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In this episode, Brian Beckcom speaks with retired Marine Corps Captain John Warren about his combat experience in Afghanistan. Brian and Captain Warren also discuss the leadership principles John learned during his time as the Deputy Director of the Infantry Officer School, where he prepared incoming Marine Officers for combat assignments in war zones. 

Captain John Warren served as the “Tip of the Spear” with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, leading combat operations in Southern Afghanistan immediately after September 11th; his Marine company was one of the first sets of boots on the ground following the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Captain Warren then returned to Quantico to serve as the Deputy Director of the infantry officer school, teaching Marines how to overcome hardships, conquer tough challenges, and thrive in the face of adversity.

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In this episode, Brian and John discuss:

Captain John Francis Warren was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas. Following graduation from the University of Texas A&M, John was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the USMC. He became an infantry officer and served with the 15th Marine expeditionary unit, leading combat operations in Southern Afghanistan immediately after 9/11. Later, John was selected as 1 of 12 instructors at the infantry officer course to become the Deputy Director, a role where he essentially taught incoming Marines how to be Marines. After serving for nine years, John resigned his commission to work in the commercial construction industry, where he’s led over $1.3 billion in major construction projects. John is currently the HJD Capital president, a commercial construction company in San Antonio, where he lives with his wife, boys, and three dogs. 

Read the transcript:

Brian Beckcom: Hey everybody. Brian Beckcom. And I have got one of my best friends, John Warren. John, how the heck you doing, man? 

John Warren: Doing fantastic, Brian. How about yourself? 

Brian Beckcom: I'm doing good. We were talking right before the podcast and I said I was scoping out your LinkedIn profile, and I was like, “Man, John and I. We're both getting a little bit older.” I hadn't seen you in a while. You got some gray hair, I got some gray on my chin when I grow a beard. But you look good, man. You look real good.

John Warren: Likewise, thank you. The beard is really the giveaway. Like, now if I give it three days’ worth of growth, it's like 90% gray. That, and then the thinning of the head. I'm glad I'm 6’3”, because not many people can see down on my bald head, but it is – every year I go through about, I don't know, three or four times contemplating just shaving it. Like, it would be so much easier, but I'm such an ugly bastard with the shaved head. 

Brian Beckcom: And I've seen you with a shaved head. And me, too. I'm not too much better because my head is so big that when you shave off all the hair, it makes it look about twice as big as it really is. 

John Warren: I’ve got, like, this pterodactyl, like, ridgeline going over my head. It's just -- at OCS, everyone would see me the first day before we get our, you know, scalped. And then we come out of the barbershop and all the Marine candidates would be like, “You are one ugly motherfucker. My God.” “Yeah. Yeah. I need my hair.” Anyway. 

Brian Beckcom: Yeah, John. So, it's good to see you, man. And we've known each other forever. Like I said, I consider you to be one of my best friends. And so, let me ask you before we kind of – 

John Warren: And that’s mutual, by the way.

Brian Beckcom: Well, thank you for saying that. John, this is a leadership podcast and, like, I can't really think of that many people that I know that exude leadership more than you do. You were a captain of the United States Marine Corps – a combat officer in the United States Marine Corps. You’ve basically been in leadership positions since we met. Since I've known you, you've been in some sort of leadership position.

As a matter of fact, and I want to talk about this a little bit, not only were you a combat officer in the United States Marine Corps, but you were an instructor and the deputy director at the basic school and the infantry officer school, which is a big deal. And so, I want to talk about a lot of the leadership principles that you've learned, that you've implemented when you've led men and women.

But before we do that, John, you got two boys. You're married. How you guys doing during these difficult times?

John Warren: Married. Oh, we're doing wonderful. And you know, listening to Coach Slocum, to your podcast with him, you asked him what, you know, what can we do? What do we do here during these times? And he said, “Just be part of the solution.” There's no better advice than that. But sometimes, finding that solution right now, there isn't one we can do. So, you have to just make the best of what you're given.

And I think I've heard, and I hear a lot of people say, but immediately when just the lockdown happened and we're all kind of reeling in this reality of what is going on, we gravitated as a family, like, “Let's take advantage of this. Let's relish the time that we wake up together?” We have breakfast together, we'd have lunch together. We’re all home now, you know, shooting the day, start to end. Even though we were on video chat throughout the days, everybody would start to shut down at 5:00 or 5:30 versus 7:00 or 7:30. So, it was a blessing, in my opinion.

I know that everybody's been impacted, but it has slowed down life that we kind of lost control of. And Carrie works as well. She's just like us. And so, I hate to see the kids have to go through the virtual school. But goodness, for us, it has just slowed down life to the way it should be and has made it much fuller and richer.

And, to be honest, both Carrie and I – I know Carrie doesn't want to go back full-time in the office. And I don't think it's necessary. We're both equally productive, you know, even the construction world, we're still pitching jobs and winning work. The guys on site don't have that luxury. They need to be down there and that's changed things, but yeah.

The boys, they're doing great, but they both hate virtual school. It drags. You know, Jack's a senior now here in San Antonio and he has a hard time learning statistics from the video chat. So, otherwise – and then the key ingredient for us is, I showed you the dogs earlier. We have three golden retrievers, and the long one close to me, he arrived, like, March the 15th. So, right at the beginning of the mess. So, it was perfect.

And, you know, having dogs, they require all your time. When you're both gone, it’s hard. So, that's been a totally fun element of, you know, the last – call it, what is it? Five months now? Six months?

Brian Beckcom: Yeah, well, that's great to hear John. You know, my experience was pretty similar. We took quarantine very, very seriously early on. And so, we were, you know, I might go out of the house one time to grab some food or something like that. But we were in the house for the most part for, man, it seems like a month or two. And it was tough, but it was also – and I've talked to a number of my guests about this. Just like you said, it was also a really good chance to kind of get closer. I've got three kids. Kind of get closer with the kids and the wife and we spent a lot of time together. 

And one thing, John, I'll say is, you know, I’ve noticed, and I don't know if you've had the same experience, but the kids seem to be as or more resilient about this situation than the parents in many ways. I mean, they bitch and moan about remote school. My kids are the same way. They're back in school regularly now. There's actually a remote option at my school, but they didn't want to take it. They wanted to get back to school and I don't blame them. But I was so proud of them during the pandemic. I think, frankly, you know, there were times when they were handling it better than I was and better than my wife was. So, what do you think about that? It seems like kids are just a little bit more resilient about some of these things.

John Warren: There's no question. I mean, what do my kids do if there's not some planned activity? They're definitely not like we were as kids and you had to get outside and go do something or make a fort or, you know, play guns. They all gravitate to their own rooms with their own machines or their own whatevers. And they have been fine.

I think that the biggest, I guess, impact to us – Grayson, who I didn't mention, he's 13. He's an actor and all acting stuff is just stopped. In fact, it's just now starting back up right now in the last week with auditions and stuff. But Jack's a swimmer. A competitive swimmer. And he's trying to get a scholarship or get an appointment to the Naval Academy and there’s been no organized swimming, for whatever reason, much like a lot of the other organized sports. They've just kind of stumbled, you know, “What are we doing? How do we handle this?”

And that – I feel for any of the high school athletes that are, you know, they've all tripped up trying to figure out how do we approach this and handle this correctly. And there's no easy solution other than just, you need to do it and we'll figure it out. 

Brian Beckcom: I've been to two basketball tournaments over the last two weekends, cause my son's a junior in high school and he's playing basketball and, you know, so far, so good. Knock on wood. I will tell you that every single a fan in the stadium is wearing a mask. And, like, the tournament that we were at this past weekend, you would go in the gym, but then the teams would have to leave out the back and the participants and the fans. Because they didn't want people to, like, intermingle with the other team.

So, you know, one of the things that I've been telling people during this pandemic, and I cannot get this out of my mind, John, is I think about the bombing of London during World War II, when the Nazis were just bombing the shit out of London every night during the day. And they didn't just stop everything. I mean, they had to take appropriate precautions, but they did what they could to go on about their business.

So, there's been kind of a common theme in the podcast where we talk about kind of a can-do attitude instead of a can’t-do attitude. For example, I talked to General Ramirez last week. Great, great conversation about leadership. And when they essentially shut down A&M, they also shut down the Corps in March, right? And so, General Ramirez, he said, you know, “Our attitude was, ‘Okay, we know what we can't do. Now tell us – let's figure out what we can do.’” And so this can-do attitude, you know, trying to go back to school, trying to get sports going, trying to do these things, I think, is a much better approach than just kind of throwing up your hands and saying, “We just gotta – we can't do anything.” So, what are your thoughts on that, John? 

John Warren: Well, similar, I guess, in spirit of can-do versus can’t do is – and this is, like, a Marine principle and not a formal principle, but it's what we taught. And that is being internal versus external. And an internal leader, you know, they're worried about themselves. They're worried about the problems and the challenges and what the bad stuff that's out there versus remaining external and taking care of those that are under your charge in terms of just looking down the road and understanding that, you know, finding a pathway for them. But, the internal-external thing, that is something that has stuck with me, regardless of whatever challenge or situation you're in. That is one to live by.

