One recent evening we were sitting around the 3/1 battalion
commander's armored truck when Sergeant Major Scott Samuels, (left) the
top enlisted man in the battalion, dropped a gem.
explained his simple method for drying off his boots after going on a
patrol that required wading in irrigation ditches.
"I put my
boots on the exhaust pipes of the MATVs," he said. MATVs are the
armored trucks that the Marines use.
We all laughed. Until we
realized he wasn't joking.
The average Sergeant Major is not
characterized by his delicacy. The job requires a sandpaper-grade
sternness, pain-inducing vocal projection and withering facial demeanor
that can vaporize the slightest precursor of trouble with a single
glance. And as the senior enlisted man in a battalion, the sergeant
major has to deal with plenty of misguided would-be trouble-makers.
home it is DUI's, motorbike crashes, fights and so on – on deployment
the infringements are less excessive, but still worthy of the sergeant
major's gruff discipline. "My job," says Samuels, "is not to control the
1,000 Marines in the battalion. It is to control the 30 Marines who
won't follow what the other 970 are doing." He says he has to "keep his
foot in every door", and be able to answer all the questions the
battalion commander asks him – "which is a lot".
Major Samuels has seen a lot in his career, but if there is one thing
that really gets under his skin, it is shaving – a good Marine is a
clean-shaven Marine, even in the middle of a heated battle.
did you shave with this morning?" he asked one hapless – and clearly
unshaven – Marine recently. The Marines were in the middle of an
offensive against the Taliban stronghold of Safar Bazaar. They were
sleeping in desert sand, there was no running water for miles, and
uniforms – the infamous Flame Resistant Organizational Gear (or FROG
suits) were stiff and odiferous with accumulated salt and sweat.
"I didn't shave this morning, Sergeant Major," responded the Marine.
"So I guess that's the next thing you're going to do after we have
finished this conversation," said Samuels – finishing the conversation.
To another Marine who had the temerity to actually sprout a moustache
in the midst of the battle, Samuels said "I carry a clippers with me –
but I clip all the hair bald – so the recommendation is to get rid of
the moustache before I get to it." Both Marines had upper lips as soft
as a baby's bottom the next time I saw them.
when he was sitting in the shade of his truck, a Marine walked by, poked
his head in, saw who was there and quickly said "Hurrah, Sergeant
Major," before hurrying on. "They all do that, " says Samuels. "They see
the Sergeant Major, say 'I'm not going there, that's too scary with the
Sergeant Major, and keep going…"
Samuels grew up in Brooklyn,
went to school in New Jersey, went to college in Tennessee, then joined
the Marines 25 years ago. He says the Marine Corps has changed a lot
since then – more conventional warfare missions, less short-term
marine-based expeditionary ventures. And because most service members
retire at the latest at 20 years, when the full pension kicks in, there
are very few Marines left in the Corps who were there when he joined.
position of Sergeant Major, which dates back to 1776 in the U.S.
military, and to 1801 in the Marine Corps, is a lonely one. Staff
Sergeants, Gunnery Sergeants and First Sergeants all have schools to go
to in order to learn their new roles, but there is no school for the top
enlisted position of Sergeant Major. It is self-taught. "You learn by
experience, I suppose – and you learn a lot from those you dislike – by
doing the opposite," he says.
But even with the forbidding
exterior, there are a few cracks. On one inspection tour Samuels arrived
at an outpost in Kilo Company where the 12 Marines, living in the
corner of a field, had adopted a local stray dog as a pet.
for hygiene," said Samuels gruffly when he first spotted the dog, and
said if there was no other way, the Marines needed to take the dog out
to the desert and shoot it.
He sat down to discuss other
issues, and as he did so the dog lay down at his feet, and Samuels
absent-mindedly began petting the dog. When he was ready to leave, the
Marine in charge asked delicately "about shooting the dog, Sgt. Major?"
Samuels uttered a guttural grunt, which the Marines interpreted as a
negative, and he then turned around to leave.
nobody, feared by many, respected by all – a Marine Corps Sergeant