Friday, August 13, 2021

My Mother

At a little after 4:00 this morning, I woke up and checked my phone to see if I had missed any calls or had any messages. For the past few days, we knew that Mom was fading and wouldn't be with us much longer. There were no missed calls and no messages on my phone so I got up to get a drink of water before I returned to bed. In a few hours, I'd get up and visit Mom at the healthcare facility where she was staying.

I got my drink and started back toward the bedroom when my phone rang. I walked to the bedside stand and picked up my phone. I didn't really need to see who was calling or answer it to know the reason for the call. Not at that hour, and not under the current circumstances. My suspicion was quickly confirmed when my brother spoke from the other end of the line. He told me that Mom drew her last breath and passed away at 4:11 am, at about the same time that I woke and checked my messages.

I got dressed and headed for the healthcare facility. On the way, I called my sister who was sitting with Mom when she passed away. I asked her how it was for Mom at the end and she told me that Mom passed away peacefully. That was a relief. Mom had been in a good deal of pain so it was comforting to know that her transition to a pain-free eternity was a gentle one.

She was 83 years old which, the older I get, increasingly seems to be a fairly young age. Still, she had a long and good life, and she made the most of her years.

She was born in Lead, South Dakota on October 28, 1937, the daughter of a gold miner in a family of Italian immigrant miners. The lineage of miners lasted until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and drew the men of her family away to serve their country. Meanwhile, her mother packed up her four young kids and drove from South Dakota to take up residence in Mom's grandmother's basement in San Diego, California to be closer to Mom's father who was part of the rebuilding effort in Hawaii. When her father returned home, the family moved into the projects in Oakland until her parents earned and saved enough money to afford a home.

Mom's parents had just purchased a home in Oakland and she was working as a waitress at Zerikote’s Lake Merritt Dining Room when she met a young U.S. Marine sergeant who had just returned from service in Korea. He was staying with the family of one of Mom’s co-workers when they started dating. After a whirlwind romance, Mom married my Dad on November 25, 1955 in Kingman, Arizona.

After Dad was discharged from the Marine Corps, he entered college in the Chicago area where they both worked while Dad attended college. Mom worked as a clerk-typist for Remington Rand. Then after my brother and I were born, she went to work as an IBM key punch operator and bill clerk for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad.

After my sister was born, our young family moved to southern Illinois where Mom was active in the PTA, became the chapter president, and gave birth to my youngest brother. Mom worked off and on as my Dad's assistant in his office for a few years before deciding to pursue a career in education. To realize that goal, she commuted to Charleston, Illinois and earned her bachelor’s degree at Eastern Illinois University.

When Dad's health led them to move to Bullhead City, Arizona, Mom got a job at Mohave High School to teach business education and supervise the school’s cooperative education program. Soon afterward, she earned her master’s degree from Northern Arizona University and her supervisor, principal, and superintendent certifications from the state of Arizona. As if she didn't already have enough to do, she taught evening classes at Mohave Valley Community College and Northern Arizona University in addition to her regular high school teaching duties. She later became a school district administrator as Director of Special Projects and Vocational Education where she wrote grants and administered the programs they funded.

When she retired from education in 1996, she moved to Cantonment, Florida to be near her family. The move also gave her the opportunity to pursue another passion as she served as a USO volunteer in Pensacola. In 2009, she was named USO Volunteer of the Year and was saluted as an “Angel in Our Midst” on WEAR-TV 3 for her selfless service as a USO volunteer.

Mom was also an extraordinary creative talent. She played the piano, quilted, and sewed, but she really blossomed when she took up doll-making in her later years. She built them from scratch. She fired them, painted them, put them together, and she even created their costumes from bolts of fabric using her sewing machine. She did all of that with amazing skill despite painful arthritic hands and poor eyesight. As difficult as it was for her, she stayed at it because she loved doing it. And she was very good at it.

Mom's childhood was heavily influenced by hard work and the perseverance of a family that scratched and sacrificed for everything it had. She married young and worked tirelessly to help her husband succeed while she helped feed, clothe, house, and raise their children, which she did with great devotion. Then, she proved that a person could accomplish all of those things then still find the energy, drive, and initiative to carve out and find success in her own professional career.

I'm fortunate to have been raised by such a woman, and my family is fortunate to have had her in their lives. Mom provided an excellent example for all of us through her courage, her determined spirit, and her unflinching faith in God, all of which she held onto until she drew her last breath.

I will miss her.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

In Such Cunning Disguise

"History repeats itself, but in such cunning disguise that we never detect the resemblance until the damage is done." —Sydney J. Harris

Inflation, the U.S. dollar’s volatility, unemployment, and an increase in the U.S. money supply...

In spite of the concerns we have when we watch the morning news, we Americans tend to believe that our long-term outlook is good because, as we interpret our relatively brief history, we're Americans and we always come out on top. But the history of the world has many examples of great empires and nations whose leaders felt the same way, but turned out to be wrong.

