Constraints: That Which We Must Do
Phone calls at 0430 are rarely good. I hop out of bed hoping my wife is still asleep—I dislike when my burden become hers. The person on the other end tells me that one of my Marines is in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). I call my gunny; he’s aware. I am showered and in my truck, heading to the hospital within 15 minutes. I wear civvies because I’m not sure what this day will bring. The 45-minute drive to the hospital doesn’t do much to calm my nerves. I get conflicting word about what the battalion wants me to do. I turn off my phone. I know what I need to do: take care of my Marine. I get to the hospital and park. I ask a person in scrubs where I can find the ICU. My gunny and I link up to take the elevator. He is calmly focused.
I don’t like hospitals. I dated a nurse and it didn’t end well. We get buzzed in to the ICU. I find the nurse and ask for the room. It’s to my left and I see him. My Marine. He’s in a coma, on a ventilator, cut open from emergency surgery and plastered with gauze, sensors and bandages. A traffic accident did this. A drunk driver. I don’t know what to say. “Shit, Sir,” is all my gunny can get out. It captures the moment. I corner the charge nurse and she tells me it isn’t good. I see a small crowd outside the room. I introduce myself and ask who the doctor is. It isn’t good. They aren’t sure he is going to survive. I call my boss and decide to stay put. This is where I need to be. I send my gunny back and tell him to send my sergeant down with a duty vehicle. The parents are flying in this afternoon. They’ve been made aware of the situation. The sister is returning from overseas and the brother is studying in Asia. Both are booking flights. I put a plan together in my mind. We will take care of them. It is not a question. Later on, my regimental sergeant major will describe it eloquently, “We only care for Marine families one way.” Truth, Sergeant Major.
Picking up the parents from the airport is the worst thing I’ve ever had to do. I arrange with security for them to be taken off the flight first. The police officer is a Marine. She helps immediately. Semper Fidelis. I speak to the California Highway Patrol and they agree to escort us to the hospital. Minutes may be the difference in seeing their son alive. I wait at the gate with my sergeant and the chaplain. We’re in civvies and “Chaps” is in his service uniform. I wish he wasn’t. I see security escorting the parents. They see us—the mom is crying. I shake their hands. She asks me if her son is still alive. “Yes ma’am, but we need to go.” She breaks down. All eyes in the airport are on us. This is a military town. People know what a chaplain in uniform and a crying mother means. I have to get them out of here, no one deserves an audience for their grief. We get moving. We’re in the van and California Highway Patrol is leading the way. My sergeant is worried about exceeding the speed limit in the government vehicle. “I don’t care, tell them I ordered you to do it,” I say. We get to the hospital in record time.
We have a plan to get their baggage later. I explain everything I know to the parents during the ride. We take the elevator up. Before we are buzzed in, I stop the group. “Ma’am, Sir, this isn’t a good sight. Please know that we’ll do everything we can to help.” It isn’t enough. We enter the ICU, the mother sees her firstborn in a hospital bed. The father holds her as she shakes with grief. I’m in the doorway and the nurse asks me when the siblings are arriving. I ask her to shoot me straight. “We don’t know how long he will last,” she says. The sister arrives in five hours. The brother is moving flights to get here sooner, but will arrive in the early morning. My sergeant and I repeat the process at the airport. It is heart-rending each time. We would rather be anywhere else than looking in their eyes as they are escorted off the plane. The sister cries softly during the trip to the hospital. The brother tries to hold it in, his masculine pride faltering only when he sees his brother. I hate that part. I ask if the family needs anything. The nurses bring blankets and pillows for them. I sit in the corner of the room on a chair, unsure of what to do. The uncertainty is unnerving. Leaving feels wrong, like abandoning my post.
This is the second night we’ll spend at the hospital. Last night we slept in the waiting room, taking turns on watch. The nurses tell us he could go at any moment, so I leave instructions for the watch to wake the group if anything happens. There are six of us the first night, sprawled on cushions and couches. I get some blankets when my watch ends and cover my Marines. They keep the hospital cold to kill bacteria. In the morning, I ask for a razor. My reflection looks tired and I cut myself twice. I decide to invade a conference room closer to the ICU. The Marines have landed. The charge nurse is no-nonsense. I promise we will stay out of their way. I am grateful for her kindness. The second night, five of us sleep under a conference room table, rotating watch. When my watch ends, I pause to look at my Marines. I am thankful they decided to stay. I didn’t tell them to. They did what felt right and what needed to be done. I am humbled by their willingness to endure. Where do we find these people?
