Culture Military

All Marine Radio and the Gospel of Post Traumatic Winning

Mike “Mac” McNamara, a retired Marine Corps major living on the coast in Southern California, is on a mission. It is not the mission he envisioned when he started the online podcast All Marine Radio (AMR) three years ago. His original idea was to provide a long form radio show that focused on issues of interest to Marine Corps veterans while also addressing post-combat mental health issues. He hoped to spur veterans from other services to do the same for their respective branches. What AMR has evolved into is the coverage of news stories that interest Mac (fortunately Mac in an interesting guy) during the first hour. Followed by some of the most fascinating and original interviews of service veterans and their supporters that have ever been recorded. Some of these interviews take up the remaining two hours of the show and a few extend for several days.

Do you want to hear a recording of a tank company tactical net on day one of Iwo Jima? How about listening to that recording being played back to one of the men who made it, and had no idea it existed until Mac played it for him? How about a long conversation with a Vietnam Vet who, as a Corporal squad leader, fought at Getlin’s Corner? That was a small, obscure, six-hour battle in which one Congressional Medal of Honor, four Navy Crosses, six Silver Stars, and three Bronze Stars were awarded to a rifle company numbering just over 100 men. Listen to the first hour and you’ll find yourself, 5 hours later, wanting to hear more.

Mac not only interviews Marines of all ranks and experience levels, he also does segments with their mothers, wives, and siblings as well as interviews with members from the other services. It was on All Marine Radio that I first heard about The Freq.

Mac probes his guests asking where they’re from, what their childhoods were like, how they heard about the Marine Corps, before going through each combat or combat related story in detail. Most of his guests are combat vets, some are the mothers or wives of combat vets, and a few are regional experts. Frequent guest Grant Newsham, a former Marine intelligence officer currently living and working in Asia, is a good example. He consistently provides the most informed, concise overview of the challenges, trends, and problems in the Pacific Rim you’ve ever heard. It’s brilliant insight presented in a clear, concise manner that is as well informed as anything you would read or hear from the Brookings Institution.

If you are partial to influential think tanks like the Brookings Institution, Mac has that covered too. The president of the Brookings Institution is John Allen; Mac worked for him when Gen. Allen (USMC Ret.) was the group chief of the Marine Corps infantry officer course from 1990 – 1992. General Allen has been on AMR a couple of times delivering keen insight into strategic issues, which you’d expect. What you don’t expect is to hear are these issues framed as a conversation with a guy who sounds like your favorite brother-in-law. No big words, no insider jargon, no condescending assumptions; just a conversation that is easy to follow, informative, and enjoyable to listen to.

Mac guides most of his interviews to a discussion about post traumatic mental health. It was from listening to hundreds of these stories that Mac noticed a trend: the Marine combat vets, particularly the Vietnam vets, had, in time, ended up in the same place (although some struggled mightily to get there). They had faced their post traumatic demons and they had won.

It was from these interviews that Mac developed a theory about trauma called Post Traumatic Winning which can be summed up as follows:

  • Trauma is trauma; it is not unique to combat, and it is experienced by many people in many places outside combat.
  • You will not ‘get over’ a traumatic event; they stay with you for life.
  • You will not be ‘disabled’ by traumatic events, and it’s OK to carry the psychological baggage of trauma.
  • For Marines (and other service members) trauma comes with the job; it is expected and should be addressed in their training.
  • You can learn to co-exist with trauma via post traumatic winning training and then return to your community where, as part of a purpose driven life, you seek opportunities to mentor others who are struggling with post traumatic issues.
  • The only effective way for a veteran to heal is by helping others to heal. There are no magic pills; there is no other way to truly heal.
  • Dealing with trauma is how we earn the position of trust and respect veterans currently enjoy in their communities.
  • You owe it to the friends who did not make it back to honor their sacrifice by living the life you would have wanted them to lead had they survived, and you had not.
  • We need to start teaching our servicemen and women about trauma and how to deal with it at the entry level and reinforce that instruction at every opportunity.
  • We are the Marine Corps, trauma comes with the job, who should be more expert at dealing with it than us?

How many of you wanted your best buddies to come home and struggle with alcohol and drug addiction while failing to develop a successful career, loving family, healthy habits, or personal growth? Life is hard enough without the millstone of self-pity weighing you down and the data on frequently prescribed depression, anti-anxiety and sleep medication does not indicate they contribute to a positive self-image or self-regulation. Talk therapy in a group setting, a topic frequently ridiculed by some of Mac’s guests, is not effective 75% of the time. Mac concluded a proactive, Marine accessible approach would be the most effective way to inculcate young Marines to trauma by explaining some simple truths on the front end of their careers.

Mac has a back story typical of men who become enmeshed in Marine Corps lore by being atypical. Born in Sacramento California, his father was a professional baseball manager, at the helm of the Boston Red Sox’s during the 1986 World Series. Mac spent much of his childhood in dugouts developing an encyclopedic knowledge on the mechanics of baseball. After graduating from college, Mac worked for Merrill Lynch in Los Angeles. He found it boring and cast about for a jab that included a sense of purpose and joined the Marine Corps Reserve  as an officer candidate. He was selected to be an infantry officer and after completing entry level training was sent to the Fleet Marine Force as a rifle platoon commander.