We can look, for instance, to the Roman Empire which enjoyed 200 years of prosperity until it collapsed over the course of the next 300 years. But the machinery of the collapse didn’t begin during the final 300 years of the Empire. It started long before with sometimes short-sighted economic and monetary policies and practices. Then, incrementally, their excesses, the border incursions, and the need to defend the Empire's vast territorial interests set the table for rougher times ahead.

The Roman Empire was born with Octavian’s defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. The victory cleared the way for Octavian to become Rome’s first emperor (27 BC-14 AD) and for him to be awarded the title “Augustus” by the Senate and the People of Rome. It also heralded a period of financial stability after centuries of turmoil and a loss of confidence in the government and the economy under the Roman Republic. Money that had been hoarded returned to circulation, coinage molded from precious metals from conquered Egypt was minted and circulated, and property rights were restored and protected. With that prosperity came the liquidation of debt and a decrease in interest rates.[1] The early Roman Empire was also able to improve the roads throughout Italy, and build aqueducts, public buildings, and temples. It was the Pax Romana, Rome's golden age. 

However, even during that period of good feeling, after Augustus died and his stepson Tiberius became emperor (14-37 AD), Augustus’ public works program was reduced which stalled the circulation of cash in the Roman economy, leading to a financial crisis and a severe shortage of money in 33 AD. The financial crisis persisted until the government issued large loans at zero percent interest in order to get money flowing through the economy again.[2]

Then under Nero (54-68 AD), the economy slowed while the cost of maintaining the army and the government increased, so rather than increase the amount of money in the economy by raising taxes, he debased the denarius instead.[3] Debasing the currency by reducing the silver content in the coinage enabled the government to use the same amount of silver to introduce more currency into the economy.

The result brings to mind Gresham’s Law, an economic principle that says that “bad money drives out good.” For the sake of this discussion, it means that money that has high "real" value—for instance, coinage that hasn’t been debased by reducing its valuable content—will be hoarded and disappear from circulation while debased coinage of the same face value is traded in the economy.[4]

With the purging of the high-value currency from the marketplace, it was the debased currency that made its way back into the treasury when taxes were collected. People would pay their taxes with the currency that contained the lower silver content[5] which meant that the government’s “real” tax revenues were lower than the value of the currency it received.

Still, there are many economists who believe that the purity of the denarius was largely irrelevant in and of itself as long as people still traded the debased coin as "the real thing."[6] The essential issue with debasement arose in the decision to increase the money supply as a result of debasement. That contributed to inflation which is what did the real harm to the Roman economy.

Today, we essentially accomplish debasement by printing more money than the marketplace warrants, which has many of the same effects on our economy as traditional debasement. The increase in currency drives up demand for goods and services and when the availability of the goods and services and the availability of labor to deliver them is limited, prices go up. As the Romans saw, the result is that although there is more currency in circulation, consumer purchasing power decreases, resulting in inflation.

Real pressure on the Roman economy increased with the end of Trajan’s reign (98-117 AD) which also marked the end of Rome’s territorial expansion.[7] For Rome’s economy, that meant that it could no longer depend on increasing revenue from new territorial acquisitions for its stimulation. The Empire would have to begin paying its own way without the benefit of new revenue from the outside.

Various Roman emperors tried different strategies to get money back into the economy and into the treasury without raising taxes on most citizens. Meanwhile, they continued to further debase the coinage to increase the amount of currency in circulation. By Marcus Aurelius’ reign (161-180 AD), the silver content in Roman coinage was reduced to 75 percent. Then, by the turn of the third century AD, the silver content was down to 50 percent. By the middle of the third century, the silver content in the denarius was just 5 percent.[8]

The government also tried to generate revenue by raising taxes on the wealthy and expanding citizenship to create more taxpayers. However, as more and more private wealth within the Roman Empire was confiscated through taxation of the wealthy, economic expansion suffered even more.[9] Then, when the wealthy couldn’t pay enough taxes to fund the government, the tax burden shifted to the lower classes.[10]

Thin on options, the government began accepting in-kind tax payments: cattle, grain, and other goods from farmers, for example. The government needed people to produce so they were often required to work and remain in their occupations, and farmers were tied to their land so they could continue to produce agricultural goods.[11] Not surprisingly, the wealthy did what they could to conceal their wealth from the Empire and appear to be as poor as they could so the government wouldn’t confiscate what they had.[12]

As the government failed to effectively control the economy through its manipulation of the currency, markets, and citizen rights, government revenue shrank further, tax rates increased, tax revenues fell, and inflation took its toll as growth slowed further while the treasury couldn’t adequately pay and equip the army.[13]

Citizens eventually began to move into the countryside and engage in simple subsistence farming so they could provide for their own needs and stay out of the marketplace altogether.[14]

Finally, many small landowners collapsed under their tax burden and went to work for large landowners as tenant farmers or as slaves since slaves paid no taxes. The practice of resigning oneself to slavery became so harmful to the Empire’s treasury that Emperor Valens declared it illegal to renounce one’s freedom to enter into slavery.[15]

The rest of the story is what most of us know of the fall of the Roman Empire: The barbarians invaded and toppled the once mighty empire while complacent and slovenly Romans were fanned and fed grapes by slaves. It's a caricature of the history, of course, probably because the true root causes of the fall of the Roman Empire are complex and difficult to pin down.[16]

Nonetheless, there’s no ignoring the fact that the Empire reached a point where, in spite of its past glory, its economy could no longer produce and maintain a treasury that was capable of sustaining its prosperity, invigorating and incentivizing a productive workforce, maintaining it’s infrastructure, and defending itself at its borders. We shouldn't ignore that history.


