Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Applying History to Shape Future Leaders

By MCSN Brianna Jones

The scene is set. It is September 1994 in Cap-Haitien, Haiti, tensions are running high between the Haitian people and the pseudo military thugs who are running the streets. Innocent civilians are being injured and killed each day by the Haitian attaches. The Marines assigned to Echo Company, 2nd Battalion are sent into the heart of the city to monitor the central police headquarters building that has been overrun by the Haitian attaches.

The block-long building has half-a-dozen Haitian militants outside the front entrance and lining the street. It is up to 1st Lt. Virg Palumbo, the leader of Second Platoon, Company E, to decide what course of action his team will take.

This scenario is the basis of an interactive lesson presented to midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy by the team from the Case Method Project. The case method immerses students in a historical situation in which they must come up with their own, individual strategy to maneuver through the task at hand.

Midshipmen discuss the Case Method scenario
(Photo by MCSN Brianna Jones) 

How should Palumbo’s team approach the building? Should they come in with weapons drawn or with a more neutral approach? Where should the troops be placed around the building?

All of these questions must be carefully considered by the midshipmen as they each devise their own strategy.

The Case Method Project is a privately-funded organization that is educating the military’s future leaders. Each case is unique, and the facilitators stress the fact that there are no right or wrong solutions to the problems presented. This style of learning encourages students to come up with creative problem solving tactics and make them more comfortable with quick decision making.

“It’s applied history at its finest,” said Alexander Falbo, a historian with the Case Method Project. “These are the future leaders of our military and our nation, and here in the classroom we have the opportunity to develop their decision-making skills without their choices costing lives.”

As the facilitators begin to unfold more and more of the story, the students must continue to evolve their plans and strategies. The midshipmen each share their ideas with the group and are exposed to class critique. The students are encouraged to challenge one another’s ideas and raise new questions that the class, as a whole, may not have considered.

“A lot of times I would think my plan was pretty solid, or that there was no way it could be better, but then someone would bring up a point that hadn’t even crossed my mind and made me rethink everything,” said Midshipman 2nd  Class Louis Wohletz.

Midshipmen discuss their ideas with Alexander Falbo, historian with the
Case Method Project.
(Photo by MCSN Brianna Jones)

According to Damien O’Connell, senior fellow for the Case Method Project, the lesson facilitators should be invisible. Their job is to provide the facts of the case and keep the conversation flowing, but not to steer the student’s opinions or ideas.

“If the whole class comes to a quick consensus, we have failed,” said O’Connell. “We want to present them with situations where there are multiple variables and ways to handle the situation to really make them think.”

The three main objectives for The Case Method Project are to get the students thinking about effectively making critical decisions, to show the students a tool that they can use to train the Sailors and Marines under their command once they graduate, and to generate a deeper interest in military history.

“With a normal class where you’re just listening to a lecture, it can be hard to stay engaged,” said Wohletz. “In this class though, you had to stay alert and on your toes because you never knew when they were going to call on you to share your ideas.”

O’Connell and Falbo also want the students to walk away with a sense that their ideas are worthwhile regardless of their age or rank. Their hope is that exercises like these will give the midshipmen the confidence they need to make real world decisions once they leave the safety net of the academy.

“I think one important thing this exercise demonstrates is that great ideas are not limited to high-ranking individuals,” said Falbo. “There is value in a good strategy whether it comes from a plebe or a captain.”

The Haiti case presented to the midshipmen was unique because Virg Palumbo, a 1992 academy graduate, was present for the discussion. He stood quietly in the back of the room listening to the midshipmen brainstorm and try to maneuver the tedious situation he was dealing with so many years ago.

“It was interesting because there were a lot of points that they brought up that matched my thought process on that day,” said Palumbo.

Former Marine Virg Palumbo (USNA '97) observes a class of midshipmen discuss
a case study based on a situation in which he was involved in Haiti in 1994.
(Photo by MCSN Brianna Jones)

Once the facilitators wrapped up the story and the students decided on their final courses of action, Palumbo stood in front of the class to share the actual outcome of the day and his decision-making process through it all.

With his men placed on both corners of the building, Palumbo placed himself, his translator and radio operator directly across the street from its main entrance. After several hours of standing what seemed to be an uneventful post, an argument broke out between the Haitian militants in front of the building. In the blink of an eye, everything changed. One of the Haitian men at the doorway of the police building drew a pistol and aimed it directly at Palumbo.

Palumbo had only a split second to make a choice. He drew his weapon and fired the first shot at the Haitian men which erupted into a 30-second firefight between his men and the attaches who filled the building.

Due to Palumbo’s quick action and strategically placed team, the Marines were able to take back control of the police station with only one casualty. Miraculously, no civilians were injured in the firefight.

From studying cases like these, our future military leaders can learn from the choices of those who have come before them and develop quick decision-making skills that can greatly benefit them and the Sailors and Marines they will go on to lead upon graduation.

“This is fun, which seems to be a taboo word when talking about education,” said O’Connell. “But what we have found is that if you can get the students to have fun, they are more likely to stay engaged and be receptive to the lesson.”


  1. I would say that writing a personal statement about some particular subject can be helpful for the leaders. The students should learn better opportunities from others.

  2. Great article!

    I'd like to get in touch with MCSN Jones to get copies of some of the pictures.

    How do I go about doing that?

    -Damien O'Connell


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