|Posted by robertbartron on September 16, 2012 at 12:10 AM||comments (0)|
Something happened to me the past couple of days that was unsettling because I felt conflicted on how to respond to the well wishes of others. I guess it was confusing because we both looked at the same situation, but each saw something different.
It reminds me of the story I heard about the Vietnam POWs from California who were hosted by then-Governor Reagan to a garden party to celebrate their return. At the event, Reagan, and other civilians he had invited, asked a question of the ex-POWs that had puzzled them for a great while, “Once you were imprisoned and you had no chance of escape, why did you continue to resist to the point that you were tortured and permanently physically disabled?”
The ex-POWs did not at first understand the question because the civilians were looking at the situation from a viewpoint that had never entered the professional military member’s mind. They answered, “Just because we were captured did not mean the war was over. Rather, just the battleground had changed. They took away all of our weapons, so the only way we could continue to fight the enemy was with our personal resistance, each and every time they chose to interrogate us.”
And I recall being told once that SEALs are a little sheepish about any hoopla over receiving a medal for valor. It was explained to me that SEALs can view the receipt of a medal as a public admission that their detailed operation plan was deficient because someone had to do something exceptionally heroic to overcome the error in planning. This is definitely a different view than civilians, and even other military members, have of pinning a medal on someone’s chest.
This past week I visited a state and federal office to obtain a disabled veteran’s pass to public parks. At each place more than one civilian told me,“Thank you for your service.”
That was nice, but I always feel a little flustered on how to respond. It wasn’t until today that I finally figured out why their well meaning expressions made me uncomfortable. I was raised professionally to believe that being given the opportunity to serve was a special gift bestowed on those chosen to be members of the Armed Forces. American moms and dads entrusted me with their most precious possessions, their sons and daughters, and they charged me to care for them well and to make them proud. It was an honor to be given this privilege and trust. Additionally, all my fellow citizens gave me their freedom as guaranteed in the Constitution and told me to cherish and protect it at all costs.
So, you see when I hear someone say, “Thank you for your service,” I don’t know how to respond. It would be quite awkward to say “You’re welcome” because that is not what you say when you have received a gift. And I was given a great gift when I was selected to attend the Naval Academy and given a much more precious gift when I was commissioned and assigned to lead a division of men loaned to our country by their parents. I tried my best not to fail them and to“support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies,foreign and domestic.”
I really, honestly want to respond to any gratitude expressed for my twenty-five years in uniform with, “NO, thank you!” But somehow I think most civilians, just like at the governor’s garden party and non-SEALs, would find it difficult to understand the military point of view about service.
So I just smile and nod.
|Posted by robertbartron on July 3, 2012 at 3:20 PM||comments (0)|
Tomorrow is the 4th ofJuly and American flags will be flying over many houses and stores and twenty-five family members will be coming over for a bar-b-que by the pool. I will enjoy the 95 degree Sacramento Valley dry heat and the jokes my Orthodox priest brother-in-law will share and the great-nephews and -nieces splashing in the water with wide smiles, loud laughs and robust screams of joy. The fireworks at night and the over-stuffed belly feeling are something to be cherished as another memory is added to our lives.
There is a very old memory I recall from forty summers ago that I cherish just as much. It is a memory of a basic leadership lesson I learned from a Naval Academy classmate and I used that knowledge throughout my career both in the Navy and the nearly twenty years since I last wore a uniform to work.
I was Lima Company commander during the second set of the plebe summer training detail for the brand new Class of 1976. As it happened, that summer our company was housed on a floor of a separate wing of Bancroft Hall. We were relatively isolated from the other dozen plebe companies. A couple of weeks before the upperclassmen of the Brigade returned to start the new academic year, a late night meeting was called of all the company commanders in the room of the regimental commander. I remember we all squeezed into that two-man room and listened as our classmate showed his emotion over being ignored about a seemingly trivial matter. Earlier, during the evening meal, he had announced to the regiment that the bell used to call order in the mess hall had been “liberated” as part of a plebe prank. He had announced that the bell could be returned with amnesty granted to the high-spirited and light-fingered thieves, provided it was back in place by 2200. Well, it was 2200 when the commanders’ meeting commenced and the bell was still missing.
