“Not Bad for a Lance Corporal”

Philanthropist, Entrepreneur Bob Parsons Turned the Discipline He Learned in the Marine Corps into High-Tech Success

By Joel Searls

Bob Parsons’ name is synonymous with entrepreneurship, resilience, and the American spirit. Parsons came from very humble beginnings and grew up in Baltimore, Md., fighting for every inch of success he achieved. He founded two successful tech companies, Parsons Tech­nology (sold to Intuit in 1994 for $64 mil­lion) and GoDaddy (sold to private equity investors in 2011 for $2.25 billion). In 2012, Parsons started YAM Worldwide Inc., for his entrepreneurial endeavors in power sports, golf, real estate, marketing, innovation, and philanthropy. Parsons’ organizations include Parsons Xtreme Golf (PXG), Harley Davidson of Scotts­dale, YAM Properties and, most importantly, The Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation, which has awarded donations to 100 charities and organizations world­wide since 2012.

I recently spoke with Parsons to dis­cuss how his time in the Marine Corps contributed to his later success in life.

How were you inspired to join the Marines? Well, you must understand I was ter­rible in school. Just terrible. If I were a kid today, I would be pumped so full of Ritalin! My senior year, I discovered the opposite sex and alcohol, which didn’t help my schooling either. I was failing several subjects and I was pretty sure I was not going to graduate.

Bob Parsons (top), founder of internet hosting provider GoDaddy, attributes much of his success to his Marine Corps training. Parsons (above) went to boot camp at MCRD Parris Island and was an infantry Marine in Vietnam.


One day … in the spring of 1968, I had two friends, Aggie Psirocus and Charlie Mason, tell me that we were going to talk to a Marine Corps recruiter and ask if I would like to join them. Aggie had already joined and was helping the recruiter … so Charlie and I went down with him. The recruiter had us at “Hello.” We walked in and he said, “How are you men doing?” This guy looked like Sergeant Rock; everything was starched, and the creases were perfect, and he was in incredible shape. He asked us to wait a moment and went and rattled in his closet a little bit, came out and said, “I was gonna pour you men a drink, but I’m all out.” I think one of us said, “Don’t even worry. We’ll bring it next time.” He said, “Nah, it’s okay. We’ll drink my stuff.” Thinking back on it, I am pretty sure his stuff never existed.

Bob Parsons (top), founder of internet hosting provider GoDaddy, attributes much of his success to his Marine Corps training. Parsons (above) went to boot camp at MCRD Parris Island and was an infantry Marine in Vietnam.

After about an hour, this guy knew he had us and said, “If you want, I’ll see if I can get you in,” and we said, “Absolutely!” He told us there were three reasons we should enlist now. No. 1, Charlie and I could join on the buddy plan and go through training together. No. 2, we didn’t have to leave for Parris Island until August. Somehow or another we thought Parris Island in August would be a good thing. At least we’d have our summer at home in Baltimore. Then, the third reason, which made all the sense in the world to us, was that we didn’t have to worry about getting drafted into the Army. We said, “That sounds good,” and then he said, “We’re going to have to check your grades and so forth,” and my thought was, “Uh oh!”

I was 17 at the time so my mother had to sign my papers. She was a little reluctant, but she finally did. I went back with my papers two weeks later, still worried about the recruiter checking my grades, and he said, “Robert, we think you’ll make a fine Marine.” Our first orders were to report to Fort Holabird for transfer to Parris Island.

When I showed my orders to my teachers, they knew what was happening, they all passed me! In many ways, I owe the Marine Corps my high school diploma. The more I thought about going to boot camp, the more I could not wait to get there, and the same was true for my buddy, Charlie.

When we got down to Parris Island, the DI that got on the bus didn’t exactly say, “How are you men doing?”

Charlie and I were both made riflemen.

The bunker in Vietnam where Parsons served with Delta Co, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines on Hill 190 in Quang Nam Province.
The bunker in Vietnam where Parsons served with Delta Co, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines on Hill 190 in Quang Nam Province.

What was your experience in Vietnam?

The bunker in Vietnam where Parsons served with Delta Co, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines on Hill 190 in Quang Nam Province.

My unit was “Delta” Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines and we operated on Hill 190. We were in Quảng Nam Province, where there were rice paddies as far as you could see on one side and mountains and jungle on the other side. Our job was to keep the North Vietnamese Army out of those villages, which we did by running ambushes at night. When I got there, the most senior man in my squad had only been there for six weeks … The squad was ambushed a few days before I got there. Four Marines were KIA [Killed in Action], and one Marine was seriously WIA [Wounded in Action]. I was one of the replacements.

