Only a few can fill the shoes of Marines, but at the National Museum of the Marine Corps, visitors can follow Marine footsteps through history: the famed yellow footprints of recruit depots, the smudged tar footprints on a Continental Navy ship’s deck, frozen boot prints in the snow of Toktong Pass in Korea and jungle boot imprints in the red clay of Hill 881 South in Vietnam. Yet in addition to these vivid historical portrayals, visitors can shake hands with active-duty Marines who currently fill those shoes and learn about the path those footsteps are taking toward the future.
An active-duty Marine greets each of the 550,000 to 600,000 people who pass the museum’s information desk each year. For many visitors—nearly two-thirds according to Visitor Services Chief Patrick Mooney—it is the first time they have met a Marine in person. For visitors who have worn the uniform, the chance to converse with a fellow leatherneck feels like a homecoming, conjuring up the years they served, perhaps looking very much like the youthful Marine handing them a museum map.
Assigning Marines to serve a tour of duty at the museum emphasizes the importance the Corps places on its history. All recruits learn—and learn from—the stories of Marines who stepped up in battle. While uniforms and equipment change over time, Marines continue the long legacy of service to America that is depicted in the exhibits from the Continental Marines to recent engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The introduction of active-duty Marines to the public provides a face and voice to news headlines. As Mooney, a Marine veteran, pointed out, “They are the same young men who have answered our nation’s call from 1775 to today. It is 234 years of continuity, of narrative. [The museum] is not cold figures … the Marines put flesh and blood on the skeleton of this museum, and they make it come alive.”
The museum’s Marine detachment includes Marines who work for Mooney in Visitor Services, as well as Marines who work in artifact restoration, combat art and fiscal. These Marines fall under the Marine Corps University’s Education Command and are overseen by Gunnery Sergeant Eric T. Jackson, the staff non-commissioned officer in charge of the Marine detachment and the acting operations officer of the museum.
GySgt Jackson ensures that the museum’s Marines meet the Corps’ requirements in areas of fitness, rifle range, swimming and gas chamber training. As the senior enlisted Marine at the museum, he offers guidance and information to museum directors regarding all Marine personnel issues.
“I personally think that people come here to see the museum,” Jackson said, “but to see Marines at the front desk to meet and greet them makes their visit more personal. They can actually talk to a Marine and ask him or her different questions about things that are going on now; and they can share stories of former Marines or what they did in World War I or II, to actually what goes on in Iraq and Afghanistan now.”
The Marines are tasked with running the front desk, giving tours and supporting special events held at the museum. But they also go beyond the museum walls, participating in outreach programs that publicize the museum’s mission to preserve history and promote the character of the Corps, often wearing uniforms from various eras of Marine Corps history. They take part in the Public Service Recognition Week held each year on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., aimed at highlighting military personnel and civilians who serve the government.
Another event where the Marines help to publicize the museum is the Joint Service Open House at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., in conjunction with the base’s air show.
Marine Week provides another opportunity to be the museum’s ambassadors to the public. This event, previously held in Chicago in 2009 and in Boston this year, encompasses a citywide infusion of leathernecks who demonstrate many aspects of being a Marine: equipment, vehicles, public service activities and traditions. The Marines from the museum accompany the traveling exhibit from the National Museum of the Marine Corps. Often clothed in period uniforms, such as those from the Continental Marines, World War I and Vietnam eras, they offer a preview of museum exhibits. They also appear at many Virginia-area historical events promoting Marine Corps history and inspiring people to visit the museum.
Bridging the Generations
Serving at the museum also offers something most active-duty Marines may not grasp initially: a unique perspective of their role in the spectrum of Marine Corps history. But it occurred to Corporal Andrew M. Daily just as he was checking out from his museum billet: “We go out and we carry the fight on overseas, and we carry that tradition on, and sometimes I don’t think active-duty Marines realize that we’re carrying that tradition on for those guys that were on Iwo Jima, in the Chosin Reservoir, in Khe Sanh. We’re carrying this tradition on and what we do doesn’t only make us proud and our generation proud of who we are, but it also makes previous generations proud of what their Corps has grown into.”
Earlier generations of Marines go to the museum each day and readily initiate a conversation to see how the newer generation of Marines measures up.
And these Marines stand ready to bridge that time gap.
Daily recounted his deployments to Iraq in 2005 and 2007. As a member of “Kilo” Company, Third Battalion, Sixth Marine Regiment, he fought in Operation Iron Fist and Operation Steel Curtain in 2005.
“On the Syrian border,” Daily recalled, “our battalion was tasked with gaining security in the main insurgent strongholds in the region, which were Husaybah, Karabilah, Sa’dah and new and old Ubaydi; those were the main towns and villages along the border south of the Euphrates [River].” Daily’s second Marine Corps Birthday was spent in “full out combat” during Operation Steel Curtain.
