I joined the Marine Corps right out of high school. That was in 2009 and looking back, it was the best choice available that I had at the time. I don’t regret my decision as well as continuing my service with another contract, taking me up to a grand total of 9 months and 26 days. I matured a lot in those years and learned a great deal about life that I wouldn’t have been exposed to if I had stayed in my quaint and quiet hometown in Eastern Idaho. Towards the end however, as I was starting to consider if I should stay until retirement or transition back to civilian life, my knowledge and experience I obtained made me aware of issues that solidified my decision to get out…
My last couple of years of active duty were eventful to say the least. I separated from my wife and daughter, divorce pending, dug myself into a hole of depression and anxiety to the point where I collapsed from the sheer volume of everything going on, all while trying to juggle my personal life with ever-increasing responsibilities at work in an environment where the majority were content with doing just the bare minimum in order to save face. Due to stipulations in my contract, there was a period of time where I was uncertain if my tenure would be forced out to 13 years, a criteria which I might as well stay the remaining 7 years to retire, or if my contract would end at 9. At the time, my preference was to get out so that I could be closer to my daughter and family, but if the government basically made me stay past 10 years, then I might as well bunker down and stay until retirement.
There were other factors involved that made me seriously consider getting out when I did. I was never one of those content with just sitting around, struggling to be good at being average. If I had made my mind up on staying in the military, no doubt I could have continued to do so up until retirement, being a cornerstone of any unit that I might have been stationed at and sought after for my knowledge and experience. I know I might ruffle some feathers of my fellow servicemen by saying this, but the Marine Corps I left is no longer the same Marine Corps I joined. Whether that be due to changing time, generational differences, or the draw-down of operations in the Middle East is a matter of varying opinion depending on who you ask. I personally think its a mix of all of the above.
I’ve never been a war-monger by any means, but when I first joined out of high school, the U.S. was at the height of its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Having deployed to Afghanistan, I can say first hand that the U.S. presence there has made a notable difference. There is still much improving to be done still, but you can’t change a culture based on revenge and honor-killings in a decade. Although the War on Terrorism hasn’t officially ended yet, the fervor for it has noticeably decreased since 9/11 to the point where everyone around the world is wondering why are will still there? That’s another subject in itself entirely, but with that decreasing fervor, the climate within the active-duty Marine Corps has suffered as well, leading to other internal issues as leaders attempt to rebalance and adapt in the face of an uncertain future. Added with this turmoil, generational differences ranging from Gulf War Veterans to entitled Net-Gens are sewing in-group/out-group biases among the varying ranks, setting the stage for what I think is one of the most turbulent times for not just the Marine Corps, but the U.S. military as a whole. I can only speak on behalf of what I’ve personally witness, but these dynamics are not unique just to the Marines.
Even with a short 9 years of active service was plenty of time to take note of the systemic impacts of these changes. As I was preparing to get out, I perceived an organization plagued by outdated mentalities with a fearful refusal to be honest with itself. The refusal to be honest could have been due to a deeply engrained sense of ego, ignorant leadership, or just incapable people holed in key positions throughout the operating forces. A lot of this has to do with human nature, as even church congregations are no better than their worst sinner. The Marine Corps in the truest sense of its nature, is above these human issues and over time will eventually rebalance itself. However, it is my honest belief that it is being greatly hindered by the quality of personnel it retains and the types of ineffective leaders placed in command positions so that they can further their own political careers. These very same people are supposed to be ensuring the integrity of their institutional core values, but they undermine themselves in the face of their subordinates by making emotionally-based decisions which carries on to inconsistencies in policies and orders that wreak havoc on those attempting to execute the mission. Don’t get me wrong though, there are still good people climbing through the ranks that are pulling their hair out trying to save the sinking ship and I have no doubt that they will succeed, but there success will undoubtedly have high costs during the span of their careers. During my time in the Marine Corps, I have met some of the best and most enlightened people that I may ever know. At the same time, I have also met some of the worst and most detestable people on the face of this earth. Sadly, due to personal misconceptions and misunderstandings between these types of people, the bad appears to be greatly outweighing the good.
During my time in, I’d like to consider myself as having been one of the good people. I struggled daily in order to influence change in the right direction, making things better not only for me, but also for my subordinates. As I pursued this agenda, I lost track of the number of times where I was reigned back or scolded due to “not playing the game” or “being too soft” by treating others, regardless of rank, as actual human beings. I also emphasized efficiency over formalities which caused other frustrations as the instances surfaced, which forced me into a highly scrutinized work environment, just waiting for me to make a mistake big enough that they could burn me at the stake in order to be made an example of. At the same time, whenever I enabled my section to achieve efficient and effective results, the same personalities would step in to take the credit as they would never have been able to have done it themselves. A very two-faced environment…
The two-faced dynamics that frequently occurred the higher in rank I rose, I believe stem from reverse-ageism. My own situation placed me in a rather unique situation, where I was caught in the middle between the old-timers that were able to smell that pension coming to their doorstep and those fresh out of boot camp thinking that they’re full-fledged adults. I also had a peculiar upbringing of my own, which has shaped my mindset to where I’m very open-minded and have an easy time communicated with both the young and old. A funny way I discovered to help convey just where I’m at is that “I’m a millennial raised by baby-boomers to be a generation-x.”
I’ve always found myself in the middle-ground of rising issues and often called to or forced to play as mediator. Every time though, the situations that I would be mediating were often caused because of a biased mindset from both sides due to disparities in age. More often than not, with age comes experience but that doesn’t mean that that experience is always reliable or that they already possess the same experiences as someone younger. Where this applies to the military is that those of senior rank, even to me, are often rigid in their mentalities that they are so experienced that they have nothing to learn from those subordinate to them. Factor in ego to this, and that’s where you usually have those very loud one-sided conversations between a higher-up and a subordinate that you see go around on social media or YouTube every now and then…
I have always been aware that the military is based on structure, formalities, and traditions. Its these things that keep the institution together, gives it its identity, and helps foster the climate of preparing for battles. A major flaw that I have seen however, is that in carrying on with these aspects, it seems that the individual interpretations of them have overwritten the basic tenants of just being a decent human being. Now I’m not saying that the military or the Marine Corps has become too hard on individuals or that there isn’t the need to choke-slam someone against a wall and scream at them until they have nightmares for royally screwing up. Such is the nature of the military: they fight and win battles. Wars are fought with bullets flying all around, explosives going off, confusion going on, yelling, shouting, screaming… You have to develop a bit of a thick skin in order to grow a tolerance for that kind of environment as its rarely personal, its just that lives could be on the line.
In my mind, training for or being in battle doesn’t provide the excuse to treat one’s subordinates as cannon-fodder or to fluff one’s ego up so much that their shit doesn’t stink. This ties into differing levels of experience as well because when its mixed with ego, the conditions for hostile working environments are set. Unhealthy rivalries occur within the workplace amongst peers or a hostile command climate develops because everyone is viewed as their rank first and not a human being. The longer these malignant dynamics are allowed to fester, the less respect and actual leadership power an individual or section will have.
So, a little lengthy this time around as I’m getting back to the whole writing thing again, but I feel that this encompasses a lot of my frustrations as well as the things that I attempted to influence or change for the better. Ultimately though, things came to a breaking point where I could no longer sacrifice my own welfare and personal life as I worked to put the pieces of a broken institution back together. I have no doubt that these situations aren’t a new thing for the Corps and likely won’t be the last. The funny thing is though, it has always managed to come together and unite during times of crisis or need.
For all of those whom I served with, change takes time. Be the change you want to see.