Internal vs. External Leadership

Brian Beckcom: So, explain that a little bit more. I like the sounds of that. Explain that a little – the internal versus the external leadership.

 John Warren: Well, an internal person, a lot of times, at least as officers, it was – that's who, really, this was taught to the most. Cause you'll have Marines that aren’t trained. They have not experienced what you've experienced, or they're not prepared to, you know, I guess experience the challenges or what's scary or not, and they'll clam up. They'll button up. And they're no longer influencing anything.

As a leader or as an officer, you have to overcome those things and give your Marines or your employees whatever is needed so they can be the most successful in that situation. The same thing applies with your wife. The same thing applies with your kids. The same thing applies with my employees.

So, as an example of the corporate world and how this applies with COVID, instead of, you know, me camping out in the home and just taking care of the family, my employees needed the reassurance that we're going to be okay and that the market will survive. And in checking on their families and just still interacting with them, almost overemphasizing your interaction with them just to give them the reassurance that everything's going to be okay and that business will ultimately continue as usual. And if it doesn't continue as usual, we're going to find a way around this and through this. We're still going to be successful. And we’re going to do it together. That's probably the best real-world example of being external.

Brian Beckcom: I love that example, John. So, I've run a business for about 16 years now. And when the quarantine hit, I knew it was going to be a bumpy ride for us because all the court systems and the jury trials and all that stuff was going to be, I mean, how do you have a court hearing in the middle of a pandemic? How do you take a deposition? So on and so forth. So, we knew it was going to be a little bit of a bumpy ride.

And we decided, my partner and I both decided, our first priority was going to be taking care of our people. Everybody else was going to come second. The building, the vendors, all this stuff. Our number one priority was going to be getting through this with our employees. And so far, so good. I mean, you know, I’ve often thought, John, that if you take care of your people, they're going to take care of you. And that's probably something you learned more than most in the United States Marine Corps.

So, John, a lot of people that are going to be listening to this podcast will know who you are, but a lot of people won't. So, before we get into your experience, in particular in the Marine Corps, who is John Warren? Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where you're from, a little bit about your background, how you ended up in the Marine Corps, things like that. 

John Warren: All right. I'll try to be brief. And I think, most importantly, I come from a very nuclear family. You know, married mother and father, which is critical. But the family originated from Alsace-Lorraine. So, like, mid-1800s, immigrated to this, you know, the Castro Colonies were Alsatian. So, Castroville, Quihi, Texas to Ennis, Texas. So, was raised in a very farming, ranching, outdoor environment.

That’s still who I am, and that's who my entire family is. In fact, we were raised, you take care of your family, you earn a living, and you take care of the land. And also very, you know, all veterans. My grandfather was a World War II veteran, class of 45 at A&M. Letterman in football and in baseball, but left when he was 16 years old as a sophomore. No, he was 17. He started at A&M leaving to Ennis, taking the trains back and forth. He was ultimately made a second lieutenant, you know, middle of A&M. Was in Germany and ultimately came home, finished his education, and graduated, much like many of that, you know, that era. The ‘44, ‘45, ‘46-year grads.

My father, he came from Bethesda, Maryland. So, you know, call it the Mid-Atlantic area. Again, all Catholics. He found his way into the Marine Corps. He was a second lieutenant combat engineer. My father-in-law was a two-star admiral Naval Academy guy. This is Carrie's father. A fighter pilot. Ultimately, you know, commanded the constellation, the midway. And he retired kind of in that tail hook Bill Clinton era.

So, the military is definitely, along with farming, ranching, and the outdoors, is part of just who we are. Born and raised in San Antonio. Obviously went to A&M along with you, ‘92 to the 90s – we were class of ‘96, graduated in ‘97.

Same, you know, father was in construction. Built swimming pools. And that's where I gravitated to. I thought I wanted to be an anesthesiologist because all the doctors I knew were rich and had cool guns and cool cars and stuff like that. And I did enjoy biology and life sciences-type stuff. But once inorganic, you know, organic chemistry hit while I was a sophomore in the Corps at A&M, I mean, it was a little much. So, ultimately transferred to the construction department. Loved every second of it with Toby.

But I knew I was going to be a Marine officer from the time I was a little boy, that that’s what I was going to do. So, ultimately, those things fell into place. Graduated and just went through the full Marine Corps pipeline and all the different OCSs and TBS-type stuff. Ended up in infantry, which is the goal, which is super competitive. It's nerve-racking to even think about just, you know, trying to earn your destiny.

Ended up in California, loved it, and Camp Pendleton was my first Marines rifle platoon commander, a deployment, and then an 81-millimeter mortar platoon commander ended in deployment which led us into September 11th and Afghanistan. Then back to Quantico, where I was an instructor at the basic school for a short period, and then moved across the street to what we used to call “the man school.”

The infantry officer course which is a bad-ass job. About 12 infantry captains, just pressing – we're pushing the envelope as hard as we can to create the coolest, best training to prepare the lieutenants, and your hours are super irregular. There is no set time and place to be like, you know, 7:00 AM to 6:00 at night. You could not work all day because you're going to work all night, train lieutenants during some operations. Just all great guys. And it was, you know, it's super rewarding and fulfilling to take a young untrained lieutenant and in a short period of time, 10 or 11 weeks, get them ready to go take over and be the platoon commander and in that period of time, they're going to combat.

So about, I don't know, I think I was nine years in. Tough, tough decision to resign. And I knew what I, you know, I knew where I needed to be. It was kind of part of the long-term plan of let's go in the Marine Corps for awhile and get experience, grow up, and then make a career in construction and development, which I resigned on August the fifth of oh-five at Quantico, and I literally took off the cammies and put on the hard hat for Clark Construction where we were doing the base housing at Quantico.

So, it was hard to leave the Marine Corps. But to then know that my job was still taking care of Marines, building their homes, which were desperately needed. This was for that whole – 

Brian Beckcom: Badass. That's badass.

John Warren: Yeah, it was cool. It was cool. As hard as things were, that was the silver lining. So, that was like a $250 million job. Didn't know a thing about construction. Even though it was my degree, none of it was applicable. So just, you know, they threw you into the deep end and gave you the swim test and just figured it out and then went up the road to Fort Belvoir and did the same thing.

So, I started out as an assistant superintendent – they really didn't know is this guy going to survive or not – and figured out. Finally became a project executive. Went to Fort Belvoir. That was, like, a $350 million job. And this is now five or six years in and just beaten up and down I-95. We were 23 miles from the project to the house. Sometimes it would take three hours to get home. So, it was just really hard. Carrie, about that time, she was promoted to vice president back in California. Same stomping ground where we lived when we were in the Marines. And she said, “Hey, I got offered a VP with, you know, this day [18:20].” And I said, “Babe, you go do that, okay? I'll resign and I will button up the house, get it sold, take care of the kids. And we'll meet you out there.”

So, she went out and found a house, and I took it from there basically. And I remember Jack was, like, in the second grade and I had to show him, right, we had to go meet his teacher that night. And I print out a bunch of pictures at the office of just all the coolest things in California. Waves, surfing, the skiing in the snow, Disneyland. Literally we're driving to his school and I hand him the package of pictures and I said, “What do you think about that, Jack?” He's like, “Cool. Oh, wow. Is that snow?” And he's like, “When can we go?” And I think, “Well, tomorrow, if you want to.” And he said, “Yes, let's go.” I said, “Well, so, we're not going to go meet your teacher, either, okay?” And he's like, “No, that's okay. I want to go there.”

I'm not embellishing at all. Packed up the house, and flew down in San Antonio, then out to California. It was – and they loved it. So, a short story that's now much longer than I intended, but lived in California with Clark for, like, eight years. Lived at the beach. We were beach bums. We were totally cool with just sitting on the beach watching waves and that's it. And when it's right there, it’s kinda just what you do. Our life was about the beach and surfing and fishing. Our house, all tile floors covered in sand, there's sand everywhere and you just get used to it. There's an outdoor shower. You come in, you rinse off. There's wetsuits everywhere. There's always kids running around our house with surfboards and wetsuits. It was just – that's the lifestyle and it’s pretty cool.

But at the same time, the love for Texas and my family and my friends here never left, never subsided. We were always trying to figure out how to get back. And it was one day, Carrie said – we were actually here for Christmas like we were every year. And Christmas had occurred. We'd shipped all the boxes down to San Antonio, so Santa would show up at mom and dad's house here, and then New Year's we'd pack everything back up that we just shipped here and then ship at all the way back to California.

So, it’s New Year's Day, I'm in the garage. I'm starting to get everything together, which is a pain in the ass. And Carrie walks out in tears and she says, “I can't do this again. We've got to be here.” And I said, “Are you serious?” She said, “I am.” I said, “Let's do it. I can't leave my project.” I was running the Long Beach Civic Center at the time, which is a $400 million job. Great team, great job. And I wasn't just going to up and roll on that. That was a great opportunity.