I believe I remember the exact words used by the regimental commander at that short meeting. I do not believe he was personally mad at being ignored, but he was upset that the authority of his position had been challenged. He told us, “I want that bell back tonight. Find it.” When another classmate asked what we were authorized to do to find the bell, the regimental commander responded, “Tear‘em up.”
Okay, I spent my plebe year in 9th Company. We were still chopping during Dead Week before finals. Unlike the experience of some of my classmates who had reasonable, skilled leaders directing their Plebe year companies, we in the Ninth knew the darker side of leadership techniques. When I heard, “Tear ‘em up,” I knew exactly what to do.
From 2200 until 2245 the Class of ’76 plebes in Lima Company, for the first and only time that summer, experienced a very little taste of what my initial training had been three years prior. I watched as the platoon commanders proceeded to stray from the enlightened leadership of demanding performance to the ineffective, but memorable, techniques of humiliation and “playing with their minds, just ‘cause we can” style of bossing.
It all started with the 120 plebes of Lima Company at a strict brace against the passageway bulkheads. Then each platoon commander tried to best the other two in “playing” with his charges. To this day I laugh out loud when I recall the diabolical technique of one who shall go un-named when he held a traditional “snow flake” drill in the hall. He sent his platoon back into their rooms and told them to return with all of their white socks and then he ordered them to throw all the socks into the air, then kick them into a big pile in the middle of the passageway. Then he asked, “Are these all of your whitesocks?” Before any could answer, he added, “I see a great big pile of white uniform socks, but I don’t see any athletic socks here.”
Immediately, all of his plebes raced to their rooms and returned with all their athletic socks which were added to the pile.
Now came the diabolical part of his plan. Next he said, “Gentlemen, it looks like we might be up all night, so it is probably better that you change from your sleeping attire to a uniform. So, let’s have an easy uniform race to see how fast you can get properly dressed. As soon as the clock on the wall clicks to the next minute, you beat feet for your rooms. I will call out what uniform you will put on as you go. And remember gentlemen, you will have exactly two minutes to be back against that bulkhead in a COMPLETE uniform or we will be here having fun all night.”
On the next movement of the minute hand of the clock, the forty plebes in his platoon bolted for their rooms. As they vacated the hallway, the platoon commander bellowed, “Service Dress White! GO! GO!”
It took nearly five seconds before the first moan and expletive could be heard from each room. The plebes were in a predicament that I’m sure most faced many times in their future careers. They were in a no-win situation. All of their white socks were sitting in a pile in the middle of the hallway and without them, it was impossible to don a complete and proper set of whites. And they could not go back out in the hall until they had on the complete prescribed uniform.
While this platoon was wrestling with the impossible, down the hall another group of forty plebes was having their own night to remember. Each had been sent to bring back proof that they had not lost one of their jock straps. As the laundry had been returned the day before and was not to be picked up for another couple of days, each plebe should have both his G.I.-issued jock straps in his possession, one clean one in his locker and one dirty one in his laundry bag. So I watched as they all held a jock strap in each hand as they braced against the bulkhead. Then the platoon commander directed each plebe to pass one jock strap to the person on his right and to drop his remaining jock strap. Still totally confused, the plebes did as they were directed. Next the platoon commander decided that since all were holding a nice harness in their hands, then “greyhound races” would be a good thing to do.
The plebes formed three lines at the end of the hall and when directed, the first man would don his harness by putting his neighbor’s (possibly dirty) jock strap over his face like a dog muzzle and get down on all fours. The second man in line would grab the first plebe’s feet and then the pairs raced down the hall. At the end of the hall, they changed places and raced back. This gross relay went on until every plebe had been forced to wear his classmate’s jock.
