- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By "A Former Infantry Officer"
Best Defense guest respondent
Let me tell you: A year ago I felt many of the same frustrations as my peers, and was unsure of what my future would be. Then the Marine Corps made the choice for me. I was not career designated. It was one of the toughest hurdles I have faced in my life. I got my "pink slip" on my second tour to Afghanistan, right after coming back from an operation. Aside from the feeling of failure that I had not measured up, it meant that my plans for a future in the Corps would not happen as I envisioned. What I have learned in my year as a civilian has made my experiences in the Corps have more meaning and reaffirmed why I will stay a Marine (though in the reserves) for as long as I can.
I was depressed for months after missing my boat space, which was ironic as prior to not getting career designated I was just as frustrated with the Corps’ stifling bureaucracy as were my peers who were deciding to get out. Senior officers who seemed concerned with everything but actual battlefield prowess, a lack of real accountability, and unfair application of rules all bothered me to no end. The issues that are being expressed by many company grade officers are real and should be closely watched by senior leaders, but many company grade officers should also think long and hard about what they are walking away from. My peers should remember Teddy Roosevelt’s "Man in the Arena," as I do not think many of them would want to be identified as the critic in that speech rather than the man "marred by dust and sweat and blood."
In spite of those frustrations with the bureaucracy, I still feel in my bones the need to be a Marine. For every bad lesson I learned from seeing toxic leaders, I can think of ten very good lessons I learned from very good leaders. The Corps taught me what it
meant to be responsible, and stripped away the years of excuses that I developed growing up in suburban America. I learned more about who I was, warts and all, by being a Marine than I think I would have in any other line of work. Being forced off of active duty itself was beneficial — you do not know how much you value something until it is taken from you.
For me, service means much more than getting to do "what I wanted." Doing interesting, exciting work in the service of our nation is important to me, but I now know that intangibles like sacrifice, brotherhood, and commitment are what spin my gears more than paychecks and cool missions. The Marine Corps made me a better man. If I had been designated, I would have stayed in: because of my Marines, because of the amazing things I got to do, and because carrying the title of Marine Officer was a privilege and a gift.
But life took a different path. I have found new challenges in the civilian world. I have new goals, but one that will remain is being a leader of Marines as a reservist. For those reasons I am now in the reserves, and plan on staying in until the Corps tells me my service is no longer required again (hopefully many years down the road).