The Lieutenant’s Epiphany
By Jim Kuiken
In 1975, after I returned to “the world” (the U.S.) from overseas, I was stationed in Camp Pendelton, CA, one of the biggest Marine Corps Bases, and after a short stint in Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, I finally got to where I was always meant to be – 1st Reconnaissance Battalion.
In those days, 1st Recon was still being reorganized, and Charlie Co. was just a skeleton crew. The commanding officer (C.O.), the best officer I ever worked with in my 30 years in the Marine Corps (although there were a couple others who came close), was Captain Counselman. After I came on board, due to my background – and because of my focus and gung-ho, hard charging, (somewhat insane…as described by others) personality – he appointed me as acting Company Gunny, since there were no Staff NCOs in the company at that time. We were also critically short of officers, so once we finally got a Staff Sergeant, he took over as the acting Company Gunny, and I was appointed as the acting Platoon Commander (a lieutenant’s job) for 3rd Platoon.
As more officers were brought on board, they took over the other positions (Executive Officer, Platoon Commanders), except for 3rd Platoon. I was left in place until the very last, when we finally got a brand new “Butter Bar” 2nd Lieutenant. Normally, officers coming into Recon have to have been an officer in “grunts” first, and be a 1st Lieutenant, because brand new lieutenants don’t have the background, seasoning or maturity to be able to handle the types of missions, and the type of Marines that are in Recon, but during the draw-down at the end of the Vietnam war, those were in short supply. The C.O. paired him with me, since I was the most experienced sergeant in the company, and had developed the 3rd Plt. into the best platoon in the company.
When he welcomed the Lieutenant on board, the C.O. had me in his office and introduced us to each other. I still remember what the C.O. told him. “Lieutenant, I know you have a lot of book smarts but you don’t have any time in the field, not counting your training exercises in OCS and TBS. If you listen to Sergeant Kuiken, you just might survive this.” “Sgt. Kuiken, be kind…”
Things went well for a while…until we went out on our first field training exercise. We were tasked with setting up an LP / OP (listening post / observation post) on top of a mountain overlooking some other units in the area, and to report back to Division HQ as if those units were enemy working in the area. The units we were to gather intel on were fully aware that we would be in the area, and would be actively trying to spot us.
We were supposed to move into the area and set up right at dusk, observe and gather intel during the night, and be back to the base camp by first light the next morning. As we got ready to move out, I saw the lieutenant pull out a map and compass…and I got nervous. I asked him where he got the compass, and he told me not to worry about it, as he laid the map down and started working out a route to the mountain we were supposed to go to.
I said “Sir, we…”, and he cut me off. “Sergeant, make sure the men are ready, and get ready to move out.” “Yes sir” I replied, and stepped over to the guys, who had been ready for hours. We were a four-man team plus the lieutenant, who was supposed to be going along to observe and learn…
He lead off, and I tried to tell him we were headed the wrong way, but he cut me off again, so we headed up the mountain (and Camp Pendelton has some pretty big mountains), and got up there just as dark was falling. He looked around and didn’t see the “enemy”, so I walked up to him (hoping he’d learned the lesson), and said “We’re on the wrong mountain Lieutenant.”
He got flustered, got out his map and compass, and as I started to say something, he told me that I needed to understand that he was in charge now. “Roger that, sir. I know that. I’m just trying…” and he held up his hand to stop me. I walked back over to the team (who were trying not to laugh), and gave them a hard look. Quietly, I told them to put that attitude away (I wasn’t going to tolerate any disrespect to our new commander), that he was learning – and we waited.
When he had it figured out, we went back down the mountain, and back up on top of another one…which was also the wrong one. Now it was close to midnight, and I could see he was embarrassed and frustrated, so I walked over to him and said “This isn’t the right one sir”.
He finally turned to me and said “Sergeant, can you tell me where we should be?” Knowing the area like the back of my hand, I pointed to one a couple ridges over, and said “That one.” I could see he was tired, but we headed out, and finally reached the correct peak at around 3:30 or so.
Unfortunately, if we were going to get to basecamp before first light, we would have to leave right then, and probably run most of the way to get there on time. We hadn’t even unpacked, so all we had to do was take off…but as a four-man Recon team, we carried almost as much gear as a full 12-man squad in the regular grunts…radios, night scopes, etc., etc.
We took off at a fast trot, knowing we had about 6 miles over ridges and rough terrain to cover…and after about 2 miles, I could see the lieutenant’s tongue almost dragging. He was dropping back, and told us to keep going (he was supposed to be just an observer). We were used to ‘ridge runs’ with full gear – we did that all the time for conditioning – so we just took off. We’d been holding way back.
By the time he got back to basecamp, we’d already unpacked and cleaned our gear, and were having coffee and breakfast there in the ‘hooch’. As the lieutenant stumbled in, completely worn out and soaked through with sweat, he asked if I would please join him in his office. He’d had plenty of time to think and had an epiphany…
Things really improved when he wore some of the shininess off of those bars, and started listening to his sergeant…and he actually turned out to be a pretty good officer (after a year or two of seasoning).