End Notes:

[1] Homer, S. and Sylla, R. (2005) A History of Interest Rates, 4th ed. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 48.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Bartlett, B. How Excessive Government Killed Ancient Rome, Cato Journal, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Fall 1994), 294.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Innes, A. What is Money?, The Banking Law Journal, May 1913.
[7] Rast, B. (2020) Expansion of the Roman Empire,
[8] Desjardins, J. (2016) Currency and the Collapse of the Roman Empire, The Money Project,
[9] Bartlett, 295.
[10] Rostovtzeff, M. (1957) The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire, 2nd ed., 2 vols. London: Oxford University Press, 430.
[11] Ibid., 449.
[12] Bartlett, 296.
[13] Ibid., 301.
[14] Ibid., 297.
[15] Ibid., 300-301.
[16] Innes.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

True North

oliver_northThe author wrote, "I know the difference between right and wrong, and I can tell good from bad. But I also know that the more difficult decisions come when we have to choose between good and better. The toughest calls of all are those we have to make between bad and worse.”

Some people probably manage to get by without having to make the toughest of calls that the author wrote about, but those who face those kinds of decisions routinely, and make them under the strain of a clear conscience, are very familiar with what it takes to make them and live with them.

A person has to be wired with integrity, oriented toward doing the right thing even whenespecially when–no one is around to notice. They need to have a keen sense of justice so that their determination to achieve an outcome doesn't become inappropriately heavy-handed at the expense of others. They must almost naturally possess the moral courage to do the right thing at the right time for the right reasons, even when it's costly to them personally to do so. They have to be able to draw on those resources reflexively, particularly when time and decisiveness are critical.

When I was a Marine Corps NCO in the 1970s, we were required to participate in 24 hours of leadership training every year, but the conversations on leadership concepts were practically constant beyond the scope of that training. Nearly every decision you made as a leader was a learning opportunity because even the minor decisions had implications for the larger decisions that might rely on the same rationale or philosophy. Our leaders didn't make our decisions for us. They watched, then they asked questions about our decisions and provided guidance about the decisions we made. They wanted to know that we knew why we made the decisions that we made. Leadership training was deliberate and ongoing.

In the summer of 1978, I was a sergeant in the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment (3/8), about to turn 21 years old. I had spent the previous two-and-a-half years in the 2nd Battalion of the same regiment (2/8), but was shuffled to 3/8 when 2/8 began its preparation to deploy to the Mediterranean. Since I was about seven months from the end of my enlistment I didn't have enough time on my enlistment to participate in the pre-deployment training and the six-month deployment that would follow.

I was going to have to be bounced again within about six months when my new battalion prepared to replace 2/8 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 for the few months that I'd be there.

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 as I walked past his office and shot the breeze with me about a variety of things, sometimes, not surprisingly, about leadership and the state of the Marine Corps. We weren’t getting to be good buddies or anything; he was just being a good officer by picking my brain and sharing his own thoughts.

He was a captain filling a major’s position, but he was about to pin on a major's oak leaves since he had been selected 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.

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, so I was going to leave the Marine Corps when my enlistment was up. I told him that I had thought about reapplying, but that his operations chief had taken a look at my high school grades and told me not to bother. Since I wasn't too impressed with those grades either, I couldn’t really argue with his assessment.

By that point, the captain had been promoted to major and he told me to forget what the operations chief had told me and to get work on that application. He knew that my academic record was 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 record as a Marine was good, so he believed that I had a decent chance to be selected for the program if I submitted a good application and had great endorsements.

He told me to get my application together and that he would be one of the three officers who would sit on my battalion review board. My company commander would write the first endorsement of my application; the review board would write the second.

Once the review board interviewed me and wrote its endorsement, 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 and offer to be personally interviewed before they wrote their endorsements. He said that if I needed to camp outside of their offices to get those endorsements promptly then I should do it. Then, he said that once I had all of those endorsements and the application package was complete, 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 bold and above my paygrade, but I did it anyway. He told me to tell the director that my application was on the way and that I would be calling in a few days to ensure that it had 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 the third call was finished, they’d know that I was serious about my application for the program.

I don’t know if that advice made a difference, but it didn’t hurt either. I needed all of the help I could get, so I was willing to follow good advice.

A few months later, I was notified that I had been picked for the program. I was soon on my way to college.

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 in the photograph, but I recognized him as my operations officer from 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines: Major Oliver North. By then, he was a lieutenant colonel working as a member of President Reagan's National Security Council.

He went on to become very well known as a central figure in the Iran-Contra affair and he dabbled in politics, and became an author and a sought-after political and military commentator.

He came to Pensacola in 1991 on a signing tour for his book, "Under Fire," from which the passage that opened this article came. By then, I was a captain, having recently returned to the States and transferred to Pensacola after Operation Desert Storm. I stood in line to have him autograph my copy of the book.

