February 10th, 2011
January 29th, 2010, is an important date in this narrative - probably the most important date aside from the anniversary of it all, on February 14th. The background noise of misery which described general living and working conditions at the company had reached a cacophony of agony which could no longer be ignored or tolerated. I had been planning to do something both unthinkable and mostly unheard of - I was going to Request Mast to the battalion commander.
For those that don't know, Request Mast is essentially the right of every Marine to air grievances to his commanding officer, all the way up to a commanding General. It is rarely if ever used, however, and there are even studies/articles which have suggested that Request Mast is a short path to career suicide. Nobody likes a whistle blower and if there's any organization which expects you to put aside your personal complaints and tow the party line, it is the Marine Corps.
That being said, I felt like it was my only option - the only hope any of us caught in the agony really had. Some of the things that were happening to us - the weeks of field days, the retarded body breaking PT, the excessive and unnecessary inspections, and other things I've likely mentally blocked out at this point - could be interpreted as being in violation of standing orders, not just from the battalion commander but from commanders even higher than him. Having cut my teeth on the debate team in high school and keeping those skills fresh for the rest of my days (including while arguing about feminism and the like in the "MRM" and around the Spearhead) and highly confident in my writing skills as a result of recent endeavors, I composed a 14 page document outlining my grievances in between my 50-60 hour work week, full college load and whatever else I had going on.
I colluded in secret with a handful of like minded Marines and NCOs, and was heartened to see the positive impact my decision had on their mood. I had become their champion, and some went as far as to say they couldn't think of anyone better to do such a thing. Even still, the risks were huge and I would be sticking my neck out there to get chopped off - I would be hanging some senior leaders at my company out to dry, and there was no telling what sorts of repercussions I could face. Even assuming the battalion commander was amenable to what I had to say, I was in some danger - I didn't want to think of what would happen if he didn't like what I had to say. Ever the martyr, I put self-preservation aside and crafted the very best arguments I could to make our case - accusations hidden inside of implications wrapped in insinuations, all very political, getting the message across without throwing anyone into the fire just yet. Had I gone to an entity like the Inspector General, I have reason to believe I could have seen heads roll - but I was looking for the best solution for everyone, which included the people who were misbehaving. I assumed their intentions were noble even if their methodology was questionable. It was a delicate, delicate process, and I was planning out my moves several steps in advance - fully prepared to go all the way up to the commanding General if it came to that.
I hadn't planned or intended upon Requesting Mast on the 29th - looking at a calendar, I can see this day was a Friday. I probably had intended upon doing it the following Monday, giving myself the weekend to go over my document one final time and polish it to gleaming. But events that transpired that morning sent me over the edge. Our Company Commander gathered us all into the company classroom to bear witness to a Non-Judicial Punishment proceeding - a quick and dirty way for commanders to discipline troops and award punishments based on infractions. The infraction in this case was for something extremely stupid, and something that could only happen in the hell hole that was Okinawa. It was company policy that Marines were not allowed to entertain guests from other companies in our barracks rooms - an order I was fairly certain had been written without the battalion commander's knowledge. Three Marines were undergoing NJP because a Marine from another company had been caught in their room (one of the Marines was from my platoon).
The NJP proceeding itself was a complete miscarriage of justice. The company commander was basically badgering and insulting the first Marine the entire time, and the 1stSgt was roughly moving him around the room. The conduct could only be described as unbecoming. As I watched this travesty I nearly became physically ill. I cannot tolerate injustice. This bears repeating: I cannot tolerate injustice. At the first opportunity for a break that we had, I rushed over to my platoon SNCOIC, MSgt W., and told him "MSgt, today I will be Requesting Mast to the battalion commander." It looked like I had told him the building was on fire; he rushed over to our platoon commander (Warrant Officer O., who was dual billeted and serving additionally as the company XO) and told him the news. WO O rushed in and told the company commander and the 1stSgt, who both looked like they shat bricks.
Needless to say, the rest of the NJP proceeding went smoothly, fairly, and quickly. It took less time to do the remaining two Marines than it had taken to do the first, by a mile.
After we were released back to regular duties, I plopped down in front of one of our platoon's computers and hastily edited my document (which became affectionately known as the Ricky Mango, after someone's complete failure to remember the proper phonetic alphabet terms for RM, which would be Romeo Mike). I added a lengthy section about this NJP proceeding and how Marines from 3D Maint Bn were getting punished for associating with each other, appended an earlier paper I had written for the company commander which outlined several of the same complaints (as evidence that I had tried to use what is referred to as the "informal resolution system") and spent the rest of the day walking on egg shells. All told, my documentation totaled some 33 pages. I think I sat down and talked to every single SSgt and above at our company that day, and they all asked the same questions. I'm not sure how my poker face held up, and I didn't know exactly who I could and could not trust. I knew I could trust my Gunny, and I had kept him informed of basically everything I intended to do. I felt safe in my work section, and it was almost like the Marines in my platoon were enveloping me in a protective shield.
