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.
The Marines Simply Don’t Care…And Neither Should You
The Marine Corps doesn’t care about your prior life. They don’t care if you were well-known or unknown, rich or broke, where you lived, what you did for a living, what college you graduated from or didn’t graduate from, your parent’s last name, if you were a gangbanger, drug addict, or whatever else you did prior to joining the Corps.
The Marines simply don’t care.
And you’re wasting your time if you try to argue that any of your past accomplishments should account for something or your negative experiences should influence what you receive or don’t receive in the Marines. You’ll be told in no friendly terms to basically ‘go pound sand’ which is a popular saying in the Corps.
And the Corps would be correct to do so.
One of the best examples is world heavy weight boxing champion Riddick Bowe who left boot camp in less than two weeks. His past experiences and riches, undeniably great, didn’t matter.
The Marines simply do not care about those things because in truth they matter very little. Marine Corps boot camp is a transformation from the old you to the new you. For many, it’s too difficult to let go of the past (good and the bad) and they end up washing out. In my experience, this is the number one reason why a person doesn’t make it in the Marines. They can’t live in the present. And the present can be challenging because it demands action today. And that is what the Marines do care about, in truth what they are obsessed with—the now. The present. Today.
And most importantly what you put into it.
How much you put into it is all you’ll be judged by and nothing else. Marines know that whatever good they put into this day will come back to them, sooner or later, in equal if not greater shares. This type of reward system produces ridiculously high levels of initiative, morale, and a crazy desire for constant self-improvement.
These are all amazing outcomes, but there’s one more element to this system that I feel is the most significant. The one that I’ve personally seen make the greatest difference. The one that is necessary for all the others to be possible.
And that is second chances.
I took over a platoon and ‘inherited’ a young Marine who was waiting to be disciplined upon returning to the rear. We were high in the hills of Norway and convening a board was just impossible. Without a doubt, this Marine was facing loss of rank, pay, and possible time in the brig (which is far worse than boot camp).
One of the things that leaders do when joining a new platoon is to talk with each Marine and try to get to know them a little. What are your goals in the Corps? What is your dream position in the platoon? What do you want to do?
In thirty degrees below zero temperatures and seven feet of snow, it was difficult but not impossible. When I met with this Marine, I was a little shocked when he told me that he wanted to be a leader of Marines. I didn’t expect that so I asked, “What’s the first step to make that happen?”
“Get rid of this machine gun. Leaders don’t carry machine guns.”
Again, I was surprised by his answer and in truth had been hoping he’d say something about personal change. Either way, he had obviously given it some thought so I found another Marine who didn’t mind carrying a machine gun and the two switched weapons. Now he had a rifle, which is what leaders carry, but he wasn’t a leader of Marines yet.
To his great credit and as a testimony to a system that truly allows for real second chances, this Marine worked hard to remake himself and the Corps rewarded him. Within thirty days we left Norway and by the time we landed on ground that wasn’t buried in snow, he had been recommended for meritorious promotion and moved to the position of fire-team leader.
He was now officially a leader of Marines and a darn good one. And all the other stuff that was in the past was forgotten about, never brought up again because it didn’t matter. Especially not compared to the extreme effort he put into every day.
In my experience, second chances aren’t lost by the person trying to change. They’re made nearly impossible by others who refuse to stop living in the past while ignoring real effort. Unfortunately, I’ve only witnessed true second chances in the Marines.
Just imagine how better our country, families, work places, and schools would be if it mattered less what a person did in the past and more what they did now. Today.
In the Marine Corps it’s joked that every meal is a banquet, every paycheck a fortune, and every formation a family reunion. I believe it. I also think that one more thing should be added.
In the Marine Corps every day can be a new you…if you’re willing to work at it.
Don Shomette 1989