March 2017

Protect What You’ve Earned

Engaging in the conversation
Volume 101, Issue 3

LtCol Patrick Cashman, USMC(Ret)

Maj Victor M. Ruble
There are consequences for the decisions we make and the actions we take.
Photo by Sgt Robert Reeves.

little over a year ago, black and white posters appeared at our command with the words “Protect What You’ve Earned” written in an almost haiku-like rhythm from top to bottom. The words seemed to hang in the air. My Marine Corps spirit screamed at me that I needed a leader to explain it to me. Maybe a white letter, or an ALMAR or MARADMIN. Or better yet, a Marine Corps order to tell me what I needed to know to execute this new program being promulgated by higher headquarters. I hesitated to voice my concerns because I determined that something must be forthcoming.

If other leadership initiatives were any guide, then I’d almost certainly receive a billfold card or a trifold brochure to guide my way. The promotional materials I expected did not materialize as quickly as I had hoped, but I maintained my silence. After all, I’m serving in a staff billet with no Marines under me. I don’t prepare Marines for executing dangerous missions or even give safety briefs. Guidance would be forthcoming; I had faith in my leadership to provide me what I needed. In the meantime, the words on the posters were mentioned a few times in public speeches. Articles in base papers attempted to recognize the words and establish their importance in our modern oral tradition.

Last month, I went on temporary additional duty (TAD) to a week-long class. Several leaders delivered remarkable speeches, but few addressed the cryptic mantra; the absence of mention was noticeable enough that another officer actually voiced the thoughts that had been running through my head: “Will additional guidance be provided by higher headquarters on the “Protect What You’ve Earned” Program?” I was relieved that someone else had been brave enough to voice my thoughts. The thought of other senior leaders thinking like me somehow calmed me. Later the same week, the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps (SMMC) spoke. It was the last event I attended before leaving for the airport. As I headed to the airport, the realization of what Protect What You’ve Earned meant and why we weren’t receiving “guidance from higher” on the phrase hit me like a religious epiphany. I was so excited; I immediately called one of my office mates and mentors. “We are the program,” I shouted as he picked up the phone.

A few weeks later, supporting materials arrived in the form of posters that address negative risky behaviors—responsible use of alcohol seems to be the most pervasive. But these posters and the original poster are not a program. For those of us who would seek supporting material, as I did, this came as a relief. But putting it on a poster should only be the start of the conversation.

Leadership Isn’t Legislated, Programmed, Automated, or Emailed

If you read my background before, you read what I have written, then you might find it odd that a communications officer might offer anything that would appear to denigrate network services. But over time, we have seen people increase their reliance on information technology to deliver a message that would provide greater impact had it been delivered in person.

Leaders must get back to the business of leading. If we look at MCDP 1, Warfighting, (Washington, DC: HQMC, 1997) for guidance, we know that “ethical factors” that we attempt to address in entry-level pipelines are difficult to train and sustain. We can create programs that address physical factors. We can build schools that educate people in the intellectual elements that define our profession. We can even formalize training programs that attempt to get us all in the same room to discuss ethical issues. But at the end of the day, we must still reach out to one another and discuss them.

For each of us, Protect What You’ve Earned may mean something different, but due to age and rank, there should be some common factors. Actuarial statistics from the United Services Automotive Association would tell anyone willing to study them that colonels and lieutenant colonels represent a category of the population less prone to risky behavior than lance corporals and corporals. Protect What You’ve Earned is a call to action that transcends rank—it reminds us of the reasons we joined and, more importantly, the reasons we continue to get selected for greater responsibilities. As we progress through the ranks and become those less likely to engage in dangerous, risky behavior, Protect What You’ve Earned means finding new methods to engage our Marines that align to their cultural values rather than expecting them to align to ours.