The bunker in Vietnam where Parsons served with Delta Co, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines on Hill 190 in Quang Nam Province.
The bunker in Vietnam where Parsons served with Delta Co, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines on Hill 190 in Quang Nam Province.

After meeting with my squad, I sat on a wall while I was waiting to go into the bush and thought, “Wow, I’m going to be here for 13 months. The most senior guy here has only been here for six weeks. How in the world am I going to live through this?” Then it occurred to me as I looked out at the valley that I am going to die here. When I accepted that, every­thing changed for me. Then I made myself two promises. The first promise was I would do everything I could to do my job as a United States Marine. I wanted to make my folks back home proud and not let the guys in my squad down. My second promise was I wanted to do everything I could to be alive for mail call.
Many of my buddies from the war told me they accepted death. They said, “I thought for sure I was going to die.” I believe that made us a much more formidable combat unit. We were worried about one thing and one thing only: doing our job. I hadn’t been with my squad for four hours when I saw my first combat. A fellow Marine was hurt horrifically—his name was Ermel Hunt.

The bunker in Vietnam where Parsons served with Delta Co, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines on Hill 190 in Quang Nam Province.

That night our squad was set up in one place and a sister squad was set up in a location a couple clicks apart. We had a corpsman with us, and they did not. We got a radio call from Hill 190 that said, “Get your ass over there as quick as you can with the corpsman.” I remember running through those rice paddies … We get there and their squad leader, Larry Blackwell, was in the rice paddy and he was losing his cookies. He looked like he was in shock and the Huey was going to land right on top of him. When I saw it, I took off and started pushing Larry until we hit a rice paddy dike and went ass over apple cart into the adjacent paddy. The Huey missed us both. At first, he was pissed at me, and then he realized what had happened, so then he thanked me. Did I save his bacon? Oh, for sure.

The second night we were moving out on an ambush, and a Marine named Ray Livsey was walking point. He used to call himself Sgt Rock … walking through a rice paddy is one nasty thing … walking on the rice paddy dikes was so much easier. The problem was that the North Vietnamese knew it was easy. The point man made the decision if he was willing to walk on the dikes or not, and Ray said, “I’m going to walk on the dikes.” It wasn’t five minutes, KABOOM! The explosion mangled his legs. I helped carry him about a mile back to the medevac point.

When we got back to Hill 190 the next morning, I went to clean my rifle. After falling over and over while carrying Ray, my rifle was straight mud from the tip of the barrel to the beginning of the chamber. Had I pulled the trigger, oh my! Thank God that didn’t happen, but I learned you’ve got to keep the barrel up and out of the mud.

I did every job. I walked “tail end Charlie,” which is the safest but also the creepiest job. Then I carried a radio for a while. During Vietnam that was the only communication for the squad, so being the radio man was like wearing a sign that said, “Please shoot me first.” Eventual­ly, I volunteered for the point team, which is how I got hurt.

One month to the day after I arrived, we were going through a village. I’m walking second point; Gene was first point and Gene’s a real high-stepping guy, so he steps over this trip wire and of course, I hit it. When the trap exploded, at first, I didn’t know it was me. As I was laying on the ground, I reached over to stop some of the bleeding on my leg and I realized my elbow joint was outside of my arm … The boys carried me back and then I was medevacked in a jeep. I eventually ended up in Yokosuka Naval Hospital in Japan for the better part of two months. Then I received orders back to the bush.

Parsons was wounded a month after he arrived in Vietnam and subsequently received a Purple Heart.
Parsons was wounded a month after he arrived in Vietnam and subsequently received a Purple Heart.

In the Marine Corps back then, you had to be wounded three times before you could opt out. I don’t know if that’s changed, but it was three times, assuming you were physically able. When I got to Okinawa, they did a full physical since I came from the hospital and saw my elbow still hadn’t healed. So, they put me into a casualty company.

Parsons was wounded a month after he arrived in Vietnam and subsequently received a Purple Heart.

