CAMP HANSEN, Okinawa, Japan --
When I first heard of “mandatory fun”, like a battalion beach bash, I remember being invited to a picnic hosted by my Grandma for a family get-together. It seems to happen every time - Uncle Rick and Cousin James get drunk and get into a brawl. Grandpa watches over the babies and retells them old war stories. Dad, who’s been harping on me about my homework, my conduct in school and how I am not doing enough as a captain in my football team, suddenly becomes my best friend. Mom’s working in the kitchen. My nieces and nephews run around screaming. The aunts make snide remarks behind each other’s backs. And when everything seems to smooth over, a whole ruckus breaks out. Then Grandma swoops in and smacks the innocent and the offenders alike with her spatula. She then orders us to sit down before giving us an extremely long talk.
Looks like no one will get grandma’s fruitcake this Christmas.
That was my misconception of “mandatory fun”, and with that in mind I wasn’t excited about heading over to the barbecue pit behind the officer barracks at Camp Hansen one Friday last month. Our operational tempo was greatly increasing with an upcoming deployment and there other things I could be doing with my time.
Yet, it turned out to be a great day.
It was sunny with threatening shadowy clouds rolling overhead. The humidity made your shirt stuck to the skin like glue, and as soon as I got there, the random rain showers fell hard enough to cancel the event.
In fact, it did the opposite: it motivated the Marines. They kept playing various sports and games such as volleyball, softball, football and cornhole, even as the rain fell. The senior Marines worked behind three grills, flipping burgers and hotdogs and tending two giant roasting pigs that flavored the air.
It was nowhere close to being similar to Grandma’s house, since for one, these are Marines with Kilo Company and Kilo Battery, Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, and second, I’ve worked with these guys before and BLT 3/5 knows how to "get some.”
“I thought this was going to be lame,” said Lance Cpl. William Schwappach, a radio operator with K Brty., BLT 2/5, 31st MEU, and a native of West Palm Beach, Florida. “Then we started sitting down and talking and we realized the main reason behind this is unit cohesion. We don't get to do a lot of this. I really appreciated what the leadership did for us.”
These types of events build unit cohesion and a sense of family between Marines who work together on a daily basis. I, for one, don’t want to be around my “dad” or my “grandma” twenty-four/seven, but sometimes in this line of work I have to be around others more than I like. I know that the infantry, and many others within the Corps, are constantly around each other – especially on Okinawa. It is through events like these that make uncomfortable situations much easier.
This unity makes us a better war-fighting community. Better than that, it makes us a better family. This “Mando fun” event fostered a connection between the Marines, building a sense of camaraderie.
Yeah, camaraderie, that magical force that tethers you to the person standing to your left, right, front, back, and makes you want to punch whoever wants to threaten that bond. Marines without camaraderie or cohesion are bound to fail. A lack of unity also threatens mission accomplishment. Besides, most of us joined the Corps to a part of something bigger, better.
It rests on the shoulders of leaders to create opportunities for their Marines to have fun together, especially if the Marines have worked hard and conducted themselves professionally.
It should never be an event that’s boring, nor should it be done without care.
When done right, the positive effects produced can be long-lasting. The success of this barbecue hinged on the efforts of Gunnery Sgt. Clausele Barthold and the other SNCOs and officers of the two companies.
“Because the Marines have been working hard during our work-ups for this float, we just wanted to get them together for a good time,” said Barthold, the company gunnery sergeant for K Co., BLT 3/5, 31st MEU, and a native of New York City. “It's a morale booster for the men before they get on ship, and it turned out great; everybody's having a blast.”
It wasn’t all just fun and games of course; there was a simmering competitive energy between the two units that upped the ante. Winning a major game had K Co. or K. Btry. prove their superiority over the other, granting Marines something that is priceless: the right to swagger.
There was also a grand prize: a sacred memento of the unit that was as large as the shortest Marine.
“This was a good barbecue because it shows esprit de corps where two companies battle it out during fun events for the company sledgehammer,” said Sgt. Joseph Lechnar, a squad leader with K Co., BLT 2/5, 31st MEU, and a native of Joliet, Illinois. “The camaraderie here is important because if we ever go in a combat operation with the MEU, we'll need it to effectively work together when Kilo Company has to call on the battery to help us. Today, however, Kilo Company is going to win the battalion sledgehammer.”
The symbolic weight of the hammer is far heavier than how it actually feels as it is a tribute to Cpl. Eugene Sledge, a Marine who fought on Okinawa in World War II and was a member of K Co., 3/5, 1st Marine Division. Sledge, nicknamed “Sledgehammer”, wrote “With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa” which chronicled his combat experiences during the war and was featured in the TV miniseries “The Pacific.”
Sledge is the historical mascot of 3/5, and his namesake memento is a giant paper mache sledgehammer. To win it during the competition, the Marines must place their strongest against each other in the final event: the tug-of-war.
Standing victorious at the conclusion of the event was K Brty., who defeated K Co. after pulling them across the line, bestowing the sledgehammer to the “strong-pullers.”
Regardless of who won or who lost, there was no doubt the Marines’ morale was soaring, making champions of everyone.