From 2003 to 2004, I was assigned to the Third Marines Field Service Support Group (3d FSSG) Medical Battalion in Okinawa, Japan as the company commander for the Headquarter and Support (H&S) Company. Medical battalions are staffed by Navy medical personnel, which support Marines in war zones. The H&S company structure included a company commander, executive officer, division officers and enlisted staff.
A lot of people are not familiar with the military terms so I like to use the analogy that a company commander (military officer) is comparable to the Chief Executive Officer of the organization, the executive officer (military officer) is comparable to Chief Operating Officer; the division officers (senior enlisted members) are comparable to department heads, and junior enlisted are the staff. The company commander is responsible for the training, discipline, safety and welfare of 201 Marine and Navy senior and junior enlisted members, mostly ranging between 18 and 22 years old.
There were many leadership experiences during those 18 months but the one that stands out was the impact I made on the decline in underage drinking incidents. Every Monday morning, an incident report was given about the service members who committed any violations on the island and unfortunately for the last eleven months, our company junior enlisted members managed to make the incident report every week for underage drinking. Underage drinking in the military is a huge problem, and being stationed on a 70-mile island was not exception if anything it was a catalyst.
A charge of underage drinking is very serious and, depending on the circumstances, it could easily be a career-ender. I believed it was my duty to make sure that my Marines and Sailors did not continue the cycle. My policy on underage drinking was posted in the barracks and workspaces. Each underage member was required to sign a no alcohol agreement, and to discourage excessive drinking I had everyone else sign an agreement to drink responsibly.
After speaking with several enlisted members, I found out that the root of the drinking was the lack of transportation (must be 21 years old to drive on the island) to activities on the island, as well as a variety of things to do. Immediately, I contacted the Morale, Welfare and Recreation office, to get assistance to set up weekend activities called “Force Fun”. Within six months of assuming command, we were incident free and continued in that status until my departure. Upon my departure, I received many accolades and awards for my performance while stationed there and a commendation medal for my role.
The Battalion Commander presented the company with a team award signed by the general, who would give each enlisted members five extra points on their advancement examination; but the best reward I received was a picture signed by each member of my company with a note from each one telling me about the impact I made on their lives. In return, at my going away party instead of allowing them to buy me dinner, I prepared a southern style home-cooked meal for everyone. Like all military officers, I was trained and groomed to be a leader from the time I raised my right hand and took the oath of office.
The most important contribution to my success was the emphasis I placed on putting junior member’s needs before mine. I have a code that I live by and it has been very effective as a leader, “Take care of your people, and they will take care of you”. This experience taught me three important lessons. The first lesson was never jump to conclusions. In the first few incidents that happened after I took command, I assumed that the underage drinkers were getting Marines of legal drinking age to purchase the alcohol; I soon learned this was not the case.
Even though the U. S. had an agreement with Okinawa to honor our policies, everyone did not adhere. Anyone could easily walk off the base into town and get anything they needed for the right price. This was a valuable experience in getting the all the facts before, pointing blame or coming up with a solution to a problem. The second lesson I learned was, just because I had the power did not mean I had to use it. Whether to court martial an individual for underage drinking was a decision that was made solely by the company commander.
It wasn’t until later after I had given out a few punishments, like fining a member or reduction in rank that I did not see the more stress and hardship it put on not only the member but their work environment. As I look back on the situations, there were times it appeared I was trying to prove myself by giving the maximum penalty or maybe I was trying too hard to fit in that I lost a lot of compassion for individuals. This position changed me, it gave me a hard edge that was not there before but it also made me more confident as a female working in a predominantly male environment.
The last lesson was, “it really is ok as a leader to ask for help”. Although I had been trained to do the job and this was my first time in the position. Shortly, after leaving the island, I contacted one of my senior enlisted and thanked him for supporting me. He told me it was not only my job to take care of them but it was their job to take care of me as well. That was a turning point in my career where I found that just because I was the leader did not mean I could not be mentored.