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From Skeptic to Champion: A SNCO's Journey to DFCs by SgtMaj Nicanor "Nick" Galvan, USMC (Ret.)

2011 - Marine Corps Base Quantico, "Crossroads of the Corps." Many Marines revere this place. It plays a crucial role in educating our warrior-leaders. Little known, however, is a small building tucked away on the edge of Marine Corps University’s (MCU) campus, Staff Noncommissioned Officer Academy (SNCOA) - Quantico. Even less well known is its parent command, Enlisted Professional Military Education (EPME), an organization housed in trailers and almost forgotten, swallowed up by MCU's grandeur.* 


EPME's staff diligently educates new SNCOA faculty on the best teaching methods. 

They execute this mission with the enthusiasm of a child unwrapping presents on Christmas morning, tempered by the apprehension that bureaucratic forces, the very ones that brought it into existence, might take it all away. The crucible of professional military education (PME) has seasoned EPME's educators, leaving them ready to impart knowledge to new faculty with sniper-like precision. This process unfolds during the Faculty Advisors Course (FAC).


It is now my turn to enter the FAC as a faculty advisor at SNCOA - Quantico. In a typical PME course, you pass hours of boredom in concrete-like seats, praying for the instructor to utter the word “BREAK!” All the while, you try to figure out what the person in front of you is saying. Your mind wanders. What is that Marine wearing on his face? A mustache? Is that in regs? Who cares? What day is it? How many more days are left here? “BREAK!” The FAC is different. It is none of that. I leave each day thirsting for more.


One day in class, I see a new instructor, a civilian. He is tall, well-dressed, and looks like a college professor - vest, jacket adorned with elbow pads, slacks. All the telltale signs of a person from academia. He introduces himself, “I am Dr. Bruce Gudmundsson,” his voice booms as he gazes across the room. The students, me included, set up in our “fighting positions,” coffee mugs and computers arranged like sandbags. Today's topic is decision-forcing cases (DFCs). Dr. G starts. 


"A DFC is a first-person story told from the angle of the protagonist. You will be that protagonist and make decisions as if you are them. It is a true story from history. It is my responsibility to tell you that story and your responsibility to answer as if you are the person in the story. We will get to decision points, and you will state and discuss your decisions with the group. Are you ready?"


Dr. G emits an enthusiasm I have never seen in a Marine Corps classroom. He instantly transforms us from Marine SNCOs into Lieutenant General Yoshitsugu Saitō, the commanding general of Japanese forces during the Battle of Saipan. As he lays out the facts of the case, Dr. G transports us at Concorde-like speed to Saipan. Our task: plan the island's defense against the U.S. Marines who are sure to invade. The decision point arrives. Dr. G cold calls a student, demanding, “What now, general? How will you defend your island?”


A slide from the Defending Saipan DFC

(Credit: The Warfighting Society)


I wait patiently, occasionally bouncing in my seat, eager to brief my plan. As other students arrive at the board, I think, Madness! Each plan assumes our inevitable defeat. I watch in horror as Marines playing a Japanese general content themselves with accepting failure. Finally, my turn comes. I skyrocket to the front of the class and brief a plan to win, defeat the Marines, and keep them off the island they dare invade. Dr. G, captivated by my plan, uses it to discuss the importance of DFCs in PME. I sit down. As the class closes, I reflect, realizing that while the teaching method is powerful, I will never use it. It is just too difficult. It takes too much time to create, prepare, and teach DFCs.


I return to my academy to teach. My approach is factory-like, slogging through the minutiae of lesson plans and KSAs (knowledge, skills, and attitudes). And then, an email. It’s that Nutty Professor, Dr. G. In fact, Dr. G was not nutty at all. Just a brilliant man with the “nutty” notion that he could inspire change in Marine Corps education.


It reads: “A call to all former squad leaders. I am looking for former squad leaders to write DFCs on. Must have had combat experience. Please respond to this email if you are interested.”


The email grabs me. I feverishly reply, and we set up a meeting for an interview. Why am I so enthusiastic? Is it selfishness? Is it for my band of brothers, my squad mates? Is it for therapy? Could it be one, some, all? I still do not know.


I take the long walk from my office to the Gray Research Center. I climb its velvet-carpeted stairs. Dr. G greets me in a back corner office on the second floor. Over the next few hours, he grills me over every detail of my first combat experiences as a squad leader in 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines (3/5), in Iraq 2003. Once he finishes his friendly interrogation, he dismisses me to create his case. Instead of a DFC aimed at divisions, regiments, and battalions, he focuses on a small unit, my unit.


