Sound judgment has hundreds of admirable examples woven into Marine Corps culture. And those lessons resonate when they come from veterans such as Freddie Joe Farnsworth, an infantryman who served in Panama and in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm as an NCO with units of the 7th Marines.
Farnsworth was an aimless youth in Wyoming, mostly interested in partying and sports, when he attended a career day at his high school in Pinedale back in 1985. “All of a sudden, a man in an awesome-looking uniform walked in and stepped up to the podium,” he recalled. “As I looked around, all the girls were giddy and I knew instantly that I wanted to be a Marine.” He was just seventeen years old at the time, so enlistment would require parental approval. Farnsworth brought a recruiter home to meet his folks and that sealed the deal. When he told his dad that he wanted to be a Marine, his father looked him in the eye for the first time. Farnsworth could see that his dad was proud of the decision and that his son was showing the first sign of a more mature judgment.
As an NCO with one enlistment under his belt and sergeant’s chevrons on his collar, Farnsworth found himself leading a squad over the berm between Kuwait and Iraq in 1991. They had just endured a short, sharp firefight with Iraqi defenders and had taken several prisoners when Farnsworth’s judgment was challenged. One of the prisoners had booby-trapped himself, and when the explosive detonated, the prisoner also wounded two Marines in Farnsworth’s squad. Things were getting ugly and there was more than a little sentiment for quick revenge against the remaining Iraqi POWs. Farnsworth had to curtail those emotions, which were running high amongst his men. He had to follow orders to form the prisoners into some semblance of order, strip them of any military gear, search for any concealed weapons or explosives and get them ready for processing to a POW holding area. It was clearly not going to be an easy thing to do with angry Marines on one hand and resentful, uncooperative Iraqis on the other.
“We were in the middle of getting them into formation,” Farnsworth remembered of that tension-filled experience: “My squad had taken the bulk of the prisoners. We were in charge of about fifty of them, but in the middle of me getting the prisoners in formation, there was one that was very reluctant to follow any of my orders, and my security team was getting very edgy.”
The balky prisoner finally got into formation but he was having no part of removing his clothes when the Marines, using a combination of what little Arabic they knew and some creative hand signals, demanded that the prisoners take off their outer clothing and gear for inspection. Other prisoners were watching closely how the Marines responded to this defiance and Farnsworth knew he had to make a decision in a hurry and it had better be the right one or blood might be spilled.
“My Marines were getting really uptight, but I knew that if I didn’t keep control of the situation, it could result in a prisoner being harmed or even killed.” The Marines were shot through with adrenaline from the recent firefight and Farnsworth knew their judgment might be hampered or adversely influenced if he didn’t defuse the situation. He approached the defiant prisoner and made an impassioned speech that the man very likely didn’t understand but he got the idea through Farnsworth’s passion and creative pantomime. The man finally nodded and began to strip off his uniform.
“When I saw that, I thought that it was over,” Farnsworth remembered. “Then I made a poor judgment call and turned my back to him for just a second. That’s all it takes.” The prisoner reached out to grab Farnsworth from behind. Feeling something, he turned quickly and in a flash, the prisoner was on the ground and a Lance Corporal had the muzzle of his M249 light machine gun up against the prisoner’s nose. Farnsworth knew he had to maintain control of the situation immediately.
“I kept my cool and the situation calmed down immediately. The prisoner changed his attitude and complied with all our orders from that point on.” Later investigation revealed that the man was a colonel in the Iraqi Republican Guard who had failed to convince his troops to fight to the death in defense of the position Farnworth’s Marines had just taken.
Farnsworth learned a thing or two from that situation: “The lesson I learned was that by keeping myself calm, it kept my troops calm as well. Our forces gained good intelligence from the prisoner, who could have easily been killed that day. It’s an example of how one poor judgment could have changed the outcome for a lot of people.”
Leaders must use their best judgment to maintain control of themselves and their environment. Their subordinates are watching to see how the leader judges the situation, so that they know how to react. Had Farnsworth not kept calm, his Marines could have interpreted his anxiety as permission to fire, which would have been a tragic conclusion to his story.
Lessons in judgment and its consequences like the one learned by Sergeant Farnsworth that day in Iraq have been passed along through the Corps from NCO to NCO, sometimes formally and often word-of-mouth from one generation of small unit leader to another. It is all part of a continuing study of leadership that begins from the time a Marine graduates from recruit training until he departs the ranks as Farnsworth did as a Staff Sergeant a few years after his experiences in Desert Storm.