Chapter 4: Making it and standing out
By the time I spent a couple of months at my unit, I had turned into a pretty good Marine. Or at least a decent one.
During that time, we deployed to the Mojave Desert for some brutal training. The Marine Corps has a base there (Twentynine Palms) that’s one of the largest training areas in the country. It’s so large that you can practice large-scale attacks with live fire, including tanks, mortars, artillery, and airpower.
It’s probably the closest you can come to real combat in a peacetime environment, and to this day, Marine units deploy there for a month of training prior to being sent to either Iraq or Afghanistan.
I’m assuming I proved myself to those around me during that month because when we returned, I was made a fire team leader.
A fire team is four Marines, so if you’re in charge of one, you’ve got three people under you. (A squad is three fire teams.) Promotions to fire team leader are competitive (as is everything in the Marine Corps), so presumably I did just enough in our one month of desert training to rate being promoted to fire team leader.
I was decent at running and shooting well, I could hold my own in a fight (which matters for your standing in a platoon, since horseplay is constant). I was also pretty strong on my “knowledge,” which is what the Marine Corps calls mastering the details your job. This includes remembering everything from knowing the precise range of your M-16 to how to treat a sucking chest wound to how to drill a platoon, keeping them in step and looking sharp.
I lived in books, which was no different than when I was as a kid, except now I was reading Marine Corps manuals in between Tom Clancy novels. I’m not sure why I enjoyed studying manuals so much, but I was so excited about my career that I absolutely wanted to be the best.
But while running, fighting, and reciting knowledge off the top of my head wasn’t a problem, there were two things that I wasn’t good at. The first one was humps, which is what the Marine Corps calls forced marches. These are basically really long hikes with all your gear. Believe me, the packs were heavy, plus you had your flak jacket, web gear, helmet, and rifle. These were usually six to twelve miles long, but could go as high as eighteen or even twenty-five, which was the maximum distance expected by the Marine Corps in a day.
The pace is three miles per hour, which doesn’t sound too bad until you’re walking in sand, mud, or loose gravel. And the weight doesn’t sound too bad until you’ve gone a couple miles. The pack weighs usually about forty to fifty pounds, plus you’ve got a nine-pound flack jacket, eight pounds of gear in your harness (canteens, magazines, etc.), and a five-pound helmet. Top all that off with a seven-pound rifle.
That was our typical load, but if it was cold weather, the pack weight would soar to eighty pounds or more because you needed more layers and your insulated sleeping bag.
Given that I weighed 123 pounds when I hit the Fleet, that sixty to eighty pounds felt a whole lot different to me than it did to a guy who weighed 180. Shorter guys like me also had to contend with the fact that we had shorter strides, which meant we had to walk faster just to keep up!
As you’ve guessed by now, I hated humping! Most Marines did. They quite often pushed you mentally to your limit and beyond, and you didn’t want to fall out of one. There was probably no faster way to lose the respect of your peers than to fall out of a hump and have to ride in the Humvee that followed. Not only were you shamed for such a thing, but often if you failed to complete a hump they would force you to do a remedial hump on Saturday, when you were supposed to be off. Seriously, no one wants to do a hump on a Saturday in a group of just a few guys.
Humps were easily one of my biggest fears in the Marine Corps. We would learn about an upcoming one sometimes as much as six or eight days in advance. Immediately, I’d start worrying about it. I’d plan my meals and hydration, which pair of boots I thought would work best, you name it. Every single thing I could think of to help me not fall out. I always tried to plan out every single detail that would help me make sure I survived the grueling event. If we were in the field four or five days prior to the hump home, I’d make sure I saved snacks for energy. I’d also make sure I kept at least one pair of socks clean and ready for use on that sole event. I’d even pack foot powder to cut down on how many blisters I’d get.
These little things don’t sound like much, but they gave me a small edge.
Besides all the planning and mental preparation, I also exercised like a demon when we weren’t in the field. At night, if we were back in the barracks instead of the field, I’d do heavy pack runs to further condition my back and shoulders. Carrying a load I could barely shoulder was one of my greater fears, so I constantly tried to work on my weakness, piling more and more in that pack to carry around at night.
I always had the mentality that if I pushed myself on my own (at night or at the gym) harder than our officers would ever be able to, then they’d never be able to break me on a hump or field op. Of course, I got mocked a fair amount for my pack runs (probably rightly so, since I’m sure I looked like a complete moron). But I always figured the ribbing by my friends beat letting them down and suffering the embarrassment that would have gone with falling out of a hump.