A month or two creep by. Returning to my office one day, I find another email from Dr. G. He invites me to be a guest in a class where he will debut the case based on my experiences. The setting is a classroom of the Advanced Course. The students are fellow gunnery sergeants. 


A week later, I arrive at the classroom. Dr. G meets me at the door to keep me quiet and maintain my anonymity. I sit in the back as he tells my story like a well-practiced troubadour. Then the culminating moment arrives: the decision. “What now, sergeant?” My stomach turns, and my mind snaps back to my youth and first solo as a trumpet player, standing in front of a grandstand of hundreds of people waiting to hear me play. The anticipation exasperates me. The students question every decision I made and declare they would do things differently, much like a group of Marines would bad mouth their lieutenant or company commander when no one is looking. 


As the Marines talk, I feel elation and fear. Dr. G then turns the class’s attention to the back of the room. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he says, “I would like to present Gunnery Sergeant Nick Galvan, the protagonist of today’s case.” The students are dumbfounded and unsure how I will react to their criticisms. Dr. G brings me to the front of the class. The students ask me questions, and I answer. Here is the moment I decide I will become a case teacher. The innovative and dynamic approach to teaching, using story-telling and decision-making, snags me.


I am eager and dive headfirst into the deep end. I decide right then and there what to write my first case on. I reach out to my friend Gunnery Sergeant Alfonzo Salazar. He has an amazing story from one of his deployments to Iraq, where, as a staff sergeant, he was made a temporary first lieutenant (yes, you read that right). I interview Salazar, build the DFC, and prepare to deliver the case within a month. The date is set.


That day comes, and I invite Salazar to sit in the back of the classroom. I say nothing about him to the students. I feel nervous as I prepare to deliver my first - and possibly last - DFC. It is a hot July day, the kind where you could shower with the humidity. I blast music in the classroom as the students take their seats. The echoes of a loud symphonic melody fill the halls of the academy, turning it from gray to color. We are no longer in Kansas, I think. 


The title slide of Green-Eyed Ghosts, SgtMaj Galvan's first DFC

(Credit: Nick Galvan)


The starting pistol sounds. Here we go! is all I remember as I start to teach my case, Green-Eyed Ghosts. On this hot and humid summer day, the students sit riveted, answering all decisions as if they are First Lieutenant Salazar, an infantry platoon commander fighting for his men’s lives in the throes of a counterinsurgency. Not one student leaves to use the bathroom or take a break. No one wants to miss out. I am sweating and pouring my heart out as I tell the story of my friend. The students sweat, too, making decisions in the pressure cooker of simulated combat operations. I reach the end of the story. The students remain on the edge of their seats, eager for more. I turn their attention to the back of the class and introduce the protagonist. They leap from their seats, honoring Gunnery Sergeant Salazar with a standing ovation. Like a fish, I am hooked, reeled onto the boat, and thrown into the bucket. This is it. DFCs become my method, my communion of hope for improving Marine Corps education. I never look back.


Since then, I have developed fifteen cases and had the privilege to teach at The Basic School, educational conferences, and every climb and place. 


My cases focus on enlisted Marines - like Corporal Miles, a squad leader with 3/5 in Fallujah in 2004; Sergeant Perez serving on instructor-inspector duty in West Virginia in 2006; or Lance Corporal Moyer, a squad leader with First Battalion, Second Marines, in Afghanistan's Musa Qala District in 2010. These are people you will probably never hear about. They will never make the history books. They are relegated to tales told around campfires, at bars, and during Marine Corps Birthday Balls. But they have so much to offer, so much to teach. I hope my cases do them and their experiences justice.


DFCs completely changed the way I approach military education. They led me to ask, "What if?" What if there is a different way to teach, something better than the “I talk-you listen” approach of the drill instructor or combat instructor? DFCs have led me to adopt other interactive teaching methods like wargames, chalk talks, and gallery walks. While we have made progress, much more work lies ahead in improving how we train and educate Marines. A few cannot do it. I call on one and all to join in this humble endeavor. In the spirit of DFCs, I pose to you, dear reader, “What now?”


*EPME is now the College of Enlisted Military Education.


Author Bio: SgtMaj Galvan spent twenty-one years in the Marine Corps. He served as a rifle squad leader in Third Battalion, Fifth Marines, during the March Up to Baghdad in 2003.

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2 Comments


There are so many stories to tell! Each leader must look to this method to break the industrial age way of teaching and move forward to a place and time where our Marines are more engaged with the desire to participate. Great article, Nick! Semper Fi!

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Eric Walters
Eric Walters
Dec 18, 2023

I can only hope that this story will inspire more enlisted leaders (and leaders in training) to formulate their own immersive decision-forcing cases to teach Marines (and not just those junior to them)!

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