During his first tour as an infantry officer, Mac was augmented from the reserves into the regular Marine Corps, and after completing his first in the Fleet Marine Force was ordered back The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia.  The Basic School mission is to “Train and educate newly commissioned or appointed officers in the high standards of professional knowledge, esprit-de-corps, and leadership to prepare them for duty as company grade officers in the operating forces, with particular emphasis on the duties, responsibilities, and warfighting skills required of a rifle platoon commander.”

Mac was selected for one of the eight coveted spots on the instructor staff of the Infantry Officer Course (IOC). Mac joined IOC at a time when the group chief, a young major named John Kelly, was re-writing the plain of instruction (POI) to focus more on maneuver warfare doctrine with an emphasis on decision making.

It was during this tour that Mac applied his knowledge of baseball decision making to combat training by exploring why student lieutenants were unable to make reads on the simulated battlefield and adjust to what they were seeing like baseball players did. The doctrinal planning process for the Marine Corps was concurrent option analysis which is the only way to successfully plan something as sophisticated as an amphibious assault. But it was not an appropriate model for platoon decision making, so Mac refined and introduced a Recognition Primed Decision-Making model that also depended on aggressive individual professional military education. You can’t make recognition primed decisions unless you recognize what’s driving the decision and the only way to gain a database on combat decision making is by reading the accounts of men who had been in combat. The decision-making course Mac developed is still taught at the Marine Corps infantry officer course.

Mac left the Marine Corps in 1994, moved back to Southern California and then took a job in Grand Forks, North Dakota as the director of the state’s Special Olympics. He also opened a Play it Again Sports store and he was in that store one day listening to talk radio as the hosts went overboard in condemning a police shooting.

The shooting had occurred across the river in East Grand Forks, Minnesota. A local man had stabbed his mother to death and also attacked his father. When police arrived, the man refused to put his knife down and started advancing on the officers, one of whom shot and killed him. In the morning paper there had been a picture of the officer walking away with his head down, clearly distraught, while the perpetrator lay dead on the street behind him. The talk show hosts were speculating as to why the police officer hadn’t shot to wound or used some other less-than-lethal procedure. The more Mac heard the more upset he became; he called into the show and explained how deadly force works and why the police shoot at center mass. The hosts kept him on for a long time, clearly respecting his expertise on the subject. After he hung up, his phone rang again — it was the station manager offering Mac a slot in his day time talk show line up.

Mac was coaching his kids in baseball, had a good job, his own radio show, and he was elected to the city council; life was good — then 9/11 happened and everything changed.

The biggest change was the Marine Corps was going to war and a couple of Mac’s friends said they needed him to come back in to help out on the 1st Marine Division staff. It took some time to get back in, but he made it in time for the 1st MarDiv’s second deployment to Iraq where he was in the plans section of the division headquarters. Shortly after arriving, the assistant division commander asked him to take over the staff secretary job for the division CG. Mac said he didn’t know what a staff secretary was, but he’d be happy to go (which turned out to be an excellent call).

Mac had landed in a position to closely observe the three of the most impressive general officers of our generation deal with the absolute chaos that engulfed Iraq in 2005. Jim Mattis (currently the Secretary of Defense) was the commanding general, Jim Kelly (Currently the White House Chief of Staff), his assistant and Joe Dunford (currently the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) the division chief of staff. Could you imagine being right there, in the room, every day, all day watching those three run a Marine Corps division in combat?

Mac would be asked two more times to put on the uniform to help out close friends during their combat deployments. His last deployment was in 2010-2011 when the CO of Regimental Combat Team 1, Colonel Dave Furness (currently the CG of the 2nd MarDiv) asked him to join his headquarters at Camp Dwyer in the Helmand province of Afghanistan to run his current operations section.

Tim Lynch, Dave Furness and Mike “Mac” McNamara outside the 1st Marines HQC at Camp Dwyer, Helmand province in 2010

When Mac interviews the most senior leaders in Washington, he’s talking to close friends which is the most unique perspective available on the internet today. When he talks to mothers about sending their sons off to combat in Iraq or Afghanistan, he doesn’t have to imagine how they feel. Both his sons are Marine Corps infantry officers; he knows what it feels like to send one of them off to war. When Mac speaks with combat veterans from WWII, Korea, Vietnam or today’s battlefields, he is one of them, the connection is clear, and the ensuing stories poignant reminders of the price paid by those veterans.

Mac started life loving sports but ended up falling in love with the Marine Corps. You hear that line often; what it means is that Mac fell in love with Marines and those who support them. That drives his commitment to identify why the current approach to post traumatic mental health is not working. He’s found the gap in our approach to post traumatic treatment, and he’s designed a process to seal that gap. The Post Traumatic Growth course, although currently targeting Marines, is designed to apply to everyone visited by the curse of trauma. When you hear or see the term “post traumatic winning” again (and I suspect you soon will) you’ll know where it came from.

Check out All Marine Radio here.

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