Eventually all my wounds healed, and I told the doctor over at the sick bay I wanted to go back. I said, “Sir, I am all healed and I’m ready to go back.” The doctor said to me, “Parsons, you did what you needed to do. If you want, I’ll keep you here all war, son.” I said to him, “Nah, I want to go back. I want to be with my squad.” Even though it had only been a month; I was closer to them than so many people. He said, “OK.” He put it through and several days later I got notice: “Here’s your orders. You’re going to leave in the morning. And, your payroll records, which had been lost since you were wounded, have finally showed up.” I was given four months’ pay and told to, “Go off base, have yourself a good time, and be back at midnight.”

At 3 in the morning, I was still whoop­ing it up. As I’m walking, the rain is com­ing down sideways. I see a guy walking towards me. I recognized it was the guy who I saved that first night in the bush, Larry Blackwell. He told me that he was wounded when his squad was ambushed. Because it was his third time wounded, he didn’t have to go back to a rifle company.

It was his third Purple Heart, and he was now stationed in Marine Corps intelli­gence … He stops, and he says to me, “You know you saved my life,” and I said, “I know.” … He says, “The guy that runs the print shop just left, and we haven’t put someone in that position yet.” He said, “I can get that for you,” and I said, “Really, how?” He goes, “Well, the gunnery ser­geant is a friend of mine, and when I tell him that you saved my life and that you’ve already been there and you’ve got a Purple Heart, he’ll probably be OK with assigning you instead of someone just coming through.” I said, “I appreciate that, brother.” My orders were for 7 a.m. and it would be tough for him to make a change. And, in a way, I wanted to go back.

When I arrived back on base, I was immediately arrested for not being back by midnight. I said, “I was wounded, and the Navy lost my payroll records and I’m going back to Vietnam tomorrow.” The second lieutenant said, “Get him the f— out of here,” which was him being nice to me. I went back to the barracks and a couple of hours later woke up with a hangover from hell. Whoever was managing the formation called my name and said, “I’ve got orders that you’re now stationed here on Okinawa.”

An entrepreneur at heart, the veteran Marine established Parsons Xtreme Golf (PXG), a company that manufactures custom-fitted golf clubs.
An entrepreneur at heart, the veteran Marine established Parsons Xtreme Golf (PXG), a company that manufactures custom-fitted golf clubs.

Blackwell came to me a couple of months later and said, “Parsons, I came over to say goodbye. I requested a transfer back to a rifle company. I can’t deal with it here.” I said, “Brother, good luck and I’m going to miss you.” A couple of weeks later I also put in my request to go back to my squad in Vietnam. When the request got to the company gunny, [he] looked at it and said, “Parsons, you’re requesting to go back to your unit?” I said, “Yeah,” and he said, “Have you lost your mind? You’ll get yourself killed, son.” He ripped it up and said, “Request denied.” I requested again a few months later and was denied again.

How did your Marine Corps experience factor into your return home from Vietnam?

An entrepreneur at heart, the veteran Marine established Parsons Xtreme Golf (PXG), a company that manufactures custom-fitted golf clubs.

When I came home from the war, I was a different guy in a lot of ways. First, I worked in a steel mill as a laborer. Then, another job I applied for and got was a machinist apprentice.

Eventually, I saw an ad for the Univer­sity of Baltimore, [that was] focused on veterans. You didn’t need to take the en­trance exams or provide your high school grades. If you had a GED or graduated from high school, that was sufficient. My cousin lent me the money to pay the first advance on my tuition. That’s how I was able to go to college and study accounting. Lo and behold, I graduated Magna Cum Laude. Then I took the CPA exam and passed it the first time. I bought a book later and taught myself how to program a computer and became a hobbyist. I used that book to start my first company, Parsons Technology. I would never have done any of this without the Marine Corps! The Marine Corps totally changed me.

Here’s what they taught me: they taught me the importance of discipline—not discipline in the form of punishment, although there was plenty of that. They taught me that responsibility is sacred. If you have a job to do, you must have the discipline and backbone to see it through. You don’t have to want to do it, but you must do it to the best of your ability to not let the guy next to you down.

In enlisted boot camp, when somebody screws up, the whole platoon gets punished except for the guy that screws up. If some­one is caught with pogey bait in the bar­racks, your brothers in the platoon are going to push all the racks to the middle, and everybody is going to be doing squats as low as they can with their hands behind their head, which is very painful after a while. They go around the barracks re­peatedly and the guy with the pogey bait stands there and eats his candy bar and watches them suffer. When everybody passes him, they usually say, “I’m going to f—ing kill you,” but what that drives across is that we operate as a unit. If you don’t operate the way you are supposed to, it hurts the whole unit. The unit is only as strong as the weakest link. That really brought the concept of teamwork home, and teamwork is our calling card.

