STARING AT MY REFLECTION in a car window, I straightened the shooting badges on my chest and wiped fingerprints from the gold bars on my shoulders. I’d worn this uniform only once before — at the tailor’s shop. After IOC graduation, I drove across the country to Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego. VJ and I rented a house near the ocean and got ready to report to the First Battalion of the First Marine Regiment, known as 1/1. Being “the first of the first” sounded good to me, but I was anxious. This wasn’t just another school. It was my first command in the Fleet. I hoped I knew enough to avoid embarrassing myself or getting someone hurt.
I walked across the gravel parking lot, dust settling in a thin layer across my spit-shined shoes. A sign over the door of the battalion headquarters proclaimed: FIRST BATTALION, FIRST MARINES — FIRST ON FOOT, RIGHT OF THE LINE. “First on foot, right of the line” was the position of honor in a military formation, so I guessed it was an accolade bestowed on the battalion for some past triumph. A list of those exploits hung next to the door, a series of red wooden slats painted with yellow names. I stopped on the steps to read them. Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Okinawa, Inchon, Chosin Reservoir, Da Nang, Dong Ha, Hue City, Quang Tri, Khe Sanh, Desert Shield, Desert Storm. Empty hooks, ready for the next addition, hung from the lowest slat and reminded me of the Marine Corps War Memorial’s blank granite.
Marines in boots clomped back and forth down the halls. I tried to blend in, but a cherry lieutenant is obvious. Their eyes rolled from my shoes to my hair before settling back onto my face with a reserved “Good morning, sir.” I found the battalion’s admin office and dropped my stack of records on a desk just inside the door. “Good morning, Sergeant. I’m Lieutenant Fick — new guy checking in.”
“We have you slated for Bravo Company, sir.” He tore the orders from my record book and handed it back to me. “Captain Whitmer. Downstairs and to your left.”
I took a deep breath and rapped three times on the cinderblock wall outside the door marked COMPANY COMMANDER.
“Come on in.”
“Good morning, sir. Lieutenant Fick, reporting as ordered.” I snapped to attention in front of the metal desk, with my eyes locked on the rear wall.
Captain Whitmer stood to shake my hand. He looked like the actor Ed Harris, chiseled and gray.
“Rich Whitmer. Welcome aboard. Grab a seat.” He pointed to the small sofa in front of his desk. A helmet and flak jacket lay on the floor next to it, and I tried to absorb other details in the room without his noticing my wandering gaze: a Michigan State mug, a photo of a little boy, and engraved awards from an infantry platoon and a counter-narcotics unit in Thailand.
Captain Whitmer’s defining feature was calm. He spoke slowly, choosing every word, asking about IOC, my family, my background. His office felt soundproof, and the bustle in the hallway receded. Answering his questions, I thought I sounded loud and inarticulate. But it wasn’t an interrogation. Whitmer laughed easily and soon put me at ease.
Once we got down to business, he seemed to know exactly what was on my mind. Each of an infantry battalion’s three rifle companies has a primary means of getting to and from its objectives: helicopters, amphibious assault vehicles called “amtracs,” and rubber Zodiac boats. At IOC, we’d learned that most Marines go ashore by helo. Our consensus was that if we were stationed near the relatively warm Atlantic, boats would be impractical but fun. In the cold Pacific, boats would be miserable. Now Whitmer said, “Hope you don’t mind freezing — Bravo Company is boats.”
Next he told me that I would command Bravo’s weapons platoon. Each infantry company has four platoons — three rifle and one weapons. Leading a rifle platoon, forty Marines with M-16s, is a new lieutenant’s typical first job. But weapons platoon is different. Its forty-five Marines are divided into sections for machine guns, assault rockets, and mortars, the bulk of the company’s firepower. Since employing the weapons platoon is complex, its commander is usually a senior first lieutenant who’s already led a rifle platoon. Captain Whitmer asked if I was comfortable taking weapons on my first day in the Fleet.