The remaining platoon was undergoing a quiz while the snowflake drill, uniform races, and greyhound relays were happening. The platoon commander wanted to know if any plebe could state, without any doubt, the exact number of shelving supports that were in his locker. Each shelf was adjustable by means of removable clip supports and so sometimes the clips were lost, making the answer much more difficult than a mere multiplication problem. Of course, the only proper response to a question that you could not answer with certainty was, “I’ll find out,sir.” So the platoon commander gave them permission to go find out. And he added as he dismissed them, “And I’d like you to bring all of your clips out here in the hall to show me how many you actually have. Everyone back here in one minute. GO!”
One minute later, forty plebes were standing at a brace against the hall bulkhead with a stack of metal shelving clips cradled in their hands or shirt tails. During the previous sixty seconds, every shelf in every locker had fallen to the bottom of the closet and all the very neatly folded clothes and other properly stored items were in total disarray, spilling out onto the deck in what appeared to be the results of a mini-tornado touching down in their inspection-ready rooms.
Of course, all the clips were next thrown into a giant pile in the middle of the hallway and the platoon commander proceeded to conduct uniform races that were hindered greatly by the plebes’ inability to find the right clothes in the piles of confusion that had previously been their precisely organized, squared away lockers.
Forty years have passed, and I have trouble remembering all the other “fun things” that were done with the plebes that night. But I do remember how the night ended. The Regimental Commander approached our company area across the enclosed bridge from the adjoining wing. I met him before he had a chance to enter completely.
“ Hi, Gary. Any word on the bell yet?” I asked very innocently.
“No. I just came by to ensure that you have your plebes in bed now. The OOD is patrolling. He’s looking for any plebe indoctrination violations. You didn’t do any of that old school stuff did you, Bob?”
“Old school? What do you mean?” I responded to his question with another innocent question.
“You know, stuff like clip counts and things like that,” the Regimental Commander said, his eyes growing wider as he looked over my shoulder.
Just then, two plebes were pushing dozens of locker clips with big brooms across the hallway where we were talking.
There was a long pause in our conversation as I thought about how to answer that question with what he had hoped to hear. Finally, I decided it was best if I just ignored it altogether.
“So, no word on where the bell is,huh Gary?” I said.
“Bob, I figure the OOD will be coming through here in about five minutes. I would appreciate it if he left satisfied that the little plebes are safe and sound and tucked into their beds.”
“No problem,” I said over my shoulder as I turned and hustled to prep for the OOD’s tour.
I remember Gary shaking his head as he turned and went back the way he came.
When the OOD came by a few minutes later, he strolled through our spaces and glanced through the open door of each room. He left confident that Lima Company had not participated in anything unusual before taps. All appeared to be secure, so he continued his rounds and entered the adjacent wing.
If he had stepped into any room he would have seen everything the plebes owned heaped in a big pile in and by the shower, out of the sight line from the hallway. Once it was clear, the platoon leaders and I pretended we did not see the flashlights scanning the plebes’ rooms after taps as they worked through the night to have their rooms inspection ready before breakfast.
So what did I learn about leadership that evening? Well, one lesson I had learned earlier in the summer was reinforced. Don’t say it, unless you really mean it. People have a tendency to actually take you at your word! A few days earlier I had told a plebe that the next time I entered his room and found the corners on his bunk not made properly, I would throw his bed out the window. Sure enough, later that day I had to toss his (and for good measure, his roommate’s) mattress out their third deck window onto Goat Court. I honestly hadn’t expected to have to do that…I may have regretted saying it, but I still had to do it.
The second lesson I learned on the“Night of the Stolen Bell,” was you have to trust those to whom you delegate. Gary did, and that was the right thing to do. And the third lesson I learned was that you must back up those same subordinates if they did what they thought you had directed. Gary did not attempt to “cover his own six” when he saw the plebes sweeping the clips. He did not turn into a screaming, "holier than thou" superior yelling, "How could you!" He did not try to “dump” on me for misinterpreting what he had said. Rather, he was loyal down the chain and asked only that I take whatever action was right and necessary to correct the problem as it was then—not worrying about what had happened previously to arrive at the current dilemma.
