"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.