GARMSIR DISTRICT, Helmand province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan --
Rocks crunch under the boots of a Marine walking a seemingly endless patrol route. He scans 360 degrees for suspicious activity as the sun slides beneath the horizon. It’s getting late; if he wasn’t on patrol, it would be dinnertime.
He hums the chorus of a song, which bounces off the walls of an empty house he passes. His fire team hums along, but no one smiles or laughs. Their eyes scour the terrain, and their ears are tuned for trouble.
Lance Cpl. Shawn Cole stops mid-hum. His fire team halts, and the chorus comes to an abrupt rest. Instead of thinking about how long they’ve been walking, they hone in on something. Despite the improvements in Garmsir District, even a farmer digging in his field could signal danger ahead – maybe an improvised explosive device.
After a tense moment, the muffled crunch of boot upon stone resumes. Trouble never materializes, and the patrol moves on.
“After about four or five hours of just walking, it’s hard to stay concentrated,” Cole said. “So, I try to keep my Marines attentive and fresh. We pour over the ground, walls and trees, looking for [improvised explosive devices] and anything suspicious. Singing is a way I try to keep things fresh — make sure my Marines aren’t being sucked into the monotony of patrol ...”
The blonde-haired, blue-eyed 21-year-old joined the Corps because he had always been interested in the military. He said he wanted to be a part of something bigger than himself, and his second tour in Afghanistan gives him that satisfaction.
Cole is a fire team leader with the Guard Force Platoon, 1/3, which provides security throughout the district. As a fire team leader, he is responsible for himself and three other Marines. If they do something wrong, he has done something wrong; conversely, their successes are his.
Although Cole and his fire team are all the same rank, Cole has the most time-in-grade. Thus, he leads them in combat and in their daily lives. They go to him with any problem, ranging from illness to coping with separation from loved ones. He knows if they are married, have a girlfriend, or are engaged, and he knows their life goals.
“As a leader, I have to be concerned for my Marines,” Cole said. “Not just how they perform their job, but I have to immerse myself in their life to see what’s bothering them, how life is back home, how I can help them, and what I can do to boost their morale. [I have to] let them know that there is a Marine here who cares about them.”
The Cresskill, N.J., native graduated from Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C., in 2008, and deployed to Afghanistan in 2009. He has only been in the Corps for three years, yet he leads Marines in combat.
As a lance corporal, or “lance,” Cole holds a dynamic rank. He bears a significant level of responsibility as a fire team leader, but he’s still only two ranks up from the bottom. Lance corporal is the most common rank in the Marine Corps, and for the infantryman, being a lance represents a baseline of experience. It means you know what you’re doing.
“[Being a lance] is really about going through shared hardships -- being able to say ‘we’ve experienced this,’ because with experience comes respect in the infantry,” he explained.
Superiors’ constant supervision breaks down his weaknesses, building him into a better Marine each day. “Yes, insert-rank-here” always follows a direct order from a Marine of higher rank.
Cole still fills sandbags like a private first class, but as a lance, he is beginning to see and become part of the bigger picture. As his superiors scrutinize him, he studies them and forms his own opinions of how to effectively lead. Gradually, he’s becoming his future self.
“I’m definitely seeing what it’s like to be in that higher rank, and what it’s like to have Marines under you,” Cole said.
However, Cole can’t lord over his Marines. Because he is equal to them in rank, he has to work especially hard to justify his elevated position. Yet, he must have the confidence to dictate when necessary.
“The fact that I hold a billet doesn’t mean that I’m going to take myself out of the mix of things and just tell them to do things,” Cole said. “I don’t set myself [above them], but I still have the responsibility to make sure my Marines get the job done quickly, efficiently and properly.”
Cole and his fellow lance corporals are the workhorses of the battalion. They stand post in the middle of the night, patrol, and participate in impromptu working parties during their free time.
“The vast numbers of lance corporals make up the [majority of the] Marine Corps’ workforce …” Cole said. “As a lance, it’s about being mentally tough, because there are a lot of things that get thrown your way, but you just got to keep your head up and keep pushing.”
Hardship and adversity is the mortar of the lance corporal network: crushing on the one hand, yet binding on the other. And Cole, although he may be a fire time leader, isn’t impervious to the stress. He still calls home any chance he gets. Many a night, he lays motionless in his bed, waiting to fall asleep and thinking of his girlfriend.
When his spirits are low, he leans on his fire team for support.
They know each other in a way only a Marine fire team can. They live in an atmosphere where sensitive subjects become talking points for discussions, and everything somehow ends in a zany joke to relieve the stress. It’s not about suffering through seven months of separation, but enjoying time with fellow Marines — fellow brothers.
“At the end of the day, when everything is said and done, we let each other know we’re here for one another,” Cole said. “You definitely see the brotherhood in the room, even if it’s just goofing around to blow off steam. They know when I get extra stressed, I think about all the places I’d rather be, with my girlfriend and with my family. They know seeing my girlfriend’s face on Skype and talking to my family on the phone keeps me going.”
Mentally, Cole drifts between the present and future. He plans to marry his girlfriend, which he brings up everyday with an ivory-white, full-toothed grin. He doesn’t plan on staying in the Marine Corps, but that doesn’t stop him from being proud to claim the title. He plans to get his associate’s degree before exiting the Corps, and when he does get out, he plans on going into law enforcement.
For now, he’s a young and tough - a lance corporal laboring alongside his brothers in 1/3.
“I’m never going to regret my decision to join the Marines,” Cole said. “I’ve made friends, and I’m going to take away a unique appreciation for the securities and luxuries I have as an American. Sometimes it’s rough, and you kind of just want to make it go away, but at the end of the day, you’re always proud to be a Marine, because you’re going through things the average American can’t even fathom.”
Editor's note: ‘Through the Ranks,’ is a recurring commentary about a day in the life of a deployed Marine from 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment. Each commentary will highlight an individual’s personal experience through the perspective of his rank.