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Taz Venegas was a quiet guy, mostly. He had a great sense of humor and was well-liked, but few thought of him as a great leader among the officers in the squadron. Marines are a cult of leadership, and although I have joined in that cult and studied and discussed the topic ad nauseam all my adult life, I confess I still don’t know what qualities make a man a great leader.
We were in an A-6 squadron and it was the very early 1990s. Our squadron was designated to transition to the F/A-18D, and along with that change that we would no longer have the mission to deliver nuclear weapons. The Marines didn’t want nukes in any unit anymore, and the A-6 was one of the last methods left to use them. But before we got rid of our nukes, we had one last Nuclear Technical Proficiency Inspection (NTPI). Somehow Taz was tapped to be in charge, a choice that surprised most of us because the NTPI was an extremely high profile and very difficult inspection, and Taz was not among the favored sons among the air crew. Taz was a quiet guy.
Let me explain, briefly, what the NTPI is like. The inspectors look to make sure everyone involved with the nuke is properly trained, qualified, and medically ready. A comma in the wrong place in an administrative service record is a serious fault. A cracked lens on the cover of a hydraulic pressure gauge for a SATS loader (a kind of forklift of sorts for bombs) is a serious fault. Every little thing you can possibly imagine as being petty and unimportant is taken to the nth degree of seriousness, and that is not an exaggeration. Failing the NTPI will guarantee the squadron commander is relieved, and it’s not hard to fail the NTPI.
Normally, the officer put in charge of preparing for the NTPI is the most promising captain in the squadron. That officer will be given carte blanche to demand and get anything he needs to prepare. As the Maintenance Control Officer, I was tasked with supporting the NTPI by providing people, planes to practice loading, planes to fly practice bombing runs (dropping a nuke requires a different method of slinging the bomb, and I’ll allow any aviators to describe it in more detail), and providing parts, equipment, etc. Whenever the NTPI team needed anything, it was provided over everything else, flight schedule be damned.
As you can imagine, with such authority the NTPI officer normally created a lot of flailing around with last-minute requests, angry orders, threats to comply at the last second, and lots of confusion. This was true of every NTPI I had experienced or had witnessed from afar.
But Taz was named to be in charge this time. And Taz was a quiet guy. I liked Taz, as did everyone, and I enjoyed working with him, but I’d never seen him run a large project before. Taz started a bit nervous, but he jumped right in and identified all the requirements leading up to the inspection several months away, and published a schedule of what he needed and when he needed it. He had a solid plan and he stuck to his plan.
I took my part of his plan and gave him what he needed as requested, and never got a complaint. His people worked hard and accomplished all their training tasks on schedule and he tested them to ensure they did their job well.
Not once did Taz yell at anyone for not supporting him. We knew what he wanted in advance, it was what he needed and what he used, and it worked. It was the quietest workup for the NTPI that I had ever seen.
The date of the inspection approached and the XO started worrying, but Taz stuck to his plan and didn’t see a need to change his methods.
Then the date of the inspection came and the squadron aced the inspection. I hardly noticed they were there, and the air crew slung the bomb and hit the target and everyone was happy.
Except the XO. I had the occasion to talk to him and I mentioned what a fantastic job Taz did. He did better than anyone before him and he did it with no “stress grenades.” The XO didn’t see it that way. Taz was lucky the inspectors were lazy. Taz surely was incompetent because there was no stress, no one running around and yelling. These were almost his exact words. I was dumbfounded.
When I read history books, often a disastrous battle such as Normandy will be offered as an example of greatness. Surely we won, but an awful lot of units landed on the wrong beaches, slaughters were common because of unit cohesion being lost, and it was through sheer guts and low-level leadership and initiative that we succeeded. People remember Normandy and Market Garden, another complete disaster, but don’t pay attention to the truly successful battles where planning resulted in a victory with few losses or drama.
Sometimes I think mankind is doomed, not because of the plague or coronaviruses or other disasters, but because people don’t appreciate quiet competence. Politicians are successful when we think they have saved us, or will save us from impending disaster. Politicians who say there is no crisis and that all is well are usually ignored, while those who create crisis are rewarded.
I’ve lost touch with Taz. I hope he has done well in his life, he deserves it, but the cynic in me thinks that he will never be appreciated for his quiet competence.Published in