Personal Stories of America at Work
The Career Marine
A life in the military makes for high-stakes adventure and management
“Lieutenant Colonel Pat Jones has served twenty years in the Marine Corps, was educated at the Citadel, and comes from a military family where his father also served twenty years in the Marine Corps. Lt. Col. Jones does not fit my presumption of a career military officer. Yes, his hair is shaved short and he’s in good physical condition, but he’s also soft spoken, modest in how he describes his intense work, and introspective about how his training and experiences have impacted him. I was impressed by his loyalty to the Marine Corps and his unwavering commitment to serve his country.”
– Chronicler Mira Ringler
I thought I was a tough guy
My father is a retired lieutenant colonel from the Marine Corps who served twenty years. He’s mellow and never encouraged me to be a Marine. He wasn’t one of those dads who say, “Hey son, you want to be a Marine like your old man?” I obviously saw my dad in his uniform, and he never purposely shielded me from it, but I wasn’t tied to a particular future in the military. What really intrigued me about the military was a book I read in high school about the Citadel, called Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy. I really liked the book, and it portrayed the school as tough and demanding. I was a wrestler, so I thought I was a tough guy. I knew I wanted to go to the Citadel but never thought about going into the Marine Corps. My dad had not gone there and thought the school was too expensive; he was not enthusiastic about it.
I went there anyway. The first year is really difficult; they call you knobs and treat you in almost a subhuman way. Your superiors yell at you a lot. They would say, “Are you a tough guy? Semper Fi, do or die?” And I’d say, “Yeah, I’m a tough guy, I can handle it.”
Keep a cool head and stay calm
One of things we learn as military leaders is to stay cool under pressure. It can be demanding work, and it demands a lot of trust. Your life can depend on these people. There’s an element of the unknown and a sense of confusion that you have to fight through. It takes leadership, presence, and the ability to think quickly.
The Marine Corps does a good job of purposefully putting us under a lot of pressure. It starts at boot camp or officer candidate school. When I was a knob, a freshman, a lot of it was about indoctrination, a rite of passage. We are being trained to have instant obedience to orders. It’s physically demanding, a lot of exercise without a lot of sleep and rigorous standards to meet: how I keep my uniform, how I keep my footlocker, how I make my bed. You learn how to follow, instantly obey orders, and put orders into action.
In basic training, which is six months, we are taught cognitive and intuitive decision-making. We’re given a problem set—what are the strengths, weaknesses, resource shortfalls, key tasks, implied tasks, all the inputs that go into decision-making, and we come out with a tactical plan for a complex task.
From the intuitive side it’s about, “OK, here is the situation: You are under fire with your unit, you have mortars coming in on you. What are you going to do now, Lieutenant?” We hear that all the time. It’s almost like a cliché. “What now, Lieutenant?” We have to instantly decide because we are under fire and people are going to die if we don’t make an instant decision.
I’ve been in some really tight situations where I had to be decisive. That happened to me in 1993 in Somalia, Africa, when I was a first lieutenant. At one point, there was a huge riot in Mogadishu, a city of about 1 million people. I was in a convoy led by an amphibious assault vehicle called an Amtrac. Behind it came a canopy of armored humvees. There were thousands of people demonstrating in the streets, throwing rocks at us, burning tires.
We were in full armored gear: helmets, flak jackets. We were trying to establish a checkpoint. The Amtrac rolled over a makeshift barrier of burning vehicles and tires, just rolled right over it, and the humvees followed right behind. We didn’t know it, but when we rolled over this debris, it scraped the plug out of one of the gas tanks.
We stopped to assess the situation and finally, the platoon commander in the Amtrac decided that we couldn’t establish the checkpoint and we needed to head back. So the Amtrac turned around and my guy tried to start the humvee and said, “Sir, we are out of gas. The plug is out of the tank!” The Amtrac continued to roll away from us. We were out there with two vehicles, and the crowd started to close in on us. So I told my guys to get the tow bar out on the other humvee. We’re getting pelted by rocks.
