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.)