What It’s Like to be a U.S. Marine Officer

It is not uncommon for a former servicemember to be asked, “what was it like to be a…”

As a preamble to a nearing Memorial Day commemoration, this column is dedicated to what it was like to be a U.S. Marine officer, described in terms of the fourteen leadership traits ingrained during a rite of passage called “Officer Candidate School”.

Officer candidates who aspire to “the title” are first given a swift lesson in unselfishness, where any semblance of egoism is quickly stripped in favor of the welfare of fellow warriors. Selfishness in battle, as in an honorable life, has no room. This is also true of loyalty, because a gripping esprit de corps pervades the soul of every Marine. Speaking of honor, the most important and enduring leadership trait in Marines is integrity, sometimes simply referenced as doing the right thing when no one is looking.

Another crucial trait in a small Corps is initiative, a powerful force multiplier, given that not all necessary orders can be covered by instructions, nor can all sequels of a situation be foretold a priori. It, however, must be tempered by judgement, whereby the discernment between right and wrong is considered often absolute and at times situational.  It is closely tied to justice, indispensable in the daily apportionment of praise and reprobation.

Speaking of communication, tact is usually evident in confident leaders; and, it is closely related to an immediately appreciable Marine trait, which is their bearing, an ongoing “visible” side of military discipline manifested in an upright posture and unflinching composure. The latter connects well with the endurance needed to overcome tough times, whether in training or in battle. It is always expected and, many times, even life-saving.

Marine officers pride themselves in their dependability as enjoyed, through thick and thin, by their peers, their subordinates, and the Corps in the cause of freedom. The latter often calls for them to display steely-nerved decisiveness, making the right call at every level of command. To be decisive, however, one must almost innately display courage. Being a Marine officer is not for everyone, and certainly not for the weak of heart or mind.

But it’s not all brawn in the Marine Corps. Knowledge is essential, as leaders owe to their subordinates technical know-how and tactical proficiency. Finally, all is put together by a trait that is sometimes difficult to enact, enthusiasm. Not every meal will be a feast, nor every muster, a parade. But the mission will always be constant, and they are charged with setting the example, Marine officers must reach deep in their soul to brave situational discomforts to carry out the plan of the day.

In the end, being a Marine officer really meant “working for my Marines”, ensuring they were provided with all the leadership tools available for success and growth. They were the muscle, the energy, the heroes. They were unselfish, courageous, and loyal to boot. At the end of their initial “forming period” it would not have been uncommon for Marine officers to be commissioned with these words: “Go on out into the Fleet and lead proudly and selflessly, so that when your grandchildren ask you what is was like to be a Marine, you can accurately recall exhausting yourselves in the relentless pursuit of your subordinates’ greatness.”

I only hope my Marines also recall it as such.

Luis Ortega is a former, prior-enlisted, U.S. Marine Captain. He enjoyed serving alongside many Marines, airmen, soldiers, sailors, and coastguardsmen for eleven years, worldwide. He owns and operates Security Arms International, a firearms store and school in Palmetto Bay and is available to swap war stories at ceo@saiops.com.

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