All of a sudden, one of the sergeants up in the humvee let loose ten to twelve rounds of machine gun fire in the direction of the crowd. Fortunately, he didn’t hit anyone. He got hit by a big rock and got pissed off. He shouldn’t have shot; he wasn’t under any direct threat and could have put us in serious danger. I really let him have it, dressed him down: “Marine vice soldier, get a hold of your emotions and don’t do that again or I’ll bust you down!” You really get focused in those situations. You don’t have time to think about the immediate adverse consequences of a bad situation.
The mission must be accomplished
Another time when I saw the importance of staying calm under pressure was in 2000 when I was company commander for Marine Corps Infantry Company and we were doing military exercises in Kuwait. We were designated the helicopter raid force, the ones who specialize in very quickly organizing, planning, and preparing to get helicopters together for a mission. These are big helicopters that transport soldiers and large military vehicles, and there’s a lot of planning and preparation. As the company commander, I had my own helicopter for command and control; it’s a smaller helicopter called a Huey. I’d circle as the supporting arms came to clear out the landing zone, and then the troops would land, and then my command and control helicopter would land.
We were in the middle of the training exercise when all of a sudden we heard alarms. There were five of us on the helicopter: two pilots, an air officer, radio operator, and myself. On the ICS [Internal Communications System], I heard the pilots sounding fairly nervous, saying that we’d lost hydraulics. They were calling in an emergency distress call to headquarters. As the commanding officer, I needed to get on the radio and tell my command that I could not be in charge of this exercise. I tried to get on the radio and tell them they were in command of the exercise, but I couldn’t get through. I was thinking, Well, shit, what am I going to do now?
I knew how serious it was when all the fire trucks were lined up on the airfield. When this happens, the helicopter can go forward, but it can’t land up and down like it normally would, so the pilots have to land it on the skids—like landing a plane without any wheels. It’s possible to lose control and turn into a ball of flame.
I heard the pilot saying, with a quivering voice, “OK, I have it at ten feet, eight feet, five feet.” He was really nervous. It got to four feet, and he waved off and went back to try again. I was thinking we were going to be lucky if we come out of this without being burnt or mangled. I knew it was very serious. We came around a third time, twelve feet, ten feet, six feet—“OK, we are downing it!” It was like a scene from the movie Back to the Future where the DeLorean goes through time and there are all these sparks. Luckily, the helicopter turned 90 degrees to the length of the runway and stopped. We got out and walked away. I was really impressed with those pilots. It reinforced for me that you need to stay calm and collected so you can think through what has to be done, whether it’s combat or a training exercise.
You can’t quit when things get rough
I was up for a promotion to colonel and recently found out that I did not get it. My wife and I are considering all options, but it’s most likely that I’ll be retiring this summer. As I have progressed in the military, what initially attracted me has changed. It’s no longer about being the platoon commander who leads Marines up the hill and takes out the objective. At this stage of my career I’m behind the desk a lot more than I am in the field. I’m more of a supervisor, planner, and coordinator.
I really believe I can do any upper management position because of my military training. I had a past officer tell me that we are experts on bringing people together. We may not be experts on peacekeeping or disaster response, but we are able to coordinate groups of people to make action happen. It comes back to that cognitive decision-making and problem analysis. Could I go work for the State Department, for a business corporation, for a non-governmental charitable organization? I could go do anything that involves leading people, managing tasks, and coordinating amongst different groups.
I have loved my military life, but it needs to be fully considered. It can be challenging on a family. My wife and I and our two kids have moved every three years, from Southern California to Spain to North Carolina to Louisiana. It’s tough to constantly rebuild social networks. I tell those considering the military to really consider what interests them and to investigate all of the services because each has a different culture. They should evaluate if they want to be enlisted or be an officer. Both are important but require different responsibilities, obligations, and commitments. To be an officer, you have to go to college first and not take the big money by getting a civilian job when you graduate.
It’s a career that requires a lot of sacrifice and a lot of commitment. You can’t quit when things get rough—and they will. You commit to follow-through on obligations to serve your country once you raise your hand and swear the oath to protect the Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic.
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The Working Chronicles
The Working Chronicles captures an intimate look at work in 21st century America through candid interviews with people from all walks of life and all corners of the country.
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