Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Proud to Be An American: The Quantico Diaries - Part I

My evening ended with me and a few thousand fellow Americans being soaked by a quickly moving thunder shower that came sweeping down the contours of the Potomac River. And most of us were smiling. Let me explain.

We were in attendance at the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia for the Sunset Parade presented by the USMC "The Commandant's Own" Drum and Bugle Corps. Each Tuesday evening during the summer months, these parades are held in front of the iconic statue of the raising of the flag on Iwo Jimo. The drum and bugle corps performs martial and popular music, and the Marine Corps' storied "Silent Drill Platoon" puts on a jaw-dropping display of precision in weapons handling. It was a stirring and inspiring performance that exemplified many of the traits that Marines have come to be known for. It was a very public display of a Marine Corps esprit de corps that I had seen privately earlier in the day.

I am spending this week in Quantico, Virginia as part of a unique program that the USMC sponsors each summer called "The Educators' Workshop." The purpose of the program is to expose a handful of educators and influencers to the inner workings of how the Marine Corps trains its officers. The assumption is that those of us involved in helping young leaders make career choices will be able to advise outstanding women and men about the advisability of pursuing a career as a Marine officer.

Our day began with a briefing by the commanding officer of the Officer Candidate School at Quantico, Col. Richard C. Jackson. Colonel Jackson, with whom I was able to have a personal conversation as our group prepared to view the obstacle course, is very much the face of the modern Marines. He has the look of a Marine - incredibly physically fit and "squared away." He is also an outstanding communicator and nuanced thinker with several graduate degrees under his belt or in process. Our sons and daughters are in good hands being molded by the likes of Col. Jackson and his team. Following a very thorough briefing on the complex process by which officer candidates are turned into 2nd lieutenants who are capable of leading Marines in battle, we watched a demonstration of how one is supposed to conquer the obstacle course. As a sergeant explained to us each element along the course, one of his Marines vaulted and climbed with apparent ease.

Our next stop was was rare treat. We were taken to the hangars that are the headquarters for HMX - 1. Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1), is a United States Marine Corps helicopter squadron responsible for the transportation of the President of the United States, Vice President, Cabinet members and other VIPs. When the President is aboard, the Marine helicopter uses the call sign "Marine One." In addition to its VIP transport role, it is also tasked with operational test and evaluation of new flight systems for Marine Corps helicopters. Nicknamed "The Nighthawks," they are headquartered at Marine Corps Air Facility Quantico, Virginia.

After a quick lunch at the Mess Hall, we were taken to the Expeditionary Warfare School, part of the Marine Corps University. We received a briefing by the chief of staff, and were then able to ask questions of a panel of seven freshly-minted 2nd lieutenants. They talked candidly about the highs and lows of their personal experiences in becoming Marine officers.

After a quick trip back to our hotel to freshen up and grab a boxed meal, we mounted the buses for our trip to Arlington and the parade.

Several impressions will stay with me from this first day of observing candidates being transformed into officers in the USMC.

There is an over-arching and universal sense of pride that is shared by enlisted Marines, NCO's and officers in what it means to be a Marine. The Marine Corps "brand" is strong.

The criteria for being admitted to and passing the OCS course are difficulty for all but the best and the brightest to attain.

The focus at OCS is on testing candidates on a combination of physical fitness, academics and leadership - with leadership driving the train.

The President and his team are in good hands when they are flown by the staff of HMX-1.

One final image will stay with me. I mentioned above that the Drum and Bugle Corps played a variety of martial and popular music. There were the obligatory John Philip Souza marches, of course. But there was also a fascinating percussion rendition of Mozart's "Turkish Rondo" from the 3rd movement of his Piano Sonata in A Major! The most ironic moment of the evening was the rendering of songs from a popular Broadway musical. These Marines, these "jar heads," renowned for their high and tight buzz cuts and their squared away and disciplined approach to life, were playing selections from the show, "Hair." I could not help but smile when I heard the music and silently mouthed the lyrics: "Long as I can grow it - my hair!"

Only in America!


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