When I finally reached the front of the line, I re-introduced myself to him, but after thirteen years, he didn’t remember me from Adam’s housecat. Still, he was quite gracious in trying to place me in his memory. After our brief conversation, he signed my copy of his book, “Rob–Semper fi–Oliver North”, then shook my hand and wished me well before I went on my way.

Although my acquaintance with Oliver North didn't stand out in his memory, he was one of many Marines that I served with whose valuable insights, advice, and leadership example were crucial to my development. His advice and assistance were instrumental in encouraging me to apply for an education and a commission, and in getting me to follow through to see that my application received the consideration that it deserved. I can't help but recognize that all of the things that have happened in my life since then were made possible because of what he did for me.

His leadership example reinforced in me the importance of caring enough about your people to challenge them to be better, and sometimes, to challenge them to be better than they think they are. I also learned that the grit, boldness, and endurance that we have to have when we're making the really tough calls that he wrote about in his book are the same tools that we have to have when we decide to fight for our life's goals and the things we believe in.

Those lessons weren't simply incidental; they became an ongoing summons to rise to the occasion. That was the expectation of all of that leadership training. Once it's in you, a good conscience and a sense of duty won't let you see it any other way.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

A Convergence of Heroes

I wrote the other day about serving with Staff Sergeant B.C. Collins and the impact he had on my life and career in the Marine Corps, so I thought I'd write about two other Marines who put themselves on that same battlefield in Vietnam with B.C. Collins that day, one of whom was also a great influence on me.

First, a little background...

First Lieutenant Frank Reasoner was a former enlisted Marine, a "mustang." Reasoner was a sergeant when he attended the Naval Academy Preparatory School in 1957, but he couldn't get into the Naval Academy. Undeterred, he walked up to Capitol Hill to the office of Senator Henry Dvorshak of Idaho and told him that he needed an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The Senator must have been impressed with Sergeant Reasoner because he awarded him the academy appointment he wanted. Reasoner successfully completed his education at West Point and was commissioned as a Marine second lieutenant in 1962.

Reasoner was an infantryman when he was an enlisted man and he wanted to return to the infantry once he became an officer. As a first lieutenant, he commanded A Company, 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion in Vietnam.

Then on July 12, 1965, First Lieutenant Reasoner led a recon patrol deep in Viet Cong territory when the patrol was suddenly engaged by machineguns and other automatic weapons from an estimated 50 to 100 enemy soldiers. The patrol's point man, Corporal B.C. Collins immediately returned fire, killing three enemy soldiers before withdrawing to the advance party where Lieutenant Reasoner and three other Marines were.

Lieutenant Reasoner, Corporal Collins, and the other three Marines were practically isolated from the main body of the patrol due to the intensity of automatic weapons fire which prevented the main body from moving forward.  Lieutenant Reasoner repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire and provided covering fire for his team while he attempted to rescue a wounded Marine. As casualties mounted, Lieutenant Reasoner attended to his radio operator who was among the wounded. Then, when the radio operator attempted to move to a covered position, he was hit a second time so Lieutenant Reasoner ran to his aid. However, as Lieutenant Reasoner maneuvered toward him, Reasoner was struck and killed by machinegun fire.

With his commander dead, Corporal Collins took charge of the situation and silenced the enemy machinegun with an M79 grenade launcher while exposing himself to heavy fire. He bandaged one wounded Marine then laid down covering fire so the wounded Marine could crawl out of the range of enemy fire. Then, Collins carried the remaining wounded Marine to cover before personally carrying Lieutenant Reasoner's body 100 yards back to the main body, again exposing himself to enemy fire from the flanks.

As nightfall settled on the patrol, the call came in to Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365 (HMM-365) informing them that Lieutenant Reasoner's patrol had been ambushed, was surrounded, and needed an emergency medical evacuation and extraction.

Major Si Kittler, a 1953 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, was a Sikorsky UH-34D "Choctaw" helicopter pilot with HMM-365 and he answered the call. Major Kittler flew his UH-34 helicopter out to get the patrol. The official account recalled that "The landing zone, surrounded by Viet Cong, was under a crossfire from three automatic weapons, which made it virtually untenable. In spite of heavy enemy ground fire, unknown landing zone conditions and a lack of visibility due to darkness, (Major Kittler) ... landed and assisted in the evacuation of the patrol," saving eighteen lives in the process. In addition to the eighteen members of the patrol, he successfully evacuated Lieutenant Reasoner's body as well.

Thirteen years after his patrol was ambushed in Vietnam, Staff Sergeant B.C. Collins reported to G Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment (2/8) at Camp Geiger, North Carolina to be my platoon sergeant. Then, four years after I served with Staff Sergeant Collins, I married Si Kittler's daughter, Christina, both of us unaware of the other's connection to Staff Sergeant Collins. Then, after I was commissioned in 1983, I was transferred to The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia where I attended classes in Reasoner Hall named in Lieutenant Reasoner's honor, and two years later–almost exactly 20 years after the ambush of Reasoner's patrol–I was a helicopter pilot in HMM-365, the same squadron that Si Kittler served with in Vietnam when he rescued the Reasoner patrol.

