Monday, May 2, 2011

His Two Cents’ Worth

oliver_northIn the summer of 1977, I was a Marine infantry sergeant about to turn 20 years old when I applied for a commissioning program that – if selected – would send me to college for an education and give me an officer’s commission when I graduated (as long as I made it through OCS). The problem was that I had been deployed quite a lot and didn’t have the opportunity to get any off-duty education to bolster my resume. Since the program was very competitive, I didn’t know what to make of my chances.

I applied and when the screening board released its report from Washington, I learned I was named an alternate. That was encouraging, but there was no chance they’d call on the alternates since this was such a sought-after opportunity.

As the following summer rolled around, I was in a spot. The unit I had been with since late 1976 was about to deploy to the Mediterranean, but I didn’t have enough time left on my enlistment to go. At that point, I planned to get out of the Marine Corps the following February. So, I was transferred to a different battalion in the same regiment: Third Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment.

I was going to have to be bounced again within about six months as that battalion prepared to replace that other unit on deployment. So, rather than put me in charge of a squad or a platoon, my company commander asked me to clean up the company training program.

As the training NCO, I was responsible for maintaining the training records and scheduling the required training for our Marines. The problem was that there had been no record-keeping so I had to start something up from scratch. The company had already failed an inspection and was due for a re-inspection soon. It was a fairly tall order, but I got it straightened out and that made a lot of people happy. My battalion operations officer was so happy with the results that he asked me to show my system to the other training NCOs in the battalion.

About once or twice a week, I needed to go to the battalion headquarters to deliver our training schedules and firing range and ammunition requests. About every other trip over there, the operations officer stopped me and shot the breeze with me about nothing in particular. We weren’t getting to be good buddies or anything; he was just being a good officer.

He was a captain filling a major’s position, but he had been selected a year early for promotion to major. Everyone said he was going to go all the way since those kinds of early promotions were rare. He was a decorated Vietnam veteran and was very good with enlisted Marines. He proved that with me several times.

One day, he asked me what my career plans were. I told him that I had applied for a commissioning program the year before and didn’t quite make the cut. I told him I had thought about reapplying that year, but that his operations chief had taken a look at my high school grades and told me not to bother. Since I was none too impressed with those grades either, I couldn’t really argue with his assessment.

By this point, the captain had been promoted to major and he told me to disregard what the operations chief had told me and that I needed to get working on that application. He knew that my academic record was stunningly weak and that I hadn’t had the opportunity to remediate it with off-duty college work during my time in the service, but he knew that my military record was pretty stout. I had been promoted early to every rank as a Marine in the field and he was able to gather an impression of my administrative potential.

He told me to get my application together and that he would sit on my battalion review board to get me started in the right direction.

Once all of that was done, he called me in and gave me some advice. He told me to hand-carry my application to every colonel and general who needed to endorse it. He said if I needed to camp outside of their offices to get a timely and favorable endorsement that I should do it. Then, he said that once all of those endorsements are in place, I should call the education office in Washington and speak to the director, who was a major. I didn’t exactly run around talking to majors in those days, so his advice seemed a bit dramatic, but I followed it. He told me to tell the director my application was on the way and that I would be calling in a few days to ensure it arrived. Then, he said I should give them a week to review it, then call them back to see if I needed to add anything to the application. He said that by the time that third call was finished, they’d know I was serious.

I don’t know if that advice made the difference, but it sure didn’t hurt. I needed all of the help I could get to dig my way out of the hole I had put myself in in high school so I was willing to follow good advice wherever I found it.

A few months later, I learned that I had been picked for the commissioning program.

Some years later after I graduated from college and was commissioned, I saw a national magazine – Time, Newsweek, or one of the others – that showed a shadowy figure with the caption “Swashbuckler-in-Chief.” The person wasn’t specifically identified on the cover, but I recognized the vague image as my operations officer from 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines: Oliver North.

He went on to become very well known as a central figure in the Iran-Contra affair and he has dabbled in politics and is now a prominent political and military commentator. He came to Pensacola once on a book signing tour and I stood in line with his book to have him autograph it. I finally reached the front where I re-introduced myself to him. Of course, with many miles and years passing by us since the last time we had talked, he didn’t remember me from Adam’s housecat, but he was quite gracious in trying to piece it together. He signed my copy of his book, “Rob – Semper fi – Oliver North.”

He was one of many Marines I served with who helped me find success in the opportunities that I encountered. As helpful as his advice was, I think I found even more value in seeing the importance of taking the initiative and of remaining determined to succeed in spite of the discouragement we often find along the way. From what I’ve seen of him since, it wasn’t just a lesson he encouraged, it was an example he set for thousands.