The Law of Unintended Consequences: Join the Corps, get the babes

Posted: January 31, 2004
1:00 a.m. Eastern

By Richard Botkin
© 2004

Informed sources tell me that the most stress-filled, non-combat job in the United States Marine Corps iss to serve as a recruiter. The United States Marine Corps is the only branch of the military which has yet to compromise standards to meet its vigorous need for fresh-faced warriors, a decision vindicated recently in Afghanistan and Iraq.

For those youngsters brazen enough to believe they want into the brotherhood, the Corps has an allure all its own. To the prospective warrior, the USMC understates the obvious tangible benefits of military service. You do not join the Marine Corps for the cash bonus, to go to college or to be all you can be. You join the Corps to see if you have what it takes and, if you pass muster, trust that you will be appropriately employed as your seniors see fit. From personal observation and experience I am able to report that the system works with few exceptions.

Duty as a Marine at once satisfies many a young man's need to serve and experience a purpose-filled, dangerous life; to exist in a world of cutting-edge innovation yet be part of something venerable and dignified.

The transition from mere mortal to Marine is a unique metamorphosis. Once the eagle, globe and anchor is stamped onto one's heart and injected into one's soul, the new creation becomes a part of living history. With the Corps as your roots, your family ties transcend time and age and ethnicity. With the Corps as your roots, you are instantaneously linked to those intrepid young men who out muscled the Germans at Chateau-Thierry, who chased Sandino's bandits in Nicaragua, who kept the faith at Wake Island, who stormed ashore at Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, who executed the icy breakout from the Chosin Reservoir, who retook Hue city block by bloody block … and on and on all the way up to the present.

The Corps' rich history and ever evolving culture of victory assures the Madison Avenue marketing gurus an inexhaustible source of material from which to appeal to those young men who seek the path less traveled to gain life's fullness. For the would-be dragon slayers, it is a sure path to reward.

It has been reassuring to see our nation honor its warriors in ways not seen since World War II. In churches they are openly acknowledged and prayed for. It is today the rare pub or tavern where a young lad sporting a high-and-tight haircut is allowed to pay for his own meal or beer. The ubiquitous flags, bumper stickers and e-mail stories all proclaim a level of patriotism never personally witnessed by anyone born after 1940. No longer are our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines unsung in their service and sacrifice.

In recent months, I have visited several friends just returned from combat duty in Iraq. First among them was my dear friend Lt. Col. Clarke Lethin. Having served as the operations officer for the First Marine Division, his duties put him at ground zero during the entire planning, preparation and execution phases for the major combat portion of the war.

I recall sitting with Clarke in his Camp Pendleton office, a large theater map spread out before us, as he gave me the unclassified blow-by-blow of how events unfolded. In rapt attention I listened as he described the actions of the Marines – his pride in their aggressive spirit, the quality of leadership at every level, the individual and collective initiative for which Marines are so well known, how they boldly and continuously pushed forward all the time. I was moved to tears as his voice lowered when he spoke of those we had lost. Even though they had moved faster, farther and with fewer casualties than ever recorded in human history, the loss of those Marines weighed heavily upon his heart. I remembered then and there thinking how wise it had been to name my second son for this man.

Later that evening, at the Lethin household, I made the remark to his lovely bride: "Wendy, most men in their Walter Mittey fantasies wish they could be Clarke." Without looking up from what she was doing, and with not a hint of bitterness or acrimony she very matter-of-factly replied. "Yeah, Rich, all men want to be Clarke, but no women want to be me."

Weeks later it was my good fortune to dine with another long-time Marine pal, Lt.Col. Geff Cooper. Coop had commanded the Second Battalion, 23rd Marines, one of nine infantry battalions used by the Corps in the long march up to Baghdad. With us was June, his wife of 25 years, and daughter Jennifer, just graduated from college.

