Defend Our Marines | 1 October 2007

While a captain, Jeffrey Dinsmore was the S-2 for the Third Battalion, First Marines during their deployment in Haditha in the fall of 2005. He was promoted to major on October 1, 2007. These are his thoughts on the eve of his promotion.

From left: Jeff Dinsmore’s brother, Sgt Daniel Dinsmore, Jeff, and his wife, Marilou.

September 30th, 2007. Fallujah, Iraq. 

Tomorrow I am due to be promoted to the rank of Major in the United States Marine Corps. Since December 21st of last year, I have been uncertain that I would accept the promotion, and was at one point virtually convinced that I would leave this career and pursue life as a civilian. More on that later, but suffice to say that I have decided to accept the promotion, and with it an obligation to continue service as a Marine.

As has been my custom when crossing any significant milestone in the past, I have set aside and dedicated a short period of reflection on the reasons for this decision, and on the implications of responsibility that come with it. This time is no different. We lost electricity today, and it is fitting that I find myself in the pitch black darkness of a command post in Iraq, with only a pen, paper, and my headlamp by which to write. In creating an occasion to remember, nothing cooperates like the uncertainty of war. 

It might be said that I am making too much of this introspection. It may appear pretentious to attribute this much importance to what is, in reality, just another promotion to mid-level management. In an organization of 200,000, nearly 800 other Marines are achieving the same rank this year alone. If Marcus Aurelius were here, he might say: “Think of how many other Marines went before you in your place, how many Majors have existed before you, and how many will exist after you? Observe how ephemeral and worthless human things are, and what was yesterday a little mucus tomorrow will be a mummy or ashes.”

Am I staying for a shiny bit of metal on my collar? What are my true priorities? These questions have weighed heavily on my mind for the past year, and are part and parcel of my uncertainty over whether or not to accept the recognition of, and continued service to a fallible organization, the values of which I am not certain I still admire. 

Twenty-one years ago this week, on my 18th birthday, I sat on a hard wooden bench in the basement of the Seattle Military Entrance Processing Station. My shoulders shaking with frustration, I had just hit another obstacle. I had whole-heartedly committed to becoming a Marine since making the decision some months earlier. After overcoming my own fear of the condemnation of my peers and the disdain of my former teachers, and after ignoring the resistance of a mother who would not acquiesce to signing a waiver for her 17 year-old son to go off to war, I had finally made it to the final physical.

The sour-faced doctor took one look at the angry fresh scars on my face, asked some cursory questions about my car accident 6 months earlier, and stamped “DENIED” on my entrance physical. Suspicious of head injury, he required the favorable endorsement of a psychologist before he would allow me to continue into the Marine Corps. Fortunately, with the help of a creative recruiter who sought out a malleable doctor for a “second opinion,” I cleared that final hurdle and was given the oath of enlistment the same day. In my early Marine Corps years, I sometimes wondered if the head examination would have been a better course of action. 

Eleven years ago, I stood in front of a formation of my peers and superiors, and renewed my oath of enlistment as I was promoted to Staff Sergeant, possibly the most vaunted rank and significant milestone in the life of any career enlisted Marine. Given the opportunity to speak, I remember saying two things: First, I promised my peers and superiors on that day that I would do my utmost to uphold the example of honor and integrity that those staff non-commissioned officers who had gone before me had set.

Second (In the midst of the 1995-96 government shutdowns), I expressed my emotions with a quip, saying that if the United States somehow ran out of money and was unable to pay for our services, I would gladly be a Marine for free. I have never been more sincere than I was on that day. Shortly after that promotion, I was offered a commission as an officer of Marines. Upon my commissioning, I reveled in the fact that congressional law allowed prior-enlisted officers to “start the time-in-service clock over.” Legally, I could serve the Corps for 42 years! I would still have done it for free. 

Last year, on December 21st, 2006, the Marine Corps announced the criminal charges that would be preferred against my fellow Marines of 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines.

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I had spent eight months with those Marines in Haditha, Iraq, and I knew them well. I also knew the true circumstances of their mission, and their fight against the insurgency in that terrorist stronghold.

Although I was frustrated with the media distortion of the events of November 19th, I understood the media’s goals and accepted them as inevitable. I truly despaired, however, at the Marine Corps’ actions. I saw Marine leaders that acquiesced to their civilian superiors’ pressure to assume guilt. I saw those leaders, armed with that assumption of guilt, promote an agenda of “values education” throughout the Marine Corps, prompting the widespread acceptance of the media’s version of events throughout the Corps’ ranks. I saw combat Marines come under uninformed criticism, dispensed by leadership who had never left the comfort of an office or a courtroom.