On his second deployment from January to August 2007, Daily was part of a military transition team (MiTT), a small unit of Marines at a forward operating base who trained members of the Iraqi army and went out on patrols with them as advisors.
During this deployment he met Sergeant (now Staff Sergeant) Rakene L. Lee, who had worked as the security noncommissioned officer and operations chief for the museum prior to the building’s completion. He also posed for the cast resin figure for the Montford Point Marine in the World War II exhibit. Daily listened to Lee when he encouraged him to reenlist and request to be assigned to duty at the National Museum of the Marine Corps. Daily also encouraged fellow Marines to do so as well; thus the museum gained five Marines coming out of combat in Iraq.
Daily’s combat experience and his time at the museum amplified that spirit of “Semper Fidelis” planted in boot camp. “The whole term ‘Semper Fi’ really stands out here now. I recognized what kept me going all those days and nights in Iraq. It was more than everything back home. It was the guys on my left and my right. It was that esprit de corps saying, ‘I’m going to make sure they get home and they’re going to make sure I get home. …’ Here [at the museum], you actually see people who are living [Semper Fi]. They did four years in the Marine Corps back in the ’50s and … they still call themselves Marines.”
Many of the Marines at the museum have served in combat, several having served with Daily in 3/6. If asked, they will describe their deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan. While they speak with 20-something-year-old faces, their words belong to men who have undergone the challenges of war and relied upon rigorous training and the devout loyalty among Marines. Mooney said Marines who have served in combat “become transcendent in that they become Marines of indefinite age. They are no longer 19 years old. They are 19 going on 40. They are transformed by the experience.” This transcendence helps these Marines relate to the many museum visitors who also have served their country.
Sergeant Eduardo Maldonado, who served two deployments in Iraq and also participated in Operations Iron Fist and Steel Curtain, described meeting veterans at the museum: “I admire the people who come in, like the Iwo vets. They’ll stand in front of you and stare at you. Sometimes you’ll see them even cry in front of you. [They’ll say,] ‘You remind me of myself so many years back.’ ”
Maldonado, surprised by their reaction, wondered how he could be compared to a veteran of Iwo Jima. “I look at you and you’re a warrior,” he said of the Iwo Jima veterans, adding, “I really honor them.”
Indeed, the common bond that is strong between past and present Marines often surprises family members who accompany veterans to the museum.
Sgt Michael E. Bustamante recalled a day when he greeted a World War II and Korea veteran who was touring the museum with his son and his family. The son went to the front desk and told Bustamante that his father, who had never told his son anything about his wartime experiences, was responding to the exhibits as if his military service took place yesterday. Bustamante said that just as the family was about to leave, “the older gentleman walks up to me first and starts talking to me without his son even saying anything.” But the son was listening. Because of the two Marines’ conversation, he discovered and perhaps better understood a chapter in his father’s life that had been unknown to him.
The scenario was not new to Bustamante, who explained in his rapid, straight-shooting style: “I was 23 at the time; his dad was 70, 80. You’re still my brother. We still back each other up. We still talk that same language, the Marine Corps.”
This very connection is critical to the role the Marines serve at the museum.
“One of my key points [as chief of Visitor Services],” said Mooney, “was for the Marines here to see themselves as part of the Marine Corps story because they look with a great deal of admiration and awe at Marine veterans of the past.”
These Marines personify the enthusiasm, brotherhood and ideals of the Corps. Veterans relate to that readily, but the museum Marines must be good ambassadors, especially for those people who are less familiar with the Marine Corps. “Basically they need to have people skills— being able to meet and greet people, talk about history, love of the Marine Corps, love of history,” the operations chief, GySgt Jackson, said. “We are the first Marines that people actually see when they come to the museum, and you want that first impression to be a good impression—and a lasting impression.”
The Marine Story: Then and Now
The Marines are not expected to have memorized Corps history; the museum has many historians and curators who can teach them what they need to know. It is more essential to be comfortable around people, eager to learn Marine history as well as the architectural details of the building, and willing to respond readily when visitors ask (for the umpteenth time) where the bathroom is located or how to get to Tun Tavern or the Mess Hall.
Pat Mooney prepares the Marines to give tours, culminating in the Marines taking him on a tour as a sort of graduation exercise. Daily explained that Mooney “took us under his wing, taught us up on the history, [by] taking us on tours, giving us books, watching historical DVDs; [we] studied those, [went] on tours, had a class on something and [were] tested on it a day or two later.”
Once prepared, the Marines lead tours of visitors through the museum, not relying on a memorized script, but telling the Marine Corps story through the perspective of being a Marine, fighting the battles, meeting the requirements and learning from those who have walked before.
The Marines also have a close relationship with the docents. They attend docent meetings, which include educational presentations about Marine Corps history, such as battles, vehicles or equipment.
