USS Iwo Jima, GULF OF ADEN—Marines are taught to adapt and overcome; it's one of the mantras used to keep going when the going gets tough. For some Marines, they learn the hard lessons of overcoming adversity long before they step on the yellow footprints at a Marine Corps Recruit Depot.
Sgt. Joseph W. Martin, a combat veteran, Purple Heart recipient, and the assault section leader for Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, is a man who already faced a lifetime of hardship, in and out of the Marine Corps but now his biggest obstacle may be re-enlisting.
Sergeant Joseph W. Martin, the assault section leader for Lima Company, Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7), April 22, 2015. Martin is deployed with the 24th MEU and deployed to maintain regional security in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Joey Mendez)
It started when Martin was a baby and his mother took him and his siblings away from an abusive father in Georgia and moved to Vermont to start a happier and safer life. His mother met and fell in love with a man named Pete, who Martin says was a wild-eyed man caught up in a crazy life of motorcycle gangs.
Their new life was nothing short of turbulent. Martin recalls one day when his mother exclaimed they needed to pack their belongings because they were going on a field trip. The field trip was an abrupt move from Vermont to Colorado.
Martin remembers one day when, while he was at school, the FBI and local law enforcement raided their home outside Denver and arrested Pete for murder.
For the next six months, Martin's mother moved him and his siblings from place to place, sometimes leaving them at gas stations for several hours a day. Martin's family soon moved back to Vermont.
The chaotic lifestyle exacerbated Martin's mother's dependence on drugs and alcohol and, in the winter of 1992, his mother, while intoxicated, fell through the tracks of a train bridge to her death. Martin was just 13 years old.
“I felt a sense of pure and absolute hopelessness,” said Martin. “My entire world felt as if it imploded.”
Martin's older siblings kept the family afloat for several months before the state of Vermont found them and put them into Casey Family Services, a private organization which helped children who faced difficult times find a better home.
“Casey [Family Services] is probably the main reason I was able to advance in life. They took me away from a life with no structure and moved me to places with a great foundation,” said Martin. “The first guy I lived with, Paul Keen, was a big part of that.”
Keen was an English professor at a university in Hartford, Vermont, and provided Martin with his first home with a stable environment.
“Keen was just an awesome guy and added a ton of structure to my life in just the six months I lived with him,” said Martin.
Martin found his second and permanent family in 1993, when he was 14 years old, with Earl and Nancy Townsend, who he considers his parents. Martin loved the Townsends and lived a great life, one that included summer camps and any activity he dreamed of doing. Unfortunately, disaster struck in 2001 when Nancy suffered a fatal heart attack. Martin lost his second mother in just a little over ten years.
By the time Nancy passed, I'd already lost my biological mom, so I treated death like a normal thing. I missed [Nancy] but I just had to move on, said Martin. “Life is too precious, I wanted to keep a positive attitude and keep going.”
In 2003, Martin graduated high school and joined the Marine Corps.
Joseph W. Martin, left, now a Marine sergeant and assault section leader for Lima Company, Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, poses with a friend in front of their trailer before joining the Marine Corps in 2003. Martin has overcome a number of obstacles in his life in and outside the Marine Corps, including an IED blast in Iraq and a battle alongside Nicole as they fight her Multiple Sclerosis. (Courtesy photo by U.S. Marine Corps Sergeant Joseph W. Martin)
“I didn't know what to do with my life. I was a rebel kid who didn't care about school and had a passion for explosives. I had homemade fireworks—not that they are explosives—but when I was a little kid I couldn't help but think they were. And I loved G.I. Joe,” said Martin, laughing. “I was thinking about the Army or the Navy until the Marine recruiter came to my house and told me how cool the Marine Corps was. He also told me all women love Marines and I just couldn't say no.”
After boot camp and infantry training, Martin deployed in June 2004 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom with 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment. After two months in Iraq, tragedy struck again.