I watched Gary through the coming academic year and he never failed to impress me with his level-headed approach to tasks and his talent at inspiring those he led. He was made Brigade Commander and represented our class very well in that position.
Of course, my classmates know who I am describing in this sea story. The Plebe Summer Regimental Commander and academic year Brigade Commander was Gary Roughead. Later in my career and after I retired from the Navy I would hear of Gary being given command of a fleet, and then another fleet, and then becoming the highest admiral in the Navy, the Chief of Naval Operations. Each time I read of his promotions and his extremely important assignments, I felt good inside. I actually would go out of my way to share with shipmates and family how I felt about Gary's assignments, telling them, “The Navy did something right. The fleet is in good hands.”
Yeah, it was forty years ago this summer, when Gary and I were both just 21-year old midshipmen, but I still remember the leadership lessons I was personally taught by the (future) CNO.
Oh, yeah, later it was discovered that the bell had been taken as a prank by members of the Class of 1974 who were undergoing second-class training that summer. Go figure.
|Posted by robertbartron on January 14, 2012 at 2:25 PM||comments (2)|
I have been asked why my latest book (WYLIE FINDS HIS SPECIAL PLACE) is a children’s book and not one of the military or crime novels I usually write. I hope this blog entry sufficiently addresses that question.
The Greatest Memory of Mom
Okay, I admit it. I am sixty years old. It is the age my late mother said was another step in maturing. She lived to be 85 and shared with me what she had learned in life. “At twenty, I worried about what others thought about me. At forty, I didn’t care what others thought about me. At sixty, I realized that no one was thinking about me—everyone was focused on their own lives. At eighty, I stopped remembering who the “others” were.”
I have come to understand just how wise my Momma was. But, it is not her wisdom that I remember most about her. It is not the adventurous spirit she shared with my father or the extremely practical manner she approached everyday life. What I remember most about my mother was the special times we shared when I was in half-day kindergarten in the 1950’s. Tears form in my eyes and a grin spreads across my face when I remember the days we shared our lunch after school. It was the only time I can recall when she would stop during her busy day and sit down with me. As a mother of four baby boomers born over a span of eight years, it was rare for her to have any moment in the day when she could lay aside her duties and exclusively devote a few minutes to just one child.
My older siblings were still in school and my little sister would be down for her nap when the bus dropped me off at the corner of our street and I would rush home (you could do that safely back then, even at age five.) Mom would fix us PB&J sandwiches; mine being with the strawberry jam and hers with blueberry. After we finished our simple fare and I gulped down the cool, whole milk we segued to my favorite time. We would go to the small bedroom in the front of the little post-war, two-bedroom suburban home and lie down on my parent’s full-sized bed. It was my nap time.
Before I’d drift off to sleep there was a set routine that we shared. Mom would pull from the nightstand a copy of “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” and ask me which I wanted to hear today. Even at age sixty, I can remember the worn, gray cover on that old volume and the black & white sketches that illustrated each story… just as if the book was in my hands right now. After I made my choice, we would lay on our backs as Mom held the book over our heads and began to read to me in her monotone voice.
She was not a dramatic reader and would not change her voice to mimic the characters or punch up the story by changing the speed of her reading. My mom never would have been selected to be the story reader for children’s time at the local library. It was not her style of reading that I remember half a century later. Rather, it is the warmth and closeness I felt for Momma as I snuggled against her and watched her turn the pages of that old volume. I don’t remember anything else of that year—the kids in my kindergarten class or the color of our house or if I had a dog that year or the bus rides to school or even what was my favorite Grimm tale. What I do remember these many years later is my mom reading to me and how super special and super loved it made me feel then.
And it makes me feel the same today. Thanks for that memory, Mom.