A gift made for Parsons by 6th Engineer Support Battalion.
A gift made for Parsons by 6th Engineer Support Battalion.

The other two lessons I learned that helped me a lot were that I could accom­plish much more than I ever dreamed I could, and I had a right to be proud. I’ll say it again—everything I have ever ac­complished I owe to the United States Marine Corps and the lessons I learned while serving.

A gift made for Parsons by 6th Engineer Support Battalion.

How did your Marine Corps experience in Vietnam change and motivate you to start your own company?I came back from Vietnam with a new work ethic, but not all the changes in me were positive. I was a different guy. The guy that went over there was on the happy-go-lucky side, liked being around people, liked going to different events and so forth. The guy who came home had a short temper, was always a little bit depressed, occasionally, when he was alone, he’d cry and didn’t want to be around people. He buried himself in his work and that kept him going.

Sometimes I think, without PTSD, I wouldn’t be as successful as I am. I was a worker bee to get my first business off the ground and wrote all the programming code with no formal education. I would come to work at 8 in the morning, let’s say Monday, straight through to Wednesday at 8 in the morning, and about 8 o’clock at night on Wednesday I’d start to slow down and not get much done. I knew it was time to quit when I would start to hallucinate and hear voices that weren’t there. I worked those crazy hours until I got my business up off the ground, and I did it because I loved it. Then I took it a little easier, but I worked hard every day, again, because I loved it. Would I have done that without the Marine Corps? No … They taught me the importance of hard work. I couldn’t outspend my competitors, I couldn’t out-hire them, but I could outwork them.

My making peace with probable death in Vietnam 100 percent allowed me to focus on what I had to do. I will tell you: I’m no hero. And many Marines saw way more combat than I did. I’m sure camara­d­erie exists in other branches, but nowhere does it exist like in the Marine Corps. I mean, nobody else celebrates their birth­days. Do you ever hear of the Air Force celebrating birthdays? We have a cele­bration at my company every year. Any­one that was in the Marine Corps can participate, and I even let a few squids [Navy] into the event. We have a cake, drink a shot, and sing the Marine Corps hymn. Everybody looks forward to it and everybody gets “Semper Fi’d,” and we share a little story here or there. We keep it alive.

Bob and his wife, Renee, founded The Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation, which has made significant donations to 100 charities and organizations worldwide since 2012.
Bob and his wife, Renee, founded The Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation, which has made significant donations to 100 charities and organizations worldwide since 2012.

Everything we do is a tribute to the Marine Corps. Look at the PXG logo … that’s military stencil. Our clubs, our best irons, the model number is 0311. Another line of our irons is 0317. We have a “Heroes Program,” which verifies service and gives significant discounts to veterans, guys and gals in the military, law enforcement, firefighters, and EMTs. We call them all heroes.

What are you currently focused on and what do you want your legacy to be?

Every year, my wife and I give Semper Fi & America’s Fund $10 million. We also donate money to help prevent suicide. We help Team Rubicon, which give veterans a purpose, something to do … We recently donated $5 million to the Mount Sinai Center for Psychedelic Healing. One mil­lion of that went to the Bronx VA, where they are doing field trials with veterans. They understand as much as anybody about PTSD. We helped MAPS (Multi-Disciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) with $2 million for their third field trial intended to help with MDMA FDA approval. Right now, our foundation donates an average of a million dollars every 14 days to charity. That’s not bad for a lance corporal.

Bob and his wife, Renee, founded The Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation, which has made significant donations to 100 charities and organizations worldwide since 2012.

Author’s bio: Joel Searls is a creative and business professional in the enter­tainment industry. He writes for We are the Mighty. He serves in the Marine Corps Reserve and enjoys time with his family and friends.

General David H. Berger

Commandant of the Marine Corps

Focusing on the Future of the Marine Corps


By Col Mary H. Reinwald, USMC (Ret)

The last few years have seen some significant changes in the Marine Corps, which has resulted in a Corps that is a bit different from the one that fought in Afghanistan and Iraq and significantly different from that which fought in Vietnam. A renewed emphasis on the Pacific, the growing cyber domain, and, of course, the somewhat controversial Force Design 2030 have been critical influences on the Marine Corps’ new direction, established by General David H. Berger, the 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps (CMC).

