Academy linebacker applies lessons from football field to battlefield -- While many might see a return to the hostile terrain of the Al Anbar Province of war-torn Iraq as a stroke of misfortune, one Marine Officer views his second deployment here as another opportunity for his Marines to excel as a team.
For former Naval Academy linebacker 1st Lt. Michael J. Chiesl, Joint Task Force Enabler officer-in-charge, 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), working in a team environment is nothing new.
From the time he was a youngster, Chiesl has been engaged, in one form or another, in activities requiring communication and a joint effort to obtain success.
“I was always big into sports and I started playing football in the seventh grade,” said the Woodlands, Texas, native. “Since hockey wasn’t too big in Texas, football was a natural fit for me and I started doing really well because I liked the aggressive nature of it, as well as the teamwork involved. I think more than any other sport, (in football) every man on the field has to do his job or else the entire team fails.”
While Chiesl’s exploits as an All-State linebacker at Oak Ridge High School helped his team advance to postseason play on multiple occasions, off the field it provided him the opportunity to choose where he wanted to continue his education.
“Coming out of high school I was recruited by two different schools in Texas, as well as Dartmouth, Columbia and the Naval Academy,” recalled the 26-year-old. “Of those colleges, I would definitely say that the Naval Academy, Dartmouth and Columbia were my top three choices. None of those schools are known as football powerhouses, but my primary concern was getting an education instead of playing for a huge football school,” he added.
When the time for campus visits came however, Chiesl’s patriotic heritage proved to be a greater influence than the allure of Ivy League prestige.
“I took visits to Columbia and Dartmouth and they were both great schools, but when I took my visit to the Naval Academy, it highly intrigued me,” he said. “The people there were more on my level-student athletes out of high school who were very patriotic, with strong values as far as what makes our country great.”
The grandson of a World War II B-17 Bomber pilot and prisoner-of-war, Chiesl was well on his way to adding the title of naval officer to his family’s military legacy before destiny compelled him to trade in his cleats, helmet and football pads for the combat boots, Kevlar helmet and flak jacket of the United States Marine Corps.
“I didn’t know I was going to choose the Marine Corps until my senior year at the Naval Academy,” admitted Chiesl. “The Marines there kept up the high Marine Corps standards and were a little over-the-top, so when I first saw them (as a freshman) I asked myself ‘Who are these crazy guys?’”
According to the former Midshipmen linebacker, the more he learned about the challenges the Marines offered, the more he was attracted to joining the Corps.
“The Marines I came into contact with at the Academy were definitely a cut above the norm. The physical regimen and discipline in the Marine Corps was also at a much higher level than other services, and that really appealed to me,” said Chiesl. “Also, I liked the fact that during real-world operations, Marines are out there on the ground taking care of business instead of being stuck on a boat in the middle of the ocean.”
Shortly after joining the Fleet Marine Force, the newly commissioned officer made the abrupt transition from the football field of Annapolis, Md., to the battlefield of Iraq, where his gridiron experiences helped ease his acclimation.
Deploying in 2004 to Iraq for the first time and operating in the volatile city of Fallujah as a radio platoon commander immediately brought back familiar feelings the Navy linebacker had before big games during his college football career.
“I remember during my junior year at the Naval Academy we played in the 101st Army/Navy game in Baltimore and more than 70,000 fans showed up,” recalled Chiesl. “Fifteen to 30 minutes before the game- before that first snap- there was just a gut wrenching nervousness that came with playing in front of that many people. “That’s very similar to what I felt when we were initially coming into Iraq and had to convoy 700 miles to Camp Fallujah,” he continued. “But as soon as that first snap is taken and as soon as you move across the Iraqi border, all of the butterflies just go away and you rely on your training, your teammates and everything falls into place.”
Perpetually carrying with him the memories of fallen Naval Academy contemporary 2nd Lt. James “JP” Blecksmith and “Middies” teammate 1st Lt. Ronnie Winchester- both killed in action during operations in Iraq- Chiesl doesn’t fail to recognize the lethal nature of his service here.
“There are a lot of similarities between football and warfare and you’ll routinely hear many football terms mentioned during military briefs,” Chiesl noted. “Both require teamwork and relying on the guy on your left and to your right, but while football is a violent sport, it’s not the end game. In warfare you play for keeps.”
Just as in 2000, when his game-breaking hit during the third quarter of the Army-Navy game forced a fumble for a Navy touchdown and a 30-28 victory, Chiesl intends to use his versatility to benefit his current team.
“Playing linebacker at the Naval Academy requires you to do any number of things,” said Chiesl. “Whether it’s dropping back when you read a pass play or you’re getting up on the line when you’re protecting against the run, you have to be able to run with the quick guys, as well as muscle with the bigger guys. “The same type of flexibility is required out here in Iraq with the (13th) MEU because the MEU has so many different missions. The JTFE portion of it requires me to be more of a quarterback than a linebacker because I have to think with more of an offensive mindset and be proactive rather than reactive,” he added.
Chiesl explained that, similar to a coach putting together a football game plan, he must diagram, review and prepare his Marines to execute missions that provide vital intelligence and communications services for the 13th MEU Combat Operation Center. This can include anything from providing secret Internet service to ensuring the 13th MEU commander has continuous real-time communications with battlefield assets.
According to the members of Chiesl’s JTFE platoon, the qualities he developed on the gridiron are what helped him earn their respect and admiration as a leader.
“He was a big time football player who still holds several records at our school,” said Sgt. Craig B. McMichael, data chief, 13th MEU, and native of neighboring Spring, Texas, who coincidentally attended the same high school as his boss. “Playing football in high school and in college has definitely given him the ability to handle stressful situations. In my 10 years in the Marine Corps, he’s one of the best young officers I’ve ever worked for because he always keeps a cool head and takes care of us.”
“I have worked for (1stLt. Chiesl) for a year and what really impressed me most about him is that when he first arrived to the unit he took the time to learn the different functions of each JTFE section before getting too involved,” said St. Louis native Sgt. Durrand D. Lardge, satellite communications chief, 13th MEU. “He allows his Marines (the freedom) to work individually so we can contribute to accomplishing the overall team mission.”
“I think his best quality is his leadership,” added Colorado Springs, CO, native SSgt. Timothy Otto, satellite maintenance chief, 13th MEU. “He isn’t afraid to get in there and take a hit for his team. We know he has our back no matter what.”
Likewise, Chiesl relates the exceptional support the American people are providing servicemembers in Iraq to the strong backing the Middies fan base provided during his college days.
“Making a big play in a game is an amazing feeling because you feel the adrenaline rush from the roar of the crowd and you see people cheering and jumping up and down,” smiled Chiesl. “It’s similar to being here in Iraq, except you’ve got a whole nation cheering you on with letters and packages coming from home everyday with them telling us they are supporting us. “Hopefully when this war is said and done, we can all celebrate just like we did when we won the Army/Navy game."