Monday, January 28, 2013

“Sir, the Private is Fine!”

by LtCol Walter F. McTernan III, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired) 

In 1975-7 I served as a series commander at the legendary Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris, Island, South Carolina, a highly motivating assignment. Every night just before taps the series commander would hold a nightly “health and comfort” inspection of each recruit. This usually perfunctory inspection consisted of a quick walk by each recruit, who while otherwise at a correct position of attention, would hold out his hands for inspection. The series officer would focus on glancing at the recruits’ feet (with an eye out for blisters) and checking hands (both front and back) for blisters and general cleanliness. As the series commander would inspect each recruit individually, the trainee would ritually shout out, “Sir, the private is fine!!!”

I once had in one of my series a recruit who was an immigrant from Thailand, then-Private Veedya Seema, USMC. I first became aware of him when hearing his heavily-accented rendition of “Sir, the private is fine!!!” As he was a reasonably squared away recruit who got into no trouble with his drill instructors that I was made aware of, I had no other reasons to interact with him individually at that time.

I have always liked Thailand and the Thai people; at least ever since I learned that during the American Civil War (a misnomer if I ever heard of one) the King of Siam offered U.S. President Abraham Lincoln some war elephants for employment by the Union Army. (The way things went for the hapless Army of the Potomac, old Abe should have taken the king up on his kind offer.) The Thai have remained our most steadfast and loyal allies in Southeast Asia (SEA) ever since, including fighting alongside us in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Also adding to my respect for the Siamese, I had known some cadets from the Royal Thai Army whom I was privileged to study and train with at The Citadel. In all aspects of cadet life they were always among the top cadets – and considering that they had to do all that they did both academically and militarily while listening to the Southern dialect of American English (which at times even I found incomprehensible) makes their achievements all the more noteworthy.

Upon completion of my tour of duty at MCRD PISC I reported to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California to study Thai in preparation for a follow-on tour of duty in old Siam during the waning days of the “SEA Jungle Games”. After becoming moderately proficient in Thai I reported to duty with the Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group, Thailand (JUSMAGTHAI) as arguably the luckiest young 0302 Captain in the entire Marine Corps. It was an outstanding non-FMF tour of duty, to be sure! The only negative factor was that I missed being around my fellow Marines. The Corps’ entire personnel inventory in-country at that time consisted of the Assistant Naval Attache at the U.S. Embassy, the MSG det. also at the U.S. Embassy, the senior Marine advisor at JUSMAGTHAI, and watash. I interacted with these few fellow U.S. Marines as often as possible, both on duty and off. Few though we were, we were a force to be reckoned with.
One day when I was in Bangkok I was visited by one of our fine Marine Security Guards, Corporal (FNU) Fitts, USMC, a sharp and personable young NCO such as one would expect to be a member of the elite Marine Security Guard Battalion (as it was then-called). Corporal Fitts mentioned that a Marine corporal on leave from the 3d MarDiv on Okinawa was in Thailand on 30 days of annual leave, and had stopped by the MSG det. to say hello. Per Corporal Fitts, what was unusual was that this Marine was a Thai native. While I knew many Thai Marines, they were members of the Royal Thai Marine Corps (RTMC) not the USMC. Then I remembered my former Thai immigrant recruit and wondered if per chance he was the same Marine that Corporal Fitts was referring to. So I asked Corporal Fitts to bring this Marine by to visit if he saw him again.

The very next day they both came to visit me, and sure enough, it was now-Corporal Veedya Seema, USMC, a member of Communications Company, HQ Battalion, 3d Marine Division. He kept extending his tour on Okinawa so as to be as close to home as possible, as his parents lived in Chachoengsao, Thailand – about half way between Bangkok and the major Royal Thai Navy-Marine Corps complex of Sattahip (the Norfolk or San Diego equivalent of the RTN-RTMC), 21 klicks south of infamous tourist trap, Pattaya Beach. I asked Corporal Seema something I had always been curious about: How well did he speak English when he went through boot camp. He confessed that he spoke hardly a word of English when he reported aboard. I was rather astounded by this and asked him then how did he possibly successfully get through training!? He replied that he was a quick learner and that as a survival tactic he parroted whatever sounds he heard the other recruits making, which over time became intelligible English. He said that at first he had no idea what “Sir, the private is fine!!!” even meant. Despite his heavy accent, which I did remember, I never guessed this. He sure had me fooled.

A couple of times a year thereafter for the balance of my tour, I was able to get Corporal Seema assigned on a TAD basis from Okinawa to Thailand in order to assist me with some mobile training teams provided by 3d MarDiv in support of our ongoing security assistance training program, as an assistant instructor and interpreter. This not only benefitted our working relationship with the RTMC, who treated Corporal Seema like a visiting rock star, but also allowed this good Marine to see his parents more often – a win-win situation for alcon.

In the years after my Parris Island tour I would occasionally run into former recruits of mine. Often they had progressed in their own careers to SNCO or even CWO. I would always say that I remembered the last thing they had ever said to me when they were recruits. This would always surprise them, and they would ask what had they said that I would remember it after many years. I would reply, “Gunner, the last thing you said to me at P.I. was, ‘Sir, the private is fine!!!’"

“Semper Fidelis!”

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