Officers Eat Last: Reflections On A Quarter Century of Teaching Marines

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by Helio Fred Garcia

I have had the privilege of teaching Marines for 25 years.

Of all the teaching I do, it’s one of my favorite things.


But as the Talmud notes, “I have learned much from my teachers; I have learned more from my colleagues; but it is from my students that I have learned the most.”

And of all whom I teach, it is the Marines from whom I have learned the most.  And so have my civilian students and clients.  I am a better corporate consultant and leadership coach because of what I have learned from teaching Marines.  And the more I teach the more I learn.

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My teaching Marines started almost by accident.

In 1991, in my fourth year on the NYU faculty, I was teaching a continuing education course on Spokesmanship: How to Be an Effective Spokesperson.  And I had a student, Walter, who was different from his classmates.  Most were in their 20s.  Walter had gray hair.  Most were already working in PR. Walter was a Marine, just back from the first Iraq war, where he had flown helicopters in combat.  He had reached an age when he had to give up flying, but he wasn’t ready to retire.  So he was assigned to the New York Public Affairs office. Walter was to start his new billet in September, and was taking my summer course to get a head start – very much like a Marine.

Earlier that year I had written an article for the journal PR Quarterly (pdf).  In it I reflected that the U.S. military had been guided in the war by the principles of the Nineteenth-Century military strategist Carl von Clausewitz.  I noted that just as the military applied those principles in fighting the war, the Pentagon communication office had applied the principles in their public communication about the war:

“Once the touchstone of most Western military strategy, Clausewitz fell out of favor in the late 1950s, replaced by social scientists who brought us systems analysis, gradual escalation and attrition, body counts, and other sins of the Vietnam era.

In the Gulf war, Clausewitz emerged not only on the battlefield; he was also in the briefing room.  We won not only the air war and the ground war; we won the battle for public opinion.  A close reading of Clausewitz… provides a context for understanding both the military victory in the Gulf and the PR efforts that contributed to it.”

Walter showed the article to his commanding officer. My mentor Jim Lukaszewski, who taught Marines, had earlier recommended me to the same person.

The commanding officer called and invited me to teach at an annual meeting of newly-named Marine commanders – lieutenant colonels and colonels – who would gather in New York for a week of public affairs training.  I taught my first Marine in October, 1991.  I have taught at every New York Public Affairs Symposium ever since.

Leadership Factory

The United States Marine Corps is the nation’s crisis response force.  The tip of the spear.  It’s ready to deploy anywhere, any time, on any mission.

The Marine Corps is also a leadership factory.  It instills qualities of initiative, teamwork, and dedication to mission.  It pushes accountability down to the bottom of the chain of command, even as it holds leaders at the very top of the chain accountable for their subordinates’ decisions.  Marines follow orders, but not blindly.  Commander’s intent is an essential part of an order.  Understanding a commander’s intent is the responsibility of each Marine.  And making that intent clear is the responsibility of each commander, of whatever rank.

In 2001, about two months before the 9/11 attacks, I attended a Marine Corps capabilities exercise in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.  It was intended to show visiting dignitaries, mostly staff of congressional committees, the range of Marines’ ability to fight in many forms.


We saw, among other things:

  • A HALO (High-Altitude Low Opening) parachute drop where, to avoid detection, Marines dropped from very high altitude, virtually unseen, and opened their parachutes just above the tree line.
  • A beach landing of many amphibious landing craft, with beach masters guiding the arriving Marines as they left their craft, riding on armored personnel carriers and deploying on foot.
  • Marine fighter jets strafing the beach ahead of the arriving landing craft.
  • A simulated helicopter rescue of a downed pilot.
  • A hostage rescue in a simulated U.S. embassy.
  • A chemical weapons decontamination exercise.
  • A riverine assault with Marines arriving on fast rubber inflatable boats.
  • An infantry, armored, and air assault of a simulated urban combat environment; Marines taking a city.

It was all wildly impressive. But what impressed me more was something that happened during this capabilities exercise.

It was July, in swampy North Carolina.  It was over 100 degrees, and very humid. The dignitaries were beginning to wilt.  We arrived at a large field kitchen serving lunch to the hundreds of Marines.

Marine Field Kitchen

I saw one of my contacts, a captain from the New York public affairs unit, speaking casually to some other officers. They invited me to get on the chow line.  I asked whether they had eaten yet. They very matter-of-factly replied, “No, we’ll eat later.”  I asked, “Aren’t you hungry?” One of the other officers replied, “We don’t eat until the enlisted Marines have eaten.” I asked, “Why not?” He responded, “Officers eat last.”

Officers Eat Last

I was taken aback. I work primarily in a corporate environment, where the idea that the senior leaders defer their own benefits to the junior ranks is not common. But I learned that it is an essential element of Marine Corps leadership. Marine leadership has two goals: 1) Accomplish the mission; 2) Attend to the welfare of your Marines.

This one human gesture, officers eat last, captured for me the essential nature of the Marines.

A Learning Organization

The Marine Corps is also at its heart a learning organization.

When they are not deployed Marines are in school. The Corps has dozens of schools, plus other professional military education programs. And an active reading program.

