A Marine's Marine
Every Marine, past and present, honors the Marines Hymn as a token of their service and the sacrifice of those who have served before. Marine Corps recruits memorize the song and honor its significance, from the first steps they take on the yellow footprints to the moment they receive their Eagle, Globe and Anchor.
For some, it’s a customary song shared and respected at events. For Gunnery Sgt. Anton Arifaj, it’s the first thing he chooses to listen to at the beginning of each day.
As a senior drill instructor with Echo Company, 2nd Recruit Training Battalion aboard Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, Arifaj brings his passion for service every day to his platoon. He knows the energy and discipline he receives from his recruits and drill instructors will only be as much as he gives in return, and he says he gets his infectious attitude from a desire to serve his country at a young age.
Arifaj was no older than five when he first saw footage of the Gulf War and was driven to join the United States Military. When Sept. 11, 2001 hit, he knew his next decision would be an easy one.
“My senior year President Bush gave a speech saying he was going to push twenty thousand more troops into Iraq,” said Arifaj. “The country needed people to serve and fight, and I wanted to be one of them.”
Arifaj was a second generation American who grew up in a broken home. Eventually, he was taken in by one of his friends and his mother, who provided him with everything he needed to survive independently.
His senior year of high school, Arifaj enlisted in the Marine Corps and shipped to Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island soon after graduating. He said he was immediately struck by the variety of recruits and the diversity of each of their backgrounds and upbringings.
“I couldn’t believe the diversity when I first got to Parris Island,” stated Arifaj. “Coming from a small town, it was a pretty big shock. Just seeing what countries people came from, different ethnicities, values, and beliefs people had.”
The conflict was worsening in both Iraq and Afghanistan when Arifaj arrived at Parris Island. From training day one, the warfighter mentality was instilled into him and his fellow recruits by the drill instructors.
“It wasn’t a ‘maybe one day you might go to war,’” Arifaj said. “It was going to happen, and we needed to be prepared for it.”
In 2010, Arifaj deployed on a ten-month tour in Afghanistan. Before being deployed, Arifaj thought the Marine Corps would be his career, but it wasn’t until he was leading troops in the Middle East that he knew for sure.
“The experiences I had while leading Marines into combat is something I cannot replace,” said Arifaj. “The lifelong bonds you make is the best part of the Marine Corps.”
Having no spouse or children, Arifaj considers the Marine Corps his family. He still keeps in contact with the Marines he went to boot camp and follow-on training with. He said some of the most rewarding moments in his life have been watching his peers receive their college degrees, start families, or continue their service in the Marine Corps.
When Arifaj arrived at Drill Instructor School in 2019, he was in the best shape of his life. He was running perfect Physical and Combat Fitness tests while training for and completing marathons in his off-time. He admitted that adjusting to the new way of life as a drill instructor was something he could not have anticipated.
“Nothing can prepare your feet and body for walking and running fifty to seventy thousand steps in a day, several days in a row,” said Arifaj. “There is no way to fully prepare your body for that other than just doing it.”
Arifaj said his passion and drive to keep going in the face of adversity comes from his time spent on the drill field. He believes the success of recruits depends on their drill instructors who take the time to develop their character as they complete the transformation of becoming U.S. Marines.
“If you love being a Marine, then being a drill instructor is one of the most enjoyable things you can experience while being in the Marine Corps,” states Arifaj. “Everything you do embodies the Marine Corps. As a drill instructor, your life is the Marine Corps.”
Arifaj’s actions and infectious positive attitude have not only had an impact on the Marines he trains, but the Marines in his command.
“Marines look at Gunnery Sgt. Arifaj and think ‘Yup, I will follow that guy,” says Echo Company First Sergeant, 1st Sgt. Sergeant Robert Lark. “His level of passion, desire, and enthusiasm, along with his drive to make those around him better leaves an almost instantaneous impression.”
Arifaj says coming from a difficult upbringing prior to enlisting has helped him relate to recruits who have had the same circumstances in life. He understands what they have endured, and wants the same success for them as they begin careers in the Marine Corps.
Senior drill instructors like Arifaj have a unique duty to take care of both their recruits and their drill instructors. As established by their command, Marines who exemplify leadership in both aspects are chosen to take on the mantle of this challenging billet.
Arifaj says the importance of mentoring and challenging his drill instructors comes from the knowledge that one day, they will take his place and continue the mission of making Marines. Leaving a lasting legacy is his final goal as he prepares to transfer to his next duty station.