic, albeit long-suffering, fan-base.  The Colonel went on to predict that this new head football coach would be replaced by yet another bright, young, energetic coach well within the life-expectancy of a mourning dove. 

The Colonel will go on the record today and admit that evidence to date indicates that the Colonel's prognostications regarding the football program at Ole Miss may indeed have been in error.

In tandem with the hiring of Coach Freeze, Ole Miss also replaced one of Division I's most inept Athletic Directors with bright, young, energetic, and surprisingly savvy Ross Bjork.  The difference has been amazing!  When announcing Freeze's hire, the head of the coach search committee -- Saint Archie himself -- said that Freeze had the "it factor."  The same can be said for Bjork.

The promising signs of a resurgent Ole Miss sports program have been hard to miss over the past year.  In particular, a football team, that won only two games in 2011, played above all expectations and won a bowl game this year.  The team was made up of pretty much the same members who played  the 2011 season with an enthusiasm quotient, on a scale of 1 to 10, of...

...minus 13.

Freeze fixed that piece as his first order of business.  The 2012 Rebels played with heart and for each other.   The Colonel has a fair amount of experience in the team-building arena and knows a team when he sees one.  Ole Miss fielded a team this year. 

Out-manned in several games, the 2012 Rebels fought hard to the bitter end.  A couple of the games were so out of hand that the Colonel was tempted to leave the stadium early, but stayed till the end because his Rebels were not giving up.

For several months now there have been rumblings of a potential Ole Miss football recruiting windfall.  Leading up to "National Signing Day" yesterday Ole Miss was mentioned prominently as having a shot at signing some of the most talented and promising high school football players in the country.  

As with all things Ole Miss, the Colonel paid close and hopeful attention -- yet, prepared himself for the inevitable let-down with which all Rebel fans of a certain age are fearfully familiar. 

And then, as ESPNU broadcast in such unending amazement and constant comment that some on social media joked that they had become the "Ole Miss Network," the Rebels signed the single greatest class of high school football talent in school history -- headlined by four consensus 5-star recruits, Nkemdiche, Tunsil, Treadwell, and Conner.

Every one of these young men, and most of the other very talented players in this class, were heavily recruited by the likes of Alabama, Georgia, LSU, and Florida.  They could have gone to any one of those schools and been nearly guaranteed at least a shot at playing for conference and national championships.

As one recruit put it, "those programs are run like very professional businesses."

The difference, he said, was that Ole Miss "felt like family."

The Colonel has long maintained that competing consistently in the SEC was a near impossibility for a football program like Ole Miss'.  Particularly if Ole Miss tried to compete by copying the big boys.

The Colonel also knows a little something about recruiting against the "big boys."  Nearly a fifth of his career in the Marine Corps was spent in command of recruiting outfits.  Marine recruiters are always out-manned and out-resourced by the other service's recruiters.   

Most young men and women who have joined the U.S. military over the last four decades -- the lifetime of what is known as the "All Volunteer Force" -- did not walk into a recruiting office on their own initiative.  Most young men and women who walk into U.S. Armed Forces recruiting offices on their own initiative don't qualify for enlistment. 

The vast majority of young men and women who enlist today do so only after they are contacted by a recruiter and sold on the "benefits" of foregoing college and serving their nation as a soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine for four years.  

The Colonel's last assignment in the Marine Corps was command of one of the six recruiting regiments responsible for replenishing the ranks.  He believes, without a shadow of a doubt in his military mind, that Marine Corps recruiters are the best salesmen in the world.

Don't believe that?

Look, anyone who can convince an eighteen year-old, and his mother, that it is in that eighteen year-old's best interest to forego college and enlist for four years, during a war, in the toughest, least-resourced, lowest standard of living service; and, oh, by the way, take his graduation trip to Afghanistan...

Well, let's just say that recruiter is a salesman!

The Colonel digresses.

What struck the Colonel most about Coach Freeze's recruiting effort was that, in addition to offering a top-notch recruit the opportunity to -- instead of maintaining an old, traditional dynasty -- be a part of building a new dynasty, the Ole Miss football coaching staff seems to be focusing on the things that mean most to a recruit's momma.

The Colonel took command of a Marine recruiting regiment three months before 9/11.   It was like deja vieu all over again.  He had taken command of a Marine recruiting battalion just one month before Saddam did the stupid in the summer of 1990.  

Watching brothers in the infantry battalion he had just left months before go off to war without him in 1990 had been nearly more than he could stand.  Having it happen a second time began to feel like a little more than just coincidence.  There was the bitter taste of fate in the Colonel's mouth this time around.

But, the Colonel had to grudgingly admit that having been in command of a recruiting battalion during Desert Shield / Desert Storm gave him just the experience needed to mentor the eight Marine recruiting battalion commanders under his charge as the nation plunged into the Global War on Terror. 

One of the things the Colonel and his regimental staff figured out early on was that helping recruiters over the largest obstacle on the recruiting battlefield would mean finding a way to "soften" Momma's heart toward the Marine Corps.  National youth attitude tracking surveys perennially reveal that while Momma was the single most influential person in a prospective recruit's life, she was the least likely of all the "influencers" to approve of, let alone recommend, military service.  

There had to be ways to close the "Momma Gap" in order to help our recruiters do their job.

Really a no-brainer, when you devote half a brain cell to the issue for half a second.

Only, higher headquarters didn't. 

Doing things to soften Momma's heart wasn't their idea, so the Colonel was told to stop. 

One can only beat one's head against the brick ceiling for so long.  The Colonel voted with his feet.

The Colonel congratulates and salutes Coach Hugh Freeze and his staff.  Keep winning Momma's heart and building team.