Today is Memorial Day. Today we remember the fallen. Today I will make my annual pilgrimage to Fort Logan National Cemetery here in Denver. My grandfather is buried there and I want to pay my respects. He was a World War II veteran who fought at Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. He saw his share of action and was wounded several times. Although he survived and lived until the age of 74, my grandmother always said he was a casualty of the war. It broke his health. It aged him a few decades. He was living on borrowed time and seemed to know it. I joined the Marine Corps because of him. Giving eight years of my life was the least I could do to pay him back.
Today I will also raise a glass to fellow Marines who died in combat. One of them was Ronald Baum. I met Ron at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey when I was a Lance Corporal and he was a Sergeant. He will always personify to me what a Marine NCO should be – tough, smart, disciplined, a great infantryman. Somebody who knew what he was doing. Somebody you would follow into Hell because he knew the way. We idolized him.
The last time I saw Ron was in Hawaii. I was running in a company formation and passed by his convoy. He was at the wheel of a Humvee and recognized me. I had become an officer by then and he leaned out the window, shouting at the top of his lungs: “Lieutenant Braden! Get some!” Another lieutenant running with me turned and asked, “How much did you pay him to say that?”
“Years of loyalty” I said.
Ron was killed in Iraq on May 3, 2003. He was on patrol in Anbar Province, northwest of Baghdad, when his convoy came under attack from enemy mortar and machine gun fire. His turret gunner was taken out, so Ron climbed up to replace him and was killed by a mortar shell. His children were 10, 7, and 4 years old.
He never asked anybody to do something he wasn’t willing to do himself. I can picture him climbing into that turret, saying something like, “you SOBs, I’ll teach you to attack my convoy!”
God bless you, Ron.
My thoughts today hover around the concept of loyalty – how to get it and how to give it. We Lance Corporals were loyal to Ron because we trusted him. He was not a time-server. He was not a careerist. He was a Marine who loved his job and the people he served with. There are just some people you know you can trust with your life. He was one of them.
Another was my commanding officer, Colonel Richard Zilmer. He led the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit in 2000 when I was one of his junior officers. I commanded an intelligence detachment that worked directly for him: 21 Marines whose job was to eavesdrop on enemy communications and provide information on their intentions.
I called them “The Wild Bunch” because they were. They loved to party. A little too much, as it turned out, because one of them got arrested by an undercover San Diego police officer for selling Ecstasy and Special K at a rave.
This guy also liked to smoke weed. This is something you cannot do in the military, and with good reason. You can’t have a guy packing your chute or operating a heavy machine gun when he’s stoned out of his mind. After the Vietnam War the military instituted a Zero Tolerance policy because too many veterans were coming back from Southeast Asia with serious drug habits. It nearly tore the military apart.
Upon further investigation, I found out that another Marine under my command was doing cocaine. And my Gunnery Sergeant, supposedly my right hand man who I could trust to take care of these kinds of things, knew about it all and tried to cover it up.
So, after coming to grips with the fact that my platoon had turned into a scene from Narcos, the next step was to inform Colonel Zilmer. Since this fiasco required some serious housecleaning (I was about to fire three of my top people), I needed his backing. To make matters worse, we were leaving on our 6-month deployment that Monday and all this happened the Friday before. I remember walking into his office as he was packing his things up and breaking the news to him. After giving me a look that said, “You’re killing me”, he calmly asked what I wanted to do.
“Sir, the Gunny and the two Sergeants are done. I need to call the battalion back in Hawaii and tell them they’re coming home.” He agreed. I also said that I would take responsibility for this and call the battalion commander personally.
He then did something I’ll never forget. He said, “Nate, this isn’t just your decision, this is our decision. If you think they need to go, you have my support. I will call the battalion commander myself.”
You could have knocked me over with a feather.
I should back up a bit at this point and explain. My platoon was sent by our parent unit, a battalion in Hawaii, to support the 15th MEU. Without getting into details, this battalion we came from was…how shall I put it? A chicken-shit outfit. It was poorly led and highly politicized. Loyalty was given to whoever made the commander look good. It was a haven for yes-men. You always felt you were skating on thin ice there because it didn’t matter how well you did your job; what mattered was how well you played politics.
I was fully prepared to jump on this grenade because I had never before received support from that unit. Instead, Colonel Zilmer taught me a lesson in loyalty. You are one of my officers and I will back you up if you think this is the right call.