So, I commuted for about two or three months, which, I will tell you, to go home to your empty house without your dogs, without your kids, is the closest thing to divorce I've ever experienced and I will – it was awful. It was awful. And out of the blue – and I'm almost done – out of the blue, I get a phone call from my president, and he says, “Hey, we won some bank job in San Antonio. I think it's about a 100, 150 million. I heard what's going on and you're commuting and your wife's in San Antonio, but we'd like you to come back to San Antonio and build that project and take over the state for Clark.” It was one of those things where it's like, “Did I just hear what I think I heard?”

I hung up the phone and I called my best friend and said, “Who's got a big $150 million bank in San Antonio?” And he Googled it and then he sent me a picture of the Frost Tower in San Antonio which, you know, it's a Pelli Clarke Pelli design, it’s this big twisting glass high rise that towers over the entire San Antonio skyline. Not the tallest, but it's just unique.

So, it was a pinch me moment, Brian. Serendipitous is probably the best word, because at that point, you know, Clark handled everything. The move. I mean, it was all taken care of, where I was facing all these challenges. How do we figure all this out and survive, you know, a marriage and kids and not mess this up? So, that's really where we've been the last four or five years here. Lived with my mother for a while. I mean, it was just – it brought, just, it all back to how things started in San Antonio. Ultimately, you know, we found a home and continue to chase work and try to grow this business unit. 

Brian Beckcom: Hey, do me a favor and tell your mom I said hi. Is she doing okay? 

John Warren: She's doing great. She asked me the other day, you know, you all know it's probably been five – it's now six years, almost six years since my father passed away. But she's doing great. But she would say, “I just don't know what my purpose is.” Cause she's spent an entire life taking care of – raising kids and making a family what it is and your role in life is still to take care of the collective family – Blake's family, my family, and make sure that all the kids are raised in the environment just like we were raised. Keep moms and dads in check and make sure we're keeping the spirit.

Brian Beckcom: Cause you're the matriarch. She's the matriarch of the family, right? 

John Warren: Nope, she almost is the matriarch. And that’s funny. My grandmother, she – we finally put her in a home in January against her will, but she just continued to fall and fall. It was like, goodness, we got to do something. And then as COVID hit, they put those people on lockdown. Like, they cannot leave the room for, like, 28 days. Like, not leave your room. So, she's going crazy.

So, finally there was a window of opportunity that my mom could break her out and she did. And so, my grandmother is living large with my mother, getting taken care of well. So, it's all – and, mind you, I live three blocks away. I'm just down the street from where I grew up. So, it’s too funny. And I love it. I never thought I would be this happy in San Antonio, right where I grew up, having lived on the beach in Dana Point. You know, I wouldn't have it another way right now. 

Brian Beckcom: Man, I love to hear that and I've always loved your mom. So, please tell her I said hi, and I'm glad to hear she's doing well.

Family Military History, the Corps of Cadets, and Joining the Marines

Brian Beckcom: So, John, let's rewind a little bit because I want to hear from you. So, I was going to ask, you know, I knew your dad was a Marine. I did not know your father-in-law was an admiral. Did not know your grandfather was a letterman and a Marine – was he a Marine, too? Your grandfather?

John Warren: No, Army. He was army.

Brian Beckcom: Army. So, you and I come from kind of a similar upbringing. My dad and granddad were both Air Force officers. My uncle was a chief master sergeant. My mom was a nurse, blah, blah, blah. I grew up in a military family. I did not end up going the military route. Four years in the Corps of Cadets was plenty for me. But I was gonna ask you, like, when was it that you first decided, “Look, John Warren is going to be a Marine Corps officer.” Like, how old were you and what was it exactly that drove you to that profession?

John Warren: I don't think I knew at the time, obviously. I was really young. In fact, I had on the – my mother's since taken them down, but since I was probably four or five, I had the old school Marine Corps bumper stickers. Like, if you remember, it was a green camouflage sticker and yellow writing. It just said “Marines.” There was another one that's just – it was just the scarlet red with white letters that said, “We're looking for a few good men.” Those were on my window since, I mean, my entire childhood and probably just out of love and respect for my father. Like any kid, you know, I wanted to be just like him.

But he would tell me, he said, “I remember when I was a young Lieutenant. And I would look in the mirror and I couldn't think of being a better person or a better line of work. I couldn't be more proud of who I was. There's just – you're unstoppable. There's nothing that you need. The Marine Corps is giving you everything that you need to be successful.” And that was a pretty young age. And that probably was enough for me.

But also, and what I didn't know, and this kind of ties in a few questions that you mentioned earlier about, you know, becoming and getting in a leadership role. I went through high school and I was a really normal kid. I wasn't a natural athlete. I, developed late. There, you know, sports, we did it, but I was never the star player in it. I really wasn't involved in student council.

The fact of the matter is there wasn't any leadership roles or challenging things that I did in high school. So, there was this potential, there was this thing down inside that existed that I didn't know was there. I wanted to be like my father. You know, I enjoy doing hard and challenging things, but it wasn't until the Corps of Cadets and all of a sudden, all the piss heads yelling at you. And then there was the Fish Drill Team tryout day. That's all holy hell breaks loose. And it got me going, man. Like, it tapped a nerve. Like, I like this. I like this a lot. And those guys that are yelling at me, Matt Good, Jake Banks, Jim Welsh, you know the crew. I thought they were really badass.

Brian Beckcom: I did, too. When I saw those guys, I was like “That's who I want to be like. Those guys are kickass. Like, I want to be like those guys.” 

John Warren: That’s exactly what it was. And it was their influence, and not all of them were good, and I probably don't want to tell those stories here, but not all of the influence was good because we were pretty crazy. But it was overcoming those challenges that I didn't know that I had – I didn't know I had the ability to do that, do some really hard things and just mentally get through it that all of a sudden, it all really started to add up, specific to the Marine Corps, that this was the right job for me.

And I hate to ever call it job. It never felt like a job, but it was the next, you know, right step for me. But the influence of just the examples that were set, that was the first mark on me after my parents or any other teachers. They're never – a coach never influenced me. It was those piss heads out on the drill team that were the first men that shaped my leadership style.

And a lot of things were happening at the same time, you know, physically maturing, mentally maturing. And then you’re faced with all these different challenges, and it was guys like that that, you know, you then move on from role model to role model to role model and that’s how, at least for me, that's how my leadership has been developed. And I think that continues. We all –  

Brian Beckcom: It’s interesting, John, from my perspective, and one of the cool things about interviewing all the people that I've interviewed – I've interviewed some super cool people – is you start to see patterns emerge. And one of the patterns that's been interesting to me is, you know, there've been a couple people on my podcast that have expressed some self-doubt, like, particularly when they started off in their career, their profession, that you would, looking from the outside, you would never think that this particular person would have had any self-doubt. They just appeared confident.

And John, from my perspective, when I first met you, I mean, I'm like, there are certain people and I'm sure you've experienced, like, when you first met Matty, you knew that he was going to be a badass Marine. You just knew it. I mean, it was literally like God, like, reached into the dictionary for the definition of a great Marine Corps officer and pulled out Matt Good.

But for me, it was the same way with you. I mean, you’re 6’3”. When you were in college, you were a big – I mean, you were lean, but man, you were a big, strong dude. You look like a Marine. And so, it's interesting to hear you say that you had some doubts, you didn't really know much about leadership, you were a little bit unsure about some things.

And then you show up and you’re put to some challenges. And by the way, for people that don't know, back in the day, the basic idea behind the Fish Drill Team was to run everybody off. Like, just, everybody gets run off. And I think back when we were there, they'd start with, you know, two, 300 kids and be like, 20, 30 left when it was all said and done.

John Warren: I think we had 36 at the end of the day second semester. And I was likely going to be one of those that was attrited. And I’ll share this brief story if I can, just for the young listeners and overcoming challenges but you don't think you can do it. That was my coming out, I guess, period, or moment, you know, it was all over – the entire first semester. So, as you said, we ran everywhere. And not only do this run everywhere, we ran in old leather combat boots, the black Cadillacs, and to make matters worse, we put these big old horseshoe taps on our heels. Just absolutely awful for your body.

Brian Beckcom: Terrible. Yeah. 

John Warren: And whether it was overuse syndrome or I don't recall what the reason was for it, but I had really, really bad shin splints. Like, they didn't know who I was. I was the poke that couldn't run really for a long period of time until finally my doctor – I ultimately ended up with a stress fracture. I remember the night, we were running down the quad, we were playing Texas Tech, and I finally just collapsed. And it just pushed them. At every practice I was in tears getting to and from. I ended up having to walk, absolutely embarrassed. This is not who I was. You know, Matt – none of those guys knew who I was just because I was the bird that was hurt.

So, ultimately ended up in a cast up to my hip and was basically confined in my hole for the entire first semester. And all I did was just, I kept my rifle. They didn't even know I was gone. All my buddies, you know, Daniel Crusack [32:50], the guys, they were going out to practice and they'd come back, tell me the horror stories, and I just sat in my monster and I just drilled and I drilled and I drilled and I drilled. Finally, in the first semester, I squeaked by with a 2.2, and then started to get myself back in shape over the break, running around my neighborhood. My neighbors still laugh at me and see me run around in combat boots with a freaking 2383 [33:15] poured over my head.

