MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C. --
At 23, serving as a squad leader during a fight against enemy forces in Iraq 2004, Cpl. Jason Dunham led his squad into an engagement, then stopped to search seven Iraqi vehicles attempting to depart the area. As Dunham walked toward the vehicles, an insurgent jumped out and attacked him. Dunham wrestled him to the ground and the insurgent released a grenade. Giving his life to save two of his fellow Marines, Dunham covered the grenade with his helmet and body.
As previous Marine non-commissioned officers had done, Dunham set the standard for all Marines to live up to – a standard of courage and fighting spirit unmatched by most military organizations in the world.
This spirit is bolstered in the indoctrination period known as Corporals Leadership Course, the first in a series of Professional Military Education courses offered by the Marine Corps to teach Marines the Marine Corps standards for their rank, and to prepare them for promotion to the next rank.
During the history portion, Marines learn about Marines like Cpl. Jason Dunham, who earned the Medal of Honor for his actions in Iraq in 2004, and discuss what type of traits a person must have to jump on a grenade in defense of his comrades.
As the first rank in the non commissioned officer corps, corporals have a responsibility to their subordinates and superiors unlike that of any other rank. Marine corporals are the "working supervisor," fulfilling their occupational field specialty obligations while leading and mentoring junior Marines, said Gunnery Sgt. Valdez R. Baker Jr., staff non commissioned officer in charge for Cherry Point Corporals Leadership Course.
"We are directly responsible for shaping the ideas they have," said Baker about his responsibilities to the corporals that come through his course. "Going to basic training, (Marine Combat Training), (military occupations skills) school, that’s just the foundation.
"Once you get to the fleet and gain a little more experience you need those senior Marines to give you better leadership and mentoring skills – that’s our goal during the course."
Baker and his team of instructors, Sgts. Lindsey Philpot, Michael A. Blaul and Stephen W. Ford, teach more than 30 corporals every month – fitting in a multitude of topics into the three-week course.
For Baker, the goal of week one is to introduce the junior rank of NCOs to their first ever Professional Military Education Course.
"You get a couple of classes about nutrition, physical fitness, development of the NCO mindset," said Baker. "Different things like mentorship and leadership classes that help break them in and help them understand this is your first PME and this is what to expect."
Marines from across the air station checked-in Aug. 13, in the traditional Service A uniform to the instructor hatch, lining up in alphabetical order in typical Marine Corps fashion, hoping to gain a spot in Class 274-12.
Once they were processed into the course, and after undergoing a thorough uniform inspection, they began the first part – a senior enlisted panel consisting of sergeants major from multiple units across the air station. The panel of senior leaders shared their expectations of the corporals and set the tone for the next three weeks.
"You are sitting next to somebody that could be a sergeant major or a master gunnery sergeant with you later on in your career," said Sgt. Maj. Holly C. Prafke, headquarters and headquarters squadron sergeant major. "When you leave here you are going to have a wealth of knowledge about Marine Corps orders. You need to take that back with you."
Shortly after the panel the class began their first period of instruction, Operational Risk Management, a process by which the Marine Corps analyzes and assesses potential danger, and jumped right into developing the NCO mindset class, which focuses on the 24/7 mentality that all Marines, and especially NCOs, must embody the highest level of professionalism and ethics whether on or off duty.
For some students, like Cpl. Thomas Chevalier, a 26-year-old KC-130J Hercules mechanic with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 252, the class environment surprised him during the first days of the course. He said one preconceived notion of corporals course is that it is similar to boot camp which he found out was totally incorrect.
"Everything from physical training to the classes were all taught in a very professional manner," said Chevalier. "They treat us professionally because we are already Marines."
Ford said that as an instructor he is not making Marines, he is teaching and improving NCOs.
"In my opinion, I still try to emulate (drill instructors) as an NCO because they are perfect, spot-on, 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Ford said. "(When it comes to corporals course) I am not a drill instructor. You know what it is to be a Marine; you have been to boot camp. My job here is to reignite the flame in the NCO."
Ford said every Marine who goes through the course has a different experience depending on the unit they are coming from. He said for some Marines this is their first experience with the topics and for some its part of what they do every day.
"Some of these students could probably teach certain classes better than I could," added Ford.
Some of the courses included classes on leadership styles, Mentoring Marines, Leading by Example and history of the NCO portion, which teaches Marines about prior corporals and sergeants who made a difference in the Corps and in U.S. history.
Baker said it is vital that Marines know the history of their rank and of the men who wore it before them.
"You don’t know where you are going if you don’t know and understand where you are come from," said Baker. "It is very important to show, through history, that the NCO is the backbone of the Marine Corps."
Traditions also play a part during the first week of the course. Corporals of class 274-12 polished off their week with an introduction to drill with the NCO sword and the guidon.
Editor’s Note: This article is part one in a three-part series about the first Professional Military Education Course enlisted Marines attend, Corporals Leadership Course.