CMC Portrait Berger

The Corps of the Future

Gen Berger wasted no time in addressing the Corps of the future when he became Commandant in July 2019. “When I was privileged to take over as CMC, the next day, I published my planning guidance,” Gen Berger said in a recent interview with Leatherneck. Noting that his predecessor, Gen Robert B. Neller, had told Congress that the Corps wasn’t built for the future, Berger said simply, “I agree.”

When discussing the Corps of the future, he is clear in his messaging. “We have to be ready to adapt. As we move forward, we have to learn. We have to move faster than the adversary.” And the adversary often is China. “China is the pacing challenge … The rate at which China is modernizing, the strength of their economy … the advantages we enjoyed are eroding,” he said. “It’s on China because we have to stay in front of them capability wise … If we’re going to deter them, that’s the bar.”

In March 2020, Gen Berger’s vision was solidified with the publication of Force Design 2030, the plan to set the course for the future Marine Corps. “We cannot go slow, and we can’t get it wrong,” he said at a Marine Corps Association (MCA) dinner a few months later. “We have to go through a lot of change in the next … three to four years. It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to require us, I think, to modify a lot of our existing ideas of how we fight, how we organize.”

The general was more specific in the actual Force Design 2030 document: “The 2018 National Defense Strategy redirected the Marine Corps’ mission focus from countering violent extremists in the Middle East to great power/peer-level competition, with special emphasis on the Indo-Pacific. Such a profound shift in missions, from inland to littoral, and from non-state actor to peer competitor, necessarily requires substantial adjustments in how we organize, train, and equip our Corps. A return to our historic role in the maritime littoral will also demand greater integration with the Navy and a reaffirmation of that strategic partnership. As a consequence, we must transform our traditional models for organizing, training, and equipping the force to meet new desired ends, and do so in full partnership with the Navy.”

In a July 2022 interview with the Washington Post, Gen Berger provided more specifics saying, “We need a better mix of loitering munitions, rocket artillery, missiles and other systems, manned and unmanned.”

Two updates in April 2021 and May 2022 have further refined the direction of Force Design as it seems to be making the Corps lighter and more agile. Major General Ben Watson, the previous commander of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, described the goal of Force Design as developing “a balanced portfolio of capabilities so that when we are trying to close kill chains against a modern, multi-domain adversary, we’ve got a complete tool kit.”

The Commandant has won over some crucial constituencies with his plan. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his predecessor, Mark T. Esper, have been “fully supportive,” according to the Commandant, “and, in fact, urge us to go faster.” Congress is also supportive. In a letter dated May 27, members of the Senate and House Committees on Defense expressed their support for Force Design 2030 stating in part, “Congress should fully support this effort and commend the Marine Corps for making difficult investment and divestment decisions of what to do and, more importantly, what not to do, in order to ensure U.S. advantage in strategic competition.”

Gen Berger at MCA Annual Meeting Gen Berger was the guest of honor at the Marine Corps Association’s annual meeting, Sept. 15 in Arlington, Va.

Discussion and Debate

Much has been made in various media outlets of retired general officers disagreeing with Force Design in outside forums. In an op-ed in the Washington Post on April 22, three retired four-star generals, Gen Charles “Chuck” Krulak, the 32nd Commandant of the Marine Corps; Gen Anthony Zinni, former Commander in Chief, U.S. Central Command; and Gen John “Jack” Sheehan, Supreme Allied Commander for NATO wrote, “It [Force Design] will make the Marines less capable of countering threats from unsettled and dangerous corners of the world.”

Gen Berger and SgtMaj Black present award The Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen David H. Berger, and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, SgtMaj Troy Black, present Superior Achiever Awards to outstanding recruiters in San Antonio, Texas, Oct. 20, 2021.

Gen Berger made it clear at the annual meeting of the MCA in September that he is a strong proponent of discussion and debate and freely admits that he welcomes opposing opinions. Quoting the Marine Corps Gazette’s mission statement of “the free exchange of ideas, professional debate and discussion of issues of greatest importance to the Corps,” the Commandant said he believes that mission is as relevant today as when Gen Lejeune established the Gazette more than 100 years ago. “For me personally as Commandant, [the Gazette] over the past three years is where I go to for fresh thinking and it has been a trigger for my own curiosity,” he said. “Issues that are discussed in the pages of the Gazette have helped me shape my priorities as CMC … As important as it is for me to define the priorities of the Marine Corps, also a place for me to refine. This debate has helped me make adjustments.”