READ TO YOUR CHILDREN AND GRANDCHILDREN! YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE A GREAT READER, JUST READ TO THEM! THERE IS NO VIDEO GAME OR OUTING OR VACATION THAT IS MORE IMPORTANT TO THEM. A HALF-CENTURY FROM NOW THEY WILL REMEMBER YOU DID AND LOVE YOU FOR IT.
|Posted by robertbartron on November 21, 2011 at 2:10 AM||comments (0)|
Colonel Milkus unlocks the tall safe near his desk in the JCS J-2 offices of the Pentagon. He initials the form taped to the inside of the door, noting what time he opened it and his name. Before reaching in to get his files he turns the paper sign on the safe front door from “Locked” to “Open”. Attention to detail. It marks a professional Marine. How many times did his TBS instructors repeat that phrase?
Milkus takes a thick file to his desk. From the inside cover he removes a floppy disk. He boots up the personal computer on his desk and loads the disk. It still amazes him how swiftly the military has moved from paper and typewriters to computers and word processing. When he started in the fifties it was carbonpaper and three typos allowed per page. Then it was magnetic cards and now in 1985 this PC has the capacity to calculate with the same power of big mainframes from only a few years ago. This computing power is what has made the Black Jewel project a viable subject for advanced research. It would be impossible even to attempt it without modern computers.
Field deployment of Black Jewel sounds easy to do when using the computers and their artificial modeling world. However, he knows in his heart that he won’t change. He will continue only to trust his life to a grunt Marine with a rifle. Computers know nothing about esprit d’corps and traditions. No computer model can account for the heroics individual Marines will evidence to save their buddy or the mission.
Milkus lets his mind drift to an earlier time as the computer slowly brings up the complicated program. He recalls Foxtrot Company’s fire fight on a moonless night fifteen years ago. His entire company’s survival depended on second squad, second platoon repelling a savage assault by the NVA. No re-enforcements were available. No air support. No evacuation. No way to redeploy the company. If that squad’s remaining ten men did not hold, the thin perimeter would be violated and what little mutual support the platoons provided each other would be lost. The company would be destroyed piece meal.
It didn’t matter what errors had led to this situation. It didn’t matter that Milkus had two previous 'Nam in-country tours and was the most experienced and senior company commander in the battalion. It didn’t matter that every Marine knew the war was already lost by the politicians. What mattered was that second squad, second platoon, Foxtrot Company was elected by destiny to receive the ultimate test of courage and fidelity.
In a War College computer model, the skirmish would be over in minutes and the post action critique would commence to point out what errors had resulted in the company’s destruction. But computers were not in that tree line on that night. No, not a computer but grunt Marines with M-16s who chose to do their duty. And when morning came and with it air support, Foxtrot Company was still there to be evacuated. Sixty-seven dead NVA surrounded second squad’s position. Those bodies closest to the Marines were dead of stab wounds. Another five Marines in second squad were dead and two more wounded. One would die later that day of multiple wounds. For three solid hours this squad had refused to retreat an inch. They used automatic weapons, grenades, side arms and finally hand-to-hand combat; anything and everything to protect their buddies.
Milkus shakes his head to clear it of a memory he usually keeps locked away in a very special, secret garden of his mind. He normally visits that walled remembrance only in his dreams or when he has had two beers too many. He is bothered by questions in his mind, “What were the names of those four who lived? What did they look like? What was the name of that rifleman I nominated for the Navy Cross? Why can’t I pull up their names and faces anymore?”
The computer program finally springs to life and Milkus stops his memories. He enters his password, “2SQ.2PLA.FOX”. Every time he enters it he chuckles about the little irony in his choice. Computers will always have limitations. True Marines know no limits.
The above entry is a passage from the novel CREW ELEVEN by Robert Bartron (available in this site's web store)
|Posted by robertbartron on November 6, 2011 at 9:15 PM||comments (4)|
As he rested in the adjustable hospital bed that Hospice Services had placed in the front room of his single-wide mobile home, Dad took a first and final account of his life. His two-year battle with lung cancer was almost over and he had two questions he wanted answered. Had he really done anything important in his life? What was his biggest regret?
My father died as he had lived his entire 73 years. As death rapidly approached, Dad looked reality in the face and sneered. He was not going to let the way things were determine what he was going to do.
