The Impression That I Get

 

They like to talk. (“they” being that mystical conglomeration of people who are too difficult to name in the particular) about preparing for war, preparing for the worst of the unknown. I used to think that I could rely on my leaders to be unflinching in the face of impending danger, but experience has taught me otherwise.

As a young lieutenant so long ago, all the captains and the field grade officers were granted a level of respect that is difficult to comprehend if you aren’t a Marine. Even the other military branches don’t lend such esteem to their officers as the Marines do, and I still think that it is deserved. Yes, there are majors that are overweight. There are some who have “dropped their pack” and are taking it easy. But we know that in the heart of every Marine, especially officers, lives the heart of a lion, a bull, and a wolverine all in one.

But I didn’t find it to be the case when the balloon went up.

In the First Persian Gulf War, my squadron was on the force list to be among the first main forces in the country. Special ops guys were there already, but in the first week of August 1990 immediately after Kuwait was invaded, VMA(AW)-242 and most of MAG-11 were told we were on our way to Iraq.

To put this in context, we had no idea that such a huge army would be amassed in that war. We assumed that we were all that were going because that’s all that the initial plans called for. That it grew to such a huge scale wasn’t expected at the time. My personal impression is that the 7th Marine Expeditionary Brigade were all that were going to face the entire Iraqi army. I assumed we would be a tripwire, if we were wiped out then the President would send in heavier forces. That’s how things were done until then, with only small forces committed at first so that the Soviets wouldn’t get too alarmed.

My first reaction was excitement, of course. Maybe as a Captain, I was young enough to not be afraid. My biggest concern was that I had all my stuff in my apartment and a lot of petty personal things to take care of. If I left, would my rent get paid on time? Seems silly to me now, but I was worried about it.

I was never worried about going to war itself, but then I wasn’t a pilot. As a maintenance officer, I figured I’d be somewhere at a desert expeditionary airstrip, maybe getting shelled, probably getting gassed (that’s was our biggest concern), but unless things went really badly I wouldn’t be personally manning the barricades or dodging air defenses. I can’t say that I had the same pressure on me that the aircrew did, but that doesn’t make me respect some of them after seeing their reactions.

All the captains in our squadron were serious, but excited and anxious to go. Almost all the majors and lieutenant colonels were reluctant. One, in particular, behaved in what I thought was a particularly craven way, my old boss.

When I first joined the squadron, I worked for a certain field grade officer and he was a bear-sized man with a deep voice and the ability to get everyone to follow him. He was a good officer and taught me to never underestimate the power that size and a deep voice have over others. He never made bad decisions and I admired him in many ways.

In short, though he wasn’t perfect, he was a good, strong leader. Just what you would expect from a Major in the Marine Corps.

And I’m not trying to single him out as an exception to the rule, my shock is that his reaction wasn’t unique.  I thought most of the majors and lieutenant colonels in the squadron were afraid to go to war.

I was disgusted by them. By this time, he was a lieutenant colonel. I was the maintenance control officer, directing the effort to get ten 20-year old aircraft ready for war. Several times a day for three days the word would change back and forth, “we’re going,” “we’re staying.”

When the word came that we were going, I would get it via rumor control, and my direct boss, Comet Haley, would come by to tell me with gusto to never stop getting ready because the word keeps changing.  Comet was eager for the fight.  When the word came down that we were staying, this field grade officer would come down to the hangar and tell us all that we should stop work. The look of relief on his face was unmistakable. Once or twice he even made editorial comments about the undesirability of going to do our jobs.

Before Saddam invaded Kuwait, this officer was considered a good pilot, an aggressive pilot, and someone the junior officers looked up to and wanted to follow into battle. But when the visage of battle loomed ahead, he seemed a different man. And he wasn’t alone.

Our Squadron never got to war, and secretly I’ve always thought that he and the other field grade officers worked it as hard as they could to keep us out of the war. Later, when the air war started and it was clear how lopsided it would be, he was among those latecomers who went over to get combat time on their record. I wasn’t fooled by this newly found courage. That’s the Impression that I got.

You can’t really tell until the time comes who will face potential danger bravely and who won’t. And you probably can’t tell how someone will react when danger is no longer a possibility.

I never got into that war, not for lack of trying. It’s been 14 years now, but I’m finally able to go to Iraq. I might be in an infantry battalion, I might be at force headquarters, I don’t really know yet. But I hope that no young captains or lieutenants or other Marines see in me the craven queasiness I saw in my leaders back then. I want them to see the same resoluteness I saw in Comet Haley.  Comet got passed over for promotion and left the Marines as a captain.  The reluctant field grade officer got promoted to Colonel eventually.

So is bravery a decision or a reflex? I like to think it’s a decision. If it’s just a reflex, then there is no merit or blame. But if it’s a decision, then I can control it with character and intelligence. I think there is a little of both. Being startled is a reflex. But other times, when there is time to breathe, time to think, time to be a man, there is no excuse for flinching.

