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Reflections October 2013

Leave No One Behind!

By Jim Cotsana

After the third or fourth week, one of my platoon’s staff sergeants, whom I will call “Staff Sgt. Smith,” for some reason, had my number. Whenever I made a mistake (and there were many), he belittled me, called me every name in the book, and rode me no end.

With the approach of Veterans Day and the daily reports of our troops still fighting two wars along with possible intervention in Syria, I pictured the young officers currently in harm’s way. This got me thinking about my days in the USMC Officers Candidate School (OCS) in Quantico, Virginia.

In 1970, I reported to Quantico and was assigned to a platoon of approximately 35 other “candidates.” The first couple of days were spent getting our uniforms, boots, socks, and buzz cuts before we began the trials and tribulations hoping to become “90 day wonders” and commissioned 2nd lieutenants. As I recall, each platoon had a 1st lieutenant in charge along with two E-6 staff sergeants and two E-5 sergeants, who all had significant combat experience in Vietnam.

Their goal was to begin molding young, raw men into officers capable of leading troops in combat situations. But first we had to learn the military language, how to salute and march, and the very basics with respect to weapons and tactics. However, the emphasis was on conditioning and pushing the body far beyond what we felt we were capable of. When you thought you couldn’t go on any further or take another step, the platoon sergeants pushed you even harder.

After the third or fourth week, one of my platoon’s staff sergeants, whom I will call “Staff Sgt. Smith,” for some reason, had my number. Whenever I made a mistake (and there were many), he belittled me, called me every name in the book, and rode me no end. No candidate was immune to his wrath but, for some reason, I received extra attention.

In addition, I swear all the platoon sergeants must have gone to stand-up comedy school. Some of the comments and remarks they came up were hysterical and it took all my effort not to laugh out loud. However, I couldn’t control my facial expressions and, of course, this caught the attention of Staff Sgt. Smith. He could be at the far end of the squad bay chewing a candidate up one side and down the other and come up with a comment that would break me up. He knew it and would immediately turn to me and say, “So you think this is funny?”

I would reply, “No, platoon sergeant” but that was for naught. All he said was “begin” which meant for me to start doing “bends and thrusts.” I had to ask “how many?, platoon sergeant” and he would say “forever.” I was only allowed to stop after a large pool of sweat was on the deck (floor) surrounding me.

This went on for the majority of time I was a candidate and the others kept asking how I got on his bad side, but I had no answer. However, during the last two to three weeks, I got the impression he took some special interest in me and was pushing me to excel; to go beyond what I thought my capabilities were.

During the last week of OCS, even though we started with approximately 35 in my platoon, some washed out during the initial training for a variety of reasons —  medical, did not demonstrate leadership skills, could not maintain the physical requirements, or just couldn’t cut it.

Finally graduation day came, and those who successfully completed the 90 days from all the other platoons entered a large auditorium with our brown 2nd Lt. bars in our pockets. Included in the graduation ceremony were the all the platoon staff along with candidate’s family members and other invited guests.

Upon completion of the ceremony, we were officially commissioned 2nd Lts. and many of the newly commissioned officers had family pin on their bars. I had no family attending but I walked over to Staff Sergeant Smith and rather sheepishly asked if he would pin on my bars.

To my great surprise and delight he said, “It would be an honor.” Once pinned, he was the first to salute me and call me “Sir,” a whopping change from what I had been accustomed to.

What he said next I have never forgotten. The man who tormented me for nearly 90 days said the following:

“Remember that a 2nd Lt. is lower than “whale dung” (although he used a different, more descriptive word). Also, “once you’re “in-country” (meaning Vietnam) pay close attention to your experienced NCOs, they will keep you and the people you lead alive.” And finally, “Marines leave no one behind.”

I took all this to heart and have never forgotten his advice. Finally he said,” It would be an honor to serve under your command.” After graduation, we immediately spent another six months at the Basic School, also in Quantico, for far more advanced training.

Unfortunately, we never did meet up again but I often think of him and his advice and the torture he put me through which made me a better man. I only hope that the young officers currently fighting and leading their troops were blessed to have a Staff Sergeant Smith instill in them what it means to be a United States Marine Officer.


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