For their actions that day, First Lieutenant Reasoner was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously, Corporal Collins was awarded the Navy Cross Medal, our nation's second highest award for valor, and my father-in-law was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross Medal for valor.

As gruff and larger-than-life as Staff Sergeant Collins was, Colonel Kittler was just as low-key, although he exuded a compelling presence and upright bearing. His leadership style was patient and diplomatic, but he was also committed to maintaining high standards and the traditions and ethos of the Marine Corps. As different as these two men were, they both shared a keen sense of humor and were both extraordinarily humble about their heroism.

Each man's story is remarkable, made even more so by the fact that they are woven together forever in history. It's an honor to have served with and known two of these three great Marines.

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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Serving with B. C. Collins

I was thinking about a Marine I once served with the other day and I thought I would share some memories here. His name was Staff Sergeant Bryant C. Collins. Those who could refer to him by something other than his rank called him B.C. I wasn't one of those people as I was just a 20-year old sergeant when I met him, and I didn't have anywhere nearly enough stature to try to presume to be that familiar. He had been awarded the Navy Cross--the nation's second highest award for valor in combat--in Vietnam. With a little more than two years of peacetime service under my belt at that time, my credentials didn't compare.

He checked in to my unit--G Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment--as my platoon sergeant. We were the weapons platoon, a platoon that operated the company's M-60 machine guns, light anti-tank weapons, and 60mm mortars. I was in charge of the mortars.

I met him almost immediately after he arrived. After he took care of the administrative parts of checking in to the company, he introduced himself to me and said, "let's go get lunch." I asked him where he wanted to go--there weren't a lot of options--and he said we should go get something off base. We got in my car and drove into the heart of the bad part of Jacksonville, North Carolina. He wanted to go to a bar called "Sissy's." It surprised me a little at the time, but as I got to know him, it made more sense. I thought, "Well, they probably have those bar pizzas or something there." Once we got there, it seemed to be kind of a reunion for him. He knew the owner and the bartender quite well, apparently. But we didn't order pizzas; we ordered beer. We had to be back at work in an hour so we drank a beer for lunch then went back to the base. It was a different era then, but still, that was a first for me. It seems that era passed quickly because I never did it again.

SSgt Collins was almost always chomping on a cigar, and when he wasn't, he looked like he should be. It had been a dozen years since his service in Vietnam and age was catching up with him in some ways, I guess. He wasn't overweight according to Marine Corps standards, but he was "husky." My company commander, a captain who wasn't a Vietnam vet, clearly was not a fan of SSgt Collins. That sentiment went the other way as well.

He put SSgt Collins on the military appearance program, a program that existed back then to try to redistribute the body weight of Marines who weren't overweight, but still didn't look entirely prototypical in a uniform. I didn't think much of the captain putting him on the MAP program; there just seemed to me to be no benefit to it in this case.  SSgt Collins was a bona fide war hero, and was within 4 years of retiring at 20 years. I took the hard time he got from the captain to be part of a flawed peacetime mind set. Of course, I could only guess what a proper wartime mind set might have been.

On reflection, I know that the Marine Corps needed to complete a transition from the Vietnam era to a new age and mind set. It was a difficult time, and something really did need to happen. There were a lot of problems in the military then with big time racial issues, hard core drug use, and outright crime. It was a rough time to be a leader, but tough leadership was what was needed then.

At the same time, we had warriors who had distinguished themselves in combat who had to adjust to something new to them: peacetime. What do you do with the heroes who have found their way in a wartime military culture then need to adapt to a peacetime culture that they've never known and might not fit in to? Wars are very hard on military culture and there is always a need to regroup and refocus after they end. Of course, there was the additional challenge of the cultural issues that dominated civil society in those days too.

It turns out that those challenges occur in every age. Maybe it sounds odd, but the result is a more fit and ready force the next time it's needed. When the military doesn't let go and retool, it tends to fight the last war during the next one. Although it was slow and difficult in coming, the reforms the military endured after Vietnam set the stage for the military culture that has been so successful and responsive these past 30 years or so.

Nonetheless, knowing and serving with SSgt Collins did an awful lot to prove to me that not everything is black and white. Here was a living legend who tended to tell people what was on his mind. His solutions to problems tended to be quite uncomplicated and direct. He didn't mind telling superiors where they were wrong in their thinking while talking through that cigar (which was probably didn't help persuade them). He would give them the benefit of one "look, captain..." before giving up on them as being someone who didn't have the sense to know better. He was often right, but obviously, some officers couldn't put up with his approach. That said, he also had his share of admirers and advocates among very senior officers and staff non-commissioned officers who appreciated having someone around who shot straight with them.

He was entertaining to be around, that's for sure. We had a "bosses night" at the NCO Club one night. Bosses night is where we would invite our "bosses" who wouldn't normally be allowed to come to our NCO Club to have a few drinks with us. Staff Sergeants and other senior non-commissioned officers normally went to the Staff NCO Club and officers went to the Officers Club. Etiquette had it that the officers didn't stay too long or they'd risk seeing or hearing something they (and we) would later wish they hadn't. True to form, not long after our officers left, we were told to leave the club because of some outrage perpetrated by one of our group that I won't go into here.