And that’s the impression that I get.

Post Script:  This was originally written in September, 2004.   I got word today that this field grade officer died in January at the age of 71.  I’m sad.  He was very likable and people did follow him.  But I’ll never forget that he couldn’t be trusted to be manly and brave when it counted.

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  1. JoelB Member
    JoelB
    @JoelB

    “Comet got passed over for promotion…”

    Do you think this was due to a lack of competence or leadership qualities, or that his eagerness to join in the battle threatened the higher-ups? In the early days of the Civil War, Lincoln had a difficult time finding generals who would take the fight to the Confederacy. The qualities that make a warrior leader may be quite rare. What does that mean in regards to military readiness? There is a lot of food for thought in this short essay.

    • #1
  2. EHerring Coolidge
    EHerring
    @EHerring

    Neither of us went either, were in staff jobs at the time. My old radar unit went and came back with stores about Scud missile attacks, Patriot missiles, and Scud parts raining down. 

    We watched on TV like everyone else. It was shocking to see friends and acquaintances who had been shot down and beaten paraded around on TV. My husband had flown with one in a previous assignment so we also knew his wife and kids. It was sad wondering what he and they were going through. We saw him later, after the war was over and he had been released. He was notably thinner but doing well. It was a relief to see him in person and safe. The other one only my husband knew before. He was stationed next building over and I saw him on occasion but never had a reason to speak to him. I wondered how he was recovering from some of the injuries from being tortured but knew better than to ask. 

    war is serious business.

    • #2
  3. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    JoelB (View Comment):

    “Comet got passed over for promotion…”

    Do you think this was due to a lack of competence or leadership qualities, or that his eagerness to join in the battle threatened the higher-ups? In the early days of the Civil War, Lincoln had a difficult time finding generals who would take the fight to the Confederacy. The qualities that make a warrior leader may be quite rare. What does that mean in regards to military readiness? There is a lot of food for thought in this short essay.

    Comet had two call signs.  One was Comet, the other was Knuckles.  He got in a bit of trouble because he punched out a senior officer.  Comet was a B/N, Bombadier/navigator, and his pilot made some really stupid call that nearly got them both killed, and they had words that ended in Knuckles punching him out.  That was before I knew him.  A second incident happened when the lead pilot for a several plane flight going from Fallon back to our base in El Toro to prepare the jets to deploy to Iraq within the next day or two in the first week of August right after Kuwait was invaded.  That lead pilot made the entire squadron fly through a very large and dangerous storm cell risking lightning strikes or other damage right when we had to prepare to fly across the pond.  Comet/Knuckles had some words with that idiot, but this time punched a desk instead of the senior officer.  He was learning.

    This pugnaciousness and intolerance for idiots is likely why he was passed over.  Last I heard he joined the Air Guard and had command of a non-flying unit and I think retired as a lieutenant colonel in that service.

    I’m not usually an advocate of using fists to settle things, but he was the kind of fighter the military needs.  He fought for sense, not for the sake of fighting.  He was not a scary man, but apparently he had his limit on when he couldn’t ignore a comeuppance that was sorely needed.

    • #3
  4. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    Skyler (View Comment):

    I’m not usually an advocate of using fists to settle things, but he was the kind of fighter the military needs. He fought for sense, not for the sake of fighting. He was not a scary man, but apparently he had his limit on when he couldn’t ignore a comeuppance that was sorely needed.

    When fisticuffs become unthinkable will we still even have Marines? 

    • #4
  5. Cow Girl Thatcher
    Cow Girl
    @CowGirl

    I’m sure I’ve told this story before, but I’ll tell you again @skyler.  After a long time serving in the Navy, my husband finished his  enlistment in 1988, and went to work for a company that built flight trainers. After living a year in a place we thought we’d like, he went looking for another position and was assigned to work back in SoCal on a new thing called the Pioneer RPV–remotely piloted vehicle. It was considered mostly a toy at the time. But he ended up in Saudi Arabia, serving with a Marine company who flew the little spy airplane, landing in country on August 12th, 1990.  When he was still home packing up to go, I said, “But, but…you’re a civilian now! You can’t have a gun!”  His reply:  “Oh, I have something better. I have 50 Marines with guns!”

     

    • #5
  6. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    Cow Girl (View Comment):

    I’m sure I’ve told this story before, but I’ll tell you again @ skyler. After a long time serving in the Navy, my husband finished his enlistment in 1988, and went to work for a company that built flight trainers. After living a year in a place we thought we’d like, he went looking for another position and was assigned to work back in SoCal on a new thing called the Pioneer RPV–remotely piloted vehicle. It was considered mostly a toy at the time. But he ended up in Saudi Arabia, serving with a Marine company who flew the little spy airplane, landing in country on August 12th, 1990. When he was still home packing up to go, I said, “But, but…you’re a civilian now! You can’t have a gun!” His reply: “Oh, I have something better. I have 50 Marines with guns!”