“Yes, sir. Absolutely.” In fact, absolutely not.
Whitmer nodded with a smile that said he understood my reservation but expected me to figure it out. “Go ahead and get settled. The company’s in the field until this afternoon.” Standing to shake my hand, Whitmer said, “I do things a bit differently, as you’ll see.”
Bravo Company’s four platoons shared an office down the hall from Captain Whitmer’s. Lockers filled with tactics manuals and gym clothes lined the walls, and Marine posters covered the empty spaces between lockers. The smell reminded me of my high school football coach’s office — rancid sweat, stale coffee, and disinfectant. Eight desks were pushed together to make an island in the center, one each for the four platoon commanders and platoon sergeants. I carried my gear from the supply warehouse and piled it in an empty locker. Then I grabbed a manual about weapons platoon from a shelf near the door and sat down to read.
IOC primarily trained rifle platoon commanders. Weapons platoons, unlike their rifle counterparts, don’t fight as units under a single commander. The machine gun and assault sections frequently beef up the rifle platoons to augment their firepower. The mortar section provides mortar fire for the whole company, usually controlled by the company commander and the rifle platoon commanders. With all his Marines working for other people, the weapons platoon commander serves as the company’s fire support coordinator. This means controlling artillery, air strikes, and bombardment from naval ships — complicated missions I had never practiced; missions that would kill many people if I screwed them up. I had a lot to learn and little time to do it.
When Bravo Company hiked onto the parade deck that afternoon, I went outside to watch. I hoped to catch a glimpse of my platoon, but the Marines were indistinguishable in two long lines of dusty green. A lieutenant smeared with camouflage paint separated from the mass of troops and walked toward me. He stooped beneath body armor and a vest festooned with smoke grenades, flares, a knife, and canteens. His rucksack stuck out on both sides of his body, and a whip antenna swayed above his head.
“You must be the new weapons guy,” he said as he lumbered right past me. Without stopping, he added, “I’m Patrick English, First Platoon commander. Come into the office. I have to drop this gear.”
Inside, Patrick’s ruck thudded onto the floor, and he shrugged out of his web gear. Sweat soaked the uniform beneath. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to be rude.” He stuck out his hand. “Welcome to Bravo Company.” Patrick cracked open a Gatorade bottle and sat on one of the desks. He was a New Yorker, sharp-featured with close-cropped hair. Patrick had played lacrosse at Holy Cross and worked in the district attorney’s office in Manhattan before starting OCS.
It seemed as if we should be talking about work, but I barely even knew the right questions. “So what’s coming up on the calendar?” I asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
He replied that the company would spend the next four months on conventional infantry skills such as shooting and patrolling. Then in February, the battalion would be attached to the Fifteenth Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) as its ground combat element. A MEU (SOC), I knew from TBS, is a seaborne task force of two thousand Marines built around an infantry battalion and a helicopter squadron. At any given time, one is deployed from the West Coast and one from the East Coast. We would hone our MEU skills for six months, mostly raids in the boats. Then in August 2001, the Fifteenth MEU would sail from San Diego to cruise the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf for six months, training with foreign forces and acting as first responders in case of a crisis.
Every few minutes, Marines came into the office to update Patrick on the count of his platoon’s weapons, the status of missing equipment, or the progress of paperwork for people’s promotions and other training exercises. He bantered with me and gave them instructions without even pausing. I was surprised to learn he’d been at 1/1 for only two months.
He talked fast, describing the battalion and its key personalities, and starting with what I most wanted to hear: “Captain Whitmer’s fucking solid — best CO in the battalion.” He then assured me that “the LPA gets together for beer and tacos every Thursday night up near San Juan Capistrano.” I knew about this venerable tradition: every unit has an informal Lieutenants’ Protective Association. “Some guys,” Patrick confided, referring to the battalion’s other platoon commanders, “have to lean on each other since they have weak platoon sergeants. I don’t have that problem, and you won’t either.”