SSgt Collins was in stride that night and had the idea that we--our Company Gunnery Sergeant who had served with SSgt Collins in Vietnam, SSgt Collins, and I--should go to the Staff NCO Club at the neighboring Marine Corps Air Station. The problem was that I didn't have enough rank to be there. SSgt Collins had a solution: he took his Staff Sergeant stripes off of his collar and pinned them on my collar in place of my Sergeant stripes. I was 20 years old then and I looked like I was 15. I was already very young for the rank I had, and looked it. There was NO WAY anyone would believe I was a Staff Sergeant. I felt like I was just a step away from the brig the whole time we were in there.

Thankfully, we got out of there without stirring anyone up. I don't think anyone was fooled though. We had one "old" guy (who was probably all of 32 years old at the time) with no rank on his collar and a young guy with way too much rank on his. I'm not sure anyone would have taken my companions on anyway; they had both been around and looked like it.

I'm glad I had the opportunity to serve with B.C. Collins. I learned a lot about leadership and people by being around him. Having served with him ultimately made me a better officer too. He was a passing breed in his own time, tragic in his battle against obsolescence in an emerging era, yet undeniably heroic. I was happy to see the day he got promoted to gunnery sergeant. While his "paper" in the peacetime Marine Corps might not have been nearly as good as it was during his wartime service, it seems someone at the top realized the value that guys like him brought to the rich heritage of the Marine Corps and the legacy they leave every generation to guys like me. Heroes always add value, and the Marine Corps seems to maintain a culture that understands and rewards that.

Take a look at his Navy Cross citation HERE. The Marine officer whose body the young Corporal Collins carried off of the battlefield that day was 1stLt Frank Reasoner. 1stLt Reasoner was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his own actions that day.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Birds of Paradise

I was relatively new to offshore flying when I picked up an assignment to spend the day supporting an oil company in a field of oil platforms off of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico.

As I landed on my first platform after a very long overwater flight, my passenger said that he would be only a few minutes so I decided to delay a needed refueling until I could take him to his next stop. If I took off to get fuel on another platform right then, I'd need to shut the helicopter down to refuel and wouldn't be able to return for a half hour or more. I didn't want to keep him waiting if it wasn't necessary.

It turned out that I waited on the deck at idle for about half an hour for him to return to the aircraft, so I was really needing fuel by the time he was back on board.

He boarded the aircraft and I dropped him off at the next stop, and then went looking for a refueling platform. With all of those gas and oil resources out there, you would think there'd be a lot of places to get fuel, but there weren't. Anyway, I found a fuel platform on my map and noted its number from the map as I looked for a platform with that number painted on it. The platform number was normally painted on the deck of the platform, but most of the time, the number was also painted on a sign attached to the platform at sea level.

I found what I thought was the platform that I was looking for, but I couldn't see the number because the platform deck was all white with no number in sight. On closer inspection, mostly because of the number of sea birds that I scared off when I flew over the deck, I figured out that the deck was white because it and the platform number were COVERED like a sheet in bird droppings.

So, since I couldn't see the number on the platform deck I dropped down to the ocean's surface to see if I could see a sign down there. I found the sign and flew back up to the top. It was the platform I was looking for.

Let me pause here to say that I was flying for a well-respected company that had high expectations for its pilots. Once we were hired and trained for work around the oil fields, the company designated us as "captains." We had uniforms. My khaki-colored shirt had embroidered wings with my name "Captain Doss" sewn above the left breast pocket. I had shoulder boards with the four gold stripes of a commercial airline captain. My trousers and shoes were brown. My uniform was clean and my shoes were shined. Of course, I also wore a ball cap and sunglasses. I say all of that to make the point that this was one of those jobs with an image attached to it where people assumed that you'd start and finish the day in a clean uniform, and that it wasn't really what some would call a "dirty job." And it wasn't a dirty job...most of the time.

Back to the story.

So, I landed my helicopter on this fuel platform and shut it down. Since there was no one on the platform to fuel aircraft, pilots pumped their own fuel. I opened the helicopter door and put one foot on the deck to test the surface. As I suspected, that bird excrement was wet and every bit of an eighth-of-an-inch deep. It oozed up along the edges of my shoe. I knew that this wasn't going to be good. The platform was going to be very very slick to walk on so as I set my other foot on the deck I was very deliberate in doing so. I walked in short patient strides as if I was on a sheet of ice because I didn't need to slip on the surface and end up wearing a coat of bird feces. I still had a long day ahead of me.

The fuel nozzle was stowed in a basket at the very edge of the platform and below the deck level so I was going to need to kneel down to get it. First, however, I needed to take a fuel sample to make sure the fuel wasn't contaminated since I was the first pilot on the platform that day. Since the fuel valve was below the deck edge too, taking a fuel sample meant that I needed to kneel on the deck to do it. Fortunately, I had gloves that I wore for refueling so I wouldn't have the smell of jet fuel on my hands while I was carrying customers. But considering my options, I decided to put my gloves down on the deck so I could kneel on them without getting white patches of bird dung on my knees. It was clearly not one of the more glamorous moments on this job.