And I showed back up for hell week and I started drilling and they're like, “Who the hell is this? Who the hell is this? Who are you?” I didn't know if they we're going to let me stay because I hadn't been on the team. I hadn't been officially kicked off or anything, but I just, you know, showed back up. But for whatever reason, and I didn't – that's not who I was. I didn't know I could do that. And for any young listeners, like, these challenges that just seem like they're impossible to overcome, they're absolutely critical in your growth and in your confidence that you can overcome damn near anything.

At that point in time, they finally got to know who I was and started to get good at what we were doing. It didn’t matter if we were drilling or not. We could've been playing football, basketball, baseball, it doesn't matter, but it was just overcoming that thing and practicing it and being determined that that moment more than any has probably shaped – that gave me the confidence to get through at least my fish year. And then every year after that, there's another set of challenges and goals that you have, that you set your sights on. They need to be challenging and you have to push yourself to get to that thing and every year it seemed like it landed and it hit whatever those goals were.

And I always thought I was lucky, Brian. I always thought I was lucky. And then you finally, after about eight years of, you know, what things have fallen into place and you look back and you realize it’s not luck and it's not that complex of a recipe. There's no magic going on. It's not natural. I mean, it’s just you set your goals. You work hard at it. And you overcome all those obstacles that come in your way. And you're going to get to those goals and you're going to be better for it once you do it.

I mean, I couldn't – that's the message I give to my kids. And sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But, for the most part, you know, Jack was the same way with swimming. So, I guess I would say is look for those opportunities. Look for those challenges that you can't think you can do, and you do it. Carl Baggin [35:31] used to say – go ahead.

Brian Beckcom: Yeah, no, John, I was going say, and I could not agree with you more, and I'll tell you one thing that I realized probably late 2019 or so was, you know, I’ve been successful financially, I've got a good family, I've got a nice house, all that sort of thing. And so, I was getting a little complacent, frankly, and I was like, “Man, I'm getting soft. I'm turning into a little bit of wimp. I need to push myself,” because, like you say, if you just sit around and drink beer and, you know, dip Copenhagen and watch TV and get fat, don't push yourself in any way, you tend to get kind of unhappy. I mean, I was a little bit unhappy. I wasn't putting any pressure on myself.

So, this year I decided, and by the way, I decided this in late December. I was actually looking at my journal this morning cause I wanted to see how things had changed between December 2019 and March of 2020, and to say it was dramatic is an understatement. But, you know, I was like, “I need to figure out some things to do to push me.” So, as a 47-year-old man, I walked into a Jujitsu studio by myself. I felt like a complete idiot when I first walked in. The first couple of times I'm in there, I'm just getting my ass kicked by guys that I outweigh by 50 pounds and that aren't athletic and it was tough. But I'll tell you, every time I walked out of a Jujitsu class, I just had this giant smile on my face. I was like, “Yes!” And, like, I just got back, you know, we had, we – 

John Warren: Got a testosterone hard-on or something. 

Brian Beckcom: For sure. And you’re just like, you just feel like this soreness. Like, so I got back into it cause we had to stop, of course, during the quarantine and we just now got to where we could kind of go back and do some real rolling and some sparring and stuff with appropriate precautions in place. But man, I was like, I come out of there. I'm so sore, but it's a good sore. It's like an accomplishment sore. You know what I mean?

John Warren: I don't know if that applies to going to Jujitsu, but it always seems like those accomplishments, those challenges or obstacles, I always have the most anxiety and am nervous going into it for the fear of failure. And when I overcome that fear of failure or I’m like, you know, even if we used to box at IOC and I was always nervous. Every time. And I could fight, you know, I can hold my own at least. But a young lieutenant can always slip one in on you and just beat the shit out of you. Which never happened, thankfully.

Once you get through it – and even presentations, there's that feeling of accomplishment. It always starts with the jitters or anxiety. When I don't have that with an accomplishment, it's not like it’s – it wasn't that much. It wasn't that – growth did not occur, I don't think 

Brian Beckcom: I still get nervous before every trial. I get really nervous. I’m a little bit sweaty and clammy and anxious. When I first started trying cases, I had an Air Force jet pilot who flew in Vietnam telling me his very first jury trial, he went into the bathroom right beforehand and threw up twice, he was so nervous. And I was like, “What? I mean, you fly in combat missions in Vietnam where your life’s at risk, and you're nervous about this?” And he, “Oh yeah, man, just as nervous.”

And I still get nervous even today after 20 plus years of doing it. And you know, part of that, John, I think, is because I care. Because I want the result to be good. But the other part is it’s, you know, I’ve heard it said that fear or anxiety is just the flipside of excitement. So, one thing I've heard is, like, if you’re nervous about something, whether it be a presentation or you're going in to roll with a black belt or something like that, is reframe in your mind that nervousness into excitement. Like, those feelings you're having are identical, essentially. The feelings of anxiety are the same identical feelings you have when you're excited about something, when you're anticipating something.

And so, I don't know if that makes any sense to you, John, but let me ask you, because there’s – I want to get to your time as an instructor of Marine Corps officers, because to me, in my mind, I was thinking about that this morning. So, we've got in my Jujitsu studio, we've got, like, the head dude, the professor, the Brazilian guy with a black belt with a red stripe, right? But there's a bunch of other black belts in the gym and you go in there and you see those black belts in there and they're just kicking everybody's butt. Then when the professor walks in, everybody kind of stops what they're doing. Everybody shows him respect. Cause everybody knows that he is the king of that gym. And so, you’re kinda like the black belt with the red tip when you're a Marine Corps captain instructing other lieutenants. 

Combat Experience

Brian Beckcom: But let's talk about, John, because you and I, we've had some conversations about this through the years, but not many. And I'm really interested to know about your experience in combat, and in particular, I want to tell you what it was like from my perspective, and then, like, what I was seeing you do. And then you tell it from your perspective.

So, the way I remember it, John, was you – I think you were – you were on a ship somewhere in the Pacific at the time when 9/11 happened?

John Warren: Yeah. I'll walk you through it real quick and get to the IOC part quickly, but it was the 15th US Pelham [40:56]. Married in July. You were there. And then we left San Diego mid-August. A couple of weeks later, you know, September the 8th of 2001, we're in Australia training. Get off the – or, get everything back onto the ship. We had a night of liberty, you know, we're acting like Marines, having a good time out in town.

We're in Darwin, Australia, trying to make the most of it. And we were all on a big old phone bank of phones talking to our wives and fiancés and mothers and whatnot. And that's right when the planes hit the towers. I was talking to Carrie as all my other roommates were talking to their wives and they all – it all happened and erupted at the exact same time. So, you can imagine this little cow town, you know, it was a scene out of a movie. Everybody's getting rides back to the ship, hanging out of trucks and 10 people squeezed into cabs to get back to the ship. You know, war talk. And fast forward, we ended up in the Arabian Sea – 

Brian Beckcom: Not to interrupt you, but there was a time, I remember, where you used to be able to email some of your friends from the ship. And then all of a sudden, none of us heard from you for months. You just went completely silent for months.

John Warren: Yup. They shut down email. And when I could email, it was kind of like, just watch CNN or watch Fox News and send me as much Copenhagen and instant coffee that you can fit in a package. Which is the truth. Which, interestingly enough, I think it was, if we get into November. So, about Thanksgiving, we were in Jacobabad, Pakistan. And some people –  

Brian Beckcom: How did you get – so, you go from Australia to, you said the Arabian –  

John Warren: So, we’re an amphibious-ready group. So, it’s a big Marine kind of helicopter carrier, and a couple of other support ships. One that holds the Amtraks and one of the little small black boats. And the carrier holds all the helicopters and the Harriers. And I was always in a helicopter company. So, that's how we would get to wherever we needed to go. So, if some people – 

Brian Beckcom: When did you know, John, when did you know, “I'm going to war?” When did you first – when did that realization first, like, “I am going into combat.” 

John Warren: We all thought we were going – as soon as the planes hit the towers, we knew that we were the lucky guys at the right place at the right time. That we were there – our purpose in life was to do exactly what we did. We were the most forward deployed, ready unit of any service that could, that, you know, that's conventional that could influence the situation. 

Brian Beckcom: Your unit was truly the tip of the spear when it came to the Afghan War. I mean, your unit was there before pretty much anybody, correct? 

John Warren: We prepared Southern Afghanistan for all follow-on forces to come through. Mind you, I’m talking about conventional. So, this is – we had force reconnaissance. We had, you know, I guess what we called battalion reconnaissance. We were all special operations capable, but there was the CIA that was there. And there were other Delta-type operators, and there were SEALs that were there before us, in essence preparing what’s called a Ford operating base. A FOB.

This was called FOB Rhino. A little desert airstrip in the middle of Southern Afghanistan, about an hour south of Kandahar. And our mission was really to set up a blocking position, because the coalition forces were pushing the Taliban and the Al Qaeda south through Afghanistan and we were this blocking position to the south so that nothing could move south down through Afghanistan.