The serious accounts of the adventures of his Marines were compelling and, like Lethin's, heartrending. After the war stories, Coop returned to his signature anecdotes and cornball jokes. Keeping me laughing with his disgustingly good-natured quips, daughter Jennifer rolled her eyes as if to say "not again" and lovingly told her father: "Dad, you're such a dork." Enjoying the family exchange I thought, "I wonder if Saddam's troops thought your dad a dork as his Marines were taking the fight to them?" At the same time I glanced over at June. Happy that her man was back, she was taking it all in, her eyes fixed on him looking like a teenage girl with a crush on the high-school football hero.

Throughout the many Marine or somehow Corps-related functions I attended in the last year, there was always a special kind of joy. Whether at the funeral of an old friend and mentor who had served both in World War II and Korea or as a guest at the reunion of American Marine advisers and their South Vietnamese counterparts, there was that undiminished, unquantifiable feeling, the old fire-in-the-belly warmth that comes from being in the company of good men.

Pondering that joy and what it took to create it all, I thought about the wives. It was Wendy Lethin's steady devotion to her husband, his mission and to serving all Corps families there at Camp Pendleton that awakened me from my lethargy, made me see what was always there but had failed to discern fully. I was not the only Marine to marry up. We all have. The Marines are the warriors, the men in the arena, the victors … but the wives. The wives. An enemy is safer doing battle with the husbands. As plain as day, there it was. The quality and character of the Corps is unchanged from Guadalcanal to Dong Ha to an-Nasiriyah. And so it is for the women who make the Corps the Corps for the men who staff it. These are the women, who in every generation, daily demonstrate the "Semper" part of "Semper Fidelis."

As with its recruiting standards, the Corps was absolutely parsimonious in its awarding of medals for the Iraq action. So when I read the Bronze Star Medal citation for my friend, Col. Andy Hutchison, a man duly recognized for his superior intellect, leadership and creative resourcefulness in helping organize and, along with a talent-laden team, execute fully a logistics plan that supported tens of thousands of Marines and their gear through countless actions in disparate locations, I cannot help but believe a portion of that medal goes to wife, Susy.

Known and respected widely throughout the greater Seattle area for her years as a professional newscaster, Susan Hutchison is far more than just another television personality. A veteran in her own right, as a young girl she watched her fighter pilot father depart for a one-year tour of combat duty in Vietnam. As a wife and mother she endured these trials yet again. And like Wendy Lethin down at Camp Pendleton laboring countless unsung, unpaid hours for families of others with loved ones in harms way, Susy matched her husband's leadership step for step in her efforts to assist local families.

With their husbands away I would often call Wendy, June and Susy hoping to impart a telephonic hug, let them know our family was praying for them, all that stuff. Usually they were impossible to find. They were always out somewhere, doing something for someone else, and when I would catch up with them it was I who would come away from the conversation refreshed and reinvigorated.

Day in, day out, ensuring the needs of their children were met: homework, doctor's appointments, school meetings, soccer tournaments, music lessons, and then doing the same for other families. One day Wendy and Susy even teamed up to work with Hugh Hewitt on his nationally broadcast radio show. In three hours, they helped raise more than $100,000 for needy military families. No big deal. Just another day of service. Semper Fidelis in the real world.

Clarke Lethin, Geff Cooper and most of the First Marine Division will soon return to Iraq. They are set to relieve the able soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division. Those Army families are about to get their well-deserved, temporary break from the toughest part of military service. For Wendy Lethin and the thousands of other Marine Corps wives and families, it is game time yet again.

For that very small percentage of men upon whose courage and wits our freedoms have always depended, for those who lead men into danger, who cheerfully blast off from blackened aircraft carrier decks or parachute into the night, for those with the cunning and engineering skill to drive submarines through murky, stealthy depths, the joy of that service, the fullness to those lives comes at high price. I think often now of the wisdom of a Wendy Lethin. Maybe she is right. Few women would choose that life. But for those men who live at the edge there can be no completeness without a Wendy in their corner.

The recruiters, the marketing whizzes are masterful at selling adventure, danger, challenge. The dragon-slaying stuff they have down cold. But they left out the part about the princess. For insight, maybe they should call my pal Clarke Lethin.


Richard Botkin, a member of the board of directors, was a Marine Corps infantry officer.