Every young lieutenant remembers meeting his platoon sergeant. The relationship between a fresh officer and his salty second-in-command is almost as mythic as boot camp. Patrick and I were still talking when Staff Sergeant Keith Marine walked into the office. The first thing I noticed about him were his ears, sticking out from his regulation haircut like fins on a fish. The second thing I noticed was his remarkable name. I didn’t comment on it, figuring he’d heard too much already on that score.
Marine quickly dispelled any mythic overtones our first encounter might have had: “Sir, you’re sitting in my chair.” He insisted we go out for coffee — “it’s a tradition for officers to buy” — to talk about tactics and training plans for the platoon. We traded autobiographies on the walk across the parade deck to the chow hall.
Staff Sergeant Marine had grown up in the coal country of West Virginia. Even without his name, Marine’s background seemed to destine him for the Corps. His grandfather had served as a Marine in the bloody campaigns of Bougainville, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. His grandfather’s brother had been killed at Leyte Gulf, where my grandfather had fought. Marine had already served ten years in the infantry. Before that, he had been stalking deer with a rifle while I had been playing with blocks. He had spent the last year working for the gunner, the battalion’s weapons expert, and knew every detail of every infantry weapon in most of the world’s militaries.
“So,” I asked, “how do you think the M-16 stacks up?” Most Marine grunts carry M-16s. The Corps instills in a young Marine an intense, almost obsessive attachment to his rifle.
“I don’t know what dickhead designed the M-16, but it shoots a varmint round. You don’t want a fucking squirrel gun in your hands in a firefight.”
I paid for our coffee, and we slid into a booth near the window. Marine took a can of Copenhagen tobacco from his pocket and snapped it between his thumb and forefinger. After cramming a wad inside his lower lip, he offered the can to me. “Dip, sir?”
“I won’t hold it against you.” Marine sounded as if it was a major concession. “At least you’re drinking coffee. Your illustrious predecessor didn’t even do that. He was a shitbird.” Marine paused, lost in thought, and shook his head. “The road to hell is paved with the bleached bones of second lieutenants who didn’t listen to their staff NCOs. The one before him got shot in a porta-shitter out at the rifle range. So at least you got small boots to fill.”
Sipping my coffee, I asked Marine to tell me about the platoon. I expected a continuation of his earlier sarcasm, but he turned serious. Instead of talking about the Marines’ performance, he focused on their personalities, families, and interests.
“You gotta care about ’em for real, sir. If the Marines trust you, you can order ’em to yank Satan off his throne by the balls. Almost anybody can do this job. You want to make the Marines care enough to do it well.”
I sat quietly, happy to listen as long as Marine cared to talk. He must have sensed it because he paused, sizing me up, and asked bluntly how I saw my role in the platoon. For a second, I was taken aback. I hadn’t expected a quiz on my command technique, and I certainly wouldn’t have asked the same question of Captain Whitmer earlier. But his directness impressed me. I thought for a moment and told Marine I didn’t want to roll in like the new sheriff in town, changing the rules before I knew how things worked. I told him I tended to give people the benefit of the doubt and then nail them to the wall if they took advantage of me. Without using Captain Novack’s words, I tried to promise him competence, courage, consistency, and compassion.
In return, I expected that Marine would back me up in front of the troops. We would disagree behind closed doors. He nodded. Marine was a new staff noncommissioned officer (NCO), but I sensed from the start that he was of the old school and knew that seasoning me was a primary, if unspoken, part of his job. As if to affirm this, Marine told me about Chris Hadsall, his platoon commander in 1/1’s Charlie Company two years before. Hadsall had apparently become the yardstick by which he judged officers. “We’ll get you up to speed like Lieutenant Hadsall in no time, sir,” he assured me.
