Saturday, November 04, 2006

My Ribbon Creek. As I've indicated, work has been busy lately -- well, it's been busy the past 2 years, but the demands have really increased in the past 2 months or so. Because of organizational policy, I don't write much about work and won't really do so today; except obliquely.

When I was a boy and Disney World was brand new, we took a family vacation from the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base to Orlando Florida. On the way, we took a detour to visit the Grinder at Parris Island, S.C. ; excuse me, that is Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island. Heading out to that place in the middle of the high heat, high humidity, bug infested swamp lands, my mother made a reference to "Ribbon Creek." It didn't mean much to me, but I could tell it meant something to both Mom and Dad. Especially Dad. And so, it stuck with me.

Years later, I learned that Ribbon Creek was the site of a tragedy at the MCRD; six Marine recruits died while training. The following is from the official history of the MCRD, Parris Island,
Despite the great care thus used in the selection of men assigned to train recruits, a tragedy resulting from the grievous errors of judgment of a junior drill instructor occurred on Parris Island in April 1956. Various regulations and standing orders of the post were violated at the same time. The offending DI was Staff Sergeant Matthew C. McKeon, assigned to Platoon 71, "A" Company, 3d Recruit Training Battalion. On Sunday night, 8 April, between 2000 and 2045, he marched 74 men of Platoon 71 from their barracks to Ribbon Creek, one of the tidal streams on Parris Island, and led the men into the water. Some of them got into depths over their heads, panic ensued, and six recruits drowned in the resulting confusion. The ostensible purpose of the march was to teach the recruits discipline.

* * *

Thus Sergeant McKeon's ill-fated march set off immediate repercussions which shook Marine Corps training from top to bottom. Moreover, an uninterrupted flood of publicity by the press, radio, and television literally divided the entire country into two opposing camps, those who condemmed McKeon for what had happened and those who sympathized with him.

It was in this glare of public gaze that McKeon's court-martial began at Parris Island on 16 July 1956. A noted New York trial counsel, Emile Zola Berman, undertook the sergeant's defense before the military court. For three weeks, the battle ebbed and flowed, concerned as much with the propriety of the rationale and practices of Marine Corps training as with McKeon's responsibility for the Ribbon Creek affair. Witnesses came forward to defend Marine training, others came forth to condemn it. The defense presentation culminated in the appearance on the stand of retired Lieutenant General Lewis B. Puller and the Commandant of the Marine Corps himself.

Finally, on 4 August 1956, the court handed down its decision: McKeon was acquitted of charges of manslaughter and oppression of troops; he was found guilty of negligent homicide and drinking on duty. The sentence was a fine of $270, nine months confinement at hard labor as a private and a bad-conduct discharge from the Marine Corps. Upon review by the Secretary of the Navy, the sentence was reduced to three months hard labor and reduction to the rank of private; the discharge was set aside and the fine remitted.
A Brief History of Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina (1962) at pp 16-18 (notes omitted). See also, Time Magazine, and Keith Fleming The U.S. Marine Corps in Crisis: Ribbon Creek and Recruit Training.

It is my understanding from the reading I have done that the "uninterrupted flood of publicity by the press" was also directed at the Marines and shook the Corps to its foundation. This is part of the reason, again as I understand it, why the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Randolph McC. Pate, ordered the Court Martial reopened (see the history for a more complete explanation of the procedural history).

Further, in reading Thomas Ricks' book, The Making of the Corps he indicates there are framed newspaper articles on the wall today at Paris Island regarding Ribbon Creek. Moreover, as Ricks notes on the "?leadership exam given to students at the Drill Instructors School, . . . five of the fifty questions are about the Ribbon Creek incident."? page 197.

An organization, just as a person, will learn from its mistakes if it wants to improve. Moreover, it cannot just ignore or paper over mistakes, it must review them thoroughly and honestly and report them fully despite the temporary damage it may do to the organization. And those who serve an organization or cause must allow the truth to be fully explored and exposed.

Anyway, at work I'm dealing with a tough issue regarding something (or someone) I really admire. Right now it's in a very preliminary stage, but what I've seen doesn't look good. Of course, it is nowhere near the magnitude of a Ribbon Creek; and I'm nothing more than a hopelite. Still, it will probably be occupying many of my days, nights and weekends at least until the end of the year. If you have read this far, I'd appreciate a prayer that I will have the wisdom to always do the right thing.

(republished with spelling errors corrected)

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