“A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
By Jim Kuiken
As many of you know (and a lot of you may not), I spent a good portion of my 30-year Marine Corps career in Battalion Reconnaissance (Bn. Recon) and Force Reconnaissance (Force Recon), as well as a few other “special operations” units (ANGLICO, USMC Civil Affairs, etc.).
Suffice it to say that my career (and most of my deployments) did not follow a “traditional” career path in the Marine Corps. Don’t get me wrong…I wouldn’t have had it any other way! The reason I was in those positions for so long was because I absolutely loved it, and I was good at what I did.
It all started a long, long time ago… Back in the early ‘70’s, I was “tasked” for a special assignment, which ended up exposing me to the world of special operations, and I decided that I wanted to do that full-time. When I returned to the United States in 1975, I immediately started bugging my commanders to transfer me to 1st Recon Battalion, and after some wrangling, I was transferred over.
But that’s not how I got into Recon. That’s how I got into the Unit…but not how I got into operations. Before it was a primary “Military Occupational Specialty”, Recon was a secondary MOS (i.e., not permanent)…and before there was a Marine Corps Reconnaissance Training Company, there was RIP…Reconnaissance Indoctrination Program. It wasn’t a formal school like now, it was run by the battalion, and was somewhat akin to today’s Basic Reconnaissance Primer Course (BRPC) – but since it was locally designed and run, there was a lot more flexibility. (i.e., you had to get past them to get in…).
RIP started out with a series of tests, and if you passed all of them, along with an instructor critique and a peer evaluation…then you were moved forward into the training phase…again, having to pass all the training, and another instructor critique and peer evaluation. After all that, if you passed, you were finally brought on as a candidate, and sent to Amphibious Reconnaissance School (which no longer exists…it is akin to the current Basic Reconnaissance Course).
Suffice it to say, it was a tough hurdle to pass. And it all started out with one test…“The Rock”.
I didn’t really understand the test (I thought I did…but I found out much later, when I ended up running the RIP program for 1st Recon Bn.) that it wasn’t at all what I thought it was. And trust me, they didn’t explain anything. Part of the test was to see if you would just do as you were told, without hesitation, without questions. But we didn’t even know that…
They took us out one at a time to the beach, close to “Las Flores”, one of the many small “camps” that house various units on Marine Corps Base (MCB) Camp Pendleton. 1st Recon Bn. was housed there on Las Flores (before they got kicked out in 1976 and sent to Camp Talega, all the way in the back of Camp Pendleton, away from everyone else...but that’s another Frontline Tale, for another time… ;)
They took us out one at a time, over a two-day period, for “The Rock”. Since I was a Sergeant at the time, the highest ranking “tadpole” there, I had the honor of being woken up at 0400 (4am) on the first day, and hustled out to the beach. (they rode in a jeep, I ran alongside).
When we got there, I got a quick drink from a canteen, then they had me strip off my t-shirt, so I was wearing my boots and utility trousers, with no shirt. When I was ready, they backed the jeep up to the water’s edge, and dumped a big, perfectly round granite rock off into the surf. It was about the size of a small beach ball, was painted shiny black (which made it slick when wet), with a white skull and crossbones (with three painted bullet holes in the skull’s forehead).
As they pulled the jeep back up onto the packed area of sand, they told me to go over and pick up The Rock. I’ve never been one of these big hulking type guys…and at that time, was 5’8” and a massive 130 pounds…wet. That d@mn rock was heavy!!! And hard to pick up. And hard to hold on to…
When I finally muscled it up, and was holding it with both my hands on the bottom with my arms wrapped around it, they pointed south, and said “Stay in the water, half-way between your ankles and your knees, and run”. They didn’t say how far, or anything else, so I started running (if you can call a slog through mid-calf deep surf with boots and trousers, holding a very heavy, slick round rock “running”…) as fast as I could. They paced me in the jeep, and said nothing, as the sun topped the horizon and started to rise.
I don’t know how far I ran, and I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, so I just kept running until I basically passed out and fell into the surf, vomiting.
Evidently they pulled me out, because I came to in the jeep on the way back. They still said nothing until we got back to Las Flores, and then they said “Get out. Don’t say anything about the test. Send out the next one, then get cleaned up and grab chow. Someone will come get you in an hour.” The rest was history! I finished my RIP a few weeks later (doing a few hundred Recon pushups, ridge-runs, surf ops, and a whole bunch of other stuff along the way), and was on my way to Amphib Recon School.
That all sounds like a bunch of macho tuff-guy stuff, but a lot of folks who ran a lot farther than me never made it. Several of them never made it past The Rock…
Only when I finally took over as the SNCOIC (guy in charge…) of 1st Recon RIP, and studied the curriculum did I finally understand. It wasn’t about how far you ran, or how fast. It wasn’t a physical test at all! Those who gave it all, went as far as they could before their body just quit on them, those who asked no questions, just did…were the ones who passed. One of the guys who ran farther than anyone else, but ended just stopping and throwing the rock down was gone that day.
