I was in Vietnam in the middle of the North Vietnamese Easter Offensive in the Spring of 1972, and enemy regiments were all around us. Many of our artillery firebases were under siege and several had fallen to the waves of North Vietnamese soldiers sweeping across the region. One of those fire bases nearby was holding out, but the commander's assessment was that it was in serious danger of being overrun.
Among his many problems was the fact that his classified material might have to be destroyed in a big hurry. I had a sizable stash of an incendiary substance called thermite that came in large slabs and in the form of grenades—ideal for that commander's needs—and I was ordered to take it into that besieged firebase.
As it happened, I had some time to contemplate my situation, and it goes without saying that I was concerned. I vividly remember conjuring up what I could to offset my fear: the sense of duty that Navy training had instilled in me, peer expectations, fear of court-martial, the possibility of personal disgrace, etc. But one of the things I vividly remember thinking was: What would Stephen Decatur do? This may sound ridiculous, but I swear that one of the things that helped me get through that frightened anticipation was the knowledge that in the past, others had faced situations as bad, and many far worse, and they had found the courage to carry out their missions.
Lest you think this is about me trying to impress you with my combat experiences, I will tell you that this mission was cancelled. Other men had to deal with far greater tests than I had faced that night, because the firebase was overrun before we could get to it.
But the fear I felt was very real, and I sincerely believe that I was ready to carry out that mission for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that Stephen Decatur was watching over my shoulder.
Many times in my career I had to face difficult circumstances where fear, or self-promotion, or greed, or fatigue, or some other negative force tried to take control of me, to override my doing what I knew was right, if not easy. And in those situations, while I relied on my naval training, my patriotism, and the values given to me by parents, teachers, mentors, and the like, I also relied upon my naval heritage to fight the temptation to take the easy path. Knowing what others before me had been able to do under arduous circumstances was a powerful motivator when facing difficult situations. I truly believe that a rich heritage can serve as an inspirational force when ordinary people are called upon to do extraordinary things.
One of the things that convinces me that I am right about this is that the Marines effectively use their heritage as a motivational leadership tool. Yet, even though we often acknowledge their success at this, we in the Navy don't do the same—at least not consistently and not nearly as effectively. We've all heard the stories of asking sailors and Marines when their respective service birthdays are and finding that the Marines all know the answer, but sailors often don't even understand the question.
When I bring this up in various forums, I often hear the refrain "But we're not Marines, and we have a different culture from them." While this may be true, it serves more as an excuse than a reason for our failure to take good advantage of a useful leadership tool. Our cultures may be different, but that does not mean we cannot change. It also does not mean that we cannot successfully borrow from the culture of our sister service. There is precedent!
Those guiding values of honor, courage, and commitment that we profess as our core values actually belonged to the Marines before we adopted them. We also modeled our "Battle Stations" event at boot camp after the "Crucible" at Parris Island. Have we somehow grown thicker necks because we now live by the same core values as the Marines? Were we wrong to adopt Battle Stations? Are we any less sailors as a result?
The Navy's heritage is every bit as rich as that of the Marines. Yet we largely squander a valuable leadership tool by failing to embrace our enviable heritage as they do. We can do worse than borrowing from the finest Marine Corps in the world and arguably the most admired of all the U.S. armed services. Let us not allow cultural differences or service pride to get in the way. Let us learn from our sister service. Let us find ways for every sailor to bond with the likes of Stephen Decatur.