SNCO Day in Golf Company: A Short Story of Warfighting in Garrison by LtCol Tim Jackson, USMC (Ret)
Updated: Jan 22, 2022
Scene: The garrison command post of a U.S. Marine Corps infantry battalion on a weekday morning, just after PT.
LtCol Patrick “Paddy” Collins, the battalion commanding officer, finished buttoning his blouse and stepped into the adjutant’s doorway. “Adj, I’m off to Golf Company to see what’s going on down there.” “Yes, sir,” Lt Nichols responded, smiling to himself as the colonel departed. Nichols knew the CO would probably be with Golf Company the rest of the morning and then lunch with a few of their NCOs or SNCOs. The battalion S-4 had an important inspection coming up and had been trying to get some time with the battalion commander since early yesterday afternoon, but he'd have to wait. The colonel spent 90% of his time with the troops, much to his staff’s consternation.
LtCol Collins pounded on the Golf Company commander’s hatch as he walked through the doorway. “Mornin’, Skipper!” he called out enthusiastically. Capt Ryan McCoy was sitting at his desk lacing up his boots when he heard the colonel and looked up. Instinctively he rose to his feet, banging the back of his head on the edge of his desk. “Good morning, sir!” he responded, wincing as the sting took effect. The colonel waved for McCoy to sit as the CO plopped down casually into an empty chair. “What’s going on with the Golf Company Gunslingers today?”
McCoy's gut tightened. He remembered that he’d forgotten to tell anyone ‘upstairs’ that he'd changed today’s training schedule. Only in command six weeks, he’d already been counseled twice by the battalion XO for failing to keep him, the S-3, or the colonel informed when he made changes to his training schedule, and now he’d been caught failing to do so again. “Sir, I apologize. When we were unexpectedly tasked at the last minute yesterday to support the MEF dog & pony show, I changed today’s training schedule but failed to let you know. I’ve turned over the company to the SNCOs, and I'm getting ready to go lead PME with the officers in the Motor T classroom.”
LtCol Collins knew McCoy had been struggling a bit with company administration but reacted nonchalantly. “Don’t let it bother you, Skipper. Your company XO or gunny should be back-stopping you on that kind of stuff. You might want to remind them. Where are the troops now?”
“Sir, First Sergeant Tucker has the company CP set up near the entrance to the Kilo-1 training area, and all four platoons are working in Kilo-1.” McCoy hoped the colonel wouldn’t ask him for any more details because he didn’t know them. McCoy ‘grew up’ in the Marine Corps under several outstanding commanders who had used mission-type orders extensively, and he was a strong believer in that approach to command. He'd instituted the practice when he took command of Golf Company, and despite some rocky moments as his subordinates adjusted to his style, he’d stayed the course. He knew he was taking a risk. Already, some of the battalion staff thought he was too hands off and told him so. He’d known and respected First Sergeant Tucker for five years; they’d served together in another battalion when McCoy was a lieutenant. McCoy fully trusted Tucker and knew he’d be doing what he wanted him to do.
“You continue with your PME. I’ll make my way down to Kilo-1 and see how they’re doing. I may see you at Motor T later on.” With that, the colonel departed.
McCoy hadn’t yet had a chance to get to know the colonel well, but he liked what he’d seen so far. The captain had been pleasantly surprised at the tremendous latitude he’d been given to develop his own training plan, and he knew that the colonel intervened often to keep the battalion staff and higher headquarters from interfering with it. McCoy also liked how the colonel used mission-type orders himself and focused on results. For some, the colonel’s informal style was disarming. But McCoy could tell the CO was constantly observing and making mental notes. He would act quickly, and sometimes severely, when he saw something he didn’t like. McCoy already overheard the colonel call another company commander on the carpet and chew him out for not taking the initiative to either do something productive with his troops or release them on liberty when they were lounging around the area one afternoon.
As LtCol Collins made his way down to Kilo-1, he reflected on what he already knew about his newest company commander. He’d already surmised that Capt McCoy was by far the most aggressive and tactically competent of his five company commanders. Immediately after taking command, McCoy quickly arranged for a week-long field exercise, taking just his platoon commanders and platoon sergeants to the field and leaving the rest of the company under the first sergeant’s charge. McCoy designed and executed his own train-the-trainer program, and the few times Collins had checked in on it, he was tremendously impressed by the captain's leadership and competence as a trainer. Through the SNCO chain, he’d heard the platoon sergeants initially grumbled about having to go to the field for a week to learn how to train. Several of them had four operational deployments under their belt and multiple combat action ribbons--they didn’t think they had anything new to learn. But later they acknowledged they had learned a lot and couldn’t wait to teach their leaders. Collins was toying with the idea of having McCoy run a similar program for the rest of the officers and SNCOs in the battalion.
