Monday, December 5, 2022

Officer Commissioning Speech - University of Missouri

This time of year, colleges and universities are holding December commencement exercises which also means that a new crop of young men and women will be commissioned as officers in the military.

In September 2019, my wife and I visited the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri where I received my undergraduate degree in 1983. While there, I stopped by Crowder Hall where the Navy ROTC program is administered. During the visit, I met the Marine Officer Instructor and his assistant and after a while, he asked if I would be willing to return to the University in December as the guest speaker for the December Navy and Marine Corps officer commissioning ceremony. I told him that I'd be honored to.

As I look back on the speech I delivered, it occurs to me that the encouragement that I offered to those new officers is still valid today. This is the speech I delivered during the commissioning ceremony at the Memorial Union.


*****

by Major Robert Doss, USMC (Retired)
Saturday, December 14, 2019

[TRANSITION FROM INTRODUCTION]

Again, I want to thank Captain Dry for the introduction, and I want to thank Captain LaLonde for inviting me to be here today. I also want to thank all of the family members and friends of our new officers here today for being here and sharing this important day.

I also want to recognize the staff members of the Mizzou NROTC unit–military and civilian–whove poured their knowledge and energy into ensuring our new officers are ready for this day and the days that lay ahead. You will soon see that their labor has put you in a great position to meet the rigors of service to your country.

Let me also thank the remarkable men and women who we’re here to honor today for joining a long line of citizens who’ve raised their right hand and have sworn to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Ladies and gentlemen, these men and women are here today, young and full of life, vigor, and opportunity ahead of them, and today they’ll take an oath to defend this nation against all enemies while not knowing exactly what their country will ask of them. They’ve decided to serve in a very complex and dynamic world as part of the most powerful military force the world has ever known. Theyll soon be part of the reason it’s that way.  

Let that sink in for a moment. These young officers aren’t merely serving in the military, they haven’t merely joined the military; they will each soon be part of the reason the United States military is the most potent military force on earth, a force that keeps our Nation–and many other nations around the world–safe and free of tyranny.

Now let me address our new officers. When you report for your next assignment, you’ll be thrust into an environment where sailors and Marines who are younger and less experienced than you and sailors and Marines who are much older and more experienced than you need your leadership.

With that in mind, let me leave you with three points–certainly not the only important points on the subject–about what will be your most important responsibility as a commissioned officer, whether in war or at peace: leading our sailors and Marines.

FIRST, recognize that the entirety of your work as a commissioned officer exists for one purposepreparing yourself and those whom you lead for war.

As you consider that preparation, also recognize that war is inherently fluid and uncertain and that because of that, the Naval service requires competent leaders at all levels who will exercise the boldness and initiative necessary to accomplish the mission under those rapidly changing conditions.

At any moment, a 19-year old seaman might need to rise to the occasion with little or no guidance during a shipboard catastrophe as we saw a few years ago aboard the USS Cole where many senior enlisted leaders were incapacitated in a terrorist attack, or a young lance corporal might need to act decisively during an ambush in the streets of some village far from here as we’ve seen many times in recent years.

It’s vital, then, that you ensure that as you supervise your sailors and Marines, you don’t let them become accustomed to being over-supervised because micromanagement absolutely destroys the boldness, initiative, and creativity that are essential to battlefield decision-making.

Also, it’s important that you develop the confidence to force decision-making and idea formulation down to the lowest practical level, and not reserve it all at the top. Your goal should be to condition your subordinate leaders to thrive on acting and leading spontaneously.

SECOND, and in conjunction with the point we just discussed, remember that your credibility and success as a leader will lean heavily on your professional competence and the competence and skill of those whom you lead. You have to know what you’re doing–and know what you’re doing at an extraordinarily high level–and the people you lead have to as well.

As part of that, it’s important to set an example of teachability by being willing to listen and learn yourself, especially when it comes to your petty officers, NCOs, chief petty officers, and staff NCOs.  Remember, however, that as you’re being teachable, when it’s time to make a decision, make it confidently and decisively.

AND FINALLY, as you know, every great organization relies on guiding principles, vision, and values for their success. The underlying principles that shape our ethos–qualities like courage, integrity, selflessness, reliability, endurance, fairness and justice, faithfulness, and again, boldness and initiative–are indispensable when great challenges rise up to test us. Those principles and that ethos must abide in every person in the unit from the most senior officer to the most junior enlisted man or woman.

You might remember that on October 23, 1983, a terrorist in a bomb-laden truck destroyed the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 241 Marines. It was the worst one-day loss of Marines since World War II.

Some weeks later, the Marine Corps Commandant at the time, General P. X. Kelley, told of visiting a severely wounded young Marine in a military hospital who he described as having “more tubes going in and out of his body” than hed ever seen in a human being. The young man was in bad condition, probably fighting for his life.

General Kelley described the visit this way. He said, “He couldn’t see very well. He reached up and grabbed my four stars, just to make sure I was who I said I was. He held my hand with a firm grip. He was making signals, and we realized that he wanted to tell me something. We put a pad of paper in his hand and he wrote two words, Semper Fi, short for Semper Fidelis, the Marine Corps motto, and it means “always faithful.”

