Thursday, June 29, 2017

Challenge Company

Thirty years ago this week the Colonel, then a captain, was entrusted by the Marine Corps with one of its seventy rifle companies -- Company C, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines.  He had been in the Marine Corps for nine years.

Nine years doesn't seem like very long to the Colonel today -- but, at the time he felt like he was the "old man of the Corps."  He had already deployed around the world -- Panama for jungle training, Norway for arctic training, desert training in the Mojave, across the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean from the Sea of Okhotsh to the Gulf of Aden (including Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Australia, Somalia, and Oman).

He had completed the Infantry Officer Course, the NBC Defense Course, the Mountain Leader (Winter) Course, the Instructor Management Course, the Army's Jungle Warfare Course in Panama, and was an honor graduate of the Amphibious (now Expeditionary) Warfare School (AWS).

The Colonel had commanded rifle, weapons, and headquarters platoons and had been a staff platoon commander for two fifty-man platoons of lieutenants at the Corps' Basic School.

He believed he was ready for command of one of three rifle companies in an infantry battalion. 

He was wrong.

The Colonel was prepared to step into the traces as the lead dog and pull 180 Marines down the trail as they prepared for and deployed to the Mediterranean as the helicopter raid company for a Special Operations Capable Marine Expeditionary Unit, known as a MEU (SOC). 

He vastly underestimated the magnificence of the Marines of whom he was placed at the head.

They were already raring to go.  The captain who had been in command of them -- Ed Larkin -- was an old acquaintance, and he turned over a company of hard-chargers led by a superb cadre of lieutenants and NCOs. 

Turns out all the Colonel had to do was point them in the right direction and set the pace. 

The amazing thing about Marines is that they crave a challenge, and the Marines of Charlie Company were no exception.  The Colonel's challenge was to keep them challenged.

The First Battalion, Eighth Marines underwent a transformation of sorts in the summer and fall of 1987.  Among the senior leadership of the battalion, only the operations officer (S-3) -- Mike Edwards -- remained as continuity.  (Mike was a fellow Ole Miss grad and the Corps was taking a real chance putting two Rebels in the same unit!) In command of all three rifle companies, the weapons company, and the logistics staff section were new captains straight out of the Amphibious Warfare School.  They called themselves the "Gang of Five."  Two of them, the Colonel and Jim Welsh, had served together in the Western Pacific and at the Basic School.  The battalion had a new second in command (XO) -- (then) Major, (later Colonel) Jon Inghram.  The new battalion commander was (then) Lieutenant Colonel (later Lieutenant General) Jan Huly.  LtCol Huly was an old hand at the MEU (SOC) business having already twice deployed as XO of battalion landing teams.         

The battalion's last deployment had been a rotation to Okinawa.  The next deployment, in the spring of 1988, would be as a Battalion Landing Team (reinforced with artillery and tanks) embarked on the ships of an Amphibious Ready Group.  BLT 1/8 would be the ground combat element of the 26th MEU (SOC).  The 26th MEU would also have an aviation combat element composed of a reinforced helicopter squadron and a logistics element to support operations ashore.  Each rifle company in the battalion would be "task organized" for a specific specialty of ship-to-shore movement via either helicopters, amphibious assault vehicles, or small boats, and trained around a raid operation profile using that mode of transportation. 

Sometime early that summer of 1987, LtCol Huly called the Colonel to his office, "Captain Gregory, good news.  I've already decided Charlie Company will be the heliborne company for our deployment next year.  Start building your training around heliborne raids.  Get over to HMM 365 and introduce yourself to LtCol Magnus and his S-3, ASAP.  Your company will be reinforced with a heavy machine gun section and a TOW section along with their jeeps (the Corps had gone to Humvees by this time, but the new vehicles wouldn't fit on the Corps' helicopters, so beefed up jeeps had been retained for the MEU(SOC) missions.).  You'll also get a combat engineer platoon and it's mule (marvelous little flat-bed cargo hauler).  These attachments will chop to you when we get designated BLT, around E -180.  You'll also get an FO (artillery forward observer) and a FAC (forward air controller)."

As the boss talked, the Colonel's head spun.  He wasn't crazy about helicopters.  He had long held the conviction that the Marine Corps' love affair with its aging and vulnerable fleet of rotary wing aircraft was going to end badly someday on a battlefield saturated with anti-aircraft artillery batteries and hand-held anti-aircraft missiles (the Russian experience against the Afghan Mujaheddin was unfolding at the time and helicopters weren't faring well against the future Taliban carrying American-provided missiles).

Lieutenant Colonel Huly took a breath and the Colonel quickly interjected with his professional concerns about helicopters and that he would rather that Charlie Company be assigned as the "track" company.