In short, I saw the self-promoting agendas of the Corps’ criminal investigators, the self-preservation instincts of senior officers, and the self-aggrandizing motivations of lawyers who temporarily wear the eagle, globe and anchor on their uniforms. I saw all these character traits resident in the well-adorned offices, classrooms, and courtrooms of Camp Pendleton and Washington, DC, and on display by officers who were charged with the care and welfare of the very Marines they willingly demonized. 

Those character traits were abhorrent to me. They did not fit with the Corps that I had fallen in love with, and the Corps that at one time I would have gladly served for nothing.

Although I was notified early this year of my selection for promotion, I saw my role in vocal defense of the Haditha Marines, my place as an officer, and my values as a Marine to be completely incompatible with future service in the Corps. To be sure, I also looked over the fence into civilian life and saw the green grass of family stability, financial opportunity and geographic certainty. I saw my son entering his teenaged years and my wife of 15 years that had shepherded our family through enough deployments. My mind was nearly made up.

Then I came back to Iraq. 

As I have sometimes flippantly said during this, my second deployment: “All the cool people are in Iraq!” And it is true.

The “cool” people were the ones that re-taught me the lessons that led to my decision today. They do not occupy offices adorned with the exploits of their illustrious garrison service. They are not the Marines enamored with possibilities of upward mobility, careerism, or respect borne of rank, status or position.

One is the driver of a HMMWV, who has gladly driven over 3,000 miles of Iraq’s IED-laden roads, and when we are on a mission together, looks back at me and says: “What now, sir?” When I respond with a decision, I can see the sparkle in his eyes and the grim set of his jaw as he takes on whatever task I have given him.

Some of the cool people are the Marines taking a break in a crumbling, rubble-strewn room of our temporary patrol base, stripped to the waist in the 125 degree heat, smoking cigarettes and telling stories, before they don their 75 pounds of gear and their game-face to stand guard on the roof, which they willingly do regardless of the faraway nuances of controversial policy and politics. And where they willingly go because I told them it needed to be done.

During a year between deployments, when the media’s drumbeat of condemnation and the Corps leadership’s apparent indifference to its own became so exasperating, I forgot who those Marines were, the Marines who I had always been so dedicated to serving for free. Those Marines were here, and I had to meet them again. 

What about my family? I have a wife and son of whom enough has been asked. The prospects for a retired Marine officer in the civilian workforce are impressive, and to willingly continue this career would certainly be risking more deployments, more separations, and more family sacrifice. Once again, I had to come back to Iraq. In the 4th month of this deployment on a satellite phone, my wife, who for 15 years has held my hand and had my back, taught me again how small they consider those costs, and how great they consider the Marine.  

While some families could never imagine being separated from their loved ones for any length of time, and would consider that alone a major factor in this retirement decision, they have never met the Marine family. Specifically, they have never met my Marine family. My Marine family finds joy in every uncertainty. Every move is another cross-country adventure; every inconvenience another challenge. Geographic security, predictable and stable existence, and unlimited financial opportunities are a must for some families. To my Marine family, they are boredom.

To my Marine family, displays of patriotism with a flag on the windshield and a yellow ribbon on the bumper are amusing. My family is secure in the knowledge that when America looks for patriots that will stand and be counted in uncertain times, it won’t look for bumper stickers; it will look to my Marine family. And, truth be told, the long months of sacrifice and loneliness seem a little less difficult when my Marine family can parade their husband and dad about the community. It matters not to them how impressive or lucrative another husband or father’s occupation, whether a manager at Costco, a stockbroker, or a bank president. To my family, they all look just a little bit less important when Dad, the Marine, comes home. 

In the harsh final analysis, I am accepting a fleeting and temporary promotion to middle management in an organization of hundreds of thousands just like me. Many have come and gone, and many more will follow. If I were still enamored with the faux-mystique of a Marine Corps whose leadership has its inevitable flaws, I would go. If I doubted the sincerity of my family’s commitment to my chosen calling, I would go. If I have any false illusions about the value of the rank, status or position I am to achieve, I should go. I am glad none of these are true.

I will stay for now. I will stay to serve the cool people. And I will remember this day, so that when, in the not-too-distant future, I occupy a comfortable office in Camp Pendleton or Washington, DC, I don’t have to re-learn the lessons that my Marines and my Marine family taught me here in Iraq.  

“When thou wishest to delight thyself, think of the virtues of those who live with thee; for instance, the activity of one, and the modesty of another, and the liberality of a third, and some other good quality of a fourth.
For nothing delights so much as the examples of the virtues, when they are exhibited in the morals of those who live with us and present themselves in abundance, as far as is possible. Wherefore we must keep them before us.”
Marcus Aurelius

Jeffrey Dinsmore
Captain, USMC
September 30, 2007
Fallujah, Iraq