So, ultimately, we took over Kandahar as well, which I think Will Hurd mentioned the other day. It was all part of that same operation early on. So we, you know, it was Thanksgiving Day or day before Thanksgiving and we left Pakistan and we inserted into FOB Rhino, like, at 2:00 AM and it's all holy hell's going on. There's just rotor going everywhere. There's planes landing, there’s helicopters landing. I cannot believe nobody got hurt, cause you couldn't see anything.

Brian Beckcom: The fog –truly the fog of war, right?

John Warren: Yeah. Yeah. And you're carrying so much blessed gear, you can barely move. We were 81s, and so we had heavy or medium-sized mortars and all of our ammunition and all your small arms ammunition and grenades and smokes. Cause they said, “You need to be prepared to survive for 60 days with limited resupply.” So, it was like, “Shit. Well, I'm gonna throw away some underwear so I could fit more logs of Copenhagen in my bag.”

Brian Beckcom: So what do you think, John – I asked Blake this, I asked Toby this, I asked Nick Kalt this. What are you thinking when it's actually for real? Like, when you're actually going into a combat – to a hot combat zone, what is going through your mind? Is it excitement? Is it fear? Is it a combination of the two? I mean, what's going through your head when you know, “This is no longer a drill. I'm actually going to go where people might be shooting at me.”

John Warren: My experience is different from those that you mentioned because this was the first – I mean, the way we all looked at this is that we were fortunate. This is our purpose. This is what we trained for. And finally, we get to do it for real. And I don't have to just go on a LIBO cruise, meaning nothing happened. You come back home. Like, we were – we considered ourselves lucky that our number got called.

And looking back and talking with Matt Good and people like that, they were all, you know, congratulatory. That's a different mindset than after you’ve gotten beaten, you know, hit the nose a bunch of times, whether it was up in Northern Afghanistan, whether it was in Iraq or, you know, where things really got nasty and lots of men and women got hurt and killed.

 So, I'm in a different point of, you know, kind of where this, both of these wars happened. So, nothing really bad had happened yet. So, I gave you that background because there definitely was not scared. If anything, I was just nervous about when the time came that my platoon was tested, could we succeed? If there was any fear, it was that. I wasn't worried about my life. I wasn't worried about getting hurt. It was just, “Are we going to be successful when we're truly tested?” And I think that's the part about being an external versus the internal. And you're trained that way.

So, that’s the best answer I can give you other than we were tested one time and it looked, fortunately, we would run these drills every night before it got dark, before everything kind of settled down, just so if we got hit in the middle of the night, it wasn't the first time we touched the mortars in four or five days. So, fortunately, that paid off. The unit performed flawlessly and it was great.

But that same feeling that I had isn't necessarily – I mean, I had to send submarines back to the ship. They were wigging out. I mean, there was reports, all the Intel coming in, they're doing everything they could to keep us prepared and alert, like, Taliban or, you know, there's patrols that are out there and they can infiltrate through your lines and they know that we sleep in fighting holes. They know that we sleep in tents. So they're going to be shooting a foot or two off the ground. And it just, because it was early, nobody had – at least the young guys hadn't been conditioned or, you know, that's a lot to take in if you're 18, 19 years old.

Brian Beckcom: Oh, sure. Yeah. Well, so, what was the most surprising or the most shocking or the most unexpected thing that happened – first of all, how long were you deployed to Afghanistan the first time?

John Warren: I think we were landed in November of ‘01 and I don't think we pulled out until the March timeframe of ’02. 

Brian Beckcom: So, roughly six months, give or take?

John Warren: And this was, you know, there was no camps or, I mean, we were literally in a big circle with the airstrip in the middle and we all just lived in fighting holes that we had dug. And that's what you did.

It was actually cold there. So, part of the, you know, I guess not only do you just keep yourself busy doing it, but you would always continue to dig in and reinforce your position. It kept you warm and it was a workout. 

Brian Beckcom: You're still digging holes today, too. We might talk about that a little bit. 

John Warren: Still digging holes. I know, I know. I'll be honest with you. I mean, I was there for Christmas and New Year's and it'll be – it will always be one of the most special Christmases that I've ever had or experienced in my life, to be in Afghanistan with my Marines.

We had this super stealthy, like, fire pit. Because the 81-millimeter mortar platoons, generally speaking, had a reputation for having the most fun. Our call sign was “no love”. You know, I had about a hundred Marines at the time. Just a bunch of partiers. And so, everybody always came to my position to smoke cigarettes and break bread, and they could heat their MRE over the little tactical fire that we had.

I mean, General Mattis, he would come to my position damn near every day. He’d come hang out with the mortar guys with no love. In fact, I forgot that there was an HBO series about Marines, reconnaissance Marines. And that was the same recon platoon that was with us in Afghanistan. So, it was, I'll think of it in a minute, but they were always in our position. It was just the place to be.

So, you asked a question about the most surprising thing. I don't know how we got on the dig and fighting holes and fires, but, you know, there was a few episodes. One night, we got hit and – or, my FO, Charlie F.O. was on patrol, saw some lights, and any bad guys out there. And he called in fire mission. It went down through the, I think it's, if I can recall, the FSC. The fire support coordinator. And they cleared me hot to do a fire for effect. And at the same time, behind us in the middle, they lifted up two escort helicopters.

There was a Cobra and a Huey to go out and kind of see what was going on to support. At the same time, they dispatched, like, a group of armored Humvees with turret mounted and heavy machine guns, 50 cals and 40-millimeter cannons. And everything just erupted because one of the helicopters, when it was going up, it flipped over due to the brownout. And just this gigantic fireball explosion right behind our position. I haven't told this story in a long time. We had just dropped a four-round fire for effect. That means four mortar cannons all drop four rounds with a high explosive in a proximity mix, HE prox mix. So, you know, 16 rounds that have a 40-yard killing radius all just went out and blew up something out there. 

The same time, this explosion happens behind us. And then somewhere the Humvees got lost, whether they were behind the lines, in front of the lines. And all this chatter's going on with radio at the same time, because the Humvees are like, they could see movement, but they were seeing friendly movement. They weren't seeing enemy movement. They were just completely disoriented. And with the helicopter catching on fire. Oh shoot. And then lost. It was absolutely chaos. 

Brian Beckcom: It sounds like chaos. Sounds like utter chaos. Yeah. 

John Warren: To make matters worse – 

Brian Beckcom: And you're smiling when you're describing this, too.

John Warren: Yeah. It was a fucking –I remember I couldn't – my hand was shaking so bad that I couldn't write the coordinates that were coming in. It was freaking adrenaline overload. But to make matters worse, the helicopter that was this ball of fire right now – and just to let you know, everybody survived. Minor injuries. They were able to somehow jump out. I don't know how they did it. The crew and the pilots were able to jump out. So, four of them.

But there was no fire rescue to put this thing out. So, it had to just burn down. Part of it burning down, which happened quickly, is it was cooking off all of the machine gun rounds that were on board at this time. Next thing you know, and this is in the midst of all this chaos, we're taking tracer fire. There's tracer fire coming over –

Brian Beckcom: Oh my gosh. Oh shit.

John Warren: And then there’s – nobody knew, I mean, nobody knew immediately that it was the helicopter. They thought somebody had infiltrated our lines and is now shooting at us. So now all my Marines were faced outside the perimeter facing in the perimeter. And when this happened, I remember when this happened, I finally had a moment to go out and take a leak. And I just scurried outside of kind of, like, these big earthen walls that we had built and I'm – 

Brian Beckcom: I think I would have just gone in my pants at that point. 

John Warren: I was taking a leak and all of a sudden that's when we started taking fire. And I remember that I had forgotten my helmet at my, you know, where I was sitting inside of the CP. So, I'm sitting out there, pinned down without my Kevlar on like a bad Marine, which was a good example that I used, like, “Guys, it has to stay with you everywhere you go.” So that was exciting.

Finally, you know, everything settled down and finally the sun came up and everybody got oriented. None of our folks were hurt, but it was a lesson for all of us that you can get hit at any moment. And you need to make every single preparation or coordination that you can so that utter chaos doesn't erupt. And maybe it was a little bit more controlled than the way I just told the story, but I don't think so. There was a lot of craziness happening, and everybody's just so excited. That was the first contact. Everybody was so excited to just, you know, kill some Taliban. I mean, shit, we all thought we were going to capture Bin Laden.

Brian Beckcom: Well, and that’s an incredible story. And the mentality that you guys have, talking about, “We wanted to do this. Like, this was our training.” I was talking to Nick Kalt who spent time in Fallujah. I think you probably know Nick. Well, he's a firefighter now in California and I'm actually talking to him tomorrow about firefighting. And he goes, “Man, what are you guys, you know, what do you – what are your thoughts on” – this was a couple months ago before all these fires started. He goes, “What are you – what do you think about when there's a fire?” He goes, “Well, of course we don't want there to be fires, but we want to show that our training is effective. Like, we're excited when this happens.”

So, John, you were there for about six months. And then did you – was that your only deployment in the Middle East?

John Warren: That was my – so, during combat, yes. I had a previous deployment, which was a LIBO cruise. And then the trip to Afghanistan, that was my last deployment in the Fleet Marine Forces. And that's when I took orders back to Quantico to be an instructor at the basic school and IOC. 

