I had a Marine I wanted to destroy. Time and again he was on our radar, and he had been nonjudicially punished at least once. He had a poor moral foundation, and it was only a matter of time until he did something that would allow me to gleefully arrange for his separation.
One Friday, the battalion had been let off early for the weekend. That afternoon I got a phone call that our hero had been in a domestic violence incident with his spouse. Both were noncommissioned officers. Short version: It was a mutual brawl in the front seat of their car.
The Incident Determination Committee was attended by representatives from across the base—legal, medical, family advocacy. I represented the command. It was briefed that my guy admitted to having had a couple of beers prior to the incident. This set off a cacophony of demands for alcohol treatment, keelhauling, and waterboarding and an overall horrified reaction to the word “alcohol” by all present. . . . except me.
I pointed out that, of everyone in the room, I was the most eager to find reasons to heap trouble on this Marine—but I wasn’t about to conjure it out of a footnote in this incident. The unit was off, and having a beer or two at lunch wasn’t the mark of supervillainy they were making it out to be. Members of the committee reluctantly put away their pitchforks.
Justice is one of the 14 Marine Corps leadership traits. The dictionary defines it as the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness. As a trait, it can be defined as giving reward and punishment according to the merits of the case, impartially and consistently.
The impartially bit sometimes is the hardest for leaders. We get emotionally invested when we shouldn’t. We take it personally when our troops end up on the blotter report or otherwise embarrass the command with their poor conduct.
One weekend as the first sergeant with Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team (FAST) Company in Bahrain, I received a positively volcanic phone call from my company commander. He was outraged at the misconduct of a couple of our Marines the night prior and instructed me to arrange for immediate nonjudicial punishment proceedings in his office.
“We’re not going to do that, sir,” I said calmly.
“WHAT? Why not?”
“They get to see a lawyer first, sir.”
“Oh . . . yeah.” I could feel his temperature begin to plummet. “I guess that’s why you’re my first sergeant.”
In our pursuit of “justice” we often need to take a tactical pause; otherwise we may find that our desire to annihilate offenders is actually revenge. We are not in the revenge business.
Some service members are beyond our ability to redeem. They should be punished and purged from our ranks. Others just need a solid wire brushing, a little re-education, and then should be kicked back into play.
Back in FAST Company, whenever we deployed a platoon, its equipment was staged near the Navy’s side of the runway. Being institutionally paranoid about gear adrift, we always posted an armed guard on our equipment.
One night as our lance corporal gear guard swaggered about his post, armed with an M-9 pistol, he struck up a conversation with a female sailor posted nearby on similar duty. An egregious violation of General Order #7: Talk to no one except in the line of duty.
Between sharing inflated tales about his adventures in his short career, the lance corporal also boasted of his physical prowess. In an effort to prove his superior capability, he kicked up into a handstand and began to do push ups. This is when gravity cruelly did what it does, and his M9 tumbled from its holster and clattered to the deck.
Having seen enough, the sailor rightfully reported the antics of the creepy Marine to her supervisors. They in turn contacted said Marine’s platoon sergeant.
Eventually, the handstand ninja made his way to my office, where he was counseled with vigor. I advised him to use his head for something besides a hat rack, then questioned his cognitive ability to do so. Next I asked him how he was going to explain to his wife about the trouble he got in because he was flirting with a sailor while on post. This led to a reminder of concepts such as fidelity and duty. If his spouse couldn’t trust him, how were his fellow Marines ever going to? And by the way, if he ever approached said sailor again, I would cut out his liver with a sledgehammer.
Could we have reduced him for violating his General Orders? Certainly. Leaders have to be a little more creative when dispensing justice from time to time.
Of note, the trait of justice includes giving rewards as well as punishment. Sadly, we often are miserly when it comes to rewarding our troops. I imagine this is because it takes a little more work to write awards than charge sheets.
If justice is defined by equity, it would seem we should spend an equitable amount of time in praise as well as punishment. This can be as simple as a pat on the back, a unit coin, or the most valued commodity of all, time off. I suspect the vast majority of troops would prefer a day off to a meritorious mast.
To see justice done, let’s remember to render rewards with the same enthusiasm as punishment . . . and perhaps with less emotional investment all around.