Huly waved the Colonel off abruptly.  "Alpha Company (Jim Welsh) is gonna be tracks."  He leaned back in his seat, "Listen, your company will be on the LPH with me and the MEU Commander.  I know that doesn't exactly thrill you and that you would rather have a little more independence on one of the other boats.  But, being collocated with the bosses and our planning staffs means you'll be the priority unit for most missions.  The rubber boat company will rarely get off ship due to too high sea state and distance from shore, and tracks aren't a very flexible or stealthy raid vehicle.  The majority of the MEU (SOC) missions are heliborne missions.  Besides," Huly leaned forward and locked his eyes on the Colonel's, "you bear watching and you'll get the wonderful benefit of my superb mentoring on a daily basis."

One would think that Jan Huly was being humorous -- and, he had a great sense of humor -- but, he was deadly serious.  He remarked at a commanders and staff meeting early in his tenure, "Do as a I say and do, and you'll look brilliant like me."  The yuks around the table died quickly as the look on Huly's face made it clear he was serious.

As the Colonel made his way back to his office afterward, he ran the numbers.  The T/O for a rifle company was close to 180 Marines, and while most infantry units at the time were manned at about 80% strength MEU (SOC) outfits went out full strength.  With reinforcing attachments, he would be commanding a  company of closer to 220.  He would have a full complement of lieutenants and senior noncoms.  This was going to be a rare opportunity for any infantry officer.

Many leaders, when given so much responsibility, have a tendency to play it safe.  Take few chances.  Safety and micromanage everything to the point of near paralysis.   Keep a tight lid on things and hope that nobody does anything that will jeopardize chances for promotion.

There's several problems with an approach like that.

One, micromanagement may work short term, but, eventually, subordinates quit making decisions on their own.  This is deadly in any organization, but in an outfit executing raid missions requiring speed and adaptability, subordinate leaders have to be authorized to make rapid adjustments to the plan.

Two, the Colonel ain't smart enough and talented enough and energetic enough to micromanage.

Three, the young men in his rifle company didn't join the Marines to be safe and secure.  They joined looking for a challenge.  And, young men who are challenged both physically and mentally tend to develop an increased self-esteem that translates into self-discipline. Bored Marines make and find trouble.  Challenged Marines are often too worn out to make or find trouble.

Fourth and finally, the Colonel (then a captain) had a personal professional performance philosophy that presumed he was at his "terminal" rank.  He was going to do what the mission required and let the chips fall where they might.        

So, Charlie company was going to be "Challenge" company.  The Colonel didn't change the name of the company (the boss wouldn't let him), but his overarching command philosophy was to push the limits.

The first opportunity to really put the challenge philosophy into play came at the end of the summer of 1987 when 1st Battalion, 8th Marines deployed for a month to the Marine Corps' Mountain Warfare Training Center (MWTC) at Pickel Meadows, high up in the Sierras.  The Colonel had been through the winter mountain leader course there in 1980 and had been there for a quick winter exercise in 1986 with the ground officers in his AWS class, but this was his first trip there without snow.  When there was no snow on the ground at Pickel Meadows, the Marines referred to training at MWTC as the "rock package." 

MWTC is one of the Corps' real training gems.  Depending on the season it is two radically different environments.  In the winter, it approximates the cold and deep snow Marines face in deployments to Norway to prepare for its wartime mission on the northern flank of NATO.  In summer, the steep rocky terrain provides an excellent mountaineering training ground.  Both environments provide a challenge.

The Colonel and Challenge Company pushed MWTC to the limits.

Most of the Marines loved it. 

The Colonel says "most" because there was that time in the middle of a company movement across steep terrain that he was perhaps pushing (he was actually at the front of the column) it a tad too hard.  A voice from the middle of the column called out plaintively, 

"What's he trying to prove?

That became the phrase with which his Marines most often addressed Captain Gregory's great challenge ideas.  There were other words and phrases used, but the Colonel's mother reads this blog, so...

There was never a body of water that the company went around

There was never a hill that the company didn't run up.

There was never a live fire and maneuver course that the company passed up.

There was never a challenge to which the company didn't rise.
The Colonel's prized memento of his time with C 1/8 is a framed picture of he and his lieutenants, faces camouflaged painted in preparation for a raid.  The brass plate below it lists their names and in bold script the phrase, 

                   "WHAT'S HE TRYING TO PROVE?"

Truth be told, the Colonel wasn't trying to prove anything.  He knew he was mounted on a dragon and was just trying to stay in the saddle. 

The year and a half with those magnificent Marines was the greatest experience of the Colonel's life.  They were the best rifle company in the Marine Corps.  If he could have stayed a captain in command of those men for the rest of his career, the Colonel would have jumped at the chance, without hesitation.

Of course, they had other ideas...
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