News: None left behind
Story by Sgt. Lisa Tourtelot
MARINE CORPS AIR STATION MIRAMAR, Calif. - “If engaged leadership was the norm and everyone was involved, how low would the number of suicides go?” asked Sgt. Jesse Conger, the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing ground training chief.
Conger took two of his junior Marines outside his office aboard Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., June 11, for a quick mentorship session. He knows they’re sports fans and he uses the topic to ease them into more serious conversations.
“I just want to talk to them,” said Conger. “I've done it enough that they know it's genuine. They talk to me.”
Earlier this year, Maj. Gen. Steven Busby, the 3rd MAW commanding general, set a goal: to have all 18,000 aircraft wing Marines complete their suicide prevention training before the goal date set by the Marine Corps. As the ground training chief for the entire wing, the responsibility fell to Conger.
“When we started on that Thursday, we didn't have any unit that was more than 30% complete,” the Concord, Calif., native explained.
By the next week, Conger had trained or arranged the training of more than 100 Never Leave a Marine Behind suicide prevention instructors for 3rd MAW. He explained that now the entire aircraft wing is almost 100 percent complete. Completion of this annual training is not required until December.
Meeting and exceeding mission requirements is nothing new to Conger. However, in 2000, Conger was performing religious missionary work in Romania.
“I grew up doing it,” he explained. “The Marine Corps is the mission now.”
Older than his peers, Conger was in Romania when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 happened. He explained that he was hit hard not only by the events, but by his inability to help his fellow Americans.
After completing his mission work, Conger eventually enlisted in 2004 as a rescue swimmer.
“The most important lesson I learned as a missionary is to open my mouth. It is difficult to tell someone else how to live or correct someone, to get rejected a lot. A lot a lot,” Conger laughed.
Conger takes little credit for his role in training so many Marines in such a short time, and instead focuses on the need for such training.
“It's a huge issue to any human being who has ever lost a loved one to suicide. It's got to stop,” said Conger. “Why? What's going on in your life that's not being taken care of by leadership that you feel like you need to end your life?”
After returning from his last tour to Afghanistan, Conger found out a close friend of his had ended her own life while on deployment.
“I would have done anything to prevent it, and I would do anything with anyone else in the future to prevent that,” he said.
Having spent years dealing with the challenges of missionary work, training rescue swimmers and four deployments, Conger believes that leadership is a critical issue in the Marine Corps.
“Leadership isn't a born trait in people, it's something that is practiced and honed,” said Conger. “It's a skill that's made. Being a good mentor is being an engaged leader.”
Conger explained that committed and engaged leadership across the board could replace all suicide prevention, sexual assault prevention, equal opportunity and myriad training intended to engage Marines on specific topics.
“When you're engaged, you're going to [doing the right thing] every time,” he said, gesturing emphatically. “My first staff sergeant said to me that if you do the right thing every time you can't ever be wrong.”
The two younger Marines Conger had been counseling remain relaxed and open, laughing about inside jokes. At the end of their session, he shuffled them back inside to finish the work day.
“Know their needs, their values,” said Conger, whose rapport with his Marines speaks for itself. “Have a relationship with them professional enough that you can come to work and be engaged and outside of work you're still engaged with that Marine. It's 24/7.”
Conger’s question remains the same: if the Marine Corps had more committed and engaged leaders, how many tragedies could Marines prevent?