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.