The Burden of Command; my latest column in the North County Times

Here is last week’s column from the North County Times:

Command is a Heavy Burden

The Navy recently announced that the commanding officer of the USS Essex had been relieved of his duties. Capt. Chuck Litchfield, a veteran of 24 years of service and a graduate of the Naval Academy, was sacked because his ship collided with an oiler during refueling operations.

Because of the incident the Navy decided that it had “lost confidence in his abilities” and had him “reassigned to administrative duties.”

Litchfield is the 11th naval officer to lose his or her command so far in 2012. Last year, the Navy “lost confidence” in 23 commanders and fired them, and it certainly looks like this year is on course to match that number or possibly beat the all-time record of 26 firings from 2003.

So why are so many key leaders being removed from the best and most important jobs that they will ever have while in uniform?

That is a great question, and it also holds the answer. Commanding officers in all services, not just the Navy, are responsible for so much more than a person in a similar position outside the military because they are entrusted with the very lives of the people under their command as well as making sure that they can accomplish the mission that they are assigned.

This may sound a bit trite, but think about it for a moment:

Unlike their corporate counterparts, commanding officers in the military are duty bound to protect the United States and in doing so they can and will send their people out to fight and die.

To date, some 7,866 young American men and women have paid the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan, and each and every one had a commanding officer who was responsible for ensuring that they received the best training and equipment —- but more importantly, for ensuring that the people in the unit are a cohesive team that does its job as well as humanly possible.

Commanding officers don’t spend money. They spend lives: The lives of American citizens; your children, your neighbors, and in the case of those on active duty, possibly yours. They are responsible for the men and women under their charge, and it is their duty to ensure that the lives that are risked and lost are done so in circumstances where every conceivable and possible thing has been done to prepare those people to survive.

Such responsibility goes far beyond just making sure that they are trained and ready, though. It goes into areas held dear by the military; things such as honor, respect, commitment and trust.

Many commanders are fired for things that have nothing to do with combat or steering ships around, but for conduct that violates that sacred trust between the leader and the led. A unit cannot be successful in combat or anywhere else if the commander cannot be trusted by the people he or she leads; and, indeed, when such mistrust becomes evident military leadership must address the situation. If it can be fixed without firing the commander, then great. However, if it can’t, then the boss needs to go.

The commanding officer alone is solely responsible for the unit, and that means that when the unit fails it is his or her fault.

Commanders are sacked for a variety of reasons, but they all go back to the concept that they are responsible for everything that their unit does or fails to do. In Capt. Litchfield’s case, the collision of the Essex and the oiler was his fault. For others it may be creating a toxic climate within the unit, failing too many inspections, or perhaps having inappropriate relations with a subordinate or two.

Whatever the cause, if the Navy (or the Army or the Air Force or the Marine Corps) loses confidence in the commander’s ability to lead and accomplish the mission, then the commander must go. The stakes are simply too high —- both for the people they lead and for the safety of the nation.

It’s nothing personal. It’s just business. Very serious military business.

My first column…

I like to write, and I am also very privileged that there are a fair number of people out there who like to read my ramblings about life, the universe, the Marine Corps, and everything else.  I was very fortunate recently to be brought onboard to the North County Times, which is a newspaper that services the northern part of San Diego county.  I write a bi-weekly column on Marine Corps and military issues, and I could not be more thrilled to be an official no-kidding columnist!

Since it is my first one, I decided to post it here for those of you outside the North County Times delivery area.  They are good, but sadly they can’t send teenagers pedaling across the country with newspapers in their bicycle racks just for all of you, my faithful readers.  Fortunately the internet makes the pedal powered Pony Express obsolete.

Here is a link to the column:

Please surf in and take a look!  If you like it, feel free to drop in a comment or two…

Here is the column in its entirety:

America is a truly wonderful place, and one of the main reasons that it is the greatest nation on Earth is the freedom of her citizens to follow any path that they choose. Our leaders are not appointed by divine right or by royal decree, but instead they are chosen by the people. Anyone can be the president, or a fireman, or a professional dancer, or a teacher, or anything at all.

Anyone can even be a United States Marine.

It’s pretty obvious why young men and women would like to grow up and become president, but why would anybody want to become a Marine? That is a fair question, and plenty of folks have asked me that during my years of wearing the Marine Corps uniform.

I think back to when I took that bold step and joined up —- and for me the reason was that I really wanted to serve my country and to see the world. Like so many others, I intended to serve my enlistment and move on. What I didn’t expect, however, was that nearly three decades would pass between the day I signed up and my last day in uniform.

Things were a little different back when I enlisted. Ronald Reagan was in his first term of office, mullets were somehow acceptable haircuts, and parachute pants were all the rage. At the ripe old age of 17, I made up my mind (despite my mother’s pleas to the contrary) and joined the Marine Corps.

What a ride it turned out to be! I would travel the world to places that I had only seen in National Geographic magazine, experience interesting cultures, and meet truly fascinating people.

Over the decades that followed, I deployed to the Pacific Rim, to Central Asia, and to the Middle East. I found myself helping the newly founded nation of East Timor rebuild itself after a devastating war in the late 1990s, and fought insurgents in both Iraq and Afghanistan. My travels in uniform took me to places in the United Kingdom, through Africa, and into the land down under. My international gallivanting was punctuated by assignments and training exercises across the United States.

I became an itinerant adventurer. My travels took me far and wide, and along the way I became a little like Goldilocks on her misadventure with the three bears. Some places, I found, were just too hot. Try Texas in July or Florida in August; it’s not just the blistering heat, but it’s the drenched-in-sweat humidity that made me happy to leave them behind. Other spots, however, were just too cold. Try Oklahoma in January or Virginia in February, where you experience the joy of shoveling snow as your nose freezes off the end of your face. Not for me.

As for garden spots overseas, well, to be honest, I found the good old U.S. of A. to be the best country on Earth. Despite the allure of raising kangaroos in Australia or learning how to choke down haggis in Scotland, there is really no place like home.

So, like Goldilocks tasting her porridge and testing her beds, I found a place that is just right. Humidity? Not so much. Sometimes, perhaps, but it never sticks around long enough to give you prickly heat (if you don’t know what “prickly heat” is, trust me on this, you are better off not knowing).Cold and snow? Nope. I don’t even own a parka anymore, thanks to the weather in the land of “just right,” and as for a snow shovel —- well, my coastal happy place doesn’t require one.

Of all the places that I have traveled, of all cultures I have experienced, and of all the people I have met, there is only one place that makes my family’s inner Goldilocks deliriously happy: sunny San Diego.

What’s not to like? There is a beach next to the ocean, which is a refreshing change from the many deserts in which I have lived where the sand stretches to infinity without a longboard-worthy wave within a thousand miles. In the winter, mountains are rich with snow that my family can frolic in within an afternoon’s drive.

The rich cultural tapestry of Southern California makes for endless adventure as we visit the tall ships in San Diego Bay or check out the heritage (and great food!) in Old Town. We have attractions like Sea World and Legoland and the world-renowned San Diego Zoo, which, for those unlucky enough not to live here, are once in a lifetime vacation destinations.

So I have indeed served my country and seen the world, and the best part is that my family and I ended up here in San Diego.

For young men and women who are looking for something meaningful and different, then maybe the Marine Corps is worth your consideration. For those moms out there who shudder at the thought of their little angel wearing a set of dress blues, I can promise that you will be proud.

And who knows? They may end up finding their “just right” happy place along the way.


Thanks for reading!!!