The day starts as the doctor consults with the family. Tests have come back with the worst possible news. Life support can keep him alive, but his brain is badly damaged. For a person who lived life aggressively, scuba diving, hiking, shooting, and climbing, there is no quality of life on a ventilator. The doctor stays to answer questions. The family says their final goodbyes and makes the decision to let him go. It is sunny outside. Traffic zips by on the interstate, unaffected. We gather in the hospital room—the family, my Marines, myself. No one speaks. It’s time. Technicians work busily removing tubes and sensors and machines. Modern medicine. He looks peaceful, and I’m glad. Privately, I ask the nurse how long it will take. “Not long.” I notice my guys crying. I wish they didn’t have to see this, but it would be wrong to leave. I look at the father. He and I have talked a lot in the last few days. I see the pain in his eyes. Fathers shouldn’t bury their sons.
It is mid-morning when he passes. The nurse announces it. It isn’t like the movies. There is no flat tone to announce it. We cry. I grab his hand a final time. I hug the family. I wipe my eyes and step outside to make the call. I look at the nurse and try to articulate that I need to know the time of death and cause of death. I call my commanding officer, “Sir, he’s gone. He’s gone,” is what I can get out. I call the adjutant and give him the information he needs for Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps to start their process. I’ve already arranged rooms for the family and transportation. I focus on the mission to clear my head: take care of the family. I get us moving and we gather our belongings and return to Camp Pendleton. It is a quiet car ride. We get the family situated and go home to shower and sleep.
I am in “Alphas” at the funeral home. I am escorting the remains. My wife drops me off. She can tell I’m nervous. To prepare, I watched “Taking Chance” because there is no publication for this. I’m early and the funeral director allows me to sit in his office while he prepares the hearse. I hear the Patriot Guard assembling outside. It’s time to go. I check the tag on the coffin. It’s him. It hurts. We pull onto the street and I speak to the Patriot Guard. A retired gunny salutes me and introduces himself. He apologizes for bringing only 25 riders—they used to get many more during the war years, he tells me. Makes sense. There is no nobility in dying in a traffic accident. They clear a path down to the airport. We salute the fallen as the airline crew carefully handle the coffin. I see the eyes of many veterans as they look me up and down, unsure. Credibility is an uphill battle as a lieutenant. I meet the mother and daughter in the terminal. They chose to fly with us. The flight is a redeye so we won’t sleep much tonight. I do crosswords with the sister to keep us occupied. I am worried about the family, I hope I have done enough for them. At the airport in Atlanta, there is an office buried deep below the passenger terminals. I hope you are never there. The man who works in it loves his country. He serves by caring for the remains of fallen servicemembers, taking charge of all those who fly through the airport. He’s arranged an honor guard of airport workers composed of veterans who volunteer their time to honor our fallen. He shows us pictures of folks who he has helped bring home and shares the stories of those servicemembers. He has a float he enters in his local parade each year covered in their stories. The pride is evident. It is 0530 on Saturday and he has come in early with his son to handle our transit. Whoever thinks America stopped being great hasn’t met these people. It’s time to load my Marine on our final flight. I take my place next to the honor guard. I see an Army sergeant in his dress uniform escorting remains on a different flight. We salute and shake hands. I see on his face the same weariness that I feel. We exchange pleasantries but there is nothing to say. We make eye contact for a long moment and I say, “Take care, brother.” We salute. We are boarded and in the air.
When we land in Columbus, the aircrew announces that we are transporting a fallen servicemember. I am conspicuous in my “Alphas,” and now I am conspicuous for my mission. I don’t like being the center of attention. They announce for everyone to remain seated. I move to let the mother and sister out first, the flight attendant explains they mean for me to get off first. “It was her son, ma’am, and her brother. They will go first.” Outside, the town is waiting to greet the family. The reserve unit is present, I link up with the Casualty Assistance Calls Officer (CACO). They look sharp—drill sharp. I get in the hearse. The local police are escorting us and the ride is brief. As we get into town I see a line of lights. Every intersection is blocked by saluting police and firemen. People are out of their cars clapping. It is overwhelming to see the town welcoming home one of its own. I am proud that this is how they receive us. I am proud that the family will ride through the visible support of their neighbors. At the funeral home, I ensure no one sees the remains until I complete my inspection. He looks like a Marine. He looks like my brother. I miss him. I tell the director and CACO that I am satisfied.