Needless to say, a colonel’s intervention carries much more weight than a captain’s. Rather than me informing my battalion that I was firing three NCOs and getting an earful of abuse in return, the commander in Hawaii got a call from Colonel Zilmer himself: “They’re done. We’re sending them back. End of discussion.”
I had never expected this. I could not believe it. But this is the way things are supposed to be done! How had my head become so twisted that I felt like I had to walk the plank alone?
You don’t need to. When you give a little loyalty, you will get some in return.
So thank you Ralph Braden, Ron Baum, and Richard Zilmer. And thanks to all those who have served in uniform and continue to serve.
Happy Memorial Day.
George Washington has been taking it on the chin lately. A few months ago the San Francisco Board of Education voted to remove a mural from one of its high schools called “The Life of Washington” because it depicts slaves and a dead Indian, with George Washington presiding over and presumably condoning it all. The board claims this imagery traumatizes students. City Supervisor Matt Haney would not only like to remove the mural but rename the school because Washington owned slaves. Not to be outdone, activists in nearby Marin County are trying to change the name of the Dixie School District because it is apparently named after a song that praises the South. Another mural painted in the 1930s was removed from a school in Oak Park, Illinois because it only pictured white children.
Where will this all end? The fact that Washington freed his slaves when he died is probably irrelevant to his detractors. Or the fact that this San Francisco mural was painted by a Communist protégé of Diego Rivera whose intent was to shed light on the darker corners of America’s past. No matter. It offends – so off it goes!
At Mile High Ed we’re big fans of George Washington, not least because of his noble stewardship of our young democracy. During his Presidency he could have easily become a dictator or followed his contemporary Napoleon into reigning as an emperor. Instead, he honored the spirit and letter of the newly minted Constitution by leaving office after two terms. At the time there was no rule against Presidents seeking a third term; had he wanted one he could have had it. Yet he thought it best to set a precedent of chief executives leaving office voluntarily, like his hero Cincinnatus. This precedent lasted for 144 years until Franklin Roosevelt – whose Works Progress Administration funded the offending San Francisco mural – won a third term.
We also cherish Washington’s legacy because of his attempt to create a national school where “the youth of fortune and talents from all parts thereof might be sent to complete their education in all the branches of polite literature, in arts and sciences, in acquiring knowledge in the principles of politics and good government.” Washington knew that a democratic republic – more than any other kind of government – required an educated and engaged citizenry. Democracy is not a spectator sport. It demands the constant care and attention of all its citizens, regardless of race, color, or creed. This is the vision we promote here in Denver with our education retreats.
I would like to think that when Washington proposed this idea in his will he too had in mind children of all races and backgrounds, including the children of slaves. The primary criticism of our Founding Fathers is, of course, that half were slave owners. These were not stupid men, however, and there can be no doubt that they recognized the hypocrisy obvious in the endorsement of the idea that “All men are created equal” by those who kept other men in bondage.
The 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence and the 39 who signed the U.S. Constitution – Washington included – knew they were making a Faustian bargain. As one of their contemporaries said later: “There was never a moment in our history when slavery was not a sleeping serpent. It lay coiled up under the table during the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention. Owing to the cotton gin, it was more than half awake. Thereafter, slavery was on everyone’s mind, though not always on his tongue.”
That deal with the Devil – a country with slavery or no country at all – exploded in violence in 1861. The payment due, the “reparations” if you will, was 600,000 dead men. That was two percent of our country’s population at the time – the equivalent today of 6.4 million people. Add to that ledger another 100 years of segregation, plus another 50 years of lingering mistrust and division, which today includes bitter arguments over Civil War monuments and Depression-era murals.
Isn’t that enough?
Apparently not. So let’s imagine what tomorrow’s youth might think of today’s self-righteous and sanctimonious public figures. What will the youth of 2069, looking back on our own antics, judge to be our greatest sin?
Personally, I think they will ask this: “Why, Americans of 2019, did you spend so much time arguing over wall paintings while spending us into penury?” Our national debt this year is $22 trillion. That’s 108% of our Gross Domestic Product. We have spent our children’s money and are now spending our grandchildren’s money because we refuse to change the way we work and live.
