Rancho Santa Fe Major General Melvin G. Spiese: Turning the corner on America’s military


This column presents “Patriot Profiles” to provide readers insight into the lives of our country’s heroes.

Each time we face a new Middle East crisis, we can’t help but remember the sacrifices and challenges of past conflicts. It takes great minds to defeat unpredictable and dangerous enemies. It takes brilliant ideas and planning to turn ordinary civilians into extraordinary warriors. For a young ROTC graduate, who rose up in the Marine Corps, a quest for exceptional thinking led to strengthening our forces.

In the Iraq war, Al Anbar Province was an Al Qaeda terrorist pipeline and stronghold of operations. Maj. Gen. Melvin G. Spiese, a Rancho Santa Fe resident, states unequivocally, “The Marine Corps thought its way out of Al Anbar, not necessarily fought its way out of Anbar.” He adds, “A lot of this can map its way back to General Kelly and General Allen and the great work they were doing, but we worked [from the support side] to understand the problems we were facing out there.”

“Shooting bad guys was real important, but it was only one of many things that had to be done.”

“We expect our leaders at every rank and grade to come to solutions for challenges they face in their particular battle space and area,” offers Maj. Gen. Spiese, “We tend to not only encourage that, but exploit that. We leverage that.” The task in Al Anbar was: “We were told do not lose the war but, in fact, we turned the corner on the war in Al Anbar.”

“We build into our Marines expectation on one hand and empowerment on the other. This is completely in the character of an American Marine.”

Spiese was influenced by his father — a career soldier who fought in World War II and Korea and then worked as an Army ROTC Instructor in Chicago schools. Spiese grew up there and attended the University of Illinois in Champaign Urbana. He was a midshipman in a Naval ROTC unit with dreams of flying F-4 Phantoms as a Navy pilot.

“Immediately upon arrival, I saw who the Marines were. They were very distinct in their presence and bearing. They looked like what the military was supposed to be. I wanted to be like them.”

With a degree in civil engineering and a new commission, Spiese entered the Corps as an officer. He was inducted into what he coins as, “the business of being a Marine.”

“We train and educate throughout the career of our Marines. Each step provides something unique.” This would-be Commander says that at Basic School the problems were challenging. The time cycle in thinking is much shorter with greater cause and effect. Command and Staff College helped him with higher order planning skills and to understand more complex problems with greater span, control, and effects of decisions. His education at the School of Advanced Military Studies taught rigorous critical thinking and graduate-level problem solving, preparing him for the role of a General.

Winning at war is a thinking person’s game. Sun Tzu, an ancient Chinese general and military strategist, helped set the bar for modern battle strategies.

Warfare is the greatest affair of state, the basis of life and death, the way to survival or extinction. It must be thoroughly pondered and analyzed. “Sun Tzu – Art of War” by Ralph D. Sawyer.

In a string of multiple commands, Maj. Gen. Spiese has employed higher thinking. When he led 2nd Force Reconnaissance Company, Camp Lejeune, 1993, “We were the strike element for U.S. Atlantic Commander in Chief’s (CINC’s) In-Extremis Force. I didn’t believe we were sourcing detachments to the Marine Expeditionary Units as well as we needed to be. At 2nd Force, we restructured how we built and prepared platoons and who we sent to high-end schools. I started sending more junior Marines who we could get a couple of deployments out of.

“We did a lot of amazing things — shooting, jumping, and diving. The Marines had to be incredibly talented and proficient because of the nature of the business.”

When Spiese assumed command at The School of Infantry, 2001, General Jones was Commandant and had identified a problem with the performance of instructors. Spiese relates, “We were able to achieve special-duty assignment…the most significant thing that has happened to The School of Infantry since General Gray established it decades ago. We completely revamped every aspect of how we sourced, selected, and built our instructors. Now, we are getting unmatched quality in terms of instructors. We see the results of that in the performance of our Marines.

“It’s important to like Marines,” he says with a genuine smile. Years of spearheading transformation along the continuum of professional development has kept Spiese connected with who the Marines are and how they think. “What they are thinking is crucial for a senior officer removed from the battle space.

“Clearly, they’re the guys with the hammer and screwdriver trying to make everything fit. It’s really important to get from them how things are working — what’s successful – what adjustments they had to make and how this affects the initial expectation and vision laid out.

“Otherwise, you have this skewed filtered view of the world and will likely not make the best decisions.”

The edge of war cuts deep at times. In 2010, when Spiese arrived at I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF), Camp Pendleton, the Corps was wrestling with issues of suicide and extreme cases of PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder). The engineer in Spiese got caught up in an experimental program General Dunford had brought on board called Mindfulness Mind Fitness Training (MMFT), created by Elizabeth Stanley and Dr. Chris Johnson.

The physiology of MMFT intrigued Spiese, “It’s very focused exercises for the brain — exercising neural pathways and the body’s response to that as it manages the central nervous system. We could see improvement in Marine’s abilities to stay focused, have tension when doing dangerous, but potentially mundane tasks like walking patrol, or managing an adrenaline spike like an ambush or IED.” MMFT is about getting through the dominance of the fight or flight reactions and getting back the thinking brain more quickly.

“Stress and strain hits the whole force,” informs Spiese, “I have memories of working with Marines who were on the edge…”

Sgt. Muhesien R. Hassen, USMC, shares his experience: “I was diagnosed with PTSD, and I went for almost three years with just keeping everything bottled up inside,” Hassen said. “And finally, I just hit my threshold…With something like Mind Fitness, you can use it wherever and the biggest thing about it is, you have your Marines around you who have been through hell and high water. Those are the best people to talk to.”

By embracing viable solutions, Spiese has helped pull people back, “to successfully complete their enlistments and go on with life.”

For 38 years, Spiese embodied the resiliency and tenaciousness he taught his men. “The greatest adventures are those where you learn,” he says with palpable gratitude, appreciative to be a force of needed change in an iconic institution that keeps raising the bar set by shifting wars.

What Spiese leaves behind impacts his son, “MG,” who was a 2nd Lt. Platoon commander in the Now Zad District, Afghanistan, 2010. For a father and a commander, it’s a mix of pride and worry for now Captain “MG” Spiese and his Marines.

In March 2013, Major General Melvin G. Spiese retired with great fanfare, “I feel blessed beyond measure. I hope I’ve been able to provide back to the Marine Corps a return on its investment in me. It’s been an amazing privilege to have been allowed to be a Marine and one for as long as I have.”

He never used his civil engineering degree to build roads and bridges using asphalt, concrete, and steel. This indomitable patriot has been speaking his mind — building exceptional warriors. “His business” was about “who you were and now who you will be.”