The Marine Corps performs a variety of missions, some far beyond the usual amphibious landings and traditional combat campaigns. Now called “special operations,” Marines rescue civilians from disasters, both natural and man-made. They board hostile ships much like in the days of the Barbary Pirates. They reinforce embassies throughout the world. In the ten years prior to the first Gulf War, the Marine Corps handled thirty-five of these kinds of emergencies.
To hear Marine Corps NCOs like Sergeant Randy Burgess tell it, a lot of people see a job that needs doing or a problem that needs solving, but they just sit around complaining. That is just not in the DNA of these this man, who demonstrates the power of initiative and the Marine Corps’ attitude toward that aspect of leadership.
Burgess came from the Ozarks in southern Missouri, where there wasn’t a whole lot of opportunity for a young man. Working on local farms, Randy learned to fix all kinds of vehicles as the tractors had to run when the crops were due to be harvested. There was no waiting for parts or a better mechanic – he just had to make it work.
Initiative means that when something needs to be done, you do it. You don’t wait for orders or memos to tell you what you already know. It means staying alert and thinking ahead. It keeps you from being blindsided by problems you didn’t see coming. And it means using what you have on hand to attack those problems. You don’t fail for lack of tools, you don’t wait for just the right widget to resolve a situation and you don’t wait to see if anyone is looking so you get the most credit you can. Initiative means taking the first step. Not just any step – the first step in something productive that has meaning.
Burgess had the thankless task of running a vital motor transport section when the Corps’ 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) landed in Somalia to help provide humanitarian assistance to a starving population and to keep feuding factions from turning the country into chaos. It was stressful and often dangerous, even for accomplished mechanics like Sergeant Burgess.
In 1994, while in a convoy, Burgess got a call: One of the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWV, or “Humvee”) was out of control. That was a serious problem. The Humvee was running at top speed and couldn’t slow down. Burgess ran to the vehicle, only to see it spinning as the driver tried to avoid hitting anything. The brake pads were wearing down before his eyes. Burgess took the initiative and jumped on to the side of the Humvee, but he had only what was on his body to fix it, while it was spinning out of control at full speed. Burgess’s maintenance and repair protocols never covered anything like this. He had to innovate.
The accelerator pedal on the Comm vehicle was stuck and the engine was running wide open. Randy knew exactly what the problem was; it was not the first time he had heard this complaint about a Humvee. He also knew it would take all of his initiative to make a repair on the fly. He got on the radio and told the Company Commander he needed stop the convoy for repairs.
While deployed, the Marines were using JP5 fuel for the Humvees, instead of the preferred diesel fuel. JP5 is used on ships and helicopters, and since storage on a ship is limited, having to carry only one kind of fuel was preferable. “Humvees were equipped with a 6.2 litter GM diesel engine which would run on JP5 and Kerosene,” Burgess explained, “but it didn’t mean that it was good to do so—a fact that I could never get through anybody’s head. The fuel injection pumps on the Humvee had no source of lubrication for its internal parts, other than from the diesel fuel. JP5 isn’t as ‘oily’ a fuel, so it doesn’t provide the necessary lubrication, and this causes the seals in the pump to dry out.”
One of the main seals affected by this is the seal that is around the accelerator lever rod, where it goes into the pump. The addition of salt air and salt water from beach landings makes the problem even worse, and the accelerator lever return spring becomes rusty and weak. That made for a deadly combination of dry rubber bushings and a weak return spring, resulting in a sticky accelerator pedal.
If they had been in the rear, it would have been possible to add an extra return spring, or get a stronger spring, keep the Humvee running as long as possible, and then eventually evacuate the vehicle to higher maintenance to get a new pump installed. It was very common to have to do this for more than half of the fleet when returning from a deployment on ship. However, when in the field, other options are required. Having spent more time in the field than in the shop, Burgess excelled at coming up with other options. His years of keeping tractors and other farm equipment running as a farm hand back in Missouri also helped.
After convincing the C.O. to stop, the convoy finally pulled over to a fairly safe position. Several Marines were put in place in a defensive circle around the vehicle. Burgess maneuvered his vehicle as close as he could on the narrow streets, “and ran up to the vehicle armed only with my M16 and my needle-nose vice-grip pliers. I quickly tried to reattach the spring to a different location on the engine to give it more pull, but the pedal was still sticking. I was getting several orders from unknown voices to hurry the hell up.”
The streets were beginning to fill with angry-looking Somalis, and Burgess and his fellow Marines knew they were a choice target. Despite the threats, Burgess set to work. Right away he had to improvise, using a part of his uniform to fix the problem: his “boot band.” Marines don’t tuck their trousers into their boots (like they do in the Army). Instead, Marines use a device called a boot band, which basically is a giant cloth-covered rubber band that goes around the top of the boot; the bottom of the trousers are tucked under it. The typical boot band doesn’t last very long, so Burgess chose to wear a different kind of boot band, one that resembled the spring of an old screen door. Most Marines didn’t like this type of boot band as it is tight, and often digs so hard into boot that it leaves grooves in their legs. However, the longer life expectancy of these boot bands has lent them the reputation of being “the only things left with the cockroaches when the earth is destroyed.”
Luckily for the convoy, Burgess was wearing his “screen door boot bands” that day in Mogadishu, and with that in hand, he was able to improvise a solution: “I took of one of them and hooked it to the accelerator lever on the fuel injection pump and stretched it to the front of the engine where I could hook it, just behind the power steering pump. I yelled at the driver to push the pedal, he said it was better, but I could see it wasn’t returning all of the way and the engine was still running too fast. I needed to stretch the boot band a little farther, but there wasn’t anything else to hook it to.”
Burgess could hear the Somalis making a bunch of noise nearby, while the Marines were yelling at him to make a decision. He had to act fast: “I quickly took a boot lace out of one of my boots, tied it to the free end of the boot band, and stretched the boot lace over the front of the radiator and down to the radiator bracket. Using a trucker’s knot, I pulled it all tight, stretching the boot band just enough to keep the accelerator from sticking. The driver gave me the thumbs up and we got everyone loaded into the vehicles and got the hell out of there.”
Burgess routinely displayed that kind of initiative. But Burgess hadn’t acted with initiative because he hoped he would get a medal. He did what he needed to do to get his fellow Marines back to safety. The situation he faced in Somalia demonstrates a sort of hands-on, get-the-job done at all costs initiative that is a hallmark of good Marine NCOs.