So, I knelt on my gloves and leaned over the fuel pump basket to get the sample jar. I was careful to hold the jar under the spout so I wouldn't splash fuel on my hands, but it turned out that I was holding the jar under the wrong spout. I discovered that right away when I opened the valve and the fuel came out of another spout, pouring jet fuel all over my hands. After I got my act together, I finally got the fuel sample and checked it. The fuel was good, thankfully.

I took the hose and nozzle from the deck edge basket and dragged them over to my helicopter. Actually, you don't drag those hoses; you pick them up and carry them section by section from one area of the platform to the next because the deck has an abrasive surface that can tear up the hoses when you drag them across it (unless there's bird feculence all over it!).

So, I refueled the helicopter then hauled the hose and nozzle back over to the storage area. I knelt down again to stow everything. As I got back into the helicopter, I found that despite my best efforts to prevent it, I not only had jet fuel all over my hands, I had white birdplop on my knees, hands, and on the toes, sides, and bottoms of my shoes. Again, not an overly glamorous moment.

I started the aircraft back up, picked up my passenger, and finished the day's work out there without saying a word about how I had spent the previous 45 minutes. Living it once was enough for that day, especially since some of my misery was of my own creation.

Being a commercial helicopter pilot working for oil companies sounds like a cool job, and it is. It's dangerous work, but it's good work. My friends always thought it was an exotic job where everything was perfect, and I didn't tell them differently. I have to say though that after my trip to that poop-blanketed platform, I had to smile when they mentioned my cool and exotic job. There was no point in ruining the illusion with the other side of the story. These days, though, I tell people that it was a great job, but I admit that there was this one day...

Some people go to work every day and expect to "step in it" a little bit; sometimes they expect to step in it a lot because there's a lot of it to step in. Some of us don't expect to step in it at all, but find a way to do it anyway.

It's funny how some of the least enjoyable parts of our lives and our work can become fond memories if we let them. If all we do is complain, though, that negativity tends to stick to us (like bird poop) and it's hard to find happiness and satisfaction in them. I have never worn rose-colored glasses, but I've still generally tried to see those experiences through a lens that would enable me to make a positive, useful, or funny story of them some day. I suppose that would help explain why I have many more pleasant memories than unpleasant ones.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

A Legacy of Honor

There are many men and women who served their country honorably and heroically who later lived and died without seeing their stories come to light so they could be duly honored in their own time.

Sometimes, we're able to peer into that sacred fraternity though the bits and pieces we assemble from the lives of their comrades. It's in honoring them that we're able to witness the importance of honoring them all, even if belatedly so.

One of those heroes was my father-in-law, the late Colonel Simon J. Kittler.

Si grew up in a troubled household in Michigan, but he was still able to secure a Congressional appointment to the United States Naval Academy in 1949 as a member of the Class of 1953. He was one of four brothers who received congressional appointments to the Naval Academy.

After he was commissioned as a second lieutenant on June 5, 1953, he fulfilled a dream inspired by his childhood employer and mentor to lead a platoon of Marines in Korea. 

Once he returned to the United States in October of 1955, he entered flight training in Pensacola, Florida and upon completion of training in October of 1957, he earned his gold aviator wings.

His first assignments as an aviator were with VMA-211 then with VMA-225 as an A-4D Skyhawk pilot, stationed in Edenton and Cherry Point, North Carolina. While he was on a deployment in the Mediterranean on board the USS Essex (CVA-9) during her final carrier deployment, the crew of the Essex and the 17 pilots of VMA-225 collaborated on an unprecedented achievement that possibly remains unduplicated to this day. On January 23, 1960, VMA-225 qualified all 17 of its pilots as Centurions when every pilot in the squadron completed his 100th arrested carrier landing of the deployment on the Essex on that day.

Then, in July of 1963, he completed a stint as an instructor in the Air Support Division, training forward air controllers (FACs) at Coronado, California which he later said was a great help to him when he needed to call in fire support missions in Vietnam.

In what would become a pivotal assignment in his career, he was sent to helicopter transition training with HMM-362 in Santa Ana, California in preparation for service in the Vietnam War, known to many as “the helicopter war.” With his transition training complete, he was promoted to Major and joined the newly formed HMM-365 in August of 1964 to fly the UH-34D, which he later said was “one helluva war bird.”

Just a couple of weeks after his wife Peggy gave birth to a baby boy, his namesake Simon Scott, he deployed with his squadron to the Republic of Vietnam in October of 1964. As thousands of others have done since the early days of our Republic, he left his wife, new son, and two daughters, 6 year old Angela and 2 year old Christina, behind in California.

