MARINE CORPS BASE HAWAII -- “Hey, knuckle-snacks. You suck.”
Gunnery Sgt. Ezekiel Kitandwe leaned over my shoulder, scrutinizing the half-completed video project open on my laptop. It had been a long few days of shooting an air assault exercise, and I was finally sitting down to make sense of the hours of footage I have accumulated.
“What’s going on with your color grading? You call that matching action? Where is my continuity?” He leaned back, exhaling a puff of frustration onto the back of my head. “You’re work is garbage, bro,” he spat dismissively as he stalked back into his office.
“Aye- Aye, Gunnery Sergeant.” I smiled.
Observing both his methodology and his path through life, Ezekiel Kitandwe is anything but conventional. Born and raised in Uganda during the reign of the notorious military dictator Idi Amin, he was no stranger to hardship before joining the Marine Corps.
“I was the last-born of eight siblings, living in the capitol city of Uganda,” Kitandwe said. "In those days, we would always travel with our father. It wasn't for our safety; it was for his. They were less likely to make you disappear at a military checkpoint if you had young children with you."
Kitandwe and his family were members of the Muganda tribe, one of the many ethnic groups that were displaced and persecuted under Amin's reign.
"Kampala, the city I'm from, was, to put it simply, a warzone," Kitandwe told me flatly. "By age 8, I could tell what weapons were firing by sound. 'That's an AK, that's a PKM. That's far away, we're good, you better duck, that's flying right over your grape.'"
Kitandwe first saw the Marines in action in 1986, when Amin was overthrown and the simmering conflict was brought back to boil.
“Those Marines on Marine Security Guard at the American embassy, they were the cool kids,” Kitandwe said. "When I saw them empty out that embassy when everything was starting to pop off again, getting all those Americans out of there safely, I just thought to myself, 'These guys don't play.'"
At the behest of his father, Kitandwe immigrated to the United States in his early 20's to attend college on a basketball scholarship.
The disparity in cultures was immediately evident to Kitandwe, he said.
"Acclimatizing to American culture was definitely a process. People were worried about the strangest things. You have food, transportation, and a place to stay, and you're losing your mind over some little monthly bills?"
The reality of American life came with some other challenges, Kitandwe said.
"I couldn't figure out for the longest how to work those damn pay phones," Kitandwe said, laughing and shaking his head. "I put probably 20 dollars in quarters in the damn thing, and then I was still like 'Okay, so now what?"
Kitandwe spent the next four years working different jobs in the United States before finding a Marine Corps recruiter.
"I was tired of going nowhere," Kitandwe said. "I knew there had to be something more. I walked into the recruiter's office, and ten days later I was at Parris Island."
Trading the warzone he endured as a youth for that of his new nation, Kitandwe deployed to Afghanistan in 2013. While deployed with 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division, Kitandwe earned a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with Combat Valor. The citation describes how a then Staff Sgt. Kitandwe posted security and defended a compound from direct insurgent fire with only one Marine under his charge, accomplishing the role of an entire Marine Corps rifle squad.
“I don't like to talk about it,” Kitandwe said reluctantly. "I truly believe I was only doing my job as a Marine."
His decorated blues coat and record of valor is not what makes Kitandwe a great leader of Marines, however; it is manifest through his genuine investment in those under his charge.
“He stands out, not the first time you see him, maybe not the second, but once you have observed his actions, his emotions, his charge, it's incomparable in a lot of ways," said Alex Kouns, the platoon sergeant at Marine Corps Base Hawaii Communication Strategy and Operations. "It's something Marines greatly benefit from experiencing.”
Kitandwe exemplifies everything that is right with the doctrine of the Corps. He is tenaciously proficient, disciplined, and gives every fiber of his being to his ideals of the total Marine concept. Many leaders loudly preach the lofty standard that is expected of Marines, yet with Kitandwe, there is no need. He lives it, humbly, in plain view of his subordinates. His friendly, quiet strength commands more respect than any righteous belligerence ever could.
“He doesn’t manhandle you, if that makes any sense,” said Kouns. "At the same time, he’s still attentive, and takes care to promote creative thought, to guide, and to educate.”
It was 4:30 p.m. I had just received my monthly counseling as a lance corporal, and saw that my proficiency and conduct marks had each dropped a point. It wasn’t terribly significant, but I was livid. The justification read, “said-named Marine continues to advance himself both in MOS and general Marine proficiency, yet lacks motivation to work as a cohesive team member.”
As I sullenly packed away my things and bolted for the door, Kitandwe stopped me.
“Hey, Cool Kid,” he said quietly as his eyes pierced me.
“You good, bro?”
It was 7:00 p.m. We were in his office, and the light from the Hawaiian glass-slat windows had nearly failed.
I had spent the last couple of hours outlining my case against the unjust counseling, while evading the fact that I had in fact become withdrawn, moody, and distant. I tried to overshadow this with the deadliest of all weapons in Marine Corps logic: statistics. I was producing more products, faster than any of my peers, I argued.
I finished, and there was a silence. Kitandwe rolled a pen through his fingers aimlessly before piercing me again.
“What do you want?”
What did I want?
It was a simple question, but it wasn’t posed as one- he delivered it as more of a challenge. I tried to steer toward safer waters, and began listing things I’d like to see changed about my work flow, but he cut me off.
“Is that what will make you happy?” “You’re obviously unhappy. What do you want?”
I cursed inwardly. My route to the shallows had been cut. Kitandwe forced me into black, turbulent waters I’d been avoiding for months. It wasn’t a challenge from him, as I had previously thought, but a suggestion to challenge myself.
Without knowing why, I spilled.
I told him of a host of problems I had been struggling to bury. Sleeplessness. Constant frustration and anger- So much so, I worked myself into unconsciousness at the gym, waking to an officer dragging me off of the exercise bike.
And he listened.
I thought of my goals, what I would have to do to get there, and everything that had to change. He offered his insight on more than my development as a Marine, but my development as a human being.
Recently, Kitandwe received his promotion to master sergeant. With the rank, an assignment to a new duty station is imminent. Although my time serving beneath him is coming to an end, I will always be thankful for his mentorship, imbued with quiet wisdom and a healthy dose of playful mockery- and I’m sure the next Marines he leads will be, too.