So, in that moment, as that young Marine fought for his life, he embraced what his service and sacrifice were all about: being unswervingly faithful to his country and his commitment, even when things were at their worst. With the odds so heavily stacked against him, he returned to his foundation, his principles, his ethos.

Recognize that we can’t turn that ethos on and off. It’s not a thing we have only on duty. It’s a part of who we are and it shapes our professional and cultural core. Our principles and ethos can’t be merely event-driven; they have to be systemic–they have to be with us all the time.

We wake up with them in the morning and we go to bed with them at night. Something suddenly happens in the middle of the night that draws us into action, there they are. Something happens in the middle of the night and the next thing you know you’re in the hospital holding the hand of someone who claims to be the Commandant of the Marine Corps, there they are.

Why? Because we don’t succeed as leaders in combat without those principles and that ethos, and neither do our sailors and Marines.

Our ethos is what inspires and enables us to do the right thing at the right time for the right reasons, all the time. It’s what triggers two things that leaders MUST have in order to earn their rank and be worthy of respect: trust and confidence.

General George Washington used the words, “Reposing special Trust and Confidence in the Integrity, Diligence, and Good Conduct” in the first military officer commissions during the Revolutionary War. Your commission contains nearly identical wording: “Reposing special Trust and Confidence in the Patriotism, Valor, Fidelity and Abilities…”

I want to ask you new officers to take the time in the next day or two to study and take to heart the words thatre written on your commission: “Reposing special trust and confidence…” As you celebrate and enjoy this day, reflect on the fact that the words “trust” and “confidence” in your commission don’t refer to the past, they’re words that refer to the future.

As we all acknowledge the accomplishments that place you here at this ceremony, we also realize that this moment arrives with a tremendous and important expectation that marks the beginning of your living up to the special trust and confidence that the President and the Congress–and your sailors and Marines–have in you.

Your challenge is to become the leader that our sailors and Marines need and deserve. If you do that, you’ll realize that although your experiences as a Naval officer won’t always be perfect and pleasant, you’ll forever cherish the memories of your service, the kinship that you develop, and the difference that you’ve made in the world and in the lives of others. More than the medals and promotions that you’ll earn along the way, the memories, the kinship, and the difference that youll make as a leader will be your most enduring and important reward.

So as you go about earning the special trust and confidence that will yield that reward, remember: Train and empower your subordinate leaders at all levels. Make yourself and your unit professionally competent and knowledgeable. Set an example of “teachability and decisiveness. Be principled and reinforce our underlying ethos in everything that you do. And do the right thing at the right time for the right reasons, all the time, especially when it’s difficult or inconvenient to do that.

Congratulations and best wishes to you, and thank you again for serving our great country. And thank you all very much for having me here today.

Monday, November 21, 2022

True North

"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.”

In the summer of 1978, I met the man who, a decade later, would write those words. I was a sergeant and had just been transferred to K Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment (K Co., 3/8), about to turn 21 years old. Since I was nearing the end of my enlistment, it didn't make sense to put me in charge of another squad only to leave again in a few months, so my new company commander asked me to manage the company training program.

That meant, in part, that I wrote our training schedules and firing range and ammunition requests and delivered them to the battalion headquarters about once or twice a week. About every other trip over there, the operations officer, a major and the man whose statement about making tough decisions begins this article, 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 and mentor by picking my brain and sharing his thoughts with me.

One day, he asked me what my career plans were. I told him that I had applied for a commissioning program the year before but 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 I had been told that my high school grades weren't good enough and that I shouldn't bother. Since I wasn't too impressed with those grades either, I understood.

He told me to forget that and to get to work on that application. My academic record was weak, but my record as a Marine was solid, so he believed that I had a decent chance of being selected for the program. He said that he'd be one of the three officers who would sit on my battalion screening board. The screening board interviewed me and came away recommending that I be selected for the program. Then, he called me to his office and gave me a lot of good advice, including a suggestion that I hand-carry my application to every colonel and general whose endorsements I needed and offer to be personally interviewed by them so they could confidently write a good recommendation for me.

A few months later, the Marine Corps published the list of Marines who were selected for the commissioning and education program, and my name was on it. Then, four years after that, I had a bachelors degree and a commission as a Marine second lieutenant.

Three years after I was commissioned, I saw a November 17, 1986 Newsweek article titled “The White House Swashbuckler-in-Chief,” that reported on a secretive member of the Reagan administration, Oliver North, who had roles in the release of hostages in the Middle East, the capture of the terrorists who killed an American on the cruise ship Achille Lauro, the invasion of Grenada, and negotiations with Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. Oliver North had been my operations officer from 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines in 1978, the man who encouraged me to become an officer. By 1986, 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 before he entered into politics and became a prolific author and a sought-after political and military analyst.

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 he 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 insights, advice, and leadership example were crucial to my development as a leader.

On a personal level, 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 needed. I can't help but appreciate that all of the things that have happened in my life since then were made possible because of what he did for me.

On a larger and more professional level, 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. Some people have more potential than they realize. Sometimes it seems that hearing ourselves wonder if we have what it takes is a good reason to wade in and find out.

Monday, November 7, 2022

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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Monday, October 31, 2022

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.

Monday, October 17, 2022

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.