By the time we’d finished our third cup of coffee, Marine and I had staked out our respective roles in the platoon. My greatest fear had been clashing with a platoon sergeant I didn’t like or couldn’t trust. But I liked Marine, and I trusted him instinctively. Most platoon sergeants, I suspected, feared an overeager and domineering young lieutenant. I pledged to be neither. On our way to the door, Marine said the words I’d been waiting to hear since OCS: “Time for you to meet the platoon.”
I thought I’d be nervous. The new lieutenant meeting his first command was supposed to be like first love or losing your virginity. Staff Sergeant Marine called the platoon from the armory, where they were cleaning weapons after the field exercise. I watched them walking in groups of two or three across the parade deck, hands blackened with carbon, wearing green T-shirts and camouflage trousers. This was my platoon. I would train them, deploy with them, and maybe even go to war with them. Their performance would directly reflect my leadership. I wasn’t nervous at all.
The forty-five Marines fell into a formation of three ranks, one for each section. They were so young. Half of them looked under twenty. I was only twenty-three, but that small gap cast me in the role of coach or big brother. So the authority came naturally. Staff Sergeant Marine stood six paces from the center of the front rank. He took reports from each of the section leaders and about-faced toward me.
He saluted and called out, “Good afternoon, sir. Weapons platoon, all present.”
I stood at attention in front of him and returned his salute. Marine stepped off smartly, leaving me alone in front of the men.
The last thing they needed was a Pattonesque monologue from a newborn lieutenant, so I introduced myself and said I was happy to be the newest member of the platoon. I told them I wanted to meet with each man individually over the coming week and asked if they had any questions for me. There were none. Staff Sergeant Marine dismissed them, and they headed back to the armory. I thought I heard approval in his voice as we walked back to the office. “No bullshit, sir. Marines appreciate that.”
The next ten months were a graduate seminar in infantry tactics, our last chance to learn before doing it for real. Captain Whitmer was the professor, and his style was unlike anything I’d seen at Quantico. Many of my buddies in 1/1’s other companies complained that their commanders kept a thumb on them. They shunned boldness for fear of making an attention-grabbing mistake. The prevailing culture of 1/1, at least among the officers and senior NCOs, was careerist: laugh at the colonel’s jokes, don’t get anyone hurt, and stay under the radar.
Not Captain Whitmer. The standard Marine Corps brief before live-fire training began with the words “Safety is paramount.”
“If safety were paramount,” Whitmer declared, “we’d stay in the barracks and play pickup basketball. Good training is paramount.” Whitmer’s idea of good training reminded me of something I’d read about the Roman legions — their exercises were bloodless battles so that their battles were bloody exercises.
He drove the point home one night on a windy ridge above the Pacific. The battalion’s three rifle companies were moving independently toward a cinderblock town. Our mission was to link up near the town no later than 0100 and capture it for follow-on forces to use as a staging base. A reconnaissance team was observing the town, and the battalion’s plan of attack kept changing as the team updated its reports on how the defenders were set up.
Bravo Company had come ashore from a Navy ship a couple of hours before. We stumbled along a ridgeline in thick mist, still a mile away from where the battalion planned to link up. Wind blew the fog in whorls and eddies across the trail and down into the darkness that fell away to either side. Behind me, machine gunners and mortarmen carried their heavy weapons as quietly as they could, stifling the grunts and groans and clanking metal. Every few minutes, Captain Whitmer passed the battalion’s updates over the radio to his platoon commanders. I cursed in the dark, trying simultaneously to navigate, keep track of the changing plan, and inform my section leaders of the updates as we pressed closer to the linkup point. Staff Sergeant Marine must have walked twice as far as the rest of us, moving back and forth through the column to pass word and keep tabs on the Marines. The platoon rolled with the changes. No complaints. No hesitation. We arrived at 0045, exhausted and disoriented, but on time for the attack. The other companies reported over the radio that they were still an hour away.