I find a local pub. I don’t want to sit in my hotel room alone. So I sit at the bar alone and stare at whatever is on the television. Over dinner I replay events. I second-guess my choices. I think about my family. The bartender is curious about me. I’m from a small town, so I know it is easy to spot outsiders. She asks me why I look sad. “Because I’m sad, today.” She asks what will help. “Time,” I reply. They let me sit in peace. I appreciate it. The beer is good. It helps my mind wander, and after a few hours I get a taxi. I gather myself and ask for the bill. “It’s been taken care of.” I ask what she’s talking about. “We know why you’re here. Thank you for what you did.” I don’t know what to say. I start tearing up because I’m exhausted and buzzed and overwhelmed by the gesture. “We know why you’re here.” I’ve said “thank you” a million times, but I have never meant it in the way I say it now. “Thank you. Thank you for letting me sit here all night. I didn’t know what else to do.” She knew the whole time. I hold it together until I get back to my room. It is the first time in my career I’ve felt appreciated because it is the first time I feel I have done something worth appreciating. It is staggeringly cathartic.
While I’m gone, one of my good friends calls my wife to talk. He lost Marines in war and at home. He tells her the best thing she can do is get me to talk about it. I don’t like it, but he’s right. When I get back he corners me and tells me the same. I still don’t like it, but I love him and he’s right. I tell the same to my Marines. On leave, I see my father and talk through this. We are stoic people, but I know he understands. He lost friends when the barracks was bombed in Beirut. He tells me to take care of my people, and he listens. He speaks as a Marine and as a father. At work, I am pestered by helpful listeners. We only care for Marine families one way, and I appreciate it. My guys get memorial bracelets made. I make sure the family gets them too. Before I left, I wrote awards for my Marines, which they received in my absence. They don’t want them, but they deserve them. I don’t deserve the Marines I have, but I want them.
Leadership is the obligation to advance the mission, whatever comes. Chaotic events do not wait for complete solutions and careful assessment, they demand flexible and timely action. Planning creates maneuver space, anticipating tomorrow’s needs with today’s information, a critical resource for leaders who think in the future while existing in the present. The leader’s center of gravity is an inexhaustible supply of critical thinking built upon a foundation of experience, knowledge and deliberate invention. Leadership is leading when required, following when others are more suited to the task and maintaining clarity of the larger context. Leaders recognize that events are nonlinear and require a thought framework that is similarly nuanced. These skills are abstract but essential, acquired only through intent and purposeful exposure. There is no single source of knowledge or experience. There is no one organization that owns effective leadership. There is no shortcut.
If you ask me how to be a good leader, I can’t give you a quick answer. It is a nurse caring for a wounded Marine, patiently answering questions. It is a doctor taking time to explain the situation. It is a police officer remaining faithful long after end of active service. It is a highway patrolman going outside the norm. It is an Army sergeant who shares the burden. It is my sergeant staying by my side for days because he knows I need him. It is Marines sleeping in a conference room and keeping the watch. It is a man who works at Atlanta airport and loves his country. It is veterans who still serve in times of need. It is an airline captain saluting the fallen. It is a small town caring for one of their own. It is a bartender picking up a tab. It is a senior Marine caring for a junior Marine, the last generation preparing the next. I am eternally thankful for the leadership of all those I depended upon. It is a privilege to lead Marines. It was a privilege to escort my brother. My commanding officer thanked my Marines and me for the leadership we showed. We did what needed to be done. If you ask me to make you a leader, I can’t tell you how. But if you find yourself in Grove City, Ohio, there’s a barkeep who can show you.
Editor’s note: Nicholas I. Kursinskis, 25, of 9th Communications Battalion, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., was struck by a drunk driver while riding his motorcycle on June 28, 2017. He died from his injuries on July 1, 2017.