    I recognize that story line.  Our squadron was scheduled to transition to the F/A-18D and turn in our A-6E’s at that time, and it’s why we didn’t go over after all.  Deploying would have left the whole delivery schedule of aircraft in a bind. So we ended up giving all our planes away a year early and we sat out the war with nothing but a toilet paper shortage on base as all such supplies went overseas.  

    But, we had a tech rep from Grumman who was assigned to our squadron.  He replaced someone else who had retired, but he was only supposed to be there a short time since we were transitioning.  He left his family up in Whidbey Island, WA and just lived in SoCal temporarily to support our squadron.  He had never served with Marines before, he had always been helping the navy.  When we were told we were leaving for Kuwait within a day or two in August of 1990, he learned he was going with us.  I remember dragging him down to the supply warehouse to get him his gas mask and other chemical warfare gear issued to him.  He didn’t refuse but he had a wide eyed look like a truck was about to hit him.  But he got into the spirit of the deal and deployed with us as far as Cherry Point, NC.  That’s where we gave our planes away.  I had to hitch a ride with 30 of our Marines on a plane, any plane I could find going back west.  Took us a while.  He signed up to keep on going and support the squadron that replaced us.  I didn’t see him again, but I did hear that he did a great job, as always.  He was a great old guy.  

    • #6
  7. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    “We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” 

    Note: ‘rough men’, not ‘snowflake multi-genders’. 

    • #7
  8. navyjag Lincoln
    navyjag
    @navyjag

    Great story Skyler. A generation older but loved working with the MarDets on the carrier. One actually became the Commandant many years later and remembered me. All hardened vets from 68-69 time frame. Most infantry; some artillery.  Terrific Marines.

    • #8
  9. Gazpacho Grande' Coolidge
    Gazpacho Grande'
    @ChrisCampion

    Thanks, Skyler.

    One of the things I find easy in decision-making is when I (finally) figure out that there’s no choice, meaning I can stop worrying about alternatives or other options, it’s just plunge ahead with the “you have to do this” path.

    Now, this is just a civilian talking.  It’s pretty rare that my “no choice, plunge ahead” gets me into places where I’m going to be shot at, tortured, or the like.  But I’ve found that once I’ve figured out what I have to do, the doing becomes easier.  We’ve all had hard decisions with family situations, maybe.  Maybe an ailing family member, and you have to make the hardest call you’ll ever make on them, because based on the facts, there’s no other choice to make.  It weirdly makes it feel easier.

    Note that this is also why I lock up at buffet tables.  Frozen in fear.  Choices.  Too many.  Must…..decide?

    • #9
  10. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    Gazpacho Grande' (View Comment):

    Thanks, Skyler.

    One of the things I find easy in decision-making is when I (finally) figure out that there’s no choice, meaning I can stop worrying about alternatives or other options, it’s just plunge ahead with the “you have to do this” path.

    Now, this is just a civilian talking. It’s pretty rare that my “no choice, plunge ahead” gets me into places where I’m going to be shot at, tortured, or the like. But I’ve found that once I’ve figured out what I have to do, the doing becomes easier. We’ve all had hard decisions with family situations, maybe. Maybe an ailing family member, and you have to make the hardest call you’ll ever make on them, because based on the facts, there’s no other choice to make. It weirdly makes it feel easier.

    Note that this is also why I lock up at buffet tables. Frozen in fear. Choices. Too many. Must…..decide?

    I recommend the lamb-to-lion strategy; graze lightly with the first plate and return to run down your favorites in bloody carnal greed. 

    • #10
  11. Fastflyer Member
    Fastflyer
    @Fastflyer

    Cow Girl (View Comment):

    I’m sure I’ve told this story before, but I’ll tell you again @ skyler. After a long time serving in the Navy, my husband finished his enlistment in 1988, and went to work for a company that built flight trainers. After living a year in a place we thought we’d like, he went looking for another position and was assigned to work back in SoCal on a new thing called the Pioneer RPV–remotely piloted vehicle. It was considered mostly a toy at the time. But he ended up in Saudi Arabia, serving with a Marine company who flew the little spy airplane, landing in country on August 12th, 1990. When he was still home packing up to go, I said, “But, but…you’re a civilian now! You can’t have a gun!” His reply: “Oh, I have something better. I have 50 Marines with guns!”

     

    I was part of the initial cadre that set up Pioneer UAV training at Ft Huachuca, AZ for the Army, Navy and Marine trainees. I am proud of the guys and gals we had trained who successfully integrated the new Pioneer capabilities into all three services battle plans to great effect. Good memories.

    • #11