All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in the United States Marine Corps
Never Leave a Marine Behind
The first thing they taught me was you never leave a Marine behind — on the battlefield or elsewhere in life. We were taught we never leave our dead or wounded on the battlefield. This was less about teamwork and more about helping those who may or may not be able to help themselves. It was about culture, devotion and commitment. You simply don’t leave your brothers and sisters behind.
We were taught to love one another as brothers because we were brothers — brothers in arms and in the Corps. We were all the same color — green. It didn’t matter where we came from, what our culture or background was. When you put that uniform on and take the title of United States Marine, you are part of a team with a bond that cannot be broken.
I have carried this sense of loyalty to team into my tenure as a civilian. When it comes to my team, I still bear that protective instinct. I won’t leave them behind and I will not sacrifice them for my own selfish gain or purposes.
Every Marine is a Rifleman
They told us “every Marine is a rifleman.” No matter your occupation, job description or daily duties, a Marine is always, at heart, a rifleman. The mission and our duty to one another superseded distinctions in job title or rank. We always had to be prepared to pick up a rifle and join the fight.
In civilian life, you may be a part of an organization attempting to realize a vision. This becomes your overall mission and you should do all that is in your power to accomplish it. It doesn’t matter if you are the CEO or a high ranking executive. If your mission is compromised due to diminishing resources, you have an obligation to join the ranks in the fight to accomplish the objective even if that means assuming the duties of the lowest ranking employee in the organization.
The mission and the team must come first. Early in my career, I learned not to shield myself with my title. I learned how to work with a team, as a team.
Once a Marine, Always a Marine
On the day my enlistment ended, many came up to me and shook my hand. They could, I am sure, detect the paradoxical sadness and happiness in my heart. I was saying goodbye to something special and to those who had meant so much to me. They would console me and say, “Once a Marine, always a Marine.” But I felt without that uniform, I would never be the same again. I was right in ways I could not understand.
The first week of bootcamp introduced us to our rich history. We learned of Belleau Wood, Tarawa, Iwo Jima and Inchon. We memorized names like Pappy Boyington, Chesty Puller and Smedley Butler. It was more than history. It was an entire culture I was learning.
I never forgot my roots or what I learned from the Marine Corps. I never forgot I was the essence of what the United States Marine Corps bestowed upon me and ingrained within me. I took what I learned away with me and I carry it to this day. These principles are tried and true. They are applicable beyond combat, beyond The Corps. And they have afforded me success in life. They are what the phrase, “Once a Marine, Always a Marine” embodies.
Culture is, I learned, everything. The Marines told me a story of our history and then welcomed me with open arms once I had paid the price of admission. Every team, every organization has a story. You just have to find it and tell it. That is the beginning of building your culture — a team of people with the same history, story and mission.
I learned the term, Semper Fidelis — our motto. Roughly translated from Latin, it means Always Faithful. Yet those words do not aptly represent what it means to the Marines. When the chips are down, when the mission is going to shit, we do not give up. We take one more step and then another after that one.
We used to march for long distances. Some people might call it a hike. We called it a “hump” — aptly named for the humps on our backs formed by the large packs. That pack would weigh 30-pounds (bare minimum) and we would walk for 10, 15, 20 or sometimes 25 miles across rugged terrain. These were conditioning humps we often conducted before deployments where we could be called into action. They prepared our bodies for the rigors of combat. More importantly, they prepared our minds.
You’d walk until you couldn’t feel your feet. They would go from feeling as though they were on fire to complete numbness — as though each foot had been injected with Novocain. We’d fear sitting down during breaks because it was just long enough to begin feeling your feet again and standing back up would be too painful.
Your arms would become numb from the straps digging into your shoulders. Later after the torturous march was over, you’d be able to see where the straps were from the busted capillaries under your skin. Your feet would feel as though they had been beaten with a ball-peen hammer. You would have rashes in places you didn’t want to have rashes.
I’d look down at the ground during these grueling humps — watching my footsteps kick up small clouds of dust with each step. I wanted to quit so many times. I just wanted to stop, sit and not get back up for a very long time. Some Marines would do just this and they’d face the shame. They’d face the ridicule. My spirit would never allow me to quit. I didn’t know how to quit. I would just tell myself, “one more step.” After I took that step, I would tell myself to take another. I’d do this for 25 miles like some sort of an animal whose programming won’t let it do anything else.
I learned I could do more than I initially thought I could. I learned the human body is only constrained by the mind. No matter how bad it got, I could always take just one more step and then another after that. And that’s all I had to do.
I still tell myself this today. When a project goes south or life pushes me down, I know I can take just one more step. I know I can go one more mile. Semper Fi — Always Faithful.
Honor, Courage, Commitment
Honor, courage, commitment were three words we would often hear repeated. They are part of Marine Corps doctrine. At first, it seemed this was little more than dogma and it took some time for me to truly understand why these three words were so important. They are inextricably linked with one another and you cannot have one without having the others.
Of the three, I struggled with honor the most. I was a trouble-maker who would break a rule just to break it and then lie about it if caught. I still have a streak of trouble-maker in me and routinely hack rule-based systems and processes. But I do so today when the rules in place have little reasoning beneath them or are simply unethical. I do so today for good reason when it is the right thing to do and I subsequently own those actions.
Honor relates to ethics. It is doing what is right when the right thing is difficult to do. Honor is the backbone of character and relates to having a commitment to your team and colleagues. Most of all, honor is placing the welfare of others before ourselves and maintaining a sense of humility. It took me years to understand this.
Courage does not come easy. It involves facing our fears and conquering them. Like honor, it involves placing others before ourselves and doing the right thing, when the right thing frightens the living shit out of us. It takes courage to have honor — to own your actions, to be truthful when the truth will likely lead to dire consequences.
Neither one of these words means anything without commitment. Possessing an unwavering dedication to your culture and the principles your culture instills is integral to being a Marine. We were committed to The Corps, to the mission and to one another.
There is a popular adage that states, those who stand for nothing fall for everything. I think we need commitment as humans — to be dedicated to something lest we fall for anything. It is the bond holding us to our organizations, our principles and our fellow humans.