McCoy had also demonstrated moral courage and a fierce determination to protect his commander’s prerogative for training. At a recent Monday morning battalion staff meeting, the battalion gunner announced an upcoming series of weapons training packages that he would design and execute for each of the rifle companies. Immediately, Capt McCoy stated he appreciated the offer but declined, saying Golf Company would do its own weapons training. The S-3 intervened, retorting, “Capt McCoy, that training package is not an option, and you will do the training.” But McCoy stuck to his guns: “No, sir. Unless the battalion commander directs it, Golf Company will do its own training. I’ll be happy to work with the gunner if he wants to assist us.” LtCol Collins quickly settled the matter. “Capt McCoy is correct. Training is a commander’s prerogative. Gunner, you will support Golf Company's training if they request assistance.” In recent years, the battalion staff had gotten into the habit of designing and executing standardized training packages for the companies. The packages were effective, but they came at a high cost: Small unit leaders increasingly lacked initiative, and they didn't know how to effectively train their Marines on their own. Immediately following the meeting, LtCol Collins decided the battalion staff wouldn’t do any more company-level training unless a company commander requested it.
Collins arrived at the Golf Company CP and found First Sergeant Tucker, who greeted him warmly and offered a cup of ‘Joe.’ The colonel could see the CP was still getting organized. He looked around and observed the platoons all doing a similar set of basic drills. First Sergeant Tucker explained, “Capt McCoy established a company SOP where, at least once a day, everyone in the company would do the drills you’re observing, led by the squad leaders. They take only about 15 minutes. Some squad leaders have taken the initiative and added a few more drills, but the idea is to keep the daily ‘blocking and tackling’ routine focused, short, and sweet. We have a similar routine for PT, if we’re unable to get in a full workout for some reason. Even if we get jammed on short notice with an external requirement like yesterday’s MEF request, we still get a daily minimum of combat skills training and conditioning.”
After finishing their coffee, LtCol Collins and the first sergeant walked over to where Weapons Platoon was conducting dry fire crew-served weapons training. The colonel was familiar with the standardized gun drills for technical crew-served weapons training, but what he observed here was something very different. Before each section leader initiated a drill, he briefed a scenario that provided higher context for it. In effect, not only did the squads have to exercise technical skill in preparing and mounting their weapons, but they also had to make tactical decisions regarding, among other things, where to place their weapons, how to orient them, and what missions to assign each squad. In one case, the mortar section was laying all mortars on a single direction of fire when a competing call for fire came in. Since the section leader had ‘killed’ himself during the problem, the senior squad leader had to decide how the section should meet the competing requirements. After each problem, the section leader led a critique of both the technical and tactical actions he'd observed. The colonel noted that all section members participated in the critiques.
Training in Golf Company: scenario-driven gun drills
LtCol Collins and the first sergeant then went to observe First Platoon working on immediate actions. Each squad leader was working with his squad in a separate area. The colonel observed the First Squad leader teaching not just the technique for a particular action, but also the principles behind it. The technique he was teaching had built-in flexibility. He wanted the Marines to use both their military judgment and understanding of the principles when applying the technique. The colonel overheard the squad leader explain to his troops, “The techniques they teach at The Stumps are a good baseline and starting point, but in theater you'll find that you have to modify your techniques just about every day, because you're facing a thinking enemy who's constantly adapting to your actions. It was SOP in our company that, whenever possible, all platoon and squad leaders participated in every patrol debrief. Things were constantly changing, and that was the only way we could keep up.”
Training in Golf Company: Teaching the principles behind techniques
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Cameron Hermanet)
Second Squad was working on mounted patrol immediate actions with a couple of humvees on a section of dirt road. The Second Squad leader, Sgt Anderson, was also teaching the principles behind the techniques. LtCol Collins noticed a couple of the battalion’s Motor Transport Section Marines among the troops and asked Sgt Anderson about them. “I’ve got a buddy in Motor T, sir, and when he heard we were working on mounted patrol actions, he asked if he could send over a couple of guys to participate. The Motor T guys are outstanding. They’ve got a lot of convoy ops experience and a ton to offer. They're raising issues I’ve never thought of and bringing different perspectives to the problems in our scenarios. Frankly, sir, they're helping us up our game. I just learned that the Motor T Section has an outstanding training program and SOP for mounted operations. We’re going to use their SOP to build our own.” Collins was impressed.
Over in Third Squad’s area, the colonel witnessed something he’d never seen before: The squad leader, Sgt Johnson, and his troops stood gathered around an expertly-prepared terrain model, inventing a new contact technique based on a unique situation that Johnson had experienced on his last deployment. “Toward the end of the deployment, we faced this situation two or three times, and we didn’t have a good way to deal with it. We came up with a technique after the first time, but the enemy anticipated our response and was ready for it.” The colonel saw the squad leader describe the situation in detail and use the Socratic method to engage his entire squad in developing a new baseline technique for handling the challenge. Everyone contributed. The colonel noted that a bright PFC tended to dominate the discussion based on the strength of his ideas. Before leaving the area, Collins told Sgt Johnson he wanted to discuss the scenario with him over lunch, and they arranged a time to meet at the chow hall.
