Wow. What a first week back in the active duty Marine Corps. It started with my check-in, and discovering that I was the senior Marine on deck. The Commanding Officer (CO), Executive Officer (XO) and the rest of the primary staff have already deployed to Afghanistan. They had left a Lieutenant (Lt) and a Master Sergeant (MSgt) to get 167 Marines pre-deployment training package (PTP) complete, to fill the gaps remaining and get them on a plane in six weeks.
Being the senior Marine on deck, it makes sense that I should take over as the Officer in Charge (OIC), or acting CO. So I have become a company commander overnight. The week has been a chaotic blur of me trying to acquaint myself with the staff, with the Marines, with the mission, with the status of PTP, and with how exactly to BE a company commander. Of course, I must appear at all times to know exactly what I’m doing, because I’m in charge!
The Marines are fantastic, and the Lt and MSgt have been doing an outstanding job to ensure the Marines are ready to go. I began trying to find out as much as I could, by asking questions and just listening. A recently promoted 1stLt from the Reserves gave me some initial insights. He’s one who graduated from Officer Candidate School (OCS) and The Basic School (TBS), and went directly to Reserve status (a relatively new Marine Corps experiment). A stereotypically highly motivated young Lt, he is happiest on active duty and very excited about the deployment.
My next conversation took place with the active duty 1stLt who had been the OIC. She was doing everything she could, but was obviously trying to work well above her pay grade. She was struggling with challenges that to me were so obviously higher headquarters issues. I was happy at the opportunity to contribute and to feel value-added.
Simultaneously, I’m doing computer training so that I can get email accounts and computer access. I’m preparing my personal PTP schedule, and thinking ahead to the gas chamber and HMMWV/MRAP egress training on Friday. (For those not familiar with HMMWV, it is the military’s “jeep”. The Mine Resistant Ambush Protective (MRAP) vehicle was a product of the war in Iraq, and the accompanying incendiary explosive devices (IEDs). The MRAPs offered a significant amount of protection to the soldiers and Marines when they hit an IED.) Since these vehicles have a tendency to flip when they hit an IED, the Marine Corps and Army have instituted emergency egress training as part of their PTP.
As I was finishing up the certifications necessary for the multiple email accounts I will need, the thought (finally!) occurred to me to go to the senior Staff Non-commissioned Officer (SNCO) on deck – the acting First Sergeant (1stSgt). The relationship between a commanding officer and his/her senior enlisted (whether a 1stSgt or Sergeant Major (SgtMaj)) is a special one. The senior enlisted Marine’s primary responsibility is the troops – their health and welfare, training, education and discipline. He is also the eyes and ears of the CO with the enlisted Marines.
Though I have had some outstanding SNCOs work for me before, this is the first time that I have had this CO/1stSgt type of relationship. I consider myself extraordinarily fortunate to have such a quality Marine filling this role. He bent my ear for over an hour about the company, the Marines, the status of training and the integration of the active duty and reserve Marines. His analysis was well thought-out, contemplative and comprehensive. He has very rapidly become my right-hand man, and I am beginning to understand why the CO’s I have known in the past valued their 1stSgt’s and SgtMaj’s so highly.
I admit that I’m struggling a bit in this role. Unexpectedly thrust into it, I feel almost as unprepared as the young Lt previously filling the billet. I feel a lot of pressure to perform, and am anxious to do the best job I can. As with most Marines, I am passionate about being a Marine, about leading Marines and being perfect (ok, maybe it’s just me who has a perfection issue!). It is my greatest anxiety that I might fail my Marines in some way.
There are instances this week in which I know that I could have done better. There are instances in which I have forgiven myself, since I was just getting into the job, getting myself checked-in (for goodness sake), and knowing that it’s better to take an extra few moments to make a good decision rather than rush into a bad one. This blog post is actually part of my reflective process. For those of you who know me well, you will not be surprised to discover that I ordered two books about company command!
I also discovered this week that I will be an actual company commander once I get to Afghanistan, so this next six weeks is really just a dress rehearsal for the deployment.
OK, I am quickly reaching 1000 words, and a wise woman once told me that NO blog post should be longer than 1000 words! So, for those wondering about the gas chamber – it was fine. Nothing compared to what it was at TBS, with eyes tearing up and snot flying out of noses (yes, glorious pictures were taken). The egress training was significantly more interesting. Try being flipped multiple times in an armored vehicle, with your rifle, flak jacket and Kevlar helmet, then trying to find the quickest way out. On the second round, they make someone a “casualty”, and for the third exercise? You’re blind. Fun times, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.