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Continuing To Lead In Combat While Facing a Personal Crisis

Updated: Nov 11, 2022

On December 2nd, 2006, I received an email from my wife, Wendy, to call home. I was still deployed in Iraq on my third combat tour in the country. When she answered the phone call, she told me that she found a lump in her breast. Being concerned about her previous engagement with breast cancer, she went to her doctor's office to figure out what it was. It was Stage IV Breast Cancer. She was scared and I was scared for her. Wendy did not ask me to request an early return from the deployment. Knowing how important our mission was, she wanted me to be contributing to saving lives.

The Purple Foxes (squadron) mission was to fly casualties out of the battle field to the next available Shock / Trauma station. We flew day and night in all possible conditions. The squadron was at its minimum number of qualified pilots who could be scheduled for different tasks. My conversation with the commanding officer reinforced my strength, confidence, and accountability, not only to him, but also to my flight crew. Here is what enabled me to effectively lead my Marines in combat operations during my own personal crisis:

The time leading up to the deployment was about rebuilding the unit's ability to operate in an adverse environment as well as ensuring a culture of trust. When I was given my 34-Marine unit to lead, the important agenda for myself and my senior advisor, Darin, was to have the Marines both technically trained and leadership matched to their new roles. When I let Darin know what was going on with Wendy, he knew we were going to continue to do well because we did all the hard work while training stateside. The Marines knew the vision and executed it continuously, even if I was not always able to be the cheerleader for them as my usual self.

I worked to have continuous communication with Wendy every chance available. She was scared and I was scared for her. The phone calls helped us rebuild each other to face the next day. Those talks built confidence that would get us through the next steps.

Keeping my boss and senior direct report below me informed of Wendy's diagnosis was how I planned to fill in the vacuum that could have been created if I became lost in my own grief. These two people would have been able to agree on the common picture and determine if there was a need for intervention.

Compartmentalization was the foundation in our aircrew training. I learned to focus solely on what required my immediate attention, especially in a combat environment. When a person loses sight of the external issues and strays to internal frustrations, they have effectively made themselves useless to the team. If you struggle to compartmentalize, start training yourself to reduce the amount of multi-tasking you engage in.

I had to maintain honesty with myself. It was too easy to be caught up in my own head and think I had to do all the tasks. If you find you are forcing yourself to do something you feel you are not capable of handling because of perceived pressure, you need to have a tough conversation with your boss. Avoiding this conversation is not fair to you or the person you directly report to because expectations cannot be managed. He/she should be given a summary of what you are dealing with so the two of you can come to a common idea of the new expectations.

It has taken me 14 years to be able to identify and put into words what helped me finish that combat deployment while Wendy had to deal with those fears. A team helped me through this ordeal. The Purple Fox squadron motto was tested every day during those deployments. We lost Wendy to cancer on March 13th, 2011. She was able to fight it for four years.

Stay tuned for more stories of leaders I watched step up during their times of crisis.

I created Leadership Developed to teach those who seek to improve their leadership skills from my and other leaders' experiences. These experiences reinforce the academic theories that are capturing people's attention. It is important to blend those theories with the practical applications to create greater leaders than ourselves.

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