Pull up the chair, I’ll shimmy over a bit. Java is hot and strong, perfect for this kinda conversational topic. Bear with me, I’ve been trying to find ways to talk about leadership the get to the core of the issue. So this is round about, but we’ve got time…plus, I need to do honor to a resting warrior.
You know, a feller I knew back in the day just passed away. Truly a “Marine of Marines”, I really liked and respected him. Everyone did. Even the slackasses respected him. I don’t know if my memory is correct, but it seems to me he was what we called a “Mustang” in the Corps. A “Mustang” is usually a warrant officer or lower ranking officer that has come up through the ranks. That means they started out as Privates, they know how to work for a living. Usually older than the other officers in that rank, a mustang is often marked with experience and has a toughness about them that reminds you of the stories we were told in boot camp about famous Marines of old. If I’m remembering right, the Colonel was just a young pup when he went into the Corps as an 0311 (Marine Rifleman). Of course, he was sent to Vietnam and did his time there and I’m sure it shaped his character. He was one of a few senior Marines that really shaped and molded me. Another was one of the Staff Sgt’s over me, but that’s a story for another time. People think you are the way you are because you went to Marine Boot Camp. That’s true in a way, the part of me that is psychoctic…
Just like in the fire service, the academy or boot camp serves to shape you into a “moldable” or teachable, functioning member. Its not the end of the line though. And this is where we often fail in our efforts to train up the next generation. Failure on the line itself. You receive the new product from the factory, the new recruit, the boot. He or she is ready and willing, motivated, primed and set. “Locked and Cocked” we used to say. But then they reach the fleet or in fire service lingo, the line. Things happen like, “Oh, I see you’re assinged to ‘that house’ or ‘those’ guys or ‘that shift’, you know…you feel sorry for them. You can’t say things like, “Well, I was hoping you’d work out to be a good Jake, but at that house you’ll only be trained to sit on your ass!” Well that’s where old dogs like the Colonel come in.
The Colonel (or Major when I knew him) was one of our finest pilots. We flew the dilapidated and venerable old Corps favorite, the A-4M Skyhawk. Lovingly known as the “Hot Rod”, its glory days were long gone when I met the Colonel. He was a Master Aviator of the Old Corps. No perambulator, the Skyhawk was flown old style, cable and hydraulic assist, no wires. Its sounded like a dragon and could turn on a dime, but took a quality pilot to stay alive in it. The Skyhawk and the Colonel held our respect, always. The Colonel was there through my entire enlistment and had it not been for him, I might not have made it the entire way through. He saved my keester when it was due a good thrashin’ and made it clear that had I not been involved in the shenanigans that had occurred, he would have finally bagged some slackasses that he had been plottin’ on for some time, “but no, you had to get mixed up in it, and now I have to save your neck and let EVERYONE GO!” (I’ll tell that story another time).
The Colonel’s name was Charles Dockery. I had no idea what his first name was when I served under him, but his radio call sign was “Buzzard” and mind you, he looked the part. He had that wrinkled up face look that some jarheads get, with the lower jaw that resembles a bulldog and makes you flinch when he got to close. He was the kind of Marine you think of when you hear the name “Leatherneck”. One glance at you and you figured rounds were comin’ down range in your general direction.
Here’s what I’m aimin’ at. The Colonel was always there, standing on point. Always. At the time I knew him, he was the maintenance officer and held the rank of Major. The Squadron leader could be drunk and laid out, the XO could be lost over the Pacific, but the Maintenance Officer had to be there, had to be ridin’ herd on us maintenance crews. We had to have 22 aircraft maintained and ready to fly around the clock. Our birds flew all the time. Maintenance crews were exhausted on a frequent basis and it wasn’t like there was anyone to take over. We flew night and day and the pilots broke those birds, night and day so we fixed them night and day. Needless to say, morale and enthusiasm often waned.
The Squadron was like most of its kind back then. The Marine Corps was struggling to recover from Vietnam. Most of the pilots were young and freshly made. Most of the old NCO’s were Vietnam vets. They were all great guys. Many, not all, but just enough were tired and worn out. Leadership had lost its glamour for many of these men and so had the Corps. They were fillin’ time. We have these same guys in the fire service. Just collecting their due. You didn’t ask too much of them. Young men like myself easily grew discouraged with such conditions. Not having the experience in life to understand, it often seemed that everything the Corps had taught us about integrity, honor and fortitude was a lie. Shadows of a former self.
I think its like that in a lot of firehouses. The new recruit shows up, things are not as glamorous as expected and firemen are not as noble as many are led to believe. What the academy teaches is critical. It’s an ideal, something we are aiming at as a collective group. The good instructor knows this, but it is not easy to motivate recruits by saying things like, “You will probably spend most of your time putting band-aids on people who make whining a modern art.” We teach to the standard, even though we know it isn’t always that way on the line. We’re trying to push it there by investing ourselves in the new generation. I understand those tired old sergeants and old firemen a lot better now and can even emphathise with them, but I refuse to excuse the attitude. Not when lives are at stake.
The Colonel was the type of Marine that understood that. He was devoted to his job, knew his job, loved his job and expected at the very least, that we too would know our jobs and perform with equal effort. Lives were at risk every time a plane took off and if we didn’t do a quality job, pilots would die. He kept us at our mark.
When the Colonel passed away, I began to reflect on these things, and I asked myself how he did this. He wasn’t the kind of bully to go around nit pickin’ all our faults. In fact, we rarely heard much at all out of him. But he himself was always squared away. He held himself with a bearing that did credit to all officers of the Marine Corps and he was very thorough at what he did. I never heard him bad mouth the Corps or grumble about life in the service and when he handed us our asses in a sling, he did it in a way that made us grateful for the chewing, knowing we would just be glad to have a pulse afterward.
There was almost an attitude about him that said, “I can’t control everything, but, By God, I can control this flight line and it is going to be the best flight line in the Corps!” Just stand by if you didn’t agree with him on that. He took pride in what we were, in spite of short comings. He believed in our ability to get impossible things done, in spite of our lack of manpower, outdated equipment and parts. He displayed integrity and honor; he fought for us, even when we didn’t deserve it. I was just grateful then, now I wonder what it cost him to do that.
The Colonel didn’t seem to care what other officers thought about him or about what he did. He had integrity and fortitude unlike the common man. What mattered was the mission and therefore the Corps. What mattered was us, because we were the mission. Skyhawks didn’t fly if we didn’t fix’em. Simple as that. He drove us hard, but treated us like his very own. He was the whom we wanted to gain respect from. The Colonel could keep us accountable, because he was accountable to the standard himself, first.
What kind of leader are you?
Do you lead with integrity? Do you lead with honor? Do you lead from the front? Are you the core, the center of your firehouse? Do you come to the job everyday with at least your basics covered, in spite of what might ail your soul? The younger generation hears what is said in the academy, in the textbooks, the mantra we preach. Do you take responsibility for that in your own career? When you are retired and gone, will they sit around the firehouse and tell fond stories about the day you helped them understand what this job is really all about? Will they remember that you taught them how to hold fast, to aim for the mission regardless of what other people thought or said. Will they remember that you put the mission first, therefore, their welfare was of the utmost importance to you. Do you hold yourself accountable first, so that you can turn to your people and expect the best they have to give?
Good cup o’ Joe…Sempfer Fi, Colonel. Guard the streets well, I know you will. I will always remember your impact upon me.