NMOHLEC Board Member Barnum Reflects on Leadership Lessons Amid Ship Christening

Barney Barnum is fond of inspirational sayings. There’s “Charge On,” for one, and “If you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly bear” for another. But behind those sayings is a serious philosophy of leadership that stretches from the battlefields of Vietnam as a Marine to a second career in the Pentagon and now to the future U.S. Navy destroyer that will bear his name.

“Without leadership we’ve got nothing, whether in families, on ball fields, or corporate America or on the battlefield,” said Barnum, a Medal of Honor recipient and a board member of the National Medal of Honor Leadership and Education Center (NMOHLEC).

“Without leadership we flounder. And it’s important that people understand, the biggest part of leadership is integrity.

“When I talk about leadership with young kids, I tell them that it’s all about doing the right thing at the right time for the right reasons, even when no one is looking.”

The USS Harvey C. Barnum Jr. was recently christened in a ceremony in Bath, Maine, that included the governor, two senators, the secretary of the Navy and the acting commandant of the Marine Corps. Barnum was also surrounded by his daughter, granddaughters, great grandaughter and his wife, who had the traditional duty of smashing a bottle of sparkling wine against the hull of the Navy warship.

“To have your family involved, it doesn’t get any better than that,” he said. “It’s awesome and very humbling. When I got the call from the secretary of the Navy back in 2016, and he told me the ship would be named after me, I was speechless. And anyone who knows Barney Barnum knows I’m not very often speechless.”

– Barney Barnum

“Follow Me”

Barnum, 83, was born in Cheshire, Connecticut, and joined the Marines’ Platoon Leaders Class program while at St. Anselm College. He entered active duty after graduation and by 1965 was a first lieutenant serving in Vietnam. It was there, on Dec. 18, that his unit was pinned down by heavy and accurate enemy fire that killed his company commander and radio operator.

Barnum first gave aid to his dying commander and then, taking command himself, moved into the midst of heavy fire, encouraging and reorganizing his fellow Marines before leading their attack on the enemy. Exposing himself to enemy fire, he brandished a .45 caliber handgun and told his troops to follow him on a successful counterattack. Finally, he directed the landing of two transport helicopters for the evacuation of the dead and wounded.

For this, he received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for military valor in combat, in 1967. The citation reads, “His gallant initiative and heroic conduct reflected great credit upon himself and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the U.S. Naval Service.”

Barnum later became the first Medal of Honor recipient in Vietnam to return for another tour. He eventually retired as a colonel and then served the secretary of defense as principal director of drug enforcement policy. He next became deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for reserve affairs and acting assistant secretary of the Navy for manpower and reserve affairs.


The Barnum Grizzlies

Recently, he joined the board of the NMOHLEC, which is developing a leadership curriculum for college students and professionals built around the core values of the Medal of Honor: courage, integrity, commitment, sacrifice, citizenship and patriotism. A key part of this will be a $75 million conference center and museum at NMOHLEC headquarters at Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.

“The Center is an extension of what our goals are with the Medal of Honor Society, especially patriotism and love of country,” Barnum said. “There is so much negativity out there. There are no group of students or corporate people who wouldn’t benefit from sitting a half hour with Medal of Honor recipients and just listening.”

So, what makes a good leader?

“A good leader is one who listens to his people, who doesn’t talk all the time, and who makes them feel their problems are going to become his problem,” he said.

“So many times, a young Marine came to me with a problem that was miniscule but to him it was a big problem. So, you had to treat it as a big problem and give him guidance. And you never say that he screwed up. You say, ‘you know, that wasn’t as successful as it could have been. Did you consider trying it that way?’

“And you make it clear that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not always another train.”

These messages resonated with the Marines under Barnum’s command during his 27 years of service, and they’re resonating now with the 89 pre-commissioning crew members of the Navy’s latest destroyer – who now call themselves the Barnum Grizzlies and who have adopted “Charge On” as the ship’s motto.

“I hope to instill in the crew of the Barnum my leadership skills and values and love of country,” he said. “That’s the ‘OoRah’ stuff you’ve got to give them, and I come back fired up, myself. Now, Charge On!”

– Barney Barnum