Being an Instructor at the Basic School

Brian Beckcom: How did you get picked to be an instructor? So, the basic school – tell people, for people that don't know much about the military, the Marine Corps, what the basic school is and how they choose the instructors for the basic school.

John Warren: So, it’s six months. So, it's the school. So, your commission – everybody's a commission lieutenant, but all you've done is gone through OCS or gone to the Naval Academy. You show up at the basic school and they, you know, every walk of life has gotten through OCS or the Naval Academy.

You show up at TBS to go through a six-month training program that essentially trains you to be a rifle platoon commander. Doesn't matter if you're a pilot or artillery guy or logistician. We all learned the same fundamental skills of how to lead a platoon.

The way they ultimately select your MOS – if you're an aviator, you showed up with a contract to go to Pensacola after you graduated from the basic school no matter what. For the rest of us, they break you down into thirds. Top third, middle third, bottom third. All based on your overall academic and leadership peer evaluation, instructor evaluation. So just this combined score. And then the top of each third in sequence gets their first pick with the available jobs or positions that are, you know, can be.

So, for example, if the infantry had, call it 18 slots available, the top six people in the top third, the top six people in the middle third, and the top six people in the bottom third could get their pick. So, you really – the only way you can determine your destiny in terms of your MOS that you want is by being probably the top 10 of the top third. Otherwise, it's just, it's a total –

Brian Beckcom: ? [58:22]

John Warren: Yeah. Yeah. But that's just how – and that's for every single job. Human intelligence, ground intelligence, tanks, artillery, infantry. All of those. Even supplies. And so, that's why there's some studs that found themselves in the bottom third of the top third, that there were no more infantry combat arms positions available. And unfortunately, you know, and this is all very intentional. We need to spread the talent across every MOS in the Marine Corps. I still think that's what they're doing to this day.

So, to get selected, and I don't know how it goes, but I know it's not – they just don't take a warm body. You have to get recommended. And there's a hand selection. And I think, back in the day at least, they would take one or two infantry officers per battalion. Just because you don't need that many instructors. But that period, and it may sound odd, and again, it kind of had to do with, you know, it was enduring freedom. We hadn't gone to Iraq yet. Hadn't been a bunch of bloody noses yet. So, it was still, call it kinetic or, you know, only a few people, I think total, a few people died in total.

So, coming back to California and then seeing other people in Afghanistan and see the Rangers up in Afghanistan, that's when things got real, but what's interesting is the emotion. I didn't want to be in the United States. It was like, “I'm missing out. And I need to be back over there.” Which is hard to tell your wife. But mostly, that's what I know I went through and a lot of other Marines and I'm sure soldiers went through, is you miss that, however hard, you miss that. And it continues.

Then as I came back, there's all these talks of Iraq. And it’s like, “Shit. I'm going to miss that, too. I've got three years to be here at the basic school.” It’s hard to understand and even describe why and how that feels, but that probably went, for me, that was the hardest part of the war. And I mean, just this period. And lots of emotions going on.

Training lieutenants, you become connected with them. And that's part of being a good instructor and a good leader. And you know everything about them and you know what makes them tick and why, so you can select them or train them the best. And lots of them didn't come home. And you made these guys.

I mean, I wish Blake Sawyer was here with me. I mean, he came through. Toby Flinn came through while I was – in fact, Toby – I was reading through some old emails, a scrapbook. Toby was emailing my father early November timeframe about his application to OCS. And I remember he was like, “John’s with the 15th view [1:01:13],” and my dad was like, “Yeah, but we don't know where he is,” but he was supposed to be notified in early December.

It's just funny to see where we were when Toby came through, when I was at the basic school, not in IOC. And you could imagine. Toby and I could barely sit in any environment without, like, laughing or chuckling. So, it’s like I get up on the platform and I teach this thing, “Just don't even look at me. Cause I can't be the captain that starts giggling or something because you asked a dumbass question. So, just be cool. Please.”

But I do – I have to commend Toby and Blake and many, many others like them that they knew how bad it was. There were already people that were not coming home and they still had the courage to go into the Marine Corps. And they knew that there they were – it was inevitable that they were gonna go.

Brian Beckcom: I asked both those guys. I said – because they were both, I think unlike you, they both joined after 9/11.

John Warren:  They did. Yeah. 

Brian Beckcom: And so – which I think there should be, like, a name for the group of men and women that did that because there's a lot of folks and you and I know a lot of them and that’s a totally, I mean, unlike you and Nick Kalt, they joined knowing that they were going to war and that they were going to a hot war. Not a war that, I mean, I know you were in a hot war, but, like, you're talking about – 

John Warren: No, no. Their experience was extremely different than mine. You know, and to know that – and there was enough of this, you know, there was enough bad things when they signed up. So, they have my full respect. God bless them. 

Brian Beckcom: Well John, let me ask you this because – so, you’re an instructor for Marine lieutenants and it literally, I mean, that must've been a huge responsibility, especially during the middle of a hot war, because you’re essentially training them how to survive and how to make sure they can keep their men alive when they're over there, too.

So, how do you train people that are already, I mean, if you're in the Marine Corps and you're a second lieutenant, the chances are, you're already a pretty good leader. You already know something about leadership, or you wouldn't be there to begin with. So, kind of what was your approach when you are literally a leader teaching other leaders in the Marine Corps?

John Warren: I try to be concise. I think, on the whole, we try to create the most realistic environment that we could that the lieutenants couldn't – they didn't realize it was practice or as play. We try to create these real environments with live rounds and real explosions and real injuries so that we could put them in this situation and watch or evaluate them and then coach them.

I mean, everything – there was always an exercise, an evaluation, and then the coaching. But I think that the number one is that we would just try to create the most realistic environment. And then we changed the curriculum. We would then go spend two or three weeks out in the Mojave Desert at 29 Palms. It was all live fire. Artillery, tanks, jets, you know, everything that we could afford to do just to prepare them for Iraq. And then we would go spend a week at the mountain warfare training center up in the mountains. Whether it was the winter, whether it was the summer, it was always hard. It was focused on small unit leadership and how to take care of your Marines.

So, all throughout this, I mean, there’s plenty of leadership discussions, but I think the leadership discussions happened on a moment-by-moment, day-by-day basis as you're coaching and you’re mentoring these – mentoring is probably the better word. It's not training as much as it is mentoring these guys. And if you see a lieutenant that's not, you know, he's not influencing his Marines the right way, even though they were lieutenants, you'd pull them aside and kind of like a father-son. That father-son is the best relationship where, you know, I can describe that you can visualize what that looked like.

And that is where things get hard. I remember, I think it was my first casualty. One of my lieutenants was J.J. Rableski [1:04:45]. And he was in my platoon at the basic school and he had an aviation contract. He wanted to fly Cobras. Just cool cat, you know, New Jersey guy, thick accent, newly married, but he was just – he was it. And all the Marines, all lieutenants just absolutely respected J.J. So, ultimately, I convinced him. I was like, “Dude, drop this. You don't want to go be a Cobra pilot. You are made to be an infantry leader. You're going to be successful.” So, he dropped his aviation contract and became a grunt.

And I went to IOC at the same time he was a student at IFC, so he was my first class. Train them up. J.J. did great. I think he graduated if not first, he was second. And then, oh, a month or two later, he took a round through his handset on his radio and the end bar and he was, you know, dead. It was instant. And it was just – it was so – April the sixth. It was so tough to have, you know, you get so close to these guys, to have lost him. And there’s many others, but you're stuck here in the United States. You're stuck in Quantico.

And where we lived there, you know, in most of the areas around Quantico, all the families are in the DOD or the DOJ. They're FBI. So, you go to work every day. You train combat and war fighting. Then you come home and then all the wives have been talking all day, then all the husbands are on the back deck and they're talking, whether it's me – my nextdoor neighbor was FBI. There's FBI three houses down. So, you never got away from it. It was constant. Constant.

So, it was, again, you could have been in combat. But it was a challenging period. I'll be honest with you. It by all means is not what led me to resign, but I will say that having kids and, you know, I couldn't imagine another man raising my kids. Not to jump right, you know, that’s kind of off the top road, but that, I think, ultimately was probably the biggest factor for me to not go to my following school and take a company out to Iraq, or Afghanistan for that matter. But it was tough. It took three years to even look back. I left and it was just everything about Clark and looking forward because it was so emotional. 

Leaving the Marines and Becoming a Leader in the Construction Industry

Brian Beckcom: There's a great book on this topic. I don't know if you've ever heard it. There's an author by the name of Sebastian Junger. He was a war correspondent. He's written a bunch of good books. But he wrote a very short book called Tribes. Have you heard of that book? Or Tribe?

John Warren: Nope.

Brian Beckcom: It's about the experience of military combat personnel when they come back to the United States and why so many of them struggle. And part of it is, or a big part of it is, like you were saying earlier, I was talking to Blake about same deal. He goes, “Man, that was some of the most intense but also some of the best times of my life.”