Whitmer’s lieutenants converged on him while we waited. He circled us close, soaked and shivering, and pointed out the night’s lesson. “The other company commanders stopped moving each time a change came over the radio. They called their platoon commanders in and showed them the new plan on their map. Now look — they’re fucking late.” He paused, and I looked at Patrick, seeing the lesson crystallizing in his mind as it was in mine.
“You guys were probably cursing me for briefing changes on the fly.” We nodded in confession. “But I did it because you have to learn to operate that way. Any one of you,” he whispered with emphasis, pointing at each of us, “is one bullet away from commanding this company. You need to learn it here, not in Iran or Somalia or wherever.”
I looked at my watch and saw that the other companies were still more than half an hour away. Captain Whitmer must have done the same, because he followed up with a question: “So what should we do now?” He wasn’t looking for advice; he wanted to critique our decision making.
“We should attack, sir.” I said it with a confidence I didn’t feel. “We have a whole company here. Recon reports only about a dozen guys in the town. The battalion set its timeline for a reason.”
Captain Whitmer replied that we, as infantry officers, had been trained to be aggressive. Nods all around. “But there’s a fine line between aggressive and foolish.” Good commanders, he explained, could operate right at that line, without crossing it. We had to know the difference between a risk and a gamble. All commanders take risks. They are calculated decisions to make gains in a dangerous environment. Gambles are pure chance — closing your eyes and running the gauntlet. “Attacking that town right now, Lieutenant Fick,” he said with renewed intensity, “would be a gamble. Don’t ever be in a hurry to get your Marines killed.”
When the other companies arrived, the battalion attacked the town and secured it. I watched proudly as my platoon moved confidently through our sector of cinderblock buildings. They were having fun. With the overwhelming force of three companies, we suffered no casualties, and the slight delay to the battalion’s timeline didn’t matter. I felt chastened.
We took a more direct route back to the boats, eager to be far from the beach before daylight. The moon was a fuzzy spot behind the clouds, and the wind had picked up, flecking spray through the air and blasting us with sand. Waves thundered onto the beach in sets of three. The company’s coxswains had remained behind with the boats. They had them near the water’s edge when we arrived, ready to launch.
Staff Sergeant Marine and I knelt together in the sand, struggling into our wetsuits. I noticed that his was twice as thick as mine. “Why the polar bear suit, Staff Sergeant?”
He looked smug and replied, “I been in boat company before, sir.”
I looked out at the wind-whipped ocean. “I’m gonna freeze my tits off tonight, aren’t I?”
“Just remember that there are two kinds of people in the world,” Marine said sagely. “Those who piss in their wetsuits and those who lie about it.”
After we got dressed, Marine ran from boat to boat, counting the troops and making sure weapons were tied to the aluminum deck plates. He gave me a thumbs-up. The platoon was on its game.
My six-man boat crew dragged its Zodiac into chest-deep water, holding the ropes that ran along the gunwale tubes. My breath caught in my throat. Each surging wave raised the water to my neck. I floated off my feet, struggling to keep the boat’s bow pointed into the breakers. It would broach if it turned sideways, dumping our gear into the water and forcing us back to the beach to try again.
The coxswain clambered aboard and started the engine, yelling, “All in!” We struggled up over the sides and fell into the bottom of the boat in a tangle of legs and rifles. “Get some weight in the bow,” he shouted. Ahead, a line of white, five feet above eye level, raced from the darkness — the foaming crest of a wave. The coxswain opened the throttle, and we streaked toward the wave. We climbed its base and teetered at the top. I tried to will our center of gravity over onto the back side of the wall of water threatening to throw us up onto the sand.
The engine shrieked as the propeller broke out of the water. Then our bow settled, and we were through. Surf passage complete. We steered for the bobbing shapes of the company’s other boats, and I took my radio from its waterproof bag.
“Pale Rider, Pale Rider, this is Oden. Touchdown. I say again, touchdown.” “Touchdown” was our code word to the ship for “mission complete.” Had something gone wrong, we would have said “foul ball.”
