A Lesson in Leadership

Posted: September 11, 2013 in Culture, Philosophy

Way back in 2001, I had the honor of seeing detainees from Afghanistan come off the plane at Guantanamo Bay with my bare eyeballs.  I was visiting  from my home base of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where I ran the base cable news station with several other 18-22 year olds.  My mission was to shoot a news segment about the Marines’ involvement in setting up and running Camp X-ray, where the detainees were being stockpiled.

The funny thing is that it wasn’t the detainees, or the war, or anything to do with 9/11 that sticks in my mind from that day.  No, the reason my memory of that that day keeps poking itself out from my grey matter is because of the words a female Sergeant of Marines said to me.

I was standing on a hill above the airfield with three other Marines who, like me, were professional rubberneckers of one sort or another.  Two of them were male, and like me, barely out of high school.  The other was the female sergeant, a little older.  I don’t remember her name, only that she was latina and she looked like she meant business.  We’ll call her Sergeant Vasquez.  I soon learned that Sgt. Vasquez was a member of Camp Lejeune Combat Camera, where another female Marine of my acquaintance, whom we’ll call Private Zendra, held a post.

Zendra and I had been contemporaries earlier that year at the hive of debauchery that was Marine Barracks Fort Meade, Maryland.  Situated in the shadow of the National Security Agency, these barracks played home to us while we attended the Defense Information School (DINFOS), where we trained to become proficient in the art of gathering visual, aural, and human intelligence.  The rest of the time, we were all kinds of naughty.  Zendra in particular.  One day, without joy and without any cause I could discern, she began throwing herself in my direction.  I figured she was unhinged in some way and set about trying to figure out why.  After unsuccessfully trying to bluff my way into drinks at a Baltimore bar, I sat her down and asked her to explain her childhood to me.  She did not find this subject interesting.  Later that night, when the time came for us to part ways in the barracks stairwell, Zendra, without ever having given me so much as a smile, planted her lips on mine.  I didn’t kiss back.  My dating experiences were not extensive at that point in my life, but I knew that wasn’t how it was supposed to go.

The next day, Zendra was attached to another strapping young denizen of the barracks.

I’m not sure we ever spoke again, but she stayed on my mind.  She was a puzzle to me, albeit a pitiable one.  And that’s why I decided to pose this question to Sergeant Vasquez:

“What do you think of her?”

“Nothing in particular,” she replied, thrusting out her lower lip.  “Why do you ask?”

“Oh, no reason,” I came back weakly.  “Just curious…”

I realized this wasn’t the place to bring up the subject and was ready to give it up.  But the others were listening in and had shrewdly picked up the subtext.

“Oh, was she one of the DINFOS whores?” asked one of them.

“Yeah… I guess you could say that,” I answered nervously.  Everyone was apparently satisfied by this, and we all turned our attention and binoculars back to the blindfolded Islamic men making their debut on US soil.  It wasn’t until I excused myself and turned to go that I learned the subject wasn’t finished.

“PFC Catha-Garrett, can I talk to you for a moment?” Sergeant Vasquez said.  I could tell by her tone that she had been waiting for this.

We moved away from the others some distance.  She didn’t have me come to attention or parade rest, which was customary during an upbraiding by a senior Marine.  She didn’t yell.  She didn’t berate.  She didn’t have to.

“I want to talk to you about how you brought up Private Zendra earlier.  Honestly, as a female Marine, I’m not proud of her.  She’s made some mistakes, and she has some shortcomings.  But there’s no reason to be bringing her up at a time like this.  I mean, what does she have to do with any of this?”  She motioned toward the airfield.  “Do you understand what I mean?”

“Yes, Sergeant,” I said.

“Just stay focused on your job.  You don’t need to be worrying about shit like that.”

“Aye Sergeant.”

I walked away stunned, impressed, and knowing she was completely right.  What I didn’t know then that I know now is that what she said was brave.  She was probably asking herself the entire time we were standing there whether she should say something, and God bless her, she decided yes.  She took a stand against the locker room vibe that prevailed throughout the Marine Corps.  Another female Marine might have joined in dragging Private Zendra through the mud, but not Sergeant Vasquez.  She was a true leader, and a true woman.  I wish I knew her real name.

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