We’ve been selected because multiple groups of superiors believe that we have what it takes to reach inside ourselves and find that unique experience to convey to our troops and our peers that which will motivate them. I am suggesting that if you have a story, positive or negative, that can inspire positive outcomes from your Marines, then share it. Proselytize. Positive risk may be something as simple and scary as sharing a personal story in a public forum when you fear that everyone around you is mentally willing you to bite your tongue. By sharing that story, you may have exposed yourself in unexpected ways, but you may also have demonstrated to a Marine in need that, while we have different problems, we all face challenges in life that could potentially drive us to the very risky behaviors that Protect What You’ve Earned seeks to address.

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Shed the Negative Leadership

Most of us who can afford a subscription to the Gazette, when we’d much rather use that money to pay a utility bill or go out for drinks with our friends, grew up in a different Marine Corps. Every generation says this, and it’s always true. But the Institution will evolve, and we should too. When I joined, Marine Corps ads were on television and on billboards on the side of the road. Now, they’re in video game magazines like Game Informer. Accordingly, our recruit population is less likely to have baled hay or de-tassled corn as a summer job. They are a different species of young men and women whose upbringing was more urbanite. They bring with them a different background and culture representative of their origins. Some may secretly scoff at the “everyone’s a winner” mentality, but that mentality fosters a broader population of open-minded people who believe in equality and are just as willing to fight for it as previous generations have been for different reasons.

We have earned the title of leaders of Marines, and protecting that title means stepping up to the plate to learn how to lead the next generation of Marines. The Institution will always require strict adherence to orders when issued, but our Marines expect more of us as leaders. They expect a better understanding of the context both of the mission and of us as leaders. To give them that context, we will need to leave behind impersonal emails, directive memorandums, and Marine Corps orders. We must interact with men and women on their terms. We may or may not friend all our Marines on Facebook, connect with them on LinkedIn, or send them tweets. But our social imperative is to seek new common ground wherever it may be; a return to open squad bays is extremely unlikely. When we give them that context and reinforce our personal relationships with them through positive means, we will gain their unbridled devotion and thus the obedience the Institution demands. Our unique relationship to society as an honored—and honorable—organization positions us to lead the nationwide effort to stem the tide of negative risky behaviors.

We Are the Messengers

When these thoughts were still rumbling around in my head, I kept gravitating toward the words “we are the program” to capture how I thought of our link to the words Protect What You’ve Earned. But we’re not. We’re the messengers. The Program is and always will be the Marines and the Marine Corps: Mission first, Marines always. When we see these words on a wall, our first thought should be what tools am I going to use to convey this message to my Marines? Am I going to seek out new ways to open the dialog about responsible alcohol use? Am I going to look for a new way to communicate the importance of developing personal relationships so that my Marines have people to reach out to when they’re hurting? We can hire thousands of people to implement numerous programs, or we can simply get back to why we were recruited and retained in the first place: to lead; get kneecap to kneecap with our Marines, understand what makes them tick, and find ways to use their strengths to enhance our ability to accomplish the mission. Diligent execution of programmatic steps constitutes great management. Leaders seek to alter behavior and positive leaders look for venues that respect cultural differences, support the sustainment of Institutional values, and provide a positive outlet for negative energy.

Protect What You’ve Earned is a call to action for leaders to understand the challenges facing today’s Marine leaders and to recognize the link between leadership actions (or inaction) and risky behaviors Marines resort to when seeking to restore the sense of adventure that brought them to us. If suicides are up, impersonal lectures about resiliency and force preservation councils only address the problem from the point of view of a checklist. Healing these Marines’ psyches and restoring their faith in their problem-solving abilities requires that we interact with and lead our Marines to understand the problems they deal with that might make them feel helpless. If sexual assaults are up, then why do our Marines feel so powerless that they must prey on the weak to restore their sense of power? If substance abuse (legal or illicit) is up, then why do our Marines feel the need to escape from their worlds? The answer to these questions is not found in statistics and the methods used to interact with our Marines are unique to each of us. Generations of Marine Corps leaders have placed their faith in our ability to engage with Marines. Protect What You’ve Earned as Marine leaders. Don’t ask the wrong question: “how will the Marine Corps help me implement this program?” Ask the right question: “How can I be a positive influence in a Marine’s life today?”

LtCol Keenan is a communications officer currently serving as the Command Inspector General, Force Headquarters Group.