At least one of these presentations was taught by three Marines serving at the museum: Sgt Maldonado, Sgt Mark T. Wangler and Cpl Daily. These Marines wanted to tell the docents about recent Marine Corps operations, which are represented in the museum by a temporary photographic exhibit having little narration.
Mooney encouraged them to prepare a slide presentation of a “grunt’s-eye view of operations in Iraq” so that docents could talk to visitors about the exhibit.
Wearing their combat utilities and displaying current combat gear, the Marines transported docents down Iraqi streets as they cleared houses, searching for insurgents. Each Marine told his perspective of the night one of their fellow Marines, Sgt Richard Tack, was wounded on the rooftop of one of the houses. Mooney said, “I watched them tell with the pride of their achievements and their service and sorrow for the losses and the pain suffered, and their sense of humor … the dry, droll gallows humor.” When they finished, the docents stood in applause, respecting these warriors who were a part of history at such a young age.
One museum Marine who does not lead tours but has witnessed history through an unusual path is Sgt Shaun D. Pettit. With a background in airframe mechanics, Pettit had worked on almost every aircraft the Marine Corps flies when he was with Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 29 in Iraq. His background earned him the opportunity to be an artifact restoration expert for the museum. Along with seven civilians, Pettit prepares artifacts for display. The pieces must be completely taken apart and restored to their historically accurate original state. “We’re not here to make it look nice; we’re here to make it as original as we can,” said Pettit.
Working with the very parts of an artifact that his earlier counterparts handled brings Pettit very close to history. “When you work on these things, you kind of think. You look at it, you touch it … somebody actually fired this about a hundred years ago, fighting against other people; Marines or someone was flying this; so you’re really close to history.”
As the project lead manager for the French 75 mm field gun, currently displayed in the World War I gallery, Pettit experienced such a moment of time travel. “There was a part [and] when we took it apart, we took the breach out and there was sand in it. You kind of think about, Where did this come from? Was it on the beach? Did they drag it out?”
During the restoration process, the attention to detail is acute. Besides the historian’s natural insistence on accuracy, museum visitors are quick to point out discrepancies. “Believe it or not, you can have a World War II vet come in and he’ll see a piece of gear that he used to work on or fire, and he’ll say, ‘This bolt isn’t the right size,’ or ‘That trigger wasn’t shaped like that.’ That’s why we keep attention to detail,” said Pettit.
The French 75 mm field gun set off a meticulous search for a firing pin. “We don’t cut corners,” said Pettit. “If it takes us six months to get a part to make it look original, perfect, the way it really was, we’ll wait that six months instead of doing it tomorrow with something else.”
Clearly, Pettit loves his job. When he walks through the museum, he undoubtedly recalls the unique problems that brought hours of hard work and research before artifacts could rest on the floor of the museum. But his satisfaction is equally apparent. “I think I’ve got the luckiest job in the Marine Corps because I’ve got the privilege to work with some of the most historic artifacts in the Marine Corps.”
A Unique Marine Corps Duty
Through their duty at the museum, Marines have opportunities unique to the Corps. Several posed for the cast resin figures in the museum. Many donned World War I uniforms and spent a week in a Virginia wheat field to re-create the Battle of Belleau Wood for an exhibit. Through distinguished visitors who have been to the museum, the Marines have met a wide spectrum of people from the Commandant of the Marine Corps and battle veterans, to movie stars, Ultimate Fighting Champions, country singers and even the Budweiser Clydesdales!
The docents have adopted the Marines into what only can be described as a family, with social events, such as Marine Corps Birthday Balls and gatherings in Tun Tavern. There are care packages for those who have returned to the operating forces and are on deployment, as well as Facebook connections, where relationships continue despite new duty stations.
The history of the museum and the appreciation of its visitors have provided inspiration for the Marines, who left their original military occupational specialty (MOS) to serve there.
As Sgt Wangler noted just prior to his return to the operating forces as an 0341, mortarman, “It will be difficult for us to jump back into our original MOS. We’ve been in situations where you just adapt and overcome; learn as fast as you can, on-the-job training type deal. I think it will be a challenge, but fun. I’ll just think back: ‘Frozen Chosin wasn’t easy, but they got it done,’ and it will keep me motivated ... that I come from that long line of history, that it’s gotta be done.”
One gift that this duty gives to Marines is the intangible but very present sense of belonging to the long history of men and women who have earned the title “Marine.”
And they know just how big those shoes are to fill.
Author’s note: Marines interested in serving at the museum may contact Patrick Mooney at (703) 784-4450 or email@example.com. Special thanks to J. Lynn Zienta for sharing her photographs.
Editor’s note: Many will recognize Mary Karcher’s byline from her days as a Leatherneck staff writer and editor for various segments of the magazine. We are pleased to have her back in the magazine, if only for a freelance article, and look forward to more contributions from Mary.