Twenty eight years ago this week I joined the United States Marine Corps. I was just 17 years old when I shipped out for boot camp. Ultimately, my career in the Marines would span twelve years, travel across no fewer than 15 countries, and fight in one war.
This week I’m going to write everyday about one lesson I learned (sometimes the hard way) in the US Marines.
We Didn’t Promise You a Rose Garden:
After every deployment overseas, each Marine unit goes through pretty much the same ritual. Thirty days leave, swap out broken gear for new gear, weapons maintenance, get rid of the ‘old-timers’ (their contracts completed), receive an influx of new Marines, and start training for the next deployment.
After one deployment, I received an enormous number of new Marines. We had just returned from six months in Okinawa, Japan, and were heading out again in less than 4 months. Having already been overseas several times, I tried to take it easy on the new guys so I reduced the level of physical exercise, field training, and combat drills. I didn’t do it because I was being lazy, but because I knew what was coming. Very soon these new Marines would be running at a pre-deployment operational tempo that would be a killer. By cutting them a break now, I thought it would make life easier later. I was wrong. I hadn’t made life easier, but harder.
One day, one of my young Marines moped by, his face down trodden and sad. Knowing that he had just spent the last two days with his family back home, I asked him if something bad had happened over the weekend leave. He replied, “No, it was fine.”
He tried to push past, but I grabbed his arm and pulled him close. I repeatedly asked him to tell me what was going on but each time he refused. Finally I ordered him to tell me and like a good Marine, he complied.
“My family keeps asking me what I do in the Marines. They think it must be so tough. I’m embarrassed to tell that we don’t do anything. I’m embarrassed to tell them that it’s easy being a Marine. ”
I could have tried to reason with that young Marine, to explain that he just needed to trust me. That very soon things would be different and he’d thank me for taking it easy on him. But I didn’t even try. I let him go, realizing that I had made a fatal mistake.
I had given more concern to his comfort than to his self-worth.
My failure immediately reminded of a Marine recruiting poster.
I think lots of well-meaning people do exactly what I did. We go out of our way to make life as easy as we possibly can for those we care about and in doing so, we actually hurt them. Not in the physical sense, but in the area of self-worth and personal growth. Sometimes the greatest gains are made from enduring and accomplishing difficult tasks.
Students don’t grow from easy school work. Teachers don’t grow from perfect classrooms. Parents don’t grow from flawless children. And young Marines don’t grow from acting like soldiers (sorry! I couldn’t help it!).
I immediately upped the operational tempo for the entire platoon. If it was under ten miles, we walked to it. We ran no fewer than four miles a day and we trained each night until 10:00. In no time I had that young Marine exhausted, but happy. And not simply because he was being pushed but because he was growing and he knew it.
When I left that unit he pulled me aside and thanked me. I should have thanked him because I feel I learned the greater lesson. We don’t do anyone any favors by making life too easy for them. Yes, protect from harm but not from hard work. With hard work comes growth and with growth self-worth is enhanced.
Don’t break them, but push them. Make them work for it, make them earn it, and they’ll thank you for it!
P.S. Just in case you’re wondering if women Marines promise you something else…