Once in Vietnam, he and his squadron went to work immediately, flying combat missions daily. Within a month of arriving in Vietnam, then-Major Kittler “volunteered to undertake a vital resupply and medical evacuation mission to an isolated Vietnamese outpost located in an area infested with insurgent communist Viet Cong forces. The flying conditions were exceptionally hazardous due to typhoon conditions in the general vicinity, a ceiling of less than three hundred feet and a steady rainfall which severely limited visibility. As leader of a two aircraft flight, (he) fearlessly led the way through intense enemy small arms fire to land at the obscured landing zone. After discharging his supplies and taking aboard several wounded Vietnamese soldiers, (he) again displayed calm courage and superior aeronautical skill as he led the flight through enemy fire and further deteriorating weather conditions to deliver his wounded passengers to a field hospital.”  For his heroism that day, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross Medal.

While Major Kittler was flying that mission and risking his life to save the lives of others, tragedy was settling onto his own home half a world away where his newborn son passed away in his crib that same day. Any sense of relief and satisfaction that he felt over having succeeded in that treacherous mission was quickly overwhelmed by the weight of profound loss and mourning as he boarded a plane to return to the United States to be with his family.

With his son buried and his family consoled, he returned to duty with HMM-365 in Vietnam where he resumed flying combat missions out of Danang in support of U.S. Marines, the South Vietnamese Army, and U.S. Special Forces.  

Then on July 12, 1965, a Marine reconnaissance patrol led by Lieutenant Frank Reasoner and point man Corporal B.C. Collins was ambushed deep in Viet Cong territory by 50 to 100 enemy soldiers firing machineguns and other automatic weapons. During the firefight, Lieutenant Reasoner was killed by machinegun fire while attempting to aid a wounded Marine. When the call went out to HMM-365 that the patrol had been ambushed, was surrounded, and needed an emergency medical evacuation and extraction that night, Major Kittler flew out to get them. "The landing zone, surrounded by Viet Cong, was under a crossfire from three automatic weapons, which made it virtually untenable. In spite of heavy enemy ground fire, unknown landing zone conditions and a lack of visibility due to darkness, (he) ... landed and assisted in the evacuation of the patrol," saving eighteen lives in the process. In addition to the eighteen members of the patrol, he successfully evacuated Lieutenant Reasoner's body as well.

For their actions that day, First Lieutenant Reasoner was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously, Corporal Collins was awarded the Navy Cross Medal, our nation's second highest award for valor, and my father-in-law was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross Medal for valor.

[Note: Thirteen years after his patrol was ambushed in Vietnam, Staff Sergeant B.C. Collins reported to G Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment (2/8) at Camp Geiger, North Carolina to be my platoon sergeant (which is a series of stories in itself). I was a sergeant and a 60mm mortar section leader in his platoon. Then, four years after I served with Staff Sergeant Collins, I married Si Kittler's daughter, completely unaware of Si's connection to B.C. Collins. Finally, almost exactly 20 years after the ambush of Lieutenant Reasoner's patrol, I was a second lieutenant with orders to report to HMM-365 to serve as a helicopter pilot, the same squadron that Si Kittler served with in Vietnam.]

In 1967, Major Kittler again transitioned to a new aircraft, this time to the OV-10 Bronco as a member of VMO-5 before returning to Vietnam in May of 1968 as officer-in-charge (OIC) and pilot in a VMO-2 detachment. Within just a few hours of the squadron’s Broncos arriving in Vietnam from the Philippines, he became the first pilot to fly the OV-10 aircraft in combat. Operating out of Marble Mountain in Vietnam, he flew both the OV-10A and the UH-1E Huey on direct combat support missions for Marine forces.

When he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in October of 1968, he was transferred to the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW) G-3 in Danang to serve as assistant operations and assistant plans officer. While in that assignment, he continued to fly combat missions in the OV-10 and the TA-4 on “Steel Tiger” forward air controller (FAC) missions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail until 1969 when he returned to the United States.

Following his promotion to Colonel in July of 1975, he assumed command of the 31st Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU)/Task Group (TG) 79.5. He then served as commanding officer of the Marine Corps Air Reserve Training Detachment (MARTD) in El Toro, California from 1977 to 1980. Finally, Colonel Kittler took command of the Naval ROTC Unit and served as the Professor of Naval Science at the University of Missouri in 1980 before retiring from active duty in September of 1982 with 30 years of service.

During his distinguished Marine Corps career, Colonel Kittler saw service in the Korean War as a ground officer then participated in 15 major combat operations as an aviator in Vietnam. Among his many decorations and awards are the Legion of Merit for valor, two Distinguished Flying Crosses for valor, 22 Air Medals, the Meritorious Service Medal, two Combat Action Ribbons, and numerous unit citations and campaign and service medals.

After his retirement from the Marine Corps, Colonel Kittler went to work in program management at McDonnell Douglas in Long Beach, California, working on the T-45, A-4, A-3, and the KDC-10 aircraft.

Ultimately, he settled in Pensacola, Florida, returning to his aviation roots where he was able to watch his two grandsons grow, enjoy seeing them play baseball and excel in school, and witness them eventually becoming Marines like their father and grandfathers before them. All along, he inspired them through his love, example, and wisdom.

From his childhood and throughout his adult life, during the high points and the low, through critical moments of life and death, and in periods of peace and extraordinary trial, he was buoyed by his Faith, his family, his country, and his unwavering loyalty and service to them all. Always a humble and composed warrior, he embraced life with good cheer and selfless personal courage.