He had lived through the Great Depression by ignoring it and finding ways to have an exciting and adventurous youth despite extreme poverty and the lack of real parental authority in his dysfunctional family. He graduated from high school when he was 15 because he could breeze through the academics and he was in a rush to see the world. When he was only 16 he lied about his age to gain employment as a deck hand on a tramp steamer that worked the entire west coast from Seattle, Washington to Valparaiso, Chile. Then he altered his birth certificate so he could enlist in the Navy. He was waiting to report to Boot Camp when the attack on Pearl Harbor stunned America. Very quickly, he completed his basic and advanced training and he was sent to sea on a ship in the Pacific. He was cross-trained as an aviation radioman and found himself over the skies to the northwest of Midway Islands in early June 1942 when three Japanese carriers were sunk in under ten minutes. From 1941 to 1944 he fought in four major sea battles, was shot down, captured by and escaped from the Japanese, survived the sinking of his ship and earned multiple Purple Hearts and other decorations that meant little to him. In fact, my brother and I lost them all when he gave his medals to us to play with.
He did not dwell on what he had done; his focus always was on what he could do tomorrow. He never held the same type of job for more than a couple of years before his wandering feet and expansive interests led him to try something new. He seemed always to be in a race to find the next thing in his life.
As he lay there dying, it was the only time in my life I ever heard my father talk about his feelings concerning what he had seen and done in life. Oh, he was a true Irish storyteller so he often shared humorous anecdotes about the past, and, like all good Irish raconteurs he never let the truth get in the way of a good tale. But Dad never shared his feelings about what he had experienced and accomplished. He would share funny sailor stories from World War II, but he never talked about the loss and gore and terror of battle.
So when he lay staring at the wedding picture taken on a cold Wisconsin January afternoon that showed both my Mom, an original Navy WAVE, and him in uniform, I listened very intently when he said, “You know, Bob, that is the most important thing I ever accomplished in my life.”
“You mean a successful fifty-year marriage?” I responded.
“Oh, that was also important and you kids were important, but men have done that for all of history. No, I mean, when my shipmates and I won the war.”
I immediately connected with his intent. He loved his family and was proud of his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. However, here on his death bed he had resolved that the single greatest achievement of his life was serving in the Navy.
“I don’t mean I personally won the war,” he continued, “but when our country needed us we stepped up and did our part. It was a war that had to be won. And we did it.”
That was all he said about that. There was nothing more to say. He had weighed everything in his mind, and looking back for the first time in his life, he realized that he had achieved something important, very important.
Then he shared something else that has been on my mind for the past weeks. It was a little secret just between us veterans.
“Bob, I do have one regret in my life. Back when we were floating in the sea with twenty men clinging to a 10-man life raft after the Yorktown went down, I made up my mind that I would not die in the war. I set a goal to celebrate Armistice Day on 11-11-11. I promised myself to live until I was 88 and see the parades and hear the speeches and remember all my shipmates who fell from the sky and those that went down with their ships. I honestly regret I won’t be able to do that.”
“I’ll remember for you Dad,” I said then and I will this Veterans’ Day. I will remember my Dad and Mom and Navy vet brother and our older son who is an Army combat veteran of Iraq and our son-in-law who is a Navy pilot with multiple war zone tours. I will especially keep our youngest son in my thoughts as he currently takes his turn in serving America by flying combat missions in Afghanistan. I will remember my shipmates who went to sea with me when we crossed the Pacific and Indian Oceans and those who defied death and gravity with me as we flew twelve-hour missions hunting Soviet submarines.
“Veteran” is not just a word to me. “Veteran” is a thousand individual faces I’ve known. But when I remember them this 11-11-11 they will all look like my Dad and Mom standing in the Wisconsin snow so long ago, wearing Navy blue.
Rest in peace, Dad and Mom…and thank you, dear ones, thank you.
Robert Bartron is a retired Navy pilot and author whose military fiction novels emphasize the courage, dedication and honor of members of our armed forces.