Face of Defense: Lance Corporal Leads Fire Team

HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan — Rocks crunch under the boots of a Marine walk­ing a seem­ing­ly end­less patrol route. He scans 360 degrees for sus­pi­cious activ­i­ty as the sun slides beneath the hori­zon. It’s get­ting late; if he was­n’t on patrol, it would be din­ner time.

He hums the cho­rus of a song, which bounces off the walls of an emp­ty house he pass­es. His fire team hums along, but no one smiles or laughs. Their eyes scour the ter­rain, and their ears are tuned for trou­ble.

Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Shawn Cole stops mid-hum. His fire team halts, and the cho­rus comes to an abrupt rest. Instead of think­ing about how long they’ve been walk­ing, they hone in on some­thing. Despite the improve­ments in the Garm­sir dis­trict here, even a farmer dig­ging in his field could sig­nal dan­ger ahead – maybe an impro­vised explo­sive device.

After a tense moment, the muf­fled crunch of boot upon stone resumes. Trou­ble nev­er mate­ri­al­izes, and the patrol moves on.

“After about four or five hours of just walk­ing, it’s hard to stay con­cen­trat­ed,” Cole said. “So, I try to keep my Marines atten­tive and fresh. We pore over the ground, walls and trees, look­ing for IEDs and any­thing sus­pi­cious. Singing is a way I try to keep things fresh [and] make sure my Marines aren’t being sucked into the monot­o­ny of patrol”

The blond, blue-eyed 21-year-old said he joined the Corps because he had always been inter­est­ed in the mil­i­tary and he want­ed to be a part of some­thing big­ger than him­self. His sec­ond tour in Afghanistan gives him that sat­is­fac­tion.

Cole is a fire team leader with the Guard Force Pla­toon, 1/3, which pro­vides secu­ri­ty through­out the dis­trict. He is respon­si­ble for him­self and three oth­er Marines. If they do some­thing wrong, he has done some­thing wrong, he said. Con­verse­ly, their suc­cess­es are his.

Although Cole and his fire team are all the same rank, Cole has the most time in grade, so he leads his fel­low Marines in com­bat and in their dai­ly lives. They go to him with any prob­lem, rang­ing from ill­ness to cop­ing with sep­a­ra­tion from loved ones. He knows if they are mar­ried, have a girl­friend or are engaged, and he knows their life goals.

“As a leader, I have to be con­cerned for my Marines,” Cole said. “Not just how they per­form their job, but I have to immerse myself in their life to see what’s both­er­ing them, how life is back home, how I can help them, and what I can do to boost their morale. [I have to] let them know that there is a Marine here who cares about them.”

The Cresskill, N.J., native grad­u­at­ed from Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Par­ris Island, S.C., in 2008, and deployed to Afghanistan in 2009. He has been in the Corps for only three years, yet he leads Marines in com­bat.

As a lance cor­po­ral, or “lance,” Cole holds a dynam­ic rank. He bears a sig­nif­i­cant lev­el of respon­si­bil­i­ty as a fire team leader, but he’s still only two ranks up from the bot­tom. Lance cor­po­ral is the most com­mon rank in the Marine Corps, and for the infantry­man, being a lance rep­re­sents a base­line of expe­ri­ence. It means you know what you’re doing.

“[It’s] is real­ly about going through shared hard­ships — being able to say, ‘We’ve expe­ri­enced this,’ because with expe­ri­ence comes respect in the infantry,” he explained.

Supe­ri­ors’ con­stant super­vi­sion breaks down his weak­ness­es, he not­ed, build­ing him into a bet­ter Marine each day. “Yes, insert-rank-here” always fol­lows a direct order from a high­er-rank­ing Marine.

Cole still fills sand­bags like a pri­vate first class, but as a lance, he is begin­ning to see and become part of the big­ger pic­ture. As his supe­ri­ors scru­ti­nize him, he said, he stud­ies them and forms his own opin­ions of how to lead effec­tive­ly. Grad­u­al­ly, he added, he’s becom­ing his future self.

“I’m def­i­nite­ly see­ing what it’s like to be in that high­er rank, and what it’s like to have Marines under you,” Cole said.

How­ev­er, he added, he can’t lord over his Marines. Because he is equal to them in rank, he has to work espe­cial­ly hard to jus­ti­fy his ele­vat­ed posi­tion, yet he must have the con­fi­dence to dic­tate when nec­es­sary.

“The fact that I hold a bil­let does­n’t mean that I’m going to take myself out of the mix of things and just tell them to do things,” Cole said. “I don’t set myself [above them], but I still have the respon­si­bil­i­ty to make sure my Marines get the job done quick­ly, effi­cient­ly and prop­er­ly.”

Cole and his fel­low lance cor­po­rals are the work­hors­es of the bat­tal­ion. They stand post in the mid­dle of the night, patrol, and par­tic­i­pate in impromp­tu work­ing par­ties dur­ing their free time.

“The vast num­bers of lance cor­po­rals make up the [major­i­ty of the] Marine Corps’ work­force. … As a lance, it’s about being men­tal­ly tough, because there are a lot of things that get thrown your way,” he said. “But you’ve just got to keep your head up and keep push­ing.”

Hard­ship and adver­si­ty are the mor­tar of the lance cor­po­ral net­work: crush­ing on the one hand, yet bind­ing on the oth­er. And though Cole is a fire time leader, he isn’t imper­vi­ous to the stress. He still calls home any chance he gets. Many a night, he said, he lies motion­less in his bed, wait­ing to fall asleep and think­ing of his girl­friend.

When his spir­its are low, Cole said, he leans on his fire team for sup­port, not­ing that they know each oth­er in a way only a Marine fire team can. They live in an atmos­phere where sen­si­tive sub­jects become talk­ing points for dis­cus­sions, and every­thing some­how ends in a zany joke to relieve the stress. It’s not about suf­fer­ing through sev­en months of sep­a­ra­tion, he said, but enjoy­ing time with fel­low Marines — his broth­ers.

“At the end of the day, when every­thing is said and done, we let each oth­er know we’re here for one anoth­er,” Cole said. “You def­i­nite­ly see the broth­er­hood in the room, even if it’s just goof­ing around to blow off steam. They know when I get extra stressed, I think about all the places I’d rather be, with my girl­friend and with my fam­i­ly. They know see­ing my girlfriend’s face on Skype and talk­ing to my fam­i­ly on the phone keeps me going.”

Men­tal­ly, Cole drifts between the present and future. He plans to mar­ry his girl­friend, which he brings up every day with an ivory-white, full-toothed grin. He does­n’t plan on stay­ing in the Marine Corps, but that does­n’t stop him from being proud to claim the title. He plans to get his associate’s degree before leav­ing the Corps, and when he does get out, he said, he plans on going into law enforce­ment.

For now, he’s a young and tough — a lance cor­po­ral labor­ing along­side his broth­ers in 1/3.

“I’m nev­er going to regret my deci­sion to join the Marines,” Cole said. “I’ve made friends, and I’m going to take away a unique appre­ci­a­tion for the secu­ri­ties and lux­u­ries I have as an Amer­i­can.

“Some­times it’s rough, and you kind of just want to make it go away,” he added. “But at the end of the day, you’re always proud to be a Marine, because you’re going through things the aver­age Amer­i­can can’t even fath­om.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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