In 2006, during a break while teaching at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College in Quantico, Virginia, I wandered into the bookstore. There I discovered the Commandant’s Reading List; more than 100 titles. And as I ran through the books, I noticed some interesting things. First, many were sharply critical of the U.S. military, and of the U.S. intervention in Iraq. I was impressed that the Commandant would encourage Marines to read books by critics. Second, the books covered a broad expanse of subject matter, from history to culture to biography.

And I was honored when, in 2013, my most recent book, The Power of Communication: Skills to Build Trust, Inspire Loyalty, and Lead Effectively, was added to the Commandant’s Reading List.

That book itself arose from my visit to the bookstore that day. In the store I found a slim volume called Warfighting: U.S. Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication No. 1. It’s required reading for every Marine. It lays out an approach to strategy and leadership that informs what all Marines do. Think of it as the Marine Corps Bible. And it is extremely well-written.

Flying home on the shuttle, I couldn’t put the book down. As I read, I realized that by changing just a few words in Warfighting l could create a conceptual framework to help civilian leaders develop a much richer and deeper understanding of effective public communication.


Then I had an idea. I was about to teach a new course on communication strategy in the M.S. in Public Relations and Corporate Communication program at New York University.

I decided to assign Warfighting, requiring students to read it before the first class.  When I sent the syllabus to the department it raised a few eyebrows.  But to his credit the academic director gave me the green light, and I posted the syllabus online.

In the first class, before discussing the book, I polled the students:

  • How many were confused when they saw that the first book in a communication strategy course was a Marine Corps book called Warfighting?
    Nearly every hand went up.
  • How many were concerned?
    Most hands stayed up.
  • How many were angry?
    About a third of the hands stayed up.
  • How many are still angry after reading the book?
    All hands came down.

I found the most counter-culture-seeming student who had just put her hand down, and asked, “Why were you angry when you saw the syllabus?” She looked me in the eye and said “I thought you were going to feed us propaganda, try to get us to like the military, to support the war in Iraq.” And now?  She smiled, and said, “I love this book. I have given copies to my parents and friends.  I want to know why we don’t know more about this book.” Some years after graduating, that student joined the NYU faculty, teaching the same course.

I used Warfighting for five years afterward, and not only in my NYU classroom. I used it in strategy boot camps for the public affairs department of a major insurance company, the communication staff of a large pharmaceutical company, and even with clergy and not-for-profit executives, sometimes to their initial discomfort.  I urged individual CEOs, CFOs, and other corporate leaders to read it to help them both to think strategically and to communicate effectively.

In all civilian contexts, my students and clients enthusiastically embraced Warfighting, and the comments tended to cluster into these two categories:

  1. This is one of the single most useful insights into how to be strategic in communication that I’ve ever read.
  2. I never knew the Marines were so thoughtful.

Warfighting Deserved A Broader Audience

The usefulness of the lessons of Warfighting goes well beyond fighting wars or public affairs, but to how to think strategically. It deserved a broader audience.

So I decided to take it a step further: I asked the Marines for the adaptation rights for Warfighting, to incorporate into a book I was planning for a civilian leadership audience. The copyright was held by the Secretary of the Navy. And I asked permission to use the Marine Corps emblem, the eagle, globe, and anchor, in the book.

The Marines secured the permissions, and The Power of Communication was published in 2012.

It was named to the Commandant’s Professional Reading List, as one of eight leadership titles, in 2013.


CMC reading list

Candid Self-Reflection

One thing I have always been impressed by is how the Marines welcome candid feedback on what works and what doesn’t. And they institutionalize it.

Every year the Marine Corps commissions an essay that challenges Marines to perform better in the future. Past MajGen Richard C. Schulz Memorial Essayists include Jim Webb, later U.S. Senator, and Gen. Bernard Trainor, later chief military correspondent for the New York Times.

I was honored to be invited to be the 2013 Schulze essayist.

My essay was an adaptation of The Power of Communication, and it challenged Marines to see their work as winning hearts and minds as well as battles. The essay looked back at the opening moments of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and argued that Marines got the story strategically wrong.

The essay  noted:

“The new battlefield is one where every action is potentially immediately public. In the battle to win the support of those who matter, both at home and in the theater of operations, Marines—from four- stars to privates fresh off of Parris Island—will have greater power than ever before, and they need to harness that power effectively. A corporal draping a flag on a statue, a handful of Marines urinating on the bodies of enemy dead, or U.S. servicemembers burning Qur’ans communicate far more loudly than any words, and they send exactly the wrong message.”


Flag Saddam

And it called on Marines up and down the chain of command to take communication as seriously as other elements of their profession.

“So the burden on commanders is high: They need to be excellent communicators in their own right, and they also need to create environments in which their Marines understand how everything they say and do—and everything they don’t say and don’t do—creates an impression that can affect the reputation of the Corps and the national security interests of the United States.”

It concluded:

“The next war is likely to be fought not on a field of battle, but on television, the Internet, and social media. The tip of the spear needs to be as competent in the modern arenas as in fields of fire.”