The Humvee Martin was traveling in was blown up by an IED, killing his sergeant and injuring him and two other Marines. Martin's chin was almost completely torn off in the explosion. His jaw was broken, and a piece of shrapnel struck him square between the eyebrows, peeling the skin off his forehead and the top of his skull.
He does not remember much about the blast. He said it was a rough time, but he remained positive, he recovered and returned to duty. He deployed again in 2005, with the 24th MEU aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima, and took part in humanitarian assistance for Hurricane Katrina.
A post-deployment trip to Boston with some friends finally provided Martin with some fortune when he met a woman named Nicole, who is now his wife.
“I thought after Boston we were never going to see each other again,” he said. “But [she came to] Fleet Week in New York that same month and we began a three-year long distance relationship.”
In 2009, Martin's performance and work ethic earned him a spot as an instructor at the School of Infantry. According to one of his three Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal citations, Sgt. Martin “distinguished himself among his peers” while training more than 2,500 entry-level Marines for the rigors of Marine infantry. He also worked as an assaultman section chief—a billet reserved for a staff sergeant, one rank senior to him.
But tragedy was never far away and in 2011, Martin lost Earl Townsend, the man he considers his father, to complications with diabetes.
“I miss him. I miss talking on the phone with him,” said Martin. “But since I met my wife, I told myself as quickly as a parent can die and crush your whole world, you can walk down the street and find your soul mate who will build your world back up.”
In 2012, Sgt. Martin took a group of 41 Marines and built a combat effective infantry line platoon in three weeks, deploying to Jordan as a platoon sergeant as a part of Task Force Jordan. Upon his return, Martin went back to teaching Marines, this time at the Marine Corps' Jungle Warfare Training Center. When there was a gap in the chief instructor billet at JWTC, Martin—still a sergeant—filled it.
This time the billet was reserved for a gunnery sergeant, two ranks above him. He received another award for maintaining “remarkable initiative and enthusiasm.”
The reason Martin is still a sergeant is no fault of his own. His occupational specialty is a small one and promotions have been extremely slow the last several years. That, and personnel drawdowns across the Department of Defense since 2013, makes Martin's promotion opportunities unclear. In fact, Martin is not in zone for promotion and is and is facing service limitations, meaning he cannot reenlist unless he is promoted.
Over the last four years, Martin deployed and extended his current enlistment waiting for a chance at a promotion. In the meantime, his leaders have not stopped trying to get him promoted—Martin is nominated for a meritorious promotion to staff sergeant by his company and battalion commanders, as well as the 24th MEU commander.
April 30, 2015 - Sergeant Joseph W. Martin, the assault section leader for Lima Company, Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, takes a “selfie” in Okinawa while he was a chief instructor for Jungle Warfare Training in 2013. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sergeant Joseph W. Martin)
In a brief conversation with Martin, you'll learn his desire for promotion is not selfish. Two years ago, while deployed to Okinawa, his wife was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis which temporarily blinded her for three months.
Again, Martin remained positive. He said a silver lining is that Duke University, only a little over an hour away from Camp Lejeune, N.C., where he is based, is one of the best treatment facilities for MS. It's one of the reasons he hopes to get promoted, stay in Camp Lejeune, and remain a Marine.
“I also really love my job,” said Martin. “I have a passion for being a Marine and blowing [things] up.”
Martin was just approved for a seven-month contract extension and he expects to be up for promotion this year. Either way, he is prepared for his future.
“If I can't re-enlist, I'll take care of my wife, but I also want to complete the Triple Crown which is a 7,500 mile trek along the Appalachian Trail, the Central Divide Trail, and the Pacific Crest Trail,” he said. “I'll walk back into civilian life—start the hike with a high and tight Marine haircut and let it transform into a beard and long hair.”
Martin says if he gets promoted and is allowed to remain a Marine, he wants to complete a different type of Triple Crown by joining 2nd Marine Regiment, the only remaining regiment on the east coast in which he has not previously served.
Martin is deployed again with the 24th MEU, aboard the Iwo Jima, maintaining regional security in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations.
By U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Joey Mendez
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