Let’s Seek The Truth

While attending the Basic School at Quantico, Virginia, as a newly appointed Warrant Officer in the United States Marine Corps, I was taught about the importance of conducting a Judge Advocate General (JAG) Manual investigation and how to properly interview and prepare all the documentation.  These investigations were important because they would allow the Commanding Officer (CO) to utilize the information gained to determine if criminal charges were to be imposed and against who these charges were to be levied.

Despite my best efforts, not a single Marine knew who had committed this act of vandalism or were willing to accuse a fellow Marine.

My first experience with being assigned as the investigating officer was when I was stationed in Hawaii.  It seemed that the Marines living on the third floor of the barracks were tired of having a washer and dryer that did not work.  One day, the washer and dryer were tossed over the rail of the third-floor catwalk and were completely destroyed.  Luckily, no one was below the railing so no Marines were injured by this act of washer/dryer Olympics.  Despite my best efforts, not a single Marine knew who had committed this act of vandalism or were willing to accuse a fellow Marine.  My recommendation was to replace the washer and dryer and then to ensure all of these machines were properly maintained to prevent the frustration these Marines were feeling having to constantly look for machines that were working.  The CO added a maintenance check of all washers and dryers to the weekly barracks inspection to ensure our Marines had access to these important quality of life items.

My fastest assignment as an investigation officer was also by the same CO when I was conducting the Friday barracks inspection.  I was just about to finish up the inspection when I entered a room and as was my custom, quickly ran my fingers across a table in the room to ensure it had been properly dusted.  To my surprise, my fingers were covered with “green flaky dust” that I recognized from our training on identifying illegal drugs.  I quickly sealed the room and contacted the CO with my suspicion that there was marijuana hidden somewhere in this room.  The military police were contacted and I was assigned to investigate and document the room search for the purposes of a criminal investigation.  I removed several bags of marijuana from the room and the occupants of the room were charged accordingly.

Before I would bring my career as a Marine to an end, I would conduct several investigations concerning various criminal and non-criminal actions.  And, as you can guess, I conducted several sexual harassment investigations for both the Marine Corps and the Navy.  But no matter what the subject of the investigation was, I always sought the truth – no matter how it was to affect the lives of those I was investigating – because knowing the truth will endure justice is done.  So, if you are ever called upon to investigate possible wrongdoing in your organization, here are some tips that should help you.

  • Start with the understanding that every person you are about to interview deserves the respect of being heard and believed. Treat each person with the same dignity and respect with which you would want your loved ones to be treated in the same situation.
  • Start each interview by building trust. I would always try to interview people in a comfortable environment, not sitting behind a desk or across a table, if possible.  I would ensure there was water available and tissues should someone start crying.  I may start by talking about other things of minor significance before jumping into the important questions to allow the person to relax.  In this manner, I actually was able to get a person to admit to making inappropriate comments to females because he honestly believed I would accept his excuse that he was just joking as grounds for dismissal of the sexual harassment charges.  He was wrong but it made the investigation wrap up quickly because he verified everything the victim had told me.
  • Despite what we read in today’s headlines, not everyone tells the truth. So, as you begin your investigation, learn to listen very carefully and take good notes.  A person who is not telling the complete truth will slip up and change minor details when you ask them to clarify a portion of their statement.  So, be ready to catch these changes and then ask leading questions that lets them know they have started to change their story and are heading for trouble.  In most cases, this has allowed me to get someone to break down and finally tell me the truth.  I was once interviewing a Navy chief accused of fraternization with a female who worked for him.  He said over and over how he had no contact with her outside of their professional contact in the office.  So, I asked this important question, “So, although you claim your only contact with her was professional in nature and always at work, you then married her even though you knew nothing about her other than her work ethics?!”  Oops, he did not know that I had already found out about the marriage (which was actually done to prevent her from testifying against him).
  • If the sequence of events does not follow a logical pattern, then the person is trying to spin a story they think you will believe. Be prepared to follow up with questions that will enable you to establish a logical timeline.  When I was investigating an automobile accident where one of my Marines was killed, the driver told the story that they were driving back to base and the car suddenly flipped over.  Not logical.  So, with probing questions, I finally learned that they had been bar hopping and, on the way back to base, the passenger who was killed said to the driver, “Show me what this hog will do” at which point the driver floored the gas pedal causing him to lose control of the car.
  • Watch for the unspoken clues. Body language can quickly let you know if someone is trying to hide information or mitigate their involvement.  Failure to keep good eye contact, fidgeting in their chair, the shaking of their leg, arms folded across their chest are just some to the things that may indicate the person is not being quite honest in their answers.  I can’t tell you how many times the statement, “Sit still and look me in the eye when you are speaking” would bring out the truth.
  • An angry denial followed by an act of bravado such as jumping to their feet is a pretty good indication that you have backed them into a corner and they want out. Calmly ask them to sit down.  If that does not work, stand up, look them in the eye and gently say, “Sit down now.”  You will be surprised at how quickly they fold when you let them know that they are not the biggest dog in the room.
  • Finally, once you have gathered all the facts and can honestly answer the who, what, where, when, how, and why, then create your final report and justify each finding with the evidence you gathered so that the truth will be clearly visible to anyone reading your report. In this manner, you will be able to honestly say that you were guided by the truth.

If you are going to be an exemplary leader, then in every situation, seek the truth and allow that truth to guide your corrective actions.  Be a leader know for truth and justice.

Len Bernat
Len Bernat
LEN is a leader groomed by 20 years of molding and shaping by some of the finest leaders in the United States Marine Corps. Their guidance helped Len realize his full potential as he moved from an enlisted Marine to becoming an Officer of Marines. Len became known for being the leader who could turn any lackluster organization into a strong, functional unit. Upon his retirement, Len worked in several positions before finally starting a second career in governmental procurement. His experience and leadership skills enabled him to be recognized as the 2011 Governmental Procurement Officer of the Year for the Governmental Procurement Association of Georgia and opened doors for him to teach at many of the association’s conferences. Len was also called to the ministry and was ordained at Ashford Memorial Methodist Church in November of 1999. Today, Len is the Pastor of Maxeys Christian Church in Maxeys, Georgia. Len has been married to his wife, Hazel, for 36 years and they have three daughters, three grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. Grab your copy of Len's new Book – Leadership Matters | Advice From A Career USMC Officer. Using his life experiences as examples, Len takes the eleven principles of leadership and the fourteen traits every leader should possess—which he learned during twenty years in the Marine Corps—and teaches the reader how he was molded and shaped by some of the best leaders the Corps had to offer.
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Danny Pitocco

Greetings Len from The Gumshoe. We would have made a great interview and interrogation team since we both are on the same sheet of music.

I found that suspects only confessed if they liked you after you take the time of building up a repore with them. Also, an offer and acceptance of a McDonald’s hamburger after a period of time lead many of my suspects to a confession with fries!

In closing,God gave us two ears and one mouth and so a good investigator knows to listen twice as much as she or he should speak.

Great article! Semper Fi!

Christine Andola

Len, I always enjoy how you weave stories from your life and work into your articles. You make a simple point entertaining and memorable. Thanks for sharing this one.

Larry Tyler

Thank you Len this can be used in so many aspects of our life.

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