“Pale Rider copies touchdown. Be advised we’re tossing pretty hard out here. May be unable to recover you aboard. Do you have fuel for alternate extract?”
The waves had grown over the course of the night, and the ship’s crew doubted that they could pick us up safely. Alternate extract meant a long, cold, punishing ride down the coast to the Del Mar Boat Basin at Camp Pendleton. My wool watch cap, soaked with salt water, kept slipping over my eyes. I pushed it back to look at Captain Whitmer.
He squinted through the blowing spray. I imagined him hearing the siren song of warmth and rest for his troops on the ship and the satisfaction of running a mission as briefed. But this was training, and Captain Whitmer would do whatever challenged the company most, forcing it to improvise, adapt, and overcome.
“Run the alternate,” he ordered.
The trip took two hours. Icy spray stung my exposed skin like needles as we crashed down the waves. In every trough, I thought we were about to be swamped by the next roller. Headlights crawled along I-5 to our left. I imagined the drivers on their early commutes, warm, listening to the radio, sipping coffee. In the bow of the boat, one Marine slipped into hypothermia. He stopped shivering, and his lips turned pale with bluish edges. We wrapped around him to share body heat and shelter him from the frigid spray. Through it all, Captain Whitmer sat on the gunwale tube. He betrayed no discomfort, no concern, no rush to get back.
When we pulled into Del Mar shortly after sunrise, I confronted Whitmer; his rationale was still unclear to me. “Sir, why didn’t you at least try to get aboard the ship? Why make the Marines suffer? We’ll never use these boats anyway.”
Captain Whitmer looked at me for a long moment, as if surprised I didn’t get it. “Nate, it’s not about the gear. Not even about the mission. It’s about the people.” He looked around at the Marines, now laughing and cleaning the boats in the morning sunlight. “When this company suffers, we’re not wasting time or abusing anyone. The Marines are learning to hang together when things get bad, and that’ll come back to us in spades. If there’s ever a real mission for this battalion, Bravo will get the call, and we’ll be ready.”
Shortly before we deployed, I arrived at the office one morning to find Jim Beal, my friend from Quantico, sitting at my desk. We hadn’t seen each other since TBS graduation. I dropped my duffel bag and grabbed his hand. Jim explained that he’d been sent to 1/1 as an artillery forward observer, or arty FO. This man works hand in hand with the weapons platoon commander in a MEU to run the company’s fire support. I couldn’t believe my good luck and asked Jim how he’d ended up in Bravo Company.
“I asked which weapons platoon commander was the most fucked-up, and they sent me to you.”
“Whatever. They probably match the shitbird FO with the shit-hot platoon commander.”
My happiness was short-lived. A note on my desk announced that a senior gunnery sergeant would be joining the platoon later in the week. I knew what that meant. I would have to demote Staff Sergeant Marine from platoon sergeant to leader of the mortar section. I stormed into Captain Whitmer’s office, but he could only shake his head. Out of his control. I tried the first sergeant, responsible for personnel changes in the company. Same reaction. The bureaucracy had deemed Bravo short one gunny and that was that. These more experienced Marines knew better than to waste too much time and emotion fighting the machine.
It hurt. Why mess with a good platoon just before it deployed? Why did the platoon commander, and even the company commander, have no say in the matter? Marine and I had bonded. We worked well together. When I called him into the office to break the news, I was ready for a fight.
But I should have known better. Staff Sergeant Marine ended up consoling me, saying that the new gunny was a good Marine and that he would enjoy working with mortars, even if they had a low CDI factor.
I took the bait. “What’s CDI?”
“Chicks dig it, sir. Football team: high CDI. Chess club: low CDI. Platoon sergeant: high CDI. Mortar section: low CDI. Doesn’t matter that mortars have all the firepower. Life’s unfair. Didn’t they teach you that in college?”