Thursday, June 09, 2016

Lions' Challenge

Thirty years ago this month, the Colonel was wrapping up his assignment as an Instructor at the Marine Corps' Basic School (TBS) in Quantico, Virginia.  It had been more of an education for him than for any of the second lieutenants who passed through the "Crossroads of the Corps" on their way to the Fleet Marine Force. 

Forty months previous, the Colonel, then a first lieutenant selected for captain, had come back to Quantico for the third time in his brief career.  He had been there twice already -- for Officer Candidate School (OCS) in '77 and for TBS and the Infantry Officer Course (IOC) in '78.   

After graduating from TBS and IOC, the Colonel's initial posting was as a rifle platoon commander in the 2d Marine Division at Camp Lejeune.  Three years at Lejeune had been followed by a year in the Western Pacific with a Marine Amphibious Unit.

Now he was back at Quantico, feeling not just a little bit cocky and sure of himself.  In fact, he was certain he was in possession of a set of orders to Quantico because he was perfectly suited for duty as an instructor teaching brand new second lieutenants all they needed to know to be successful in the fleet.  

When the Colonel reported in with the G-1 (Personnel Officer) at the Commanding General's HQ, he had his assignment speech well-rehearsed.  First he was going to wow the G-1 with his heel-clicking adherence to the letter of Marine Corps customs and courtesies, then launch into a quick synopsis of his accomplishments over the past four years, and then sum up with a succinct argument for immediate assignment to TBS as an instructor.

The major to whom the Colonel reported didn't give him a chance to get past "Good Morning, Sir."  He sighed wearily, "Stand at ease, lieutenant.  Lemme see you orders."

The Colonel handed over his orders and Officer Qualification Record (OQR) book.

"Gregory," he said, scanning the orders.  "Wasn't expecting you for another month or so.  Weren't you in the Philippines?"

"Yes, sir.  I was with 31st MAU.  We were pulling out of Subic headed into the Indian Ocean and they sent me back a few weeks early from there instead of trying to get me out later from Diego Garcia.  My relief was already aboard and I had trained him..."

The major cut the Colonel off with a wave of his hand, "Asked you for the time, not how to build a watch."

"Yes, sir."

"Okay, lieutenant.  A couple other officers have an appointment with the C.O. of the Basic School in an hour.  I'll call his X.O. and add you to the list of interviewees.  TBS gets first dibs on new officers.  If Colonel Deegan doesn't want you, come back here and we'll see if anybody else does."

Colonel Gene Deegan was one of a legion of legends in the Corps. Known as "Clean" Gene, he was famous for his circumspect conduct and his expectation of the same from his subordinates.  He would go on to retire as a major general and the Colonel had the great professional pleasure to serve under him on two later occasions.

When it was his turn to be interviewed, the Colonel reported in and was told, "Stand at ease, lieutenant.  Why are you here?"

The question took the Colonel a bit by surprise.  He thought it was obvious why he was there.  

"Sir?"

"Why are you here, Lieutenant Gregory?"  Colonel Deegan was studying the Colonel like a hawk studies a mouse.

"I, uh..., um, to interview for a job, sir."

"Got that, lieutenant.  But, why are you here?" 

"I want to be an instructor here at the Basic School."

"You and every other company grade officer in the Marine Corps," Colonel Deegan growled, and then looked down at a folder on his desk.

The folder wasn't the Colonel's orders.  It wasn't his OQR, either.

It was his Basic School record... and it wasn't stellar.  

It wasn't even planetary.  

More like dark side of the moon.

The Colonel began to mentally stash his dream of working at TBS.  "Looks like I'll be making coffee for majors at headquarters," the Colonel thought to himself.  He began to subconsciously assume the position of attention preparatory to his certain immediate dismissal.  

He was yanked back to full consciousness by Colonel Deegan's question, "Care to explain why your TBS academic record is so poor?" 

The Colonel really didn't care to explain, but he had to answer; and, all was lost anyway, so he lamely said, "I guess I wasn't challenged, sir."

The Colonel kids thee not.  That's what he said.  The most idiotic thing to say to a superior.  He has regretted that answer ever since.

He regretted it the greatest the moment it escaped his lips.  The Colonel fully expected a withering redress followed immediately by a summary dismissal.  

In other words, the Colonel was expecting to get his butt chewed and shown the door in a rapid one-two punch.   

Instead, Colonel Deegan quietly sat back in his chair and studied the Colonel with the look you give something repulsive that has stuck to the bottom of your shoe.

Then the look changed, and danged if a slight smile didn't cross Clean Gene's face.

"Well, lieutenant," he said slowly.  "Let's see if we can challenge you this time around."  

"Sir?"  For a terrifying moment, the Colonel feared that he was about to be assigned, not as an instructor, but as a student. This interview was going from bad to worse to worser at a rapid clip.  

"See the Adjutant.  Tell him I said to assign you to the Command and Leadership instructor group.  We'll see how you do on the boards and then look at putting you into a company as an SPC (staff platoon commander) later in the year."

Colonel Deegan must have seen the look of abject terror on the Colonel's face give way to a look of complete befuddlement, "Welcome aboard, lieutenant.  Now get out of here before I change my mind."

Turns out Colonel Deegan was true to his word.  The Colonel was challenged more over the next three and a half years than at any time before or since, and the challenge came from the competition of his peers.

There were approximately 80 captains assigned to TBS as instructors.  By and large, they represented the best and brightest -- the Colonel being a glaring exception to that rule, of course.  A disproportionate share of that group went on to distinguished careers and general officer rank -- again, the Colonel being a glaring exception.  The current Commandant of the Marine Corps was one of the Colonel's peers (and he uses that word in the loosest sense) on the TBS instructor staff.  The point is the Colonel's education the second time around at TBS was far greater and had more lasting effect than any other time in his career -- and it came from the example of his peers.

The Colonel learned some great leadership lessons from some great bosses throughout his career.  But, the lessons learned from the lions of the Corps at TBS from 1983 to 1986 shape him still.               
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