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General Alfred M. Gray USMC. RIP Papa Bear

March 20 was a dark day for me. And I expect it was a similar experience for Marines around the world who woke up to find out a true giant of our Corps had fallen. It was a bitter pill to swallow for Marines who knew General Alfred Mason Gray Jr. at some point in his climb from enlisted rifleman in 1950 to four-star general and 29th Commandant of the Corps (1987-91). As a veteran of our ill-starred deployment to Beirut, Lebanon circa 1982-83, I can think of no other officer with the sheer influence throughout the ranks who did more to keep the Marine Corps on an even keel through a period of serious depression and frustration after the suicide bombings killed so many of our so-called peacekeepers in October 1983.

There were several wars (Korea, Vietnam, Middle East) plus some dicey operations short of full-scale combat (Lebanon ’58 and Dominican Republic ’65) involved in General Gray’s ascent to the Marine Corps’ top command but his heart and mind mostly remained down in the ranks where he started. It’s a testament to his affinity for the Marines on the pointy end of the bayonet that he demanded his official portrait be taken and distributed while he was wearing an unadorned camouflaged combat uniform. Even after he retired from active duty in 1991, he often showed up for speaking engagements or morale-building visits wearing a sports coat made of the Corps’ digital camouflage material.

As a Commandant who courted and promoted thinkers over knuckle-draggers, General Grey co-authored and force-fed to all hands in Marine uniform a little treatise (less than 100 pages) titled “Warfighting,” which remains to this day the most definitive statement of Marine Corps tactical thinking. He was a no-nonsense, inspirational leader who when he spoke with his Marines always left them believing they’d been heard and acknowledged. He also left most of us who encountered him regularly with bruised biceps. He was a physical guy and the General’s method of instilling a personal interest was often to slam a ham-sized fist into your shoulder. It became a mark of intimacy, and when the general left such face-to-face meetings, no matter how brief or ad hoc, you felt you’d been listened to rather than lectured.

General Gray was commanding the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, NC, when I served as one of his Public Affairs Officers. In that capacity, I began to write a series of articles, mostly for the base newspaper, concerning what I thought as a junior officer up from the ranks was wrong or right about the Marine Corps and the way we did business in the post-Vietnam era. It was unusual at the time for a certified Marine flak to write an op-ed column, but I believed in calling out some of the problems I perceived, even though it did occasionally land me in hot water with my seniors who were a bit thin-skinned about airing dirty laundry. I figured the defecation had finally hit the oscillation when a call from General Gray’s aide suggested I report to the division CP within the next five minutes as the general wanted a word with me.

Standing at a rigid position of attention I glanced down to see the general reading a copy of the Camp Lejeune Globe opened to my editorial titled “Checkpoint Delta.” He scribbled a few notes in the margin and then glanced up at me. “I like the way you write,” he growled. “No nonsense…call it like you see it. Am I right?” Well, he’s the commanding general so of course he’s right. What I wanted to know was what was wrong with what I said. But General Gray was apparently not concerned with that. He went on to say he admired a man who could write something so it’s intent was clear to a PFC or Lance Corporal. It was my first insight into what the general considered a primary tenet of leadership.

Be sure everyone under your command understands your intent and then let them get on with making it happen. Don’t waste time or words on telling your people how to do something. Let them know what the end result ought to be and turn them loose to use their own creativity and initiative. Mistakes are bound to happen. So what? Learn from them and continue the march. When in doubt, simply fall back on your commander’s intent and you won’t go very wrong no matter what you do.

At the time of this encounter, the Marine Corps was about to be tasked with an unfamiliar mission—defending NATO’s northern flank on the Baltic Approaches—which would take us to potential battle grounds in Norway, Denmark, and northern Germany. That was traditionally Army territory, so there was a lot to be learned and a number of strange allies to be courted in that region of Europe. As Commander of the 2nd Marine Division, tasked with potential deployment across the Atlantic, General Gray would lead preparations for plowing this unfamiliar ground, or breaking the ice if you will.

And General Gray most certainly would. He ordered me to Northern Norway where I would undergo winter warfare training. At the conclusion of that exercise, I was to write a plain-language, no nonsense assessment of how the cold-weather experts did business. Save the acronyms and Big Picture stuff, I was to write something a PFC or Lance Corporal could grasp without resort to a field manual or dictionary.

Understand, I don’t ski or ice-skate and generally try to avoid cold weather of any degree like the plague, so I knew this was going to be miserable. I drew some musty old cold-weather gear from supply which had likely not seen the light of day since Korea and proceeded to Trondheim, Norway about 200 miles above the Arctic Circle. It sucked. And I was likely the most inept, miserable student the Norwegians had ever encountered, but I paid attention and got it done. It took a metric ton of determination and mental discipline, but I understood and constantly pondered General Gray’s intent which kept me going rather than shivering in the nearest snowhole or heated shelter. Through the whole painful process, I felt like Papa Bear (General Gray’s call-sign) was watching me and tolerating my mistakes or missteps as valuable lessons learned. A really good leader can inspire you to stuff like that.

The internet and sundry publications will carry reviews of General Gray’s career and achievements and it’s all worth the time to read about an inspirational man who died in peace earlier this month. He was an anomaly by today’s military measure, a sort of warrior-monk who was selfless and genuinely altruistic. Here’s hoping more than a few of our current crop of lockstep, brass-bound bureaucrats in uniform take some time to read about a true warrior and absorb some of his selfless leadership tenets.

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