My second big fear was jumping up to reach the high bar on the obstacle course. I was so good at all the obstacles and rope climbs that you must traverse, but I always worried to death about that eight-foot-high bar on the second obstacle.
I’ve mentioned in earlier chapters that I’m vertically challenged, but I also am blessed with an inability to jump high. So pretty much every time I managed to leap and grab that eight-foot high bar, it was a miracle.
A few other Marines couldn’t reach it, and most of the time, you were allowed to have another Marine run up and put their knee out for you to jump off from. But I couldn’t bring myself to go asking for help. That seemed beneath the kind of Marine I wanted to become in my mind, so I constantly worked on my jumping.
Usually, after my pack runs, I’d swing by the obstacle course and practice running up and leaping to reach that bar. It’s funny in hindsight how much I worried about grabbing that silly bar, but you don’t want to lose face in the Marine Corps.
In many ways, a Marine squad or platoon is like a gang. Even if you’ve got rank on your shoulders, it means nothing. You are judged on a daily basis for your competence, toughness, and ability to keep up. You start falling out of runs or humps, or not being able to do the obstacle course (some guys struggled with other obstacles, which I could do with ease), and you’d quickly be noticed and usually given some attention that you didn’t want from your fellow Marines.
That attention would usually start with encouragement, some tips or advice, and even the offer to help them train on that one thing on their off time. But if a Marine refused that help and didn’t fix their shortcomings, it would quickly turn into verbal harassment and worse. Our leaders always told us we were only as strong as our weakest link, and we took them at their word. We brought plenty of harassment and pain to those who couldn’t keep up.
Clearly, as I hope I’ve explained, I worked a lot on my weaknesses (humps and jumping up to reach that eight-foot bar). But I not only worked on my weaknesses, I also focused on what I was best at: knowledge.
Ever since childhood, there are few things I enjoyed more than reading. Knowing that a love of reading was probably my only true strength, I poured my focus wholeheartedly on my one skill. I read manual after manual that the Marine Corps had published. These were dense, dry things, which were not much fun to read even if you enjoy reading.
But as I learned about advanced tactics and strategies well beyond my rank and paygrade, I knew I was honing the one ability that could help me stand out. I may have been short and unremarkable, but I knew I could read and study circles around most Marines. That’s where I poured it on and worked super hard to magnify my strengths.
Two things primarily drove me forward: fear and ambition.
I feared falling short and I truly wanted to be the best. (Still do.)
These things, the fear and the desire, are what helped me stand out and be a pretty good Marine. And standing out allowed me to do some pretty exciting things during my enlistment. Standing out got me assigned to a coveted position alongside Force Recon, which I’ll explain in a later chapter. It also led me to earn Marine of the Quarter for the entire 2nd Marine Division, which I’ll also explain later. Finally, I managed to earn the rank of Sergeant, which is not something that’s easy to attain in the field of infantry within a four-year period.
Each small victory over my weaknesses (getting good at humps and never missing the bar) led to something even greater, but if I hadn’t put in the time and work as a newly minted PFC (Private First Class), none of them may have happened.
Would a Marine who needed to be helped up over the bar or couldn’t complete a strenuous hump have gotten attached to Force Recon? Probably not.
Now flip the question to your own life.
Will you get promoted at your job when you’re not good at certain aspects of it?
You know the answer to that. No, you’re probably not going to get promoted unless you’re well rounded. Sure, you’re good at the rest of it, but you need to be working on whatever part of yourself or your job that you’re not good at.
You want to reach the next phase in life, right? Good. Let’s get to work. (And if you answered “no” to my final question, you need to go look at your wife and kids and see just who you’re impacting. It also helps to imagine and dream some, thinking of just where you might end up if you can push through your current level.)
I think we should all be reaching for that next level in our careers and in our lives. Maybe you’re a great manager at work, but you lose your temper easily. Well, you need to work on that. Or maybe you’re great at most of your job, but you’re weak at math. Same thing: you need to work on that.
Maybe you’re good at saving, but don’t know much about investing. In fact, you’re scared to. Same advice: you need to work on that.
We all have weaknesses and we should all be honing and improving them. This isn’t rocket science, but it isn’t easy either. Sometimes, you’ve got to do a gutcheck.
So do a gutcheck, and if you can plow two acres but are only currently plowing one, then I respectfully say that you’re letting yourself down, you’re letting your family down, and you’re letting your community down.
Want to fix it? You already know how. Recognize your weaknesses, work on them, quit your half assing, and pick up the pace. I’ll meet you at the top.