You're talking about Christmas in Afghanistan and that esprit de corps, that connection you have. And then you come back, and you just can't find that in the civilian life. It's just not the same. And so, Sebastian Junger says, you know, a lot of officers and enlisted folks had come back from combat, they just have a hard time readjusting because the intensity of the experience is just so beyond anything we're used to experiencing that it’s like a giant let down, almost, when you come back.

You know what else he says? He says, you know, and we do this to respect our military, but he's like a lot of military folks, like, “Oh, well, who's in the military? You get to go on the plane first” type of thing. They don't want that. They want to be reintegrated into society and be treated like everybody else. So, it’s kind of a – it's real interesting. I gave it to my dad and my uncle who were both in combat and they both liked it a lot.

Well, so, John, you get out of the Marines, you served honorably, you get out of the Marine Corps, and then you go into the construction industry and I did not realize that you immediately start building barracks for Marine Corps officers, which is really cool. But let me ask you a couple of questions about your work in the construction industry. I want to ask you two questions about that. The first question I want to ask is what project or projects are you most proud of? And secondly, I want to ask you how you're training in the Marine Corps has helped you in the business world.

John Warren: The first question first, I don't know if there's one project that stands – I mean, there are a few that are just kind of boring, but I'm, you know – the cool thing about being a builder, and I mean that being a builder, not just a contractor, is that my line of work, there's this tangible, physical thing that you leave behind. You're not just pushing paper. You're not just, you know, there's this thing that everybody, your kids and your wife, your family know that dad or my husband built that thing.

And I, you know, here in San Antonio, I think the Frost Tower is what I'm the most proud of. That was just, I mean, I couldn't have written the story better myself. And that's how we finally got back to San Antonio. And it had a wonderful team. It was an absolute, just a blast. Probably the best team I've had. And we started with two dudes and just continued to build this up.

People could compete with that as we're building the Alamo, you know, the multi-phase Alamo Museum here in San Antonio, which that has been a few year pursuit. And that's, my God, that's so meaningful. Haven't built it yet. So, I can't say it's done and my name is on it, but at least I’ve won it and we're building it now.

So, the next question you asked was how's my Marine Corps experience, and I have to add in my Texas A&M Corps of Cadets experience, influence how and what I do every day, and I would stay tactically. Okay. Marines are maneuverists. And to say it easily, or simply, we look for the gaps. We look for the opportunities. And we avoid the surfaces. We’re going to strike an enemy at his weakest point that I can strike him with expanding the least amount of resource to have the greatest impact on him. That’s how we think. And that's how you, I mean, it's not that difficult to take that same strategy, and it’s a mental state more than anything. And the, I guess the opposite of this would be as like a frontal assault. You know? And in Jujitsu, you know exactly what I'm talking about.

Brian Beckcom: Yeah, I do. I was thinking about that when you were saying that. It’s about uncovering your opponent's soft spots and then taking maximum advantage of that, essentially. 

John Warren: That's right. If I can find an opening to your throat, that's the best – or, something like that, but I'm not going to just duke it out with you. So, that's the same. And, you know, on the spot right here, I don't have a perfect example of that, but that’s tactically. And maybe one is a good real estate deal. Take advantage of a softer market where the cost of construction and real estate is a little bit lower. And that, in my opinion, could be, “What’s the least amount of resources I can expend to have the most gain?” That could be an example that’s really simple.

But, in terms of leadership, it started with kind of what we were talking about, you know, your fish year and the examples and the leadership that you experienced with your leaders. And you take each one of their positive attributes that fits with your style and who you are and this just continues through your entire career.

Sometimes there's major shifts there and you’re like, “You know what, I was just kind of doing what people were telling me to do.” It's much more natural for me, and I'm getting a lot more – I guess I can sense my influences better based on I can chill out and be a little bit more relaxed or whatever that thing is. But good leadership is good leadership, Brian, and you're as good of a leader as I am. We just got there in different ways and different experiences.

I think it all starts with genuinely being a good person. And you said something earlier that struck a chord about being lazy. Leaders can get lazy, too. Coaches can get lazy, too. You always have to stay external. And if you start getting complacent, your folks, your employees, it's gonna be obvious. You know?

I have a young – not a young. I have a friend. Actually a close friend, out in California. He's a senior vice president and he came from more of the operational side of construction. Like, superintendent. Like, the dude built the tallest tower west of the Mississippi. The Salesforce Tower. Fantastic builder. And he struggles with people in his teams. Like, he's more the guy that would just kick down the door and want to just be the stereotypical construction guy.

And the problem is what he doesn't recognize is that he's being a selfish leader. He's doing what he thinks is the way to, like, approach the situation. “I'm gonna scare these people. I'm gonna intimidate these people so they do it faster and do it better for me. I'd rather be, you know, intimidating.” Although effective for some people, what the problem is, it's not selfless leadership and he needs to be able to strike a chord with each person in their unique way to get the most out of them in an unselfish manner. Not “What does John need?” “What do those that I lead need?”

And it's never on a group level, either. It’s down to the individual basis of, you know, if I was leading a guy like my friend that I just described, I would interact with them a little bit differently. A little bit more – we call it a little bit more firmness or intensity than I would somebody that's, you know, not softer, but just different. You have to approach it, you know, you need to provide what that person needs. And that’s not a Marine Corps thing. That's not a Corps of Cadets thing. That's just, in my opinion, that's human nature and that's what's right.

Brian Beckcom: Well, and I love that comment. You know, my dad used to tell me all the time, he said, “I never pulled rank on anybody, because I felt if I had to pull rank on somebody, I failed.” 

John Warren: Yeah. Never. Never. That is the absolute last, worst case scenario.

Brian Beckcom: That’s the last case scenario.

John Warren: I mean, when I described, you know, there was some major changes in style and that's okay. For instance, we go from kind of phase in your life, phase in your life, and I can relax more. And I had a role model. He was a Marine Corps gunner, which is a chief warrant officer at Gunner Yates [1:17:15]. And he was just the coolest freaking dude. The Marines loved him. And it was like, “Aha, that fits me. I'm going to be totally the other side of what you expect as a Marine officer.” It's okay to be relaxed and cool and chill to the point, like, you know, a Marine salutes you and it’s like, “Hey, you know, don't worry about that.” Or they, you know, Marines all stand up and get to attention when you walk into the room, and it’s like, “Guys, come on, sit down. It's just us right now, okay?” Like, that seemed to resonate and be more effective than the guy that's really proud of being a captain and loves all the pomp and circumstance.

So that was the example I was – and I try to continue to carry that. Be something that everybody's not expecting you to be. You may look a certain way and talk to certain way, but it's always seemed to be very influential when you surprise people that, you know, you’re a little bit more pleasant to be with than what they expected, etc. 

Brian Beckcom: Yeah. Or a guy like you who's 6’3” and looks like he could kill you with his bare hands turns out to be a giant woman, for the most part. Sensitive guy. But, you know, the other thing you said there, John. And, by the way, for people that aren't familiar with the military jargon, pulling rank basically means saying, “I outrank you, do what I say.” That's essentially what that means. And so, it would be the same thing in the business world as your boss saying, “Do what I say because I'm your boss.”

And I'm here to tell you that I've been around people like that and they're shitty leaders. Like, for somebody to say, “I want you to do this because I outrank you in the business world,” is totally ineffective as opposed to saying, “I want you to do this because we're on a team and here's what we're trying to accomplish and here are the goals and here's what we're trying to get at.”

The other thing you said, John, which I think is a really good tip for leadership is you can kind of pick and choose different things you see from different leaders and kind of create your own individual style. And so, that made me think about, I used to work – a long time ago, almost 20 years ago, I used to work for these two guys when I first started practicing as a lawyer, and they had completely and totally different approaches. One person, the approach was, “Do this, this, this, this, this, this, this,” and then we'd meet on Saturdays, and then the next Saturday, he'd go, “Why didn't you do this? Why didn't you do this? Why didn't you do this? Why didn't you do this?”

The other person I worked for would say, “Here are 20 or 30 cases. If you have any questions, ask me. Otherwise, let me know when you've successfully won them.” And what I found, John, was the first person, the only thing I did was what he told me. That was it. I was like, “I'm just going down this list. I'll knock this out, but I'm not going to do anything else.” The other person had invested – I felt like he invested so much trust in me that I was like, “What can I do to get the best result?” He' trusted me and so I don't want to let that person down. And so, that made a huge impression on me in terms of, at least for my personality, I was much more motivated by somebody who I felt trusted me to make some of my own decisions.

And so, I tell my young lawyers all the time now, I say – they'll say, “Well, what do you think we should do about this?” And my response it's kind of comical. Literally every time, “Well, what do you think we should do? I want to know what you think. I didn't hire you to just take orders from me. I hired you because you're a smart person. I want to know your opinion.” So, speak to that a little. 

John Warren: In most cases, they want to share your opinion, but at the same time, Brian, this comes back to that unselfish leader, is there are some people that need to just be given that list.

Brian Beckcom: Yeah, that's right. That’s right.

John Warren: And there are some people that would rather just have the whole ballfield to play on, and that's up to us as leaders. And it's not always an easy thing. I will – have you ever heard of the DiSC assessment?