The Scope of Teaching and Consulting


Teaching at 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, US Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, NC

Teaching at 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, NC

I first taught Marines in the New York Public Affairs Symposia. But more significant than the teaching in these individual symposia was the teaching that resulted from them.

Individual officers who were either organizers of or students in the symposia reached out to me to counsel or teach other Marine or joint military commands.

Teaching at US Defense Logistics Agency

Teaching at U.S. Defense Logistics Agency

Over time I consulted with, taught, or otherwise was actively involved with a number of Marine Corps organizations, including:

  • U.S. Marine Corps East Coast Commanders Public Affairs Symposium, New York City: Since 1991 I have taught about 50 newly appointed commanders per year (mostly lieutenant colonels and colonels) who have assumed command East of the Mississippi river.
  • U.S. Marine Corps West Coast Commanders Public Affairs Symposium, Los Angeles: From 2004 to 2012 I taught about 50 newly appointed commanders per year (mostly lieutenant colonels and colonels) who have assumed command West of the Mississippi river.
  • U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College, Quantico, VA: I taught guest lectures on effective leadership communication and moderated media panels from 2005 to 2010.
  • U.S. Marine Corps Brigadier General Select Orientation Course, Washington, DC:  From 2005 to the present I have taught in the orientation course for colonels who have been selected for promotion to general.
  • U.S. Marine Corps Officer Candidate School, Quantico, VA: I taught a guest lecture for instructors on how to teach effectively.
  • U.S. Marine Corps Base Quantico: I helped design and participated in training for first responders during a terrorism incident simulation.
  • U.S. Marine Corps Public Affairs: I consulted with a number of leaders of the public affairs function over time, both on readiness of public affairs professionals and for dealing with individual crises or issues.
  • II Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Lejeune, NC: In 2016 I taught as part of a Professional Military Education program for 250 of the senior-most leaders of II MEF, constituting about a third of all fighting Marines.
  • Marine Aircraft Station Cherry Point, NC: In 2016 I taught about 200 senior leaders of the 2nd Marine Air Wing.
  • U.S. Marine Corps Combat Service Support Schools, Camp Johnson, NC: In 2016 I taught about 300 students and faculty of the various combat support schools associated with Camp Johnson.
Teaching at US Defense Information School

Teaching at U.S. Defense Information School

Marine Corps referrals also led to work advising or teaching in a number of joint commands and non-U.S. institutions, including:

  • Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), Center for Security Studies, Masters In Advanced Studies in Security Policy and Crisis Management, Zurich: From 2007 until 2015 I served on the leadership faculty of this program, essentially the outsourced instruction for the Swiss General Staff College. All but six of the students were senior officers in the Swiss, German, Austrian, or other European military or intelligence services. This appointment came as the result of a Swiss officer who had attended the Marines’ Command and Staff College recommending me to his commanding officer.

    Teaching at ETH Zurich

    Teaching at ETH Zurich

  • Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, Quantico, VA:  From 2004 to 2009 I and my firm served as advisors to and instructors for this joint command focusing on the development and deployment of weapons that serve as the middle ground between a bullhorn and a bullet, intended to deter but not kill an adversary.
  • U.S. Defense Information School, Fort George Meade, MD: Since 2012 I have been a contract teacher at this school for military public affairs officers and communicators.  I teach about eight times per year, the first day in the Joint Senior Public Affairs Officer Course, mostly for lieutenant colonels, colonels, and their equivalents, and the Joint Intermediate Public Affairs Officer Course, mostly for captains and majors and their equivalents.
  • U.S. Defense Logistics Agency: In 2015 I taught several hundred of their logisticians.

A Family Legacy

When the Marines called and asked me to teach, the decision to answer Yes was easy.  It seemed to be part of the family business.

For the 25 years before he died in 1984 my Dad was a professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He was recruited to leave his native Brazil to come to West Point, his young family in tow.

I grew up at West Point, during the Vietnam War, surrounded by people in uniform.

My Dad was an inspired and inspiring teacher.  And all of the times I saw him teach he was teaching people wearing a uniform.

Dr. Frederick C.H. Garcia, 1928-1984

Dr. Frederick C.H. Garcia, 1928-1984

So teaching people in uniform seemed like a natural continuation of his work.

And now I’ve spent 25 years teaching Marines and others in the armed forces. Between the two of us, my Dad and I have 50 years of teaching people in uniform.

As immigrants to the United States, we are both honored and delighted to give back and to help build the capacities of those who defend our adopted nation.

Earlier this year I taught the senior-most Marines I have ever taught, 150+ senior leaders of II Marine Expeditionary Force, on the fifth day of their week-long Warfighting Series of Professional Military Education. The opening minutes, where I explain the adaptation of Warfighting to leadership communication, are in the video below.

Among the students were two major generals, a brigadier general, and lots of colonels and sergeants major.

At the end, the Commanding General of II MEF presented me with the commander’s coin for excellence.


I dedicate that coin to the memory of my Dad, Dr. Frederick C.H. Garcia, my first and best teacher, and to how between us we’ve taught people who wear the uniform of the United States for 50 years.

And to how we’ve been taught by them.

Officers eat last.


Semper Fi!

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