It’s been about a generation since Ronald Fowlkes first enlisted in the Marines at the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot in San Diego, but don’t expect him to dwell on that. In fact, he maintains it feels like just yesterday. Perhaps it’s the degree to which the experience influenced who he is today.
In a recent exclusive, Fowlkes detailed the ways in which his service as a Marine and later a SWAT tactician and security contractor have shaped his conduct as a business professional and father. When the Manager of Business Development at First Spear Tactical isn’t taking early morning phone calls from NATO customers, the father of three focuses on family, and devotes a lot of time to his son’s nationally-ranked hockey team.
While time management is something Fowlkes attributes to his time in the Corps, there are other benchmarks he draws on every day. He took some time to talk about them below.
The few, the proud, the best – The Marines
Ronald Fowlkes enlisted in the US Marines in 1989. As to why not any other branch of service, he answered simply, it was a matter of “being the best of the best. There’s very few of us,” he said. “There’s not a lot of Marines. There were 25 people who entered the service out of my graduating class, and I was the only Marine.”
Being the best comes at a high price, as Fowlkes soon discovered.
“I think the biggest struggle for me was the mind game,” he said, noting that despite one’s best efforts, one cannot ever expect to get things right on the first attempt. “No matter how you did it, if you weren’t supposed to be first, you were gonna get messed with.”
Though the learning curve was often unforgiving, Fowlkes contended it only made him stronger. He soon developed ways to cope with rigors that he still applies today.
“Attention to detail in the most seemingly meaningless task,” he said. “Never take shortcuts in anything.”
Fowlkes reminded the interviewer that the ethos should not be limited to the individual. “That’s for your whole team,” he said, “because you’re only going to be as strong as your weakest link.”
For Fowlkes, it’s a lesson that’s carried over from his military career and made him successful in business.
“There’s similarities in running a sales department,” he said. “You know, the process isn’t over once you receive payment for a sale. If you’re responsible, you’re following up on the customer later – how are they liking the product, is it working for them?
“That attention to detail must remain. It’s not like ‘I made a sale, got your money, see you later.’ There’s more involvement there.”
Upon graduation from boot camp, Fowlkes next attended Infantry School at Camp Pendleton. There he began to learn skills as an individual that would benefit his future units at large.
“Boot camp was tearing you down and taking away that civilian individuality,” he said. “Infantry school involved a lot more individual skills. In (basic) you learn how to shoot and maintain a weapon. In infantry school you’re learning six or seven different weapons systems and their nuances. There was more of an emphasis on personal performance, and how you integrate that into a larger unit.”
Fowlkes experienced his first permanent posting overseas on the Japanese island of Okinawa, where the United States has stationed forces since the end of World War II.
“Okinawa was a lot of jungle training,” said Fowlkes. “Lots of training in general. As a member of a Marine Expeditionary Unit, you’re almost always on standby. You’re part of a Quick Reactionary Force, always ready to go if called upon.”
Still, Fowlkes and his friends found time to enjoy experiences not afforded to the average American.
“That’s where I got into scuba diving actually,” he said. “We worked early mornings and long days, but had (fun) as well. We worked hard and we played hard.”
It was all new for a young Fowlkes, who describes it as one of the more rewarding times of his early career in the military.
“It was all very new to me,” he said. “I mean, going to boot camp was the first time in my life I’d even been on an airplane. And Okinawa was the first time I’d left the country.”
Off to sea
Fowlkes would soon get some experience at sea, attached to a US Navy Surface Division in the West Pacific on a tour of duty he termed a “float.” The trip took him from Okinawa to Japan on to Korea and their coastlines.
He spoke on the friendly inter-service rivalry that historically exists between the Navy and Marines.
“I don’t think there’s anything I can tell you that you can put (on the Internet),” he said with a laugh. “I will say one time I really got it when we were coming back from Australia. There were some rough seas, and the Navy took the opportunity to beat us up a little bit.”
Fowlkes maintains it was all good fun between two units who are ultimately on the same team.
“At the end of the day, we’re part of the same fighting force,” he said. “We as Marines were the fighting element of that team. The Navy drove the ship.”
Short-lived return and war
Following his tour with the Navy, Fowlkes was reassigned back at Pendleton and California with the 1st Surveillance Reconnaissance Intelligence Group. He’d have little time to acclimate before receiving his first real call to arms. It was August 1990 and Saddam Hussein had just made a violent attempt to annex neighboring Kuwait. Fowlkes and his unit was going to war.
“We got called up in August,” Fowlkes remembered. “We were in the Gulf for both Desert Shield and Desert Storm.”
Fowlkes considers himself fortunate that, so early in his career, he didn’t have any dependents affected by the quick workup.
“I was 18 at the time,” he said. “Just a kid. The biggest change for me was going from an environment where you had AC and a shower every day. Then all of a sudden you’re sleeping in a tent with no AC and not a guaranteed shower. We made it work of course.”
As did the United States, and the conflict was quickly resolved from a political standpoint. For Fowlkes, it was the end of his active duty obligation, and time for new beginnings.
New horizons, tough transitions – Adjustment to civilian life
Fowlkes had originally planned to serve 20 years in the Corps. A disagreement with the nation’s handling of Desert Storm was a factor is his decision to move on from a career in the service after just four.
“When we went in there and had (that success) in Desert Storm,” he said, “I just don’t understand why we didn’t go all the way to Baghdad and finish the job. I kind of felt like the approach we took with Desert Storm – for all of our success – just amounted to a Band-Aid kind of solution.”
The idea of a family weighed heavily on Fowlkes as well.
“I didn’t want to drag my kids all over the place,” he said. “So I got out and I became a cop.”
In retrospect, the transition wasn’t quite so simple.