And while the disagreements have, on occasion, devolved into personal attacks, Gen Berger continues to welcome the discussion. “Think about the significance of our culture and the way that it tolerates, especially in the Marine Corps, debate. We don’t just tolerate it, we encourage it. And we like it. That’s how the best ideas get to the top.” The debate on Force Design is similar to the debate about Maneuver Warfare 40 years ago, according to Gen Berger. “In the 1980s, the debate on maneuver warfare; we vigorously ripped that apart and then put it back together. That was a true debate … For every advocate there was an opponent.”

He was quick to mention that he would be disappointed if everyone agreed with him on every topic. Noting that he reads opposing views in the Gazette, he said, “I don’t always agree with what everyone writes, but it makes me think.”

General Berger speaking at West Coast Dinner Gen Berger was the guest speaker at the MCA’s West Coast Dinner in 2015 while he was serving as the Commanding General, I MEF.

“I’m very proud that the Marine Corps has debate … Debate is healthy, it makes us stronger,” he added.

He also recognizes the contribution younger Marines can bring to debates and discussions of the challenges facing the Corps. “You can always count on a captain or a staff sergeant or a major to bring you what you don’t want to hear, but you have to think about it,” he said with a chuckle at the MCA annual meeting. He noted that Marines are especially good at keeping their leaders straight. “They help me think through things two, three, four levels down, and that is invaluable to our senior leaders today.”

Berger with retired generals The MCA’s annual meeting on Sept. 15 provided an opportunity for the Commandant to reunite with retired senior officials including SES Bryan Wood, LtGen Robert Ruark and LtGen David “Smoke” Beydler.


A native of Woodbine, Md., the future commandant attended Tulane University on a Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) scholarship. He was initially a Navy option midshipman destined for commissioning as an ensign, but thanks to the example set by the unit’s Assistant Marine Officer Instructor in his early days with the NROTC unit, Midshipman Berger changed his mind and realized that he wanted to be a Marine. Two of his sons have followed in his footsteps. One son is an infantry officer currently assigned to recruiting duty while the other is a veteran Marine noncommissioned officer who also served in the infantry. Both sons saw combat in Afghanistan. It is no surprise that when asked what his best day in the Corps was, the Commandant was quick to respond. “I have two. One was at Parris Island when my son became a Marine and the other was at Quantico when I commissioned my other son.”

Few officers have ever been as experienced and well-prepared to assume the role of the Corps’ senior leader as Gen Berger. A veteran of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom where he commanded Regimental Combat Team 8 in Fallujah, Iraq and 1st Marine Division (Forward) in Afghanistan respectively, he has proven himself in combat. In addition, his Recon Company participated in Operation Desert Shield, and he commanded 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines during its deployment to Haiti in support of Operation Secure Tomorrow. He also led I Marine Expeditionary Force and Marine Forces Pacific as a three star.

Marines Patrol Haiti Marines from 3/8, commanded by Col David Berger, patrol the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, during Operation Secure Tomorrow April 14, 2004.

His staff assignments have also played a significant role in his development and knowledge of the threats facing our nation. As a field grade officer, Gen Berger served as a policy planner in the J-5 and later assumed the duties as Chief of Staff for Kosovo Force Headquarters. His assignments as Director of Operations in Plans, Policies and Operations at Headquarters Marine Corps and as the Deputy Commandant for Combat Development and Integration ensured that the future commandant understood and was well-prepared for the complexities of manning, training and equipping the Corps.

Gen Berger is also quick to acknowledge those who have helped him along the way. When asked who his mentors have been, the Commandant quickly answered, “My father. He was both a cheerleader and mentor.” He also listed LtGen Emil “Buck” Bedard, former Deputy Commandant for Plans, Policies and Operations, and Admiral Scott Swift, who commanded U.S. Pacific Fleet when Gen Berger commanded Marine Forces Pacific. Two other retired Marine generals who were his classmates at the School of Advanced Warfighting when all three were majors, Lieutenant Generals Vince Stewart and Michael Dana, are two mentors and confidants in the Commandant’s inner circle. “You need friends who will honestly tell you what they think.”

Gen Joe Dunford, the 36th Commandant and 19th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is another of the Gen Berger’s mentors, which will come as no surprise to the Marine Corps community. Gen Berger said that Gen Dunford gave him especially good advice when he assumed the duties of Commandant, reminding him that his duties as a joint chief and advisor to the president were equally important to leading the service.