Brian Beckcom: No, uh-uh.

John Warren: It's much like any other character assessments, but, you know, any one of them can work, but it'll just give you an indication of what your team, on an individual level, of what makes them tick and how do they need to be treated. And every single one is always different, and not one of them is just like me. So, I can't lead everybody just the same way I want to be led. You know?

That, to me, I can't read a leadership book, Brian. I can't. I don't. I used to, but they all seem to say the same thing. I think if you just, if you stick to that it starts, for us, it started, you know, our fish year. And I swear it was like, “Yep. I like the way Matt just did – what Mr. Good did to me, I'm going to put that in my pocket.” And the next year, you know, you start to practice with these things until you get the same rapport, and you see the little sparkle in their eyes that, you know, “Mr. Warren, he kind of pulled away the mean face and actually connected with me.” That is so rewarding and it's the same thing that happens then as it did through the Marine Corps or with you and into the biz world now. And it’s rewarding. Very fulfilling.

Getting Through Difficult Times

Brian Beckcom: Well, John, we've been going for about an hour and a half. This doesn't surprise me because I knew you and I were going to talk for a while.

John Warren: I feel like there's some uncovered ground here still.

Brian Beckcom: I do, too. And, you know, we could talk for another hour or two, but there are a couple of questions that I really want to ask you. I've asked most of my guests this particular question. And, you know, to be totally candid with you, one of the reasons I'm asking people this question is because I don't know the answer. I'm kind of trying to find the answer myself. And so, I feel super fortunate to be able to ask this question to guys like you, girls like Dr. East, U S congressmen.

The question is this: we're going through, right now, some of the most difficult times our country's ever been through, whether it's the pandemic, whether it's racial relations, the police brutality stuff, we've got the politics which is completely insane. You know, our president just got diagnosed with COVID a couple of days ago, which is like, I mean, when is it going to stop?

And so, John, what are your kind of – how do you see the next six, eight, 12 months, 18 months? Like where is this all headed? Because frankly, I see two potential outcomes, one pretty good, and one's pretty bad. And so, I’m curious what your views are on how we kind of get through this and emerge – I want to emerge not just to get through it. I'm hoping that we emerge as a country even stronger as a result of this. But what are your thoughts? 

John Warren: You know what, you’re right, and that was so disappointing to see some of the movement and the protests, especially when they really began. I think it was in late March, early April. But, up to that point, I remember being – Carrie and I were talking, and it's like, “This is going to be better for us. This is – we haven't had something like 9/11 in 20 years and this is going to unify the country. This is good. This is going to make us stronger.” And unfortunately, it was quite the opposite. And I still can't figure out if this was just this quagmire of just ready to just, you know, explode, which it did.

But to answer your question, I said this earlier. Coach Slocum, you know, “Be part of the solution.” I heard that and I was like, “You're absolutely spot on.” But it's not always easy in these times that we can be part of the solution. Although I will tell you, I'm not going to make matters worse. I'm not going to rant and rave on social media. I'm going to make the most of our situation and try to lead my team and my group through these challenges. And not one of us – and Brian, you said there's two outcomes. I think there’s many more and none of them are going to be easy. And it depends on what side of this you sit on. Not necessarily speaking politically or, you know, racial BLM-type of stuff, or was this some sort of bio warfare? Who knows? But it was definitely, definitely a warning of what could continue in a different form. And in many different ways.

This is not something that we were familiar with and studied. If you heard the predictions, which are mind blowing to hear people predict really what has occurred, but I didn't even think of white tail deer and chronic wasting disease and the prions and all of these dangerous organisms that are just a few years away from mutating in some way that could hurt human beings.

So, all I can say is that there’s challenges that we've each gone through personally, whether it's a divorce or financial problems or losing loved ones. You know, it's the same – it’s similar challenges that these are going to create for us and the world moving forward. And just like those other challenges is you just have to remain positive and make the most of your situation, whether it's your family, your friends, or your business, because we can't predict the future right now.

I don't know what Blake Sawyer’s response is, but I can see how Blake would act in this situation. That was the most positive leader with the can-do spirit regarding how bad – regardless of how bad it was, Blake could overcome anything because of his attitude.

Brian Beckcom: One of the things I've always loved about Blake in particular, and a lot of people like him is they can hold two ideas in their head at one time. So, for instance, when did it become the rule, John, that we have to be either on the side of the police or on the side of minorities? Like, why can't we say we're on the side of the police – 99% of police are awesome people, but there are a couple bad apples, and they need to get the fuck out of the department immediately – and also at the same time say there are problems with police brutality and the minority communities? We need to figure out the cause of that and we need to try to address that and not take one side or the other.

Like, when did it become the rule that we couldn't be on everybody’s side? We're all Americans, we're trying to get through this together. Why can't we just say, “Okay, there's been some problems. Tell me what your problems are. Okay. Cops, there's been some problems. Tell me what your problems are, and let's work together to try to solve” – but, like, it is totally and completely baffling to me –  

John Warren: Here's what I believe, Brian. I don't believe that the entire – let’s just say the country, the whole country of minorities does not feel this way. It's this small minority group that has, you know, they have the platform right now. But any of the minorities that I interact with, it’s all laughable to them and it's not the way they feel. To a certain degree, they're embarrassed that I look at them and I'm wondering, “Are you feeling this way? Is this what you truly think?” No! They don't want everybody to be wondering, “Are you feeling this way that you’re” – you know, whatever it is. And there's a lot of things out there to be thinking right now, or feeling.

But, you know, I will say this: It does come down to training. But, unless you've been in that position with a loaded firearm ready to take somebody’s life, knowing that somebody else is on the other side of that to take your life, it's hard to be a judge. You know, so it comes down to training and making sure our law enforcement officers in that situation still keep their head. Because that's what's happening. That's what's happening.

Brian Beckcom: So, what I would argue, and I've talked about this a little bit, is we don't need to defund the police. We need to provide more funding for better training. We need better trained police officers. We do not – and, you know, one of the things that has bothered me for years, John, is nobody wants to – I don't want to pay taxes. Nobody wants to fucking pay taxes. Of course we don't want to pay taxes. But if you don't pay taxes, who the hell is going to pay the police? Who's going to pay the military? Who's going to pay the teachers?

You know, if you really, really support the military, the police, teachers, prosecutors, judges, people like that, it doesn't mean you have to like paying taxes, but that's how they get paid. That's how they get benefits. That's how they get raises. And so, this again, gets back to what we're talking about is why can't we kind of get to the – in other words, like, why can't we figure out what the root cause of some of these issues are and try to solve it? 

Like, for instance, the Breonna Taylor thing to me, okay, and this might be somewhat controversial. But I haven't seen any evidence at all – and maybe it's out there, I just haven't seen it – that this was a racially motivated shooting. What I saw was the dumbest idea in law enforcement history, literally knocking on somebody – going into somebody's house. A no-knock warrant in the middle of the night. I mean, nonviolent offense. Of course somebody's going to shoot back. That’s terrible. That puts everybody at risk.

So, to me, what I'm getting at here, John, is why can't we focus on, like, the underlying cause of some of this stuff? I don't think the Breonna Taylor thing was a racial thing. I think the Breonna Taylor thing was a result of no-knock warrants and putting good police officers in –  

John Warren: You said – you took the words out of my mouth. And we do this lean principle thing to the root cause analysis to really identify what is the true cause of this? And that's what I would tell you right now is I don't know what I'm seeing and I don't know what to believe. I don't know what's being fed to me and how it's being filtered or manipulated across the board. You know? So, it's just, I hear what I hear and I, you know, this is where I sit right now is it comes down to training. But they could have been in the right on every single one of these instances. I just still don't have the true root cause analysis of what's occurred. 

Wrapping Up

Brian Beckcom: Yeah. Well, John, I kept you – 

John Warren: That's okay. I do have a virtual doctor's appointment – I'm not sure how we're going to do that – here in a minute or two. My annual checkup, virtually. 

Brian Beckcom: Well, John, you’re – like we said at the very beginning of the podcast, you’re one of, well, I consider you one of my best friends. I love you to death.

John Warren: Likewise.

Brian Beckcom: You’re just, you're a great guy. You're an American Patriot. You're a Marine Corps combat officer. You are truly a builder. We didn't even get to talk about what you're building in your backyard. Maybe we can do that on another show. But you’re just one of the best guys I've ever met in my life. I consider myself fortunate to call you my friend, John. 

And there we go. If you're listening to the podcast – that is unbelievable. Holy crap. If you're watching on YouTube, John Warren has literally built from scratch by himself with essentially no help, a giant pool in his backyard. And he was just showing a video. I mean, literally bending rebar and stuff himself, digging. That is unbelievable, John.

But anyway, you truly are a builder and you truly are somebody I'm not ashamed to say that I look up to.

John Warren: The feeling is mutual.

Brian Beckcom: So, John, I really, really appreciate you coming on the podcast today, my friend. I love you to death.

John Warren: Love you too, buddy. Thank you.

Brian Beckcom: All right, man.

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