Training in Golf Company: Using terrain models to develop new techniques to unique problems
While LtCol Collins and the first sergeant observed Weapons and First Platoons’ training, Second and Third Platoons were executing a force-on-force free play exercise. The scenario was a counterinsurgency problem set in Kilo-1's small combat town. The town had long stood abandoned, but on the initiative of Golf Company's SNCOs, it was now a contested village of a developing, war-torn nation. For the exercise, the company gunny acted as the head umpire and the platoon sergeants acted as assistant umpires. To LtCol Collins' surprise, he saw at least a dozen role-players, all of them of Southeast Asian descent, playing villagers. While the platoon sergeants were adjudicating actions in the scenario, Collins walked over to the gunny and asked him how he'd set up the exercise and who the civilians were. “Sir, we wanted to make things as realistic as we could, but we didn’t have any money to hire contractor role players. So, Staff Sergeant Jones came up with a good solution. He has four Marines in Third Platoon who are Vietnamese, and they grew up an hour away from here. They arranged for 20 friends and relatives from their hometown to come play villagers for the exercise. We’ve asked them to speak only Vietnamese when interacting with the Marines. We’ve also given them the basic scenario and the latitude to act as they see fit; there's no script. They've ran with it and even created the local political situation themselves. Our Vietnamese Marines are acting as the insurgents. Fox Company has a couple of Vietnamese Marines as well, and we were able to borrow them to play interpreters.”
Collins then asked the gunny how he would guide the scenario to get the outcomes he wanted. “As I understand it, sir, you can't really have ‘guided free-play.’ You have to give all parties full latitude to act according to the situation, and umpires have to be flexible and able to adjust when things go in an unanticipated direction. One time, we had an exercise where the aggressors broke the rules. But instead of stopping things, we let it play out. As it happens, the aggressors’ actions resulted in a fruitful and spirited debate at the critique, and we learned things we couldn’t have anticipated or learned any other way. Free play training's uniquely valuable this way.”
When the exercise reached a natural conclusion, the gunny led a critique. It was obvious he'd done this many times and was an expert at it. With all hands present, he first briefed an overview of the situation. Then he asked each of the leaders, including the village chief, to give a synopsis of their situation, mission, and intent. Following this, the gunny walked everyone through the exercise chronologically, stopping at key events and inviting each leader to give a self-critique. Once the participants started talking, the gunny stepped back and let them carry the dialog among themselves, stepping in only to clarify a key point, engage a participant who otherwise might not contribute, or get the discussion back on track if it wandered. In concluding the critique, the gunny provided a few observations and invited the other umpires to do the same. Everyone had an opportunity to contribute.
On the way back to the company CP, LtCol Collins asked the first sergeant about Golf Company's approach to technique training. “I saw Weapons Platoon and First Platoon doing basic procedure-based training, but in every case, they created scenarios to provide higher context. Why was that?” First Sergeant Tucker explained, “When Capt McCoy took over, he insisted we take a scenario-based approach for just about all procedural and technical training. He thinks that technical training and tactical training must happen in parallel, that it’s a mistake to separate them. Most NCOs and officers believe they need to do ‘the basics’ first, and they define those as simple procedure-based skills. But the problem with that approach is you can easily over-focus on procedures and techniques and never get to tactics training, which we both know is harder to do. We strive to do technical and tactical training in balance, and we see how they complement each other. As the captain often like to say and I certainly believe, 'If you overemphasize the technical, your approach to problem solving can easily become checklist-oriented and unimaginative. If you overemphasize the tactical, your techniques can become sloppy and ineffective.'”
