Gunny's Corner: Best Dogs in a Fight

In the summer of 2004, I deployed to Camp Fallujah, Iraq as a newly promoted Marine staff sergeant. The environment was active, challenging, and terrifying every second of the day. As much training as our senior leadership shoved in our minds and bodies, nothing in a control environment truly prepares you for the real thing.

I learned two things immediately: experience is like currency in an environment as alien to our cultural senses as our physical ones, and those who think through problems, instead of reacting, are the best dogs in a fight. They respond faster and are more decisive than the knee-jerk actions of others.

Where did I learn this lesson, you ask? In Gunny’s corner.

My sergeant days were the more formative years of my career. The Marine sergeant is the backbone of the Marine Corps. The sergeant major says that every year, and the guest speaker for each graduating Professional Military Education course is reminded of this. I only knew the world through the eyes of a motivated sergeant. The staff non-commissioned officer ranks were a challenging transition.

My first few weeks in country I engaged the Marines of my charge incessantly. More than once I caught myself hovering over their work like a vulture. Task management at its finest, nothing else existed except results. Two days later my gunny invited me for a cigar out by the smoke pit.

Someone had come along and placed an empty commercial cable reel in the corner. It made the perfect table with folding chairs lined around it. Later that night, after evening chow, I found the gunny and three other SNCOs huddled around the field table, smoking a round of Arturo Fuentes.

“Have a seat, staff sergeant,” the gunny said.

I grabbed the opened chair and plopped down. The master gunnery sergeant to my right handed me a freshly cut stick from his cigar box and then slid me the box of matches in front of him. Without pause, I lit the cigar and took a deep drag, soon realizing this was not simply a large cigarette.

Coughing cigar smoke takes at least 3.7 days of your life with each hack.

After the surrounding laughter subsided, the gunny explained to me the ritual of his corner. At least once a week, the group would gather and discuss problems in the unit. These problems ranged from resource management, mission planning, and personnel problems to providing the best guidance for senior officers, providing the best examples for junior officers, and anything else that needed resolving.

This ‘think-tank’ wasn’t assembled on titles, brains, or brawn; everyone here sat at the table because of their experience. Over 50 years of military experience gathered in this corner each night. There wasn’t a problem too big or too outrageous that this team of men couldn’t overcome.

So why was I there? The gunny explained when I asked him that exact question.

“Some of us are growing grey hairs in our armpits, and our bones need a little oil when we wake in the morning. This will become your responsibility when that day comes for us to retire. Best learn while you can.”

And that was that.

The conversation continued on into the night about a problem with a senior leader. A young captain grew so mesmerized with his own perspective that he had lost sight of the overall the mission, and the people involved. His destructive force soon morphed into a cancer spreading through the unit.

“Telling the major, or colonel, that there is a problem is an option, but is it the right one for this situation?” Gunny asked.

“Maybe, but it feels like we’re jumping the chain of command just because we disagree with the way he’s handling things,” I answered.

“Tattle-tells didn’t work in elementary, and they don’t work here, especially if it comes across as meaningless gripes. But, remember there is a point when things must be reported.”

The table debated several experiences and exchanges Marines had encountered over the past week, and how that affected other events. Third order effects are important, but tying the dominoes together rarely happens before they fall. Only after a catastrophe occurs does anyone try to analyze how it happened. This group focused on preventing that disaster.

After the master gunnery sergeant shared a similar story about a previous unit, the gunny surmised everyone’s comments into a lasting conclusion I’ll never forget.

“Finding the cause of his restlessness is important because he may see something we’re missing, and if it can save lives, it’s more important than anyone’s feelings. But, we also need to show him the damage left in his wake without patronizing him. Allow him to weigh the cost benefits of his actions properly.”

The lessons I learned from that group of men guided the rest of my career. Plenty of senior officers found our corner out in the smoke pit, and never hesitated to pull up chair and join the discussions. Real problems were resolved around a table of cigar smoke and strong opinions. Thin skin didn’t wear well in this forum, so only the strong-minded were invited. During my entire 10-month tour, there wasn’t a single session held where a person didn’t walk away with a gem, or nugget of gold, adding to their pot of wisdom.

And just as the gunny promised, I continued the tradition into my own years. Occasionally, a new person will come down and join the group, violating the first rule before the conversation starts: no one is allowed to bitch about anything without providing a solution. This wasn’t a place to whine. All whining was left at the door, and only adults entered the forum. Once this first rule was understood, everything progressed naturally, every time.

With all this said, I propose a challenge to the lay reader. Have a seat at the table and let’s embark on a discussion. Periodically, I will provide summarized versions of recently discussed topics. You can evaluate for yourself if there’s knowledge hidden in the folds of the pages.

Challenges exist on every platform, every background, and every environment. We must accept that what works for one situation doesn’t always work for the other. However, on those grateful rare occasions, a group of Marines figure out how to cure hunger with a loop of 550-cord, a roll of duct-tape and a mini-bottle of CLP gun lube.

Semper Fidelis!