Work on your weaknesses so that you’re not below standard. This will take some hard work and probably be something you have to do on your own time, but it’s worth it in the end to do so.
Also, don’t share your weaknesses.
I hated humps and worried about that high bar, but I’m not sure I told many people. Probably, with the exception of my closest three or four friends, they had no idea I feared either of them.
When it came time to do the obstacle course, I tried to be the first in line to go. Same thing on humps. Sure, I hated them and worried I might not have the strength to finish them, but I didn’t show it. As we were putting on packs, I’d be the saying, “This isn’t anything. What’s eighteen miles? They can’t break us.”
I tried to always be motivated and fired up (and loud), so I would enter every event that we faced as full of piss and vinegar as possible. With my night runs, if someone asked (other than my closest friends), I’d tell them I was training so I could make the cut to join Force Recon, a really elite unit in the Marine Corps.
I’m pretty sure most guys in the barracks saw my night runs as simply Mitchell being Mitchell. You know, the silly motivated guy who wanted to be the best. They probably had no idea that it was Mitchell worrying he couldn’t complete an upcoming hump.
The takeaway here is don’t mention to your boss what you’re not good at. You might be right on the cusp of a transfer or promotion. Instead of talking about your weaknesses, fix them. And when you’re assigned work involving them, go enter it with good cheer. Tell your boss you’d be glad to take that math-related assignment on.
End of sermon. You know what to do now. Fix your weaknesses and magnify your strengths.
I hope this somehow inspires you in your own life. I want to encourage you that no matter where you are in your journey, and no matter what weaknesses you may have, you can overcome them. You can double the effort you’ve been putting into something or do additional research until you’re comfortable with it.
I was constantly asking Marines who had a reputation for being great at humps what their secret was. Some said just take it one step at a time. Others said just focus on the pack in front of you. Still others said to sing a song in your mind, keeping yourself distracted.
I utilized all these techniques and others, especially when I was panicking and struggling to catch my breath. (It can be hard to breath with all that weight pulling down you.)
Just like me, you can go from being the kid who’s bullied in high school to being labeled the best Marine in an entire division. Have some faith in yourself. You’ve got this.
(You can read Part 5 here.)
Stan R. Mitchell
P.S. Enjoy my writing or videos?! You can leave me a tip at this PayPal link. : )—————————
Stan R. Mitchell, author and prior Marine, is best known for his Nick Woods Marine Sniper series, which has remained in the Top 100 on Amazon for more than three years. The series has also been picked up by Audible.com for a multi-book audio deal. Additional works include a Western thriller, detective series, and World War II story.
18 thoughts on “Part 4 of “My time in the Corps””
I joined because?? I was 10 years old when an uncle in the army got killed in Korea (1951). Right then, I decided I would join the army and ride around in a jeep with a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on the hood (like some comic book hero at the time). Later I was in the 10th grade an saw a Leatherneck Magazine in the library, it showed this ruby red ring with the Globe and Anchor–I had to have one of those. I wanted to be one of the Best. Sure, everyone suffers a little through boot camp and the first couple of years until you become an NCO. However, after 20 years, I realized that most folks who join the Corps have at least a little bit of Glory Hound in their blood and soul. They want to try their best to become the best, that they are capable of becoming. Of course, along with that, is pride in country and being an American.
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Wise words, 1st Sgt. And thnak you for not laughing at my pathetic stories. Nothing I did compares even 1/10th to what you and your boys did.
Man, I hated that place. Was only there for a couple of weeks one summer with an 81mm Mortar Platoon. I was a brand new Second Lieutenant and about the only thing I knew about 81’s was they were a lot heavier than the 60’s we hauled around in my enlisted days.
Fortunately, my Platoon Sergeant was an 0869 Gunny who spent his career shooting cannons – so mortars were no big deal to him.
I knew just enough to stand around trying to not look too stupid…and stay out of his way. It was sure good to get back to Camp Pendleton after that.
You guys did a lot more field training than we did. We were still doing that ‘individual replacement’ crap in and out of Vietnam, so no one was getting any team training – and not much in the way of functional training at all.
I’m enjoying your ‘Time in the Corps’ series. I think a lot of Marines think about do the same thing, but real writing takes way too much work.
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See, I didn’t realize the battlefield promotion carried with you back to stateside. Wow.
And, yeah, I’d have been a little intimidated dealign with a weapon system I didn’t know. Sounds like you handled it like a pro! (Why can’t all lt’s be that way!! lol)
Stan, the “Temporary” (three year) commissions passed out in the mid- to late 60’s, just weren’t all that hard to grab – especially for 03’s.