It was about if you quit.
They could make you stronger, they could teach you what you needed to know, and you would practice (ad nauseam), until everything you needed to do was deeply ingrained…but they could not teach you to “Never quit, never stop, never give in…” That was all you.
We ended up re-vamping and modernizing the RIP curriculum after I took over – but we kept
Tempering the Blade
By Jim Kuiken
Adversity sucks. Hard times, desperation, worry, heartache, pain and suffering. Why does the other guy have it better than me / my family, etc? Some people just glide through life without a care, everything always goes well for them – finances, “power and privilege” …
Frankly, I don’t give a $#!+ about how well others have it. As long as they came by it legally, good for them! I don’t care one way or another about those who are doing well. It has nothing to do with me or mine – and I don’t ascribe to the idiocy of envy, jealousy or coveting – or of taking away from those who “have” to give to those who don’t.
What I do care about is those who don’t have, those who struggle. But I don’t believe in giving them someone else’s money, property, or success. I do believe in helping them find opportunity to make it on their own, with their own drive, determination and guts.
Like many of you, I know what it is to struggle. I’ve been to the top, back to the bottom, and back to the top (and back to the bottom) many times in my life. And I’ll bet many people who appear to have it all together actually have too. I’m always careful of assuming, because you never know what struggles (external or internal) that others have or are going through.
When I say that, most people assume (there’s that word again…) that what I’m talking about when I mention my own background is the 30 years as a combat Marine, my time as a Firefighter/EMT-A, and my time as a Law Enforcement Officer / Agent (LEO). Yeah, I’ve seen some rough times there, in some very bad places, losing some friends in very bad places, and seeing the heartache and depravity that only Firefighters and LEO’s see.
But very few people know of some of the personal (external) struggles I’ve seen. Many have seen much worse, but these were just a few of mine.
The first time I got divorced, I had to walk away from my two young children (I still saw them, but I didn’t live with them anymore), and took my 12-foot camp trailer out to Gowan Field (the military reserve center behind the airport in Boise Idaho), where I parked it behind the USMC Reserve Center…in the winter… It was a very small trailer with no bathroom, a small sink and a bed, and not much else. I ran an extension cord and a hose into the back window of the reserve center for water and heat, and when I needed to use the restroom, I went inside the Center (which had anti-freeze in the toilet water to keep it from freezing), and stood in the deep sink (cold water only) to take a “bath”… And I had one box of canned goods, my clothes in trash bags, and my bicycle. It was a rough couple of months, especially since I had just lost my job as well.
After a while, a friend (and fellow Marine) took me in to his house (then a mobile home, when he lost the house because he also lost his job), and we scraped along. I even ended up standing in line at the food bank (for a big 5lb block of cheese, a large bag of flour, a box of powdered milk, and some salt) to get by when we ran out of food! Can you say biscuits and white gravy with sprinkled cheese, and some really watery “milk”? Kept us going for a while!
We both found jobs after a couple of months of searching, and things finally turned around! Life went on…until my second divorce.
Back in the 12-foot trailer behind the reserve center, one box of canned goods, my clothes in bags, and my bicycle. And someone stole my bicycle.
And life went on. I worked my way up (and had a few more deployments), and ended up back in law enforcement (Federal this time), as well as continuing my military (reserve by this time) career, and look how things turned out!
Adversity. Is it a bad thing? It’s rough, I’ll give you that…but is it bad? I actually pity those who have had perfectly smooth sailing. Many of them never learned the tough lessons, or how to stand on their own hind legs.
Adversity “makes (wo)men better or bitter”.
Adversity “separates friends, into the good ones or the bad ones”. Did they cut and run or walk away…or did they step up and stand by you? I know I had a bunch of the first, and a precious (and I mean that literally) few, who I can name. Who were there regardless of other’s opinions, or anything else. They stood firm.
Adversity is the true test of “(wo)men, friends, and family”. (and teams, and leaders!)
Do you know how to make a great sword? (yeah, I know…another example of one of Kuiken’s “linear” thought patterns…) Sorry! (not sorry…)
There are two extremes of swords. There is the stamped, molded or cold-pressed sword. It looks very nice, and is good to hang on the wall – but the first time you hit anything with it, it shatters, bends or breaks. It’s all flash, no fury.
And then there is the Katana (Samurai sword). I know there are a lot of great swords out there, but this one is my example
It is fired and beaten flat, then folded back on itself, put into the fire, and beaten flat again. And it is done all over again. And again – many times. These blades are so strong and perfect, that many of them last for hundreds of years, handed down through families for centuries – and are still strong and sharp.
It is the tempering, the careful beating into shape without breaking, and repeating this over and over that gives the weapon its shape and durability.
Adversity. Celebrate it, embrace it! It will tell you about yourself, your friends and colleagues, and those you hold the closest. It will separate out the chaff and the wheat. And it will strengthen you or break you…a lot depends on you and how you view it. And when it gets to be too much, talk to someone. Consider them part of tempering, and keeping you from breaking. It can only make you stronger.