Saturday, April 8, 2017

What Now, Lieutenant? by General Richard I. "Butch" Neal, USMC (Ret.)

Why I Read It: General Neal is my hometown hero.

Summary: Subtitle: "Leadership forged from events in Vietnam, Desert Storm and beyond."

My Thoughts: Well, we have this in common: we have both delivered commencement addresses at our common alma mater, Hull High School, in Hull, Massachusetts. Beyond that, though...

Yes, I grew up in General Neal's hometown, a small community in Boston Harbor (literally, it's a peninsula) where life was exactly as he describes it. For the colder months, the town was always pretty quiet. Nobody had to drive through Hull to get anywhere, especially the Village, a neighborhood near the end of the peninsula. But then, come summertime, the population doubled, due to the 3.5 miles of beach the town sports. Due to its small population and tight-knit nature, everybody knew everybody.

"Butch," as his grandmother called him, toughed out his childhood and found his calling in the military, with the Marine Corps. He lost his dad while he was young, but because the community was what it was - a collection of people watching out for each other at every turn, as family roots ran very deeply - there was no shortage of father figures around. To make his way through college, for instance, he rode the local garbage truck of Ernie Minelli. He got to Vietnam as a lieutenant - about the same time that my father did - and lost good friends in a terrible situation...just like my father did. Neither one of them ever forgot.

He learned a lot from the "Battle of Getlin's Corner," in which he was summarily thrust into leadership upon the deaths of his immediate commanding officers, all eyes turning to him as if to say, "What now, lieutenant?"He carried those lessons with him for life. Throughout his narrative he stops to explain where and when more such "What now, lieutenant?" moments arise, and how he used them to teacher younger Marines the right ways to do their jobs. He believed early on in the strength of "eyeball level leadership," looking a man square in the face and delivering whatever feedback had to be delivered. Up the chain he went, all the way to 4 stars and the role of Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps. If you watched any of the Gulf War on TV, you saw him as the briefer for General Norman Schwarzkopf.

And here's where the book gets weird, for me personally. I covered his retirement ceremony for our hometown newspaper, the Hull Times. Reading about it in this book was beyond deja vu. I got to relive, through this historic document, an episode I witnessed firsthand, but this time I got to see it from another person's perspective. And I can tell you that for readers of the Hull Times, the ceremony did not disappoint (no thanks to my writing skills). The General has never forgotten his hometown. He referred right back to Ernie Minelli, and out there in the crowd that night at the Marine Barracks in DC were many other faces familiar to me, Hullonians who had made the trek to DC. Hull has never forgotten "Butchy" Neal, either.

A few days after the ceremony I was at the Hull Lifesaving Museum, where I worked at the time, when a car pulled up to the front of the building, and out hopped the General, in his civvies, truly retired. He walked into the building, looking for me. He handed me a framed photograph of the two of us at his retirement ceremony, me handing him a photo on behalf of the local Coast Guard station crew. He had signed it with a thank you for my presence at the ceremony; it still hangs in my office, twenty years later.

I told him that I had wanted to tell him about my dad and his service in the Marines. My dad was wounded while there (he carried shell fragments in his leg his entire life from a grenade thrown by one of his own guys), and finished out his tour in September 1967, leaving the Corps, though it never left him. Four star General Richard I. Neal, retired Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, looked me square in the eye, firmly shook my hand, and said, "I would like to meet your dad someday." I was floored. Sadly, it never happened. My dad died in 2012 in a VA hospital, surrounded by comrades.

I have no idea how this book will affect you. I had the privilege of being swept along in a sea of familiar landmarks and familiar names, and learning intimately about the man I consider my hometown hero.

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