The physical was of the ‘hear thunder/see lighting’ variety…and pass a Wasserman test.
If I had waited another 6 months, I could have grabbed a Warrant – which would have been a much better fit.
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Gotcha, brother. Well, having gotten to know you the past couple of years, I think they picked the right man to put the bars on. Though I can’t imagine that kind of responsibility, especially in war. (Squad leader was almost overwhelming for me!)
Let’s set the record straight about battle field commissions–I know of only a couple that were given during Vietnam, there may have been a few more. During 1966 the Corps was building from 3 divisions to 5 divisions. Almost every Staff NCO with a high school education and a fairly good record was offered a commission. I don’t know of any E-8’s or E-9’s accepting. The commissions were given until who ever got one made Capt. Towards the end of Vietnam and shortly after most of those personnel were reverted to MSgt and allowed to retire when their 20 years were up and most were were close to 20 years. When they reached full retirement they were then given the highest honorably rank held which was Capt. A few were offered the rank as Major as a Limited Duty Officer. A Limited Duty Officer is not allowed to command troops, he would be placed as an Operations Officer, Supply Officer, Range Officer, etc., etc.
However, this did open up promotions for lowly Sgts like me. They promoted 10,000 Sgts to SSgt during 1966 and luckily I was near the top of the list.
And, Fortunately for me, I made made meritorious GySgt on the drill field during my second tour because the Infantry field froze promotions for a few years as the Corps was cutting back to 3 divisions.I managed to make 1stSgt in 16 years.
The Corps also offered many retirees to come back on active duty before they reached the full retirement of 30 years in the FMC Reserve. There were many SSgt E-5’s and GySgt E-6’s that were allowed to come back in
with the same date of rank as when when they originally retired and gained some extra retirement pay because they were first on the next promotion list.
By the way, once you receive a full commission, you are commissioned for life. You can actually give the oath to your grandson as he enters the service, no matter what service. Just make sure he raises his right hand.
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1stSgt, thanks for all that excellent information and history! And how amazing that you got to be a drill instructor. I think every Marine dreams of being that at least at some point in their service.
There’s something almost holy and pure about Parris Island. It has a single purpose and it achieves that aim with infinite precision, even when the paper pushers in D.C. try to wreck it with silly restrictions.
BTW, it sounds like someone (ahem, you) should share their story as well. Just saying.
Great history you had in the Corps. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone making E-8 so quickly, and I know I never heard of meritorious promotion at the SNCO level. I do remember a few guys who got selected “below the zone” (never me) and that was considered damn near impossible. You’re to be congratulated.
After reading your comments, I tried to think back across the half century it’s been and put down some general thoughts that applied to commissioning from the ranks, and how my own commissioning happened.
“Battlefield Commissions” are not just the Audie Murphy kind of in the field promotion, but are awarded as a result of actions and service done in combat,.
The Marine Corps formed a board in the mid-60’s to review recommendations and ended up awarding 50-100 “Battlefield Promotions”.
On the other hand, “Direct Commissioning” was used extensively, as you mentioned. Staff Sergeants were (as far as I know) all to Second Lieutenant. Gunny’s could become either Second or First Lieutenant, and E-8’s and E-9’s could be appointed as high as Captain. These were USMCR appointments, with a very tiny minority being allowed to “augment” into the Regular Marine Corps. I only knew one who made that jump.
I personally served under a former Master Sergeant who was appointed as a First Lieutenant, and a First Sergeant and Sergeant Major both appointed as Captains.
In my personal instance I was on recruiting duty, working for a Captain who had been my First Sergeant years earlier. He thought I could handle the bars and made the magic happen. I accepted a 3 year contract and appointment as a Second Lieutenant in the USMCR. At the end of the contract, I had to either revert to enlisted or accept a release from active duty.
I accepted the release to go off and get a college degree.
(Ringing the opinion bell) the direct commissioning programs were badly flawed in that (1) the primary concern was to quickly fill the company grade slots during the build-up and (2) the percentage of excellent SNCO’s promoted left a real experience void in the ranks.
I think that too many of these Mustangs operated at or below an average level. We were technically and tactically proficient, but sadly lacking in the social skills and education background needed to really succeed. The Corps got what it needed in the short term, but didn’t do anyone any favors by making them ‘Temps’.
We took some of the best Staff NCO’s and removed them from the training and mentoring of young troops and NCO’s. We paid for that with a lot of Marines promoted too soon and the horrendous racial problems for many years after.
