Early life and motivation for enlisting in the Marine Corps.
I grew up just south of Green Bay, Wisconsin, in a place called Neenah. I decided I wanted to join the military, so after a few years of college, I enlisted. I went through boot camp on the West Coast, and went to my first unit, which was as an infantryman in Hawaii with 3rd Marines.
I went to Operation Desert Storm with them in Kuwait and when I came back I was looking for a larger challenge. I enlisted again and took the Force Recon Selection to be a Reconnaissance Marine. I passed that and went to all of my qualifications schools like airborne, dive, shooting packages, assault climbing and things like that. I progressed my way up through the ranks to the rank of Staff Sargent, and decided to apply for a commissioning program in the Marine Corps to go from enlisted to officer. I did that, and came back and did a couple deployments as an infantry platoon commander with 1st Battalion, 8th Marines. I went on to command the same platoon- 6th platoon of 2nd Force Recon- that I was an enlisted man in.
About this time, the Marine Corps was starting up the Special Operations Command. So I joined MARSOC in the 2006 timeframe. I went on multiple deployments as an officer and commander; three to Afghanistan, and then finished my career as the Battalion Commander of 1st Marine Raider Battalion and the Special Operations Task Force North Commander in Iraq for the battle of Mosul, where I had a couple of SEAL platoons, a couple of Army teams, a large MARSOC contingent and about seven different joint nations.
How did your Meritorious Commissioning come about? Was being an officer something you had always wanted to do?
I was looking at options as to whether I wanted to stay in or get out. They had this program called Meritorious Commissioning, where you had to be recommended by your command. Essentially you go from Sargent or Staff Sargent to Lieutenant in a very short amount of time; for me it was three months. So from the time I applied, got accepted, and went through the program, I was out as a 2nd Lieutenant within three months, and then back in the fleet as an officer within about a year because you have to go through a series of officer schools.
The program in that form doesn’t exist anymore. They make you go back to college and finish your degree.
Is there a profound difference in leading conventional forces versus special operations teams?
Leadership is leadership, but it’s a different type. When you’re in the infantry, you are working with much younger Marines; the average age is between eighteen and twenty-three and right out of high school. So your maturity level and capabilities are definitely much different. When you go over to lead any sort of special operations element, those people have been vetted and screened through a very lengthy process. To create a MARSOC Raider, there is over 5,000 data points by the time that guy gets out of his eighteen month, almost two-year pipeline. So there’s a pretty good profile built on what his strengths and weaknesses are. They have it almost down to an algorithm of where guys will fail, where they will succeed, and what kind of person you are looking to recruit. So when you are working with a lot of type-A personnel, your approach has to be a little different than it would be with an eighteen-year-old Marine. That’s the biggest difference: you still have to have leadership, but you’re working with a different Marine to begin with.
After 9/11, you were back at Force Recon in Mosul. Was this deployment different from your pre-9/11 tours?
Sure, and it was even different from Desert Shield, which was the 1991 timeframe. A large portion of the first part of my career with Desert Shield and Desert Storm was spent doing a lot of contingency training and deployments. But after 9/11 that all changed, and the county has been at war ever since; we’re going on our seventeenth year in Afghanistan. It’s a lot different; I’ve seen it come full circle in the missions, the countries, and back and forth to some of the same countries, so it’s definitely different, and the intensity is different whenever you’re deploying for real world stuff.
You’ve served in a huge variety of positions- from the enlisted side all the way to commander of certain task units. If you could go back, which of those positions would you be most eager to do again?
Well they’re all good. Most people will tell you that the closer you are to the tactical level of warfare, the better it is. Those days as a young Sargent in Force Recon were very rewarding. For me, nothing replaces the combat deployments and when you have the privilege and honor to command Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines in combat, that’s a rare opportunity that doesn’t come around all that often. So for me, I think that my most memorable deployments were when I was in command in Afghanistan two times as a Marine Special Operations Commander where I had two Navy SEAL Platoons and US Army ODA Special Forces teams underneath me; those are very memorable experiences. My last deployment, even as a Battalion commander, working with over seven different countries, was very challenging but just as rewarding.
I think that with most people you talk to, their best moments are where they had the most freedom of maneuver and action from their boss, and probably were involved in a kinetic fight.
When you were in Mosul in the 2016-17’ time frame, you were a commanding officer of a task force comprised of Raiders, SEALS, SF and several other nations. Was it a challenge to bring all those different teams together under one-banner to complete a mission?
It certainly can be, but I think the biggest challenge you face is that not all countries can do the same thing or have the same capabilities; there are a lot of national caveats of what their rules of engagement are, and that’s dictated by their countries. Some countries are able to go outside the wire and get very close to the action. Others could not and had different restrictions. For me, as a commander, instead of dwelling on what they couldn’t do, I would focus my effort on what they could do, and employ them within their capabilities. Everyone brings a unique capability and culture to the fight- for example getting through the language barrier. On any given day, there was seven different languages being spoken in our Joint Special Operations Center. So being able to communicate is your biggest challenge. Not only simple tasks, but highly complex, very detailed plans to clear Mosul and remove ISIS from those areas. Being able to work through a liaison architecture, and have a representative who could speak English or a representative who could speak Arabic as an interpreter was challenging. When you plan like that it takes twice as long to get your message across usually. With two Americans speaking back and forth you could move at a much faster pace, so communication was probably the most challenging aspect.
Are programs like language school’s mandatory for special operations teams working in that capacity?
It’s built in to the Marine Raider program. Officers don’t go, but as an enlisted guy you’re going to spend six months learning a language and the geography of the place you are going to. Raiders going to the Pacific probably do Tagalog, if they are doing a Middle East deployment they’ll do Arabic, Maybe French if they are going to Europe or Africa. You learn different dialects depending on where you are going, and that’s challenging because the next war might be in Korean for example, so you can’t do everything. The best you can do is surround yourself with talented guys who understand language and have an aptitude for that, and find some good interpreters to fill the gaps.
How did you get involved with the Marine Raider Foundation?
The foundation stood up with four people in the beginning. We saw gaps in benevolent support, where Marine Raiders and MARSOC family members needed help. We took a look around and you had a Green Beret Foundation and a Navy SEAL Foundation, and we realized quickly that you need a benevolent organization that’s going to help our guys and gals and families. We took about a thousand dollars out of the bank and stood up a 501(c)(3) non-profit with that intention, and have been at it for over five years now. We just went over the four-million dollars of benevolent funds raised and the vast majority of that goes right back into programs supporting the men and families of MARSOC.
What are your biggest goals for the foundation itself for the next five years?
What we need to do is identify what programs are going to be of the most utility to the Marines, Sailors and family members. Right now, for the guys getting out, we’ve seen a huge spike in transition programs. Raiders need help to successfully transition from wearing a uniform to moving into the civilian sector, so we’ve focused our effort into partnering with a lot of organizations that provide executive level transition services.
When you get out of the military, you usually get a week’s worth of transition where they try to teach you how to write a resume and what to do in an interview, but it’s very basic, and quite frankly not really good. Having just gone through it myself less than a year ago, I can say that it doesn’t successfully set you up. There are many executive level programs out there, the Navy SEALS have one called the Honor Foundation, so we’ve been partnering with them, and that’s a three-month executive level transition program, that will partner you and network you into fortune-500 companies and get those good paying job for Raiders when they get out.
You have these high performing, special operations guy or gal, and you want to set them up for success in organizations that are the civilian equivalent of those special operations organizations, so Google, Tesla, Apple, and many others in the financial sector. That’s what we think is the next big goal for now.