What is this but another form of slavery? Our grandchildren will be enslaved to debt that we are charging. They will be limited in how much money they can earn and keep because so much of their income will go to servicing this debt. They will be limited in where (or even if) they can buy homes. They will be limited in when they can afford to start a family. They will be limited in when (or if) they can retire. They will be limited in what they can spend on solving domestic problems. They will be limited in how far they can project American power to keep the peace abroad.
George Washington enslaved 124 people but gave us a Nation. We are enslaving tens of millions of unborn Americans and giving them nothing in return. At least Washington knew he would have to answer to God for his sins. What’s our excuse?
Consider time for a minute. Think about the clichés related to it: “Time waits for no one”; “no time like the present”; “a stitch in time saves nine.” A few years ago we did an ad spot with the Chambers Brothers’ song “Time Has Come Today.” I chose it because I like the ticking clock at the end – a musical way to convey the thought: we are running out of time.
Time has been on my mind as we go through our new ASVAB Prep Program here at Mile High Ed. This is an initiative we started in January. Our instructors meet with young men and women who want to join the armed forces but have failed the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) – the military entrance exam.
The results have been promising. Out of our first group of seven candidates, five saw significant gains in their scores. The average increase was 203% and the average number of hours we taught them was 17.42. A few are still short of the minimum score of 32 (out of 99), but they are at least within striking distance.
This was a pretty diverse bunch too – three Hispanic, two Black, and two White students. Four were native-born and three were immigrants (Ghana, Russia, and Mexico). The military is especially popular with immigrants since they earn their citizenship after their first enlistment.
For the immigrants, the deficiencies in literacy and numeracy can be partly traced to the fact that English is not their native language. But what of our homegrown kids? All were high school graduates or GED holders. None were discipline cases. All were motivated enough to contact a recruiter and take the ASVAB. Yet most are functionally illiterate and can’t do basic multiplication. A few didn’t know that there are twelve inches in a foot. One guy didn’t know how to pronounce the word “café”. He thought it rhymed with “safe”.
Hence my thoughts on time. And how much of it is wasted in public education. This occurred to me as I was driving to one of our classes and passed by Aurora Central High School. It was 1:30 in the afternoon and I saw students leaving the building and walking home. At 1:30? After, what, a grueling five-hour day? The following week I passed by the school again during spring break, which now includes the Friday before and the Monday after. The Friday before was taken up by “teacher training.” The teachers also apparently needed the Monday after spring break off so they could get organized for the four-day week that followed.
I counted the number of days Aurora Public Schools takes off, including “teacher training” days. I think any day a teacher is not in the classroom is a day off. They should do professional development on their own time like everyone else. The total number of weekdays they have off in the 2018-19 school year is 90. Add weekends to that and this comes to four months. Four months! Can any job that takes one-third of the year off really be considering full-time?
Yet Denver teachers went on strike a few months ago. They want to be paid more. Well, who doesn’t? But what exactly should taxpayers pay more for – additional “training days”? Maybe they should use a few of those days to teach multiplication. Or reading comprehension.
What if we do away with the entire school schedule? Think about it. Next time you’re in a classroom, note how much time the teacher spends getting the students to sit down, settle down, and take attendance. After that usually comes, “get out your textbooks and turn to page 47…” or “work quietly in groups on your homework assignment…” Think about passing periods between the classes, or the whole concept of homeroom. Much of the day is chewed up in useless administrative maneuvers. And that is before the kids are released at 1:30 or 2:30 to go home or spend time on extracurricular activities. I have no problem with students taking part in extracurricular activities – provided they already know how to read and write.
Now imagine a block system. Students choose one course they want to study for the entire month – chemistry, for example. The first two weeks are spent in class learning the fundamentals; all day for ten days they learn nothing but the Periodic Table, basic chemical reactions, and physical properties of elements. The third week they go to the field – maybe to a working laboratory or an energy company where they can observe a petroleum engineer in action. The last week can be dedicated to review and testing to make sure they have mastered the material.
Parents could even choose which months they want to take off. Maybe the kids go to school in the summer because Mom and Dad can’t get time off from work until October. Maybe the whole family just prefers to take their vacations in November, December, and January instead of June, July, and August.
Flexibility. Better time management. Freedom of choice. These are all good things. Plus, as we saw this week here in Colorado, the more time kids spend in the field the less chance they have of being shot.