PART 1: STAFFS, "HATS"
I met Sgt. Maj. Ronnie L. Harrison in front of the Marine Corps Base Camp Butler Headquarters Building on a hot, humid Okinawa day in September. Dripping sweat from under his woodland utility cover, he seemed to barely notice the perspiration. The cover cast a shadow over his eyes, making them difficult to see, but there was no mistaking the focus in his face as he watched over the Marine formations assembled for a Base change of command practice.
Like so many other times in his career, Harrison had drawn drill master duty for the ceremony, a likely choice for a general's change of command given his background as a drill instructor and a 23-year Marine.
Those same credentials drew me to Harrison as I entertained the notion that maybe drill instructors are the true custodians of drill even after leaving the depots. But Harrison informed me that it's not as simple as that.
"A lot of Marines think only former drill instructors should be the duty experts," he said. "Shouldn't all staff NCOs know how to drill and lead drill? They have the resources. They have the manual. We shouldn't default and fall back on those who did tours on the drill field."
I asked other former DIs if they find themselves being called upon for collateral drill duties, and the answer was a resounding yes.
Staff Sgt. Edward Kretschmer, a faculty advisor at the Okinawa Staff NCO Academy's Sergeants Course and a former drill instructor, smiled when I asked him. His expression seemed to say, "Are you kidding?" But Kretschmer followed his smirk with a response that made me understand.
Having been stationed on Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego for two years, I've been around a lot of drill instructors, and initially I thought that, in the name of tact and professionalism, Kretschmer and the others I talked to were dismissing the suggestion that they were more aptly qualified to lead drill than their non-DI counterparts.
"We're a little more knowledgeable than those who haven't been to the drill field," Kretschmer said. "But just because I'm a prior drill instructor doesn't mean I can do it better than another staff NCO."
What stuck out in my mind, was the "it" Kretschmer was talking about. In other words, drill professionals like Kretschmer and Harrison recognize that the most important contribution a staff NCO can make to keep drill healthy is not necessarily the ability to perform it with the same precision, confidence and muscle memory that comes from three years "in the trenches" on a depot. It is simply to recognize and focus themselves on the vital role they play as senior leaders.
"The most important factor is staff NCOs have to ensure young leaders who will take our place know exactly why drill is important to our Corps," Harrison said. "We are keepers of tradition. If we don't do our part, if we don't show enthusiasm about drill, then we won't pass it on."
So Harrison and the other hats obliterated the theory that they shoulder the burden of keeping drill healthy, but not because the suggestion frustrated them. Their intimate understanding of what drill is to the Corps inspires their desire to see all Marine leaders treat it with the same care, the same commitment.
"There are no experts in drill," Harrison said. "We will always have drill and ceremonies. Drill is here to stay. It's not going anywhere, but if we don't keep emphasizing the importance of maintaining the standards, drill will suffer."
So after I painted a picture in my mind of DIs resembling some sort of Mighty Mouse character who pops his drill vitamins and saves the day when a ceremony comes around, the hats showed me some broader brush strokes, and I started on a new canvas.