Gunny's Corner: Ripples in the water

One of my earliest memories is of tossing rocks into a small river at my grandmother’s house near Salem, Alabama. This was in the early ‘80s, so the description “deep country” included areas like Salem. Throwing pebbles as high as I could and then watching them splash fascinated me. Waiting patiently until the water subsided before I threw another stone and seeing how far those ripples reached down the river was just as mesmerizing.

This was the picture I held in my mind as I waited at our table. My cigar was already halfway burned down, so when the crew showed up, no one waited for any cues. Very rarely did I lead a discussion in Gunny’s Corner in those first few months. It may have been years before I felt comfortable enough to shoulder the dialogue, but I’ll never forget the first time. The lesson was as clear as spring water and as relevant as oxygen in a fire. I lost a guy.

A simple conversation

In order to protect the innocent, I will refer to this Marine as Lance Corporal Baker (not his real name), and LCpl Baker worked in my section. It was the week after Veteran’s Day on Camp Fallujah in 2004. LCpl Baker walked up to my desk.

“Staff Sergeant, can I ask you something?”

“I’m in the middle of something, but I can break away for two mikes, whatcha got?” I asked.

“Well, I’m thinking about doing a lateral move into Counter Intelligence and wanted to know what you thought about it.”

“Is that something you would be interested in?”

“I’m an admin guy who needs to get into the fight. I’m tired of sitting behind a desk.”

“There’s always a desk, never forget that,” I said. “Alright, but before you start paperwork with the career planner, make sure you go speak with Gunny Reyes (also an alias). He’s the Section Chief with Intel team out here, he’ll have more insight than I have and may be able to answer a few more questions.”

“I know, but I wanted to run something past you first,” he said.

“Really?” I asked. “What, and why me?”

“You take the time to answer questions honestly, and won’t blow me off just because I’m a Lance Corporal.”

I know he meant that as a compliment, and I took it how it was intended, but the jarhead in me barked a little. I’ll be damned if this young devil pup didn’t just call me ‘friendly’. We’ll go with ‘approachable’.

“With all you’ve seen, do you think this would be a good choice for me?”

“I won’t decide for you, because as a grown man you have to decide for you and your family, but I believe it will be a rewarding opportunity should you choose to pursue it.”

“Really?”

“Why not? The Marine Corps is as big as it is small. Go explore the world. As a matter of fact, I’ll call over to Gunny Reyes now. He asked for volunteers at the last section head meeting to help them on a patrol out near Husaybah.”

“Cool.”

The phone call lasted all of 5 minutes. The Marine was on his way, and the next morning he said goodbye to me before he whisked off on a 10-day trip outside the wire. On day 3 of his patrol, I received word that shrapnel from a mortar round pierced his jugular and windpipe. He died before anyone could reach him.

In my mind, I see him throwing rocks into a river, and watching the small waves brush against the embankment. He was as fascinated with life as I was with my ripples. What small things make large impacts in our lives, and others? Was answering a question and making a simple phone call the domino piece that caused his death?

Fear creeps in

For years, that day haunted me. I understood that I never launched that rocket, nor did I know insurgents would be out that day with motor rounds. But our conversation put him on a path to that moment, and I’ve lived with it for almost ten years. Fear stalked me.

Fear is the world’s most effective mind-altering drug. It’s known to cloud judgment, freeze muscles, erase memories, and completely change a person’s mind. Fear of offending will allow a person to sit in a room with a complete stranger and not inform them of their putrid body odor, even if it’s a sign of a severe illness. Fear of change causes people to believe an idea is wrong, dangerous and immoral if it’s outside their normal/comfortable routine, and so they allow stagnation to define their lives.

Fear stalked me like a sniper hidden in the underbrush.

Let me explain it just as I did on the first day I opened the discussion. When we as leaders are placed in a position of authority and responsibility, it is, without a doubt, our sole job, to lead. We are required by the nature of our position to make the tough choices, the hard decisions, the sacrifices, and the gambles that others choose not to make. We give advice. We mentor. We critique. We teach. We learn. These things are in our job description.

Then something happens. A ripple from a small stone we tossed into the water hits the riverbank two miles down the creek and has just enough pressure to finally break the beaver dam. Water floods that side of the creek and spills into Farmer John’s irrigation system. Now the goats are stomping around pig manure and mud, because you didn’t have the common sense not to throw stones. It doesn’t matter if throwing stones is where you feel most comfortable; your stone broke someone’s way of life.

This metaphor might be absurd, but that doesn’t make it any less analogous with how our minds work. We ignore the current of the water, the weight and heft of my palm-size rock, the depth of the river, the state of disarray of Farmer John’s 35-year-old irrigation system, and the fact that the so-called beaver dam was made out of cardboard by a 7-year-old boy named Jason Beaver.

For years, I ignored that the war was fought using guerrilla tactics instead of conventional methods. I ignored that most deaths on patrols were IEDs, mortars and snipers instead of force on force action. I ignored that this was a decision LCpl Baker chose, and a shortfall GySgt Reyes needed to fill. I ignored that war is unpredictable, relentless and uncompromising.

So why was I sitting around our table with a half-smoked cigar in complete silence for five minutes after I finished my story? We were deciding the steps to move forward.

How to move forward

It would be irresponsible of me to become less of a leader by refusing to give advice to those Marines who seek it. It would disrespectful to the memory of LCpl Baker if I threw in my hat and degraded my uniform. We’ve seen this picture before. The supervisor who wasn’t the same after a failed deal, who grew less aggressive and more gun-shy with each encounter. We cannot allow that fear to stalk us down and creep into our lives.

The steps to move forward are difficult but achievable. (1) Acceptance: Accept that your stone will always be but a pebble in a larger river. You cannot predict the unforeseen forces of nature. (2) Reflection: Life lessons occur every moment we evaluate a choice we’ve made. Changing the past is impossible, but ensuring future changes remain positive is your responsibility. (3) Continuance: Get back to the task at hand as soon as possible. Never allow fear to intimidate and persuade you to lessen your value as a leader.

At every Marine Corps birthday ball I’ve attended since 2004, I’ve taken a moment of silence and said a few words for LCpl Baker. His memory will never be forgotten, and it’s because of him I still throw stones. My role in this world is to keep the river running; throwing stones is how I level the riverbed floor so there’s an even distribution of water. I mold each stone before I toss it in. Most of the time I’m spot on. Others, not so much. As leaders, we all want the same thing: the best from the rivers we build. And when the day comes for me to sit down and let a younger version of myself replace my position, I’ll know I’ve given my all to this river.

Until then, Leaders, go throw some stones!

Semper Fidelis!