A Discussion of NCO Leadership and Political Correctness over a Drink at the Club

The following was published in the July 2006 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette. It was written in response to two excellent articles appearing in the April issue. The section bracketed and in italics was not printed.

Kudos to Colonel Curcio and Gunnery Sergeant Skubinna, whose essays in the April 2006 Gazette both speak to the heart of leadership in the Marine Corps today. The Colonel's piece is a brilliant insight into the character of our young leaders as well as wise recognition of those things we could do better to mold the superb clay we are given. Gunny Skubinna boldly speaks in exactly the manner he advocates, "blunt and to the point," against the evils of "political correctness" and the risk aversion demonstrated by superfluous documentation intended to prove that our leaders have done their jobs.

As the Gunny says, "To think that a commander should carefully choose his words so as not to offend anyone is regrettable." Candor among our leaders has always been a hallmark of our Corps... one of the reasons we are respected and loved by the American people. We Marines don't lie, sugarcoat the truth or bend the facts to our whim. If we say it, we believe it to be so. For this reason, the Marine Corps attracts decisive men and women who are firm in their beliefs, prepared to take direct action to defend them, and are not averse to risk in a worthy cause. Too much care in selecting our words may indicate excessive caution in choosing our actions.

Another issue the Gunny addresses is the demand for pointless documentation of our every act and decision. This is no more than institutionalized micromanagement, and leaders covering their six. The fact that accidents may have decreased since the institution of ORM begs the questions: Have we all suddenly developed some greater awareness of the leadership traits that we always held dear? Or do some leaders avoid training that might carry risk? We must recognize that we are in a hazardous line of work, and to perform it at the highest level some of our training will carry an element of danger.

We learn by doing. In order for them to learn, however, we must permit our junior leaders to fail.

There are also two items in Col. Curcio's outstanding article it that I would like to expand upon and that I think fit well with Gunny Skubinna's points. First, he speaks of giving greater responsibility to junior NCOs and permitting them to make decisions. This is crucial. We learn by doing. In order for them to learn, however, we must permit our junior leaders to fail. Our most enduring lessons are taught by our mistakes. For all our sincere words denying that we subscribe to the "No Defects" mentality, we don't mean it. Our actions speak louder than our words. Bold leaders of all ranks know that they risk their careers each time they take their Marines to a live fire range or demolitions shoot. The not-so-bold don't go. To the Gunny's comments on ORM, the principal effect of that program is to require additional meaningless paperwork for those willing to conduct meaningful training while encouraging the timid to do something else.

The second of the Colonel's points that I believe deserves further discussion is his wise view that junior NCOs ought to receive some visible perks that recognize and institutionalize their rise to a new status.

When I was promoted to Corporal in 1966, a whole new world opened to me. In those days a Lance Corporal had to check his liberty card in and out from the Duty NCO; an NCO carried his at all times, and was trusted to be at his appointed place of duty. NCOs ate in a different mess hall and usually received better billeting.

And most notable to this new Corporal was the Cherry Point NCO Club. On the day I was promoted, the other NCOs I knew took me there for an excellent steak lunch. It was an initiation; a welcome. It was clear that my status had changed. I was a Non-Commissioned Officer.

On Friday nights I would go to the NCO club with my NCO friends. This was a significant step up…a place young leaders of Marines could take their wives or their dates for a good dinner, drinks and dancing to a decent band. Admission was a visible sign to us, and to our guests, of our new status. Much more was expected of us but a bit more was given.

[To the best of my knowledge, there is not an NCO club anywhere in the Marine Corps today, victims of the overall decline in the Club system. That decline is a symptom of our "politically correct" aversion to risk, our creeping loss of identity as a unique culture, and our blindness to the value of granting visible status commensurate with the achievements of our junior leaders.

I think most Marines will recognize that the reason the clubs are no longer well patronized is that our senior leadership has determined that they must stamp out the evils of drink. Create a "zero tolerance" policy. Establish the threshold for "under the influence" at half the level most states deem legal. Threaten that even minor infractions, if they are "alcohol related" will sidetrack an otherwise promising career. These actions, similar to ORM, do no real good, but present the appearance that we are taking care of our Marines. In point of fact, we are doing just the opposite.

We don't discourage drinking...we only discourage it aboard the base. Our Marines simply get in their cars and go to town. Outside the gate, beyond the purview of the Marine Corps, our young Marines drink just as much as they always did, but in a non-military environment. Privates, NCOs and Officers may find themselves at the same bar. Predatory civilians take advantage of our inexperienced young Marines. Drugs are easily available. And, of course they are driving more, not less. The unintended consequences of our well-meaning effort to protect our Marines are that we expose them to greater risk, create fertile ground for inappropriate fraternization, and lose an opportunity to reinforce our unique culture.

The former structure of the Clubs assured that all Marines had a place to relax with others of their rank in a military environment. Segregation, by rank ensured that juniors whose judgment was temporarily impaired did not have the occasion to confront a senior. Senior Marines could relax among their peers, without the necessity of maintaining a "command presence" every minute. Certainly, there were occasional fights and other problems common to young Marines spreading their wings, drinking too much and thinking they could lick the world (not such a bad mindset for a young warrior). However, what trouble there was, occurred on the base, within the protective embrace of our Marine Corps family. Fellow Marines were usually able to avert issues before they grew into "incidents." When punishment was necessary, it was meted out without the glare of coverage on the six o'clock news.

We are people of action, and these things do not become us.

The decline of the club system which is a symptom of the greater issues of political correctness and risk aversion bodes ill for our Corps. We are people of action, and these things do not become us. Instead of counterproductive attempts to stamp out the "demon rum" let us return to an environment in which we have greater control over our Marines when they do drink. And let us provide a place for our NCOs that is theirs to enjoy with each other and with their families.]

Our NCOs have always been and still are backbone of our Corps. We must treat them as such. Being a Corporal in the Marine Corps has always meant much more than being an E-4 in any other branch. Let us mentor them without micromanaging them, and without imposing meaningless administrative burdens. Let us trust them to lead our Marines as well as they have for generations with the awareness that they will make mistakes as they grow. And let us offer them appropriate prerogatives in recognition of their service and as an incentive to others.