One Marine's Foundations
We've all heard the phrase, “everyone has a story.” The question I always have in the back of my mind is who helped write it? In most stories, there is an “arc” to the hero’s journey, lessons learned and challenges to overcome, but before we even get to that, the story's protagonist has a supporting character or two that provide a jumping off point, or maybe a fork in the road. Sometimes, we get lucky and we get a prequel and discover who or what helped build the protagonist's foundation.
Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Troy E. Black shared with me a little bit of his prequel, one that predates his time in the Marine Corps, but would come to define it and his life as a whole.
In 1983 Black was a freshman in high school in Louisville, Kentucky. One day, while sitting in 6th-period study hall, long brown hair falling into his eyes with nothing to do but twiddle his thumbs and stare at his books, a man in a Marine Corps uniform came into the room. He looked everyone up and down and asked "hey, how many of you want to do something with your life?" Black raised his hand and that moment would set the first brick in his foundation.
The man in uniform was an instructor for Marine Corps Junior Reserve Officer's Training Corps (JROTC). The JROTC program has partnerships with schools across the country and offers a platform to develop leadership skills and cultivate character and citizenship. Black credits his instructor Captain Robert W. Ebert and his time in the program for his successes in the Marine Corps.
"My two instructors, Captain Ebert being the primary, but both of the Marines that I came in contact with during my time in high school are probably the biggest influencers on any successes I've had in the Marine Corps," said Black. "More than any other individuals that I've experienced in my career because they set the foundation, that's what every single instructor we have out there does every single day."
As we continued to talk about the program, it became very clear to me how important Capt. Ebert was to Black. He wasn't just an instructor, he was a mentor. One that has, regretfully passed away, but that Black still keeps close in his memory to remind him of what true leadership is.
"I've been wearing a blue dress uniform four years longer than I've served in the Marine Corps," said Black. "So being able to carry and uphold the image of a Marine is something I've learned from Captain Ebert, and the things I've learned from him have carried me throughout my entire career."
Ebert enlisted in the Marine Corps during the Korean War. He advanced quickly through the ranks earning the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart and was combat promoted to Captain. He went on to serve in the Vietnam War, eventually retiring and continuing his service as an MCJROTC instructor.
Black says that
because of Ebert's history as both an officer and enlisted Marine,
he had a unique outlook on leadership and what it meant. "He was a
doer leader, leading by doing while he was enlisted and then became
a supervisory leader which is more what officers do," said Black.
"There's a really good line on their website that I think's relevant, it says Marine Corps junior reserve officers training corps is at its essence a leadership education program, meant solely to develop character and citizenship."
While Black may have gone on to be the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, the JROTC program isn't just for those who want to go on to wear the uniform.
"Don't join the program because you think you have to become a Marine, that's not what the program is designed for," said Black.
Going into this interview I thought that Sergeant Major Black and I would be talking about the JROTC program, what I did not expect was his passion not just for his mentor and the program, but also for just being an American. Black said that "our democracy is the greatest experiment in history," and because of that, we have some of the best opportunities in the world. JROTC taught him to give back to that nation in some way.
"It's a whole different idea about what it means to be a citizen, a member of the society rather than just somebody who exists in the society," said Black. "At its essence, our nation is built upon our constitution, when you read the preamble, when you read the constitution, when you read what the foundation of our nation is all about, you have to know those things in order to be a contributor to the greater society. Each and every one of us, even [those] in uniform…we are first and foremost citizens of this nation."
Black believes that this is at the essence of the JROTC program and after one conversation with him, I'm convinced. The instructors aren't there to teach future military members, they are there to help build the foundation of great citizens and develop leaders, regardless of what they decide to do after high school.
"Every single one of those men and women that retire and they go into those roles, they continue to serve, but they are serving at a different level, they're serving at our high schools to teach people how to lead, to develop their character and how to be successful and productive citizens in our society outside the uniforms they may wear in the future."
So what's next for Black?
I guess we will have to wait for the sequel to find out. What I do know is that there is somebody out there searching for their Capt. Ebert and the start of their journey, and there is also somebody out there wanting to be the next Capt. Ebert.
Whatever your story, maybe the JROTC program can be a part of it.