LtCol Collins checked his watch and noticed he’d have to hustle if he were going to observe Capt McCoy’s officer PME before they broke for lunch. He thanked the first sergeant, then moved off rapidly towards Motor T. He arrived at the classroom just as McCoy was beginning a TDG. The captain stood at the front of the room giving a situation brief and pointing to a graphic projected on the wall behind him. His lieutenants sat in a school circle around the projector. Collins also noticed that the air officer, Capt Mark “Boru” Placey, and the motor transport officer, Lt Phil Sparks, were participating as well. The scenario placed the students in the role of an infantry battalion commander who faced an urgent situation requiring a decision. Collins noted that McCoy purposely gave them incomplete or ambiguous information. The skipper ended the brief with "What now, sir?" For the next 90 seconds, LtCol Collins watched the participants quickly write and sketch in their green notebooks, though no one spoke to anyone else. McCoy broke the silence when he looked at his First Platoon commander and said, “Butler, you're the battalion commander. What are your orders?” Lt Butler paused for a moment, stood up, and confidently gave a succinct frag order, providing his intent, CONOPS, and a clear task to each of his subordinate commanders. He also designated a main effort and identified a few key points that required coordination. As soon as Butler finished, Capt McCoy turned to his Second Platoon commander and asked, “Gray, what do you think of Butler's decision? Would you do the same?” Lt Gray answered with a spirited “Hell no, sir!” and then offered a critique of Butler’s decision and frag order. He also offered his own CONOPS. At that point, all the lieutenants joined the discussion, and several offered solutions of their own. Capt Placey and Lt Sparks also contributed, broadening the discussions on combined arms and logistics. Throughout the exchange, Collins heard sound and well-defended thinking. At the end of the exchange, Capt McCoy offered a comprehensive assessment that served to synthesize the various points of view and highlight what he thought were the key elements of the situation. LtCol Collins could see that the Golf Company officers were developing a shared way of thinking, and that TDGs improved their ability to operate using mission-type orders.
Training in Golf Company: TDGs to sharpen tactical thought and facilitate mission-type orders
Collins was again impressed. He knew McCoy had a habit of doing frequent TDGs with his lieutenants, and he could see his efforts paying off. Collins himself had led TDGs at battalion-level officer PMEs, but he did them only once a month at best. He presented TDGs in a less formal style. Instead of calling for a decision based on incomplete information, he encouraged his officers to ask questions, which were then answered and discussed. The battalion PME TDGs served merely as vehicles for discussion of tactical concepts. If an officer was asked to give a frag order, it would be nowhere near as polished and professional as the order he’d just heard from Lt Butler.
Collins approached Capt McCoy. “That was impressive, Skipper. How many of those have you done since taking command?” McCoy smiled. “I’m really not sure, sir. We have them on the training schedule three times a week, and I’m pretty religious about making sure we do them. But I also do a lot of impromptu TDGs as the opportunity arises. If I’m in the company office and I see a lieutenant or two sitting around with 10 minutes or more to spare, I’ll call them into my office and do a simple TDG using the white board on my wall to paint the scenario. I also have a small, portable white board that I take with me to the field or elsewhere. First sergeant and I saw Lt Myatt sitting in one of the base Starbucks last night, and I was seriously tempted to get my white board, but top talked me out of it,” he said grinning.
LtCol Collins continued, “Do you always do them the way you did that last problem, requiring everyone to make a decision and give a frag order based on missing or unclear information?” McCoy nodded, still grinning. “When we first started doing them, it was painful. The lieutenants always wanted more information, and they resisted making decisions when I called on them. A couple times, one or two lieutenants froze up completely and couldn’t do anything. But they learned quickly, and their progress has been pretty dramatic. Now, they sometimes tease me about spoiling them by giving too much information! The best thing is, the company is ‘infected’ by the TDG ‘bug,’ and the platoon commanders and platoon sergeants are regularly doing them with their subordinates. I’ve even seen some motivated sergeants and corporals do them with their squads.”
Collins then asked, “I noticed the air officer and motor transport officer participated. Are they regulars?” “Yes, sir. Boru and I went to EWS together and he immediately fell in love with TDGs when we started doing them there. He’s even done a few aviation-oriented TDGs for me and my officers and SNCOs. He’s taking us to visit his old squadron in two weeks for a PME and TDGs will be in the program. Lt Sparks and the Motor T Section have been similarly bitten by the TDG bug. He and his SNCOs use them often, not just for operational training but for non-operational topics as well. My lieutenants have borrowed some of his ethical decision games, or EDGs. I heard he even came up with a TDG-like exercise to help prepare his subordinate leaders for an upcoming inspection.”
Lt Col Collins bid farewell to Capt McCoy and headed for the chow hall. Over lunch, he asked Sgt Johnson how things were going in Golf Company. “Sir, since Capt McCoy took over, there’s been a tremendous boost in morale. He’s responsible for making our training fun, interesting, and challenging, and we now see the point in what we’re doing and how it makes us better. He helps us see 'the why' behind our training, whether that's technically or tactically. Marines love to compete and under the captain, the officers and SNCOs have found new ways to make training motivating through competition. Just earlier this week, we had a 'game day,' and it was a blast. I’ve never seen better training. But more than that, sir, I've never seen Marines more motivated to train.”
As Collins walked back to the battalion CP, he wondered how he could bottle what Capt McCoy was doing and spread it throughout the battalion. When he returned to his office, he called for the adjutant. “Adj, get me the XO and the S-3. We need to talk.”
LtCol Jackson spent a career as a Marine Corps infantry officer. After leaving active duty, he served as a civilian in the G-3 section of the Marine Corps' Training & Education Command, retiring from there in 2021.