Berger with Bradney MajGen Berger, left, the commanding general of Task Force Leatherneck, walks with LtCol David P. Bradney, commanding officer of 1/7, at FOB Shamsher, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, Aug. 9, 2012. (Photo by LCpl Jason Morrison, USMC)

The Corps of the Future

Gen Berger’s reserved often quiet demeanor can be a bit misleading. His passion for the Corps and more importantly, his Marines, however, is unmistakable and especially evident when asked what keeps him up at night. His answer was all about Marines. “What did you fail to do? What did you mean to do but didn’t get done?”

“It’s always about the people,” Gen Berger added.

In November 2021 Gen Berger released Talent Management 2030, his strategic guidance which called for a fundamental change to the current personnel system. “We are a people-centric organization. That is at the core, the center of the Marine Corps.” Talent Management 2030 describes his thoughts even more clearly. “Transitioning to a talent management system will enable us to better harness and develop the unique skills and strengths of our Marines, improve the performance of our units in competition and combat, and ensure that we remain ‘most ready when the Nation is least ready.’ ” His prioritization on Talent Management is based on supporting individual Marines. His goals include empowering lower headquarters to make decisions on their Marines’ futures to include giving commanding officers reenlistment authorities. All with the goal of “giving them [Marines] the ability to make decisions sooner in their careers.”

Berger and Dunford CJCS Gen Joseph F. Dunford promoted the new CMC, Gen David H. Berger, at the Home of the Commandants, Washington D.C., July 11, 2019.

The previous Deputy Commandant for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, LtGen David Ottignon, discussed the Commandant’s Talent Management initiatives at a recent MCA luncheon. “It is a rebalance between the Marine and the Marine Corps.” He echoed the Commandant’s intentions further. “We do need to think about how we are transparent with Marines as we find those talented individuals, manage that talent and deliver to the organization.”

And much of the Talent Management guidance starts with recruiting. Recent years have seen increased challenges in finding young men and women to join the Corps as the numbers of Americans qualified to enlist continues to trend downward. The COVID-19 pandemic alone drastically changed the way our recruiting force interacted with potential future Marines as high schools were closed and personal interactions were severely limited. With the shrinking number of qualified potential applicants and an increasingly challenging job market, the Commandant said he believes recruiters will continue to accomplish the mission while maintaining the Corps’ current qualifications. When asked if he would lower the standards to help fill the ranks, Gen Berger was blunt. “No.”

He also knows that the focus can’t simply be on recruiting. “We have to retain Marines that we have spent so much on recruiting and training,” he said. “If we lose them after we got have got them highly trained … they’ll be watching from the bleachers.”

Berger Taskforce Leatherneck MajGen Berger, second from right, CG, TF Leatherneck, stands watch with Marines from “Fox” Co, 2/7 at FOB Now Zad, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, Nov. 22, 2012.


As Gen Berger completes his 41st year of service, knowing his days in uniform are limited, he has an enhanced appreciation for those who have gone before him. At the recent Marine Corps Association annual meeting he paid tribute to three of the Corps’ icons. “It was a tough summer in one respect for Marines. We lost three giants. Woody Williams, SgtMaj Canley and Butch Neal. Three giants in our history … They are a big part of our Marine Corps story. When you think about the lives of those three, they are a good reminder how much we owe our veterans,” he said.

“Once a Marine, always a Marine is not just a bumper sticker,” Gen Berger said. “We don’t take them [veterans] for granted. I have even more come to value their service, the contributions, the coaching, the teaching, the mentoring of our Marine veterans.” He has often mentioned his appreciation for veteran Marines and their contributions to the Corps.

“The veterans—I need you. The Marine Corps needs you. We need your involvement. Not from the bleachers—be in the scrum. Right in the chaotic mess of where the Marine Corps needs to go. I need you to stay involved. I value your opinions.”

The Marine Corps of the future hasn’t turned its back on the Corps of the past; rather it has evolved to meet modern challenges by standing on the shoulders of those who served before. Honoring the Marine Corps’ past while ensuring its future success is especially important to the Commandant, and as his first three years have shown, he is committed to the task.

Gen Berger at "Woody" Williams memorial service Gen Berger, far right, CMC, salutes as the American flag is folded during the West Virginia State Memorial Service for Medal of Honor recipient CWO-4 Hershel “Woody” Williams in Charleston, W.Va., July 3.