Your comment mentioned expanding from three to five divisions, but it was actually from four to five. The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Divisions were all up and running and the 4th Division (Reserve) was still functional during those years. All of the Reserve Centers in my Recruiting District were staffed at 100%+ and I think that was true throughout the country. Staffing that 5th division weakened all of the other four.
It was interesting to read your take on the situation back then and I look forward to reading more comments from you in the future.
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This is turning into a PME! lol. And the great thing is I’m learning so much. I’ve read quite a bit on Vietnam (okay, more like a ton), but this is the kind of insider stuff about the Corps that usually doesn’t make it into most books.
Thanks, OG, for taking the time to explain all that!
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I can almost hear “School Circle” being called.
I forgot to mention the Warrant Officers getting Commissioned appointments. I don’t think it was voluntary. The admin officer at our RS was a W-3 and was reappointed as a 2nd or 1st Lieutenant. He put in his retirement papers and walked away really pissed.
Call me crazy, but I have no idea why anyone thought that made any sense.
Have been both Commissioned and Warrant, I don’t think there is any comparison.
There was no assignment for a company grade that couldn’t be filled by a Warrant. To me it was a loss of prestige, and eventually they all reverted to there prior status anyway.
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“to there prior”
s/b to their prior
Wow, I haven’t heard the term “School Circle” in probably twenty years!! lol.
A bit of a sidenote, but the one thing the Marine Corps sucked at teaching when I was in was about warrant officers. I mean, on the bright side, you never really saw them. But I never really knew what to call them, some seemed to NOT want to be saluted, etc, etc.
The entire warrant officer rank was just something I could never really get my arms around in the short time that I was in. lol
Stan – for all three branches of the Armed Forces, the proper form of address is “Mr.” or “Miss” when talking to a Warrant Officer. The exception is the Marine Corps “Gunner”.
All are selected from the NCO/SNCO ranks and tend to be the best in their fields from a technical perspective. They are expected to be a walking/talking reference book for their commanders and able to help the Enlisted troops find the information they need and develop their knowledge levels.
Having spent 8-16 years as enlisted, they tend to ignore a lot of petty BS and just focus on getting the mission accomplished – but the hand salute is always the appropriate greeting exchanged between warriors.
The way you approached the life (and your Pro/Con grades), you probably would have been offered an 0306 slot after you made Gunny.
This concludes my presentation.
Are there any questions?
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My only question is why couldn’t someone have explained it that simply when I was in?! lol
That makes perfect sense with how you explained it. (And you regard me too highly, though I appreciate the compliment. You’ll see in Part 7 or so that sometimes I can’t keep my trap shut when I feel I’m write. lol)
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Pretty good stuff Stan…lol I learned a lot about ounces turning to pounds on humps….in the mid 70’s we spent a ton of time in the bush, which we humped 9 out of 10 times to get there. The 1 time we rode was cattle cars to one of the ranges we had to qualify at. I never knew there was truck to pick us up if we fell out, maybe I would rode more often lol…I was a squad leader so it wasnt an option…I’ll tell ya tho the heaviest weight I ever carried was in boot camp at P.I. Our senior had us on the parade deck, on our backs at 6 inches, when our guide iron barer dropped his feet to the deck….After our senior went balistic ( which was one of, if not the only time he did). He was asking who had the balls to carry it, when a sand flea must of nailed me, because I must have twitched and he called me to carry it. I have often wondered what in the world i was thinking…adding more weight to already death defying runs wasn’t the smart thing to do….We had a series gunny that was a highly decorated Viet Nam Vet who had massive ribbons with stars of silver and bronze and no neck and a real love for PT. When he would lead the runs they were usually the longest day, see ya tomorrow boys type runs. That guide iron weight 800lbs by the end of them. I was 134 lbs when I went in 165 when I hit the Fleet and no fat lol…Merry Christmas to you and yours Stan …
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What a great story, Rick!!!! Thanks for sharing it and I only carried the guidon one time, and it wasn’t for long. Dang if that thing doesn’t get SUPER heavy in a hurry. (And, of course, it has to stay vertical and you can’t change hands with it. I’m assuming it’d be a little easier on a run since you can two hand it and keep it at port arms.)
I would loved having your drill instructor, by the way. (At least back when I was still nuts in the head!!)
I think the guys who have seen some shit simply CANNOT hold their men to hte absolute highest standard. They know what’s at stake and they know how much combat pushed them to the complete limit.
Merry Christmas, brother, and thanks for all the support!
Im Rick Aldrich btw, sorry for the annonymous post above..