Hilariously enough, both the company clerks and the battalion clerks did not know how to properly process a Request Mast, and there was much confusion about how to properly do the paperwork and so on and so forth. I was told there hadn't been a Request Mast at 3d Maint Bn in at least 10 or 15 years - but I have no way of knowing how accurate that information is. The proper process involves sitting down with the top officer and enlisted Marines at each level of command - Company, Battalion, Regiment, Group, and so on - even if it your intent to go straight to the top with your grievances. Each officer is to be given a chance to offer their help to remedy the problem, even if you refuse their help. I refused my platoon commander, refused my 1stSgt, and refused my company commander. None of them had any idea what was in my paperwork; the documents were sealed in a package which expressly stated "For the BN CO's eyes only."
Eventually I was taken down to the battalion HQ by my 1stSgt, who treated me completely differently than regularly. Whereas previously we had a somewhat antagonistic relationship, on January 29th he was almost kissing my ass. Maybe he remembered that requiring Marines to conduct a PFT in 100 degree weather at 100% humidity was very much against regulation, maybe he didn't. In any case, it is never comfortable to be at the battalion HQ - too many people who are way more important than you. I was waiting to see the battalion Sergeant Major, who was well known for his unnerving gaze and ass-chewing proficiencies.
What followed during my meeting with him was perhaps the most bipolar conversation I've ever had. He chewed my ass for standing at attention for him (which he usually preferred), then he chewed my ass for going to parade rest and wanted me to be at ease. He got pissed when I continued to show him the proper respect by saying things like "Aye aye, SgtMaj" and then got pissed when I didn't say them. He shouted at me for ten or fifteen minutes about how I was a big fucking idiot and how I was wasting his time and wouldn't believe that my Request Mast wasn't just a gripe about not being able to have a POV or Gold Card. My poker face was impeccable for this part; what he (and my Drill Instructors, while we're on the subject) didn't know about me is that my mom trained me for this kind of shit with 17 years of psychological and emotional abuse so this was cake. Guy didn't even fucking know me, so it's not like any of his insults could stick.
It got weird when he dismissed me from his office and had me sit at the table outside. After five or ten minutes, he followed me out and sat down across the table from me and stared at me. Then he said, "Well? You gonna fucking say something?"
"No, Sergeant Major."
"Bull-fucking shit. You're here, I'm here, you're not gonna waste my god damn time. Ask me something."
I had no idea what to say to this man. Thinking of nothing else, I asked him about the regulations regarding public NJP proceedings. This got a conversation rolling where eventually he found out that I was enrolled in full time courses at the local university, getting a 4.0, having completed a dozen CLEPs and some twenty MCIs. When some other senior ranking battalion Marine came to talk to the SgtMaj, he spent several minutes gloating and boasting about me.
Like I said, fucking bipolar.
After a long delay, I get to see the battalion commander, LtCol P. He apologized for the delay but told me he wanted to fully read everything I had presented to him before seeing me. We talked for about an hour or so, I think, and he asked mostly clarifying questions. He explained that he intended upon spending more time with the documents and then sending for me again - so I had to leave and come back later that night. When I came back he and I spent about 3 hours in a dialogue about the issues and saw basically eye to eye. My careful arguments, delicately crafted positions and meticulous maneuvering had panned out better than I could have ever hoped in my wildest dreams.
One of the "traditions" of our platoon/company was a weekly sheet of quotes, compiled by one of my best friends and fellow Calibrators. On Monday, he ran a new quote page with but a single quotation, from the LtCol himself: "We're gonna get some shit done, my friend." This is the final thing he said to me on January 29th, after we both signed off on the final paperwork and as we shook hands.
I didn't have the words to express what I had gone through to my civilian friends or any of my readership from my activities in the MRM, so I left them this simple message. I didn't notice the comment on that post until a day or two ago, as I was doing the research for this writing project. It is from MSgt H, the man who would become acting company 1stSgt and who I respect beyond words. If I'm remembering correctly from my paperwork, he left the comment either the same day or the day after I was transferred to the hospital here in San Diego.
The words I do remember, and will remember for the rest of my life, came from my Gunnery Sergeant - another man for whom my respect is beyond words. He spent 10 years in the infantry before laterally moving to our occupational specialty, and his mentorship, guidance and leadership were invaluable to me. When I messaged him quickly that night to let him know that I had completed the process and that the LtCol was "on board," he replied:
Thank you. The courage you have shown in this endeavor is remarkable. Instead of randomly throwing a pebble in the water, you unleashed a precision guided boulder to which I will enjoy witnessing any resulting tsunamis. No matter what outcomes occur, your intentions were honorable and unselfish and as with all of the other adjectives floating in my head, are demonstrating what everyone strives to be, a leader.
The painful thing about these memories - the thing causing the tears to well up - is the fact that, in a little less than two weeks, I would fail all of these people I cared so much about, and I would fail them so utterly and completely. I couldn't have known it at the time - no one knew it at the time, no one saw it coming at all. I've written before about how the military can be like a surrogate family - especially to those who come from broken homes - and my unit was very much my family. I was closer with them than I am with anyone in my family, and that Gunny was a lot like the father I never had.
And by February 14th, I would let them all down.