Looking Failure in the Face
August 1, 2007
Lights! Lights! Lights! It is 5:00 AM and the shock of bright florescent lights signals the start of another day. Happy Monday morning from the Marine Corps Officers Candidates School! I should have been used to the jarring start of another day of training. It was the beginning of week number eight. However, “lights” is like fingernails on a chalkboard. It never loses its sting. According to our staff, this will be our hardest week. It holds the combat readiness test (CRT), Small Unit Leadership Training II (SULE II), and for me, Candidate Company Commander. Up to this point, OCS had been a struggle for me. In fact, the first time I attempted the CRT, in the words my Platoon Commander, I “failed miserably.” I failed SULE I due to a lack of “command presence.” I received a marginal evaluation in my last leadership position as Platoon Commander of my 41 candidate platoon. Now, I was in charge of an entire company made up of five platoons with 227 candidates. The CRT was for a grade this week, and SULE II was the culminating event of all of OCS. If a candidate failed it, he would never earn the title Officer of Marines. This week would determine if I returned home a success or was sent home a failure.
The CRT is the Marine Corps’ version of the pentathlon. It is a series of five events that test physical endurance, strength, and agility. The most difficult portion is the combat run wearing boots, full canteens, an H-harness, and a rifle. I had missed the passing time by 18 seconds the week before. After that, one of my Sergeant Instructors made sure to ask me directly how it felt to be a failure. He seemed to take sadistic joy in telling me he thought I would go home in disgrace. This was not an idle threat. I knew thirty percent of the candidates who started training would not graduate. My platoon had shrunk from 56 to 41. This time it counted. The course is a hilly three mile trail through the humid woods of Marine Corps Base Quantico. My platoon took off like thoroughbred blood hounds within sight of their prey. I pushed myself harder than ever before. I thought of going home a failure. I ran faster. I thought of disappointing my family, my friends, and myself. I ran faster. I remembered Isaiah when the prophet says “they will run and not grow weary.” That scripture was in every short breath as I ran up and down the hills. I came down the final stretch in a full sprint. My legs seemed to work independent of my lungs and the need for oxygen. I saw the clock and redoubled my efforts.
One reason I had struggled in my previous leadership positions was the role reversal I experienced when I got to OCS. At school I was confident in myself and my abilities. At OCS, I dreaded reporting basic facts to Sergeant Instructors. I went from being one of the best and most prepared in the university environment to one the worst and most ill-prepared at OCS. I was expected to give tactical orders to my fire team. This was intimidating because my fire team included a current sergeant in the Marine Corps Reserve who had recently returned from a tour in Iraq where he earned a combat action ribbon after his squad was ambushed by insurgents. I knew that, even if I gave my best possible performance, I would be nowhere close to the best in my platoon. This was a stunning realization for me.
I took charge of the company with dogged determination. When one of my Sergeant Instructors saw me wearing the rank of candidate company commander, he said, “You got to be kidding me! Kresge is in charge?!” Fortunately for me, I had a great supporting cast in the candidate company staff (the other candidates that helped run the company). We were never late for class or a meal, and my crowning achievement was briefing the real Company Commander Major Fontnoe on a plan the candidate staff devised for splitting the company in order to conduct two different training exercises simultaneously. I still made mistakes. I forgot to salute a Lieutenant Colonel during a class, and I was berated by Major Fontnoe (“Kresge are you retarded?”) for reporting to him at parade rest instead of at the position of attention. Hopefully, I had done more right than wrong.
Wednesday of week eight was the beginning of SULE II. I left the relative comfort and familiarity of my barracks for three days in the woods. I left loaded down with food, gear, and a nervous sense of anticipation of what was to come. The motto of OCS is “Ductus Exemplo,” “Leadership by Example.” Marine Corps Officers are guided by this principle, and in order to graduate, every candidate must live this principle in spite of stress, pain, and fatigue. SULE II is a 23-hour 21-mile marathon. We began with a nine-mile hump with a 45-pound pack at 1:00 AM after three hours of fitful sleep in a humid tent. At the half-way point of the nine-mile hump, most of the candidates in my platoon were out of water, and the jugs that we were supposed to refill our canteens with had run dry. I was a fire team leader during the hump in charge of three other candidates. One member of my fire team had already fallen out of the hump due to heat exhaustion. I knew we needed water fast. I took the initiative and decided not to drink from my canteens. Instead, I grabbed the water jugs, ran several hundred yards in the dark back to the water truck, filled the jugs, and ran back to my platoon. The rest stop was not restful for me, but it was in this moment I knew I had what it took to become an officer.
I survived the friction and chaos my Sergeant Instructors rained down on me. I passed the CRT, completed my billet as candidate company commander, and demonstrated “Leadership by Example” during SULE II. I look forward to the day I take my place in the ranks of the Marine Corps as a defender of my country, constitution, and liberties. Most of all I am proud that I looked failure in the face and did not flinch.
James Kresge is a senior from Galena, Ohio, majoring in Political Science and History.