“It was the responsibilities,” he said. “In the Corps, I was a corporal, a squad leader. I was in charge of a handful of guys, and I knew at any given moment where they were, where they were going. I had those responsibilities and then one day it all changes and you’re a nobody.
“I went from being a pretty important person to just being your average person – kind of unplugged.”
Still, Fowlkes was quick to comment that what he learned in the service carries over and applies in many instances in his life as a civilian. In fact, Fowlkes has managed to incorporate team concepts learned in the Corps to sales teams he supervises today.
“I use some of that approach even today,” he said. “Like with my sales team, everybody can do everybody else’s job; everyone is interchangeable and helps each other out. That way, if a (primary position) is out or on the road or something, the operation can continue. I always have someone who can step in if we lose somebody.”
That integral nature of his team is indeed a throwback to the Corps, where there is little room for the individual and the focus is placed instead on the unit as a whole. “You’re taught that individualism does nothing for you,” said Fowlkes. “You don’t even use the term ‘I’. If you run up to a Drill Instructor in Boot Camp and asked if ‘I’ can go to bathroom, you were liable to get your face smacked off. And they were allowed to hit you back then. There’s no room for ‘I’. It no longer exists once you’re there.’”
Fowlkes then imparted some advice for future potential military enlistees. “Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut,” he said. “And understand that not every branch is for everyone. I have a nephew who wanted to enlist and I had to be honest with him, that the Marine Corps is not for you.
“I joke around a lot and say that I forgot a lot of things, my name or who my kids are. But I’ll never forget my fifth General Order. I still rarely stand with my hands in my pockets, and if I’m wearing pants that have a belt loop, I’m wearing a belt. Those things stay with you forever.”
Overall, Fowlkes has been left with an immense love for his country and pride in his branch of the service. “When you’re young and you’re in combat, you fight for your buddies,” he said. “And it’s that simple. But as I’ve grown older, it’s a love for my country that’s greatest.”
Fowlkes related that following seven years as a police officer, he returned overseas once more as a security contractor, to answer yet another call of duty.
“You’ll have to excuse my language, but the thing is…I’ve seen how shitty the world is,” he said gravely. “And most people don’t understand that. The world is a very barbaric and cruel place. People live in this bubble provided by guys like us.
“And it was the military that showed me what else was out there. I fail to see how you could criticize a country like ours when there are places out there I could take you and in 15 minutes you’d be begging to come back.”
Fowlkes conceded that a patriotic upbringing has contributed to his world view, but the military focused it.
“I’ve realized what it takes to live like we do,” he said.
From Combat to City Defender to…Youth Hockey
These days, Ronald Fowlkes divides time between his work for First Spear and his 13 year-old son’s hockey team, the St. Louis AAA Blues, who are nationally-ranked. Despite having no prior experience in the sport, Fowlkes has taken to it with just as much zeal as his son.
“I myself grew up with football and baseball,” said Fowlkes. “But my son picked (hockey) up when he was about seven. His best friend got into it, starting skating. And I said, ‘well, hey, I’ll take you to an open session, see how you like it.’
“Since that day he’s been on the ice just about every day of his life, five days a week, year-round. He plays other sports and does other things, but everyone who knows him knows that the hockey takes priority.”
The team has a head coach, and Fowlkes is happy to let another leader take the reins. Ever a team contributor, he assists in a logistic and support role.
“We help out with planning the schedule, equipment,” said Fowlkes. “Triple A is the highest level you can play at as a kid, so anything we can do to allow the coach to focus on his job, myself and another parent do it.”
Not unlike his role as a surrogate father as a squad leader in the Corps, Fowlkes fills that role for the young men on the team when parents aren’t in the immediate vicinity during practice or games.
“Once the team is on the ice, the kids are coming to us as opposed to their parents,” said Fowlkes. “So if there’s an issue – ‘my skate lace broke,’ or ‘my skate needs stoned,’ myself and the other manager – that’s all us.”
The wealth of experience Fowlkes gained in the Corps is hardly wasted on the young men he mentors as well – and his son is held to perhaps the highest standard.
“I really expound on accountability,” he said, “attention to detail, yet again. They’re 13 year-old kids, they’re going to have spats, so I remind them that no matter how much you might think you hate someone, you’re still part of a team.”
The highest expectations are reserved for his son.
“I’m probably harder on him than anyone else,” said Fowlkes, “especially when it comes to leadership and being accountable.
“The result is that he fully understands at his age what it means to be a leader. And that involves leading by example, and never asking someone to do something that you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself.”
Life and Leadership
For Fowlkes, the pride that comes with a lifetime of service remains. It’s evident as he again corrects the interviewer, who refers to him as an ex-Marine.
“Well, I’m a former Marine,” said Fowlkes. “You’re only an ex-Marine if we kick you out.”
The interviewer, himself a new father, asked Fowlkes if he had any advice to pass on to all of the other new dads out there.
“Be there for your kids,” he said. “Don’t ever be too tired to shoot pucks or go out there and play. I know it sounds cliché’, but they truly are grown up before you know it.
“There’s nothing more a father can do for his child than be a part of his or her life. No matter how tired I am, I get up and go, because some day I’m gonna be old and tired and I’ll have plenty of time, then, but I’m going to miss those days.”
In parting, Fowlkes left both interviewer and reader with three simple baselines that are universals to good leaders and great fathers:
“Honor, accountability, and respect,” he said.
Cutout: About Ronald Fowlkes
A veteran of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Ronald Fowlkes served with distinction in the United States Marine Corps. Following an honorable discharge from the Corps, he served as a police officer and SWAT tactician in St. Louis, Missouri, before heading back overseas as a private security contractor. Today, Fowlkes serves as Manager of Business Development at First Spear Tactical. He has three children. Connect with Ronald on Facebook or browse his Medium blog to read his take on all things hockey.