FedEx Founder Frederick W. Smith

“I Owe a Debt of Gratitude to the Marine Corps”Image

By Joel Searls

Frederick W. Smith has spent the majority of his lifetime in leadership, first in the Marine Corps during Vietnam, and then later as an entrepreneur in the founding and operating of Federal Express. After graduating from Yale in 1966, he served four years in the Corps, which included two tours of duty in Vietnam. He then launched the original air-ground Federal Express network which began operations in 1973 to serve the rapidly growing high-tech, high-value-added sectors of the economy Smith had predicted. The company has since grown into an $84 billion global enterprise that serves more than 220 countries and territories.

Smith is responsible for providing strategic direction for all FedEx operating companies: FedEx Express, FedEx Ground, FedEx Freight, and FedEx Services, which includes FedEx Office, FedEx Logistics, and FedEx Dataworks. FedEx operations include 684 aircraft, more than 200,000 vehicles, and more than 5,000 operating facilities. Approximately 570,000 team members worldwide handle more than 19 million shipments each business day.

FedEx has been widely acknowledged for its commitment to total quality service. FedEx Express was the first service company to win the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, the nation’s highest award for performance excellence, in 1990. FedEx has been recognized by Time magazine as one of the “Time 100 Most Influential Companies” and has consistently been ranked on Fortune magazine’s industry lists, including “100 Best Companies to Work For” and “World’s Most Admired Companies.”

Smith is a Trustee for the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a member of both the Business Council and Business Roundtable. He served as chairman of the U.S.-China Business Council and co-chair of the French-American Business Council. He has served on the boards of several large public companies— Malone and Hyde (AutoZone), First Tennessee, Holiday Inns, EW Scripps, and General Mills—and charitable organizations including St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Mayo Foundation. He was formerly chairman of the Board of Governors for the International Air Transport Association and chaired the executive committee of the U.S. Air Transport Association. Smith served as co-chairman of the U.S. World War II Memorial project alongside Senator and World War II veteran Bob Dole, and then as the co-chairman of the campaign for the National Museum of the Marine Corps. He has received several honorary degrees and numerous civic, academic, and business awards including the Global Leadership Award from the U.S.-India Business Council; the George C. Marshall Foundation Award; the Atlantic Council’s Distinguished Business Leadership Award; the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy; and the Circle of Honor Award from the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. In addition, Smith is a member of the Aviation Hall of Fame and the Business Hall of Fame. He appeared on Forbes’ “100 Greatest Living Business Minds” and has been named a top chief executive officer by both Barron’s and Chief Executive magazines.

As a highly decorated Marine Corps infantry officer and forward air controller (FAC) in the jungles of Southeast Asia, he learned critical leadership lessons and had lifechanging experiences. Smith was awarded the Silver Star and Bronze Star. After leaving the Corps, he then pursued his entrepreneurial dream, which started as an urgent package delivery service.
Editor’s note: The author recently conducted a virtual interview with Fred Smith, discussing everything from his service in the Corps to the future of FedEx.


Smith served with 3/5 during one of his two tours in Vietnam. (Photo courtesy of Frederick W. Smith)

What are the most important leadership traits you have utilized in the founding and operating of FedEx?Well, I think if you were to go to a FedEx Leadership Institute class, and I would emphasize that our management school is called The Leadership Institute, so that should be a dead giveaway that the Marine Corps had a big emphasis in my life because you have to be a great leader to be able to withdraw the discretionary effort out of people in the service industries. … It’s similar to athletics and the military where the leader’s job is to get that discretionary effort, which in the military can be up to and including risking or losing one’s life in furtherance of the mission. So, if you were to read the FedEx Manager’s guide … which I wrote the original version of it, or you read the FedEx Operating Manual you would find as an NCO or company grade officer in the Marine Corps the doctrine and basic tenets of leadership and management are straight out of what the Marine Corps teaches and had a very big influence on me. In 2008, I wrote a brief article in the Naval Institute Proceedings at the request of its editor Bob Timberg, also a Vietnam Marine veteran, where I talked about how important my Marine Corps service was in all of the principles I used to found … then continue to use to this day at FedEx even though it is a company approaching 750,000 people. Our philosophy, People Service Profit (PSP) goes right back to that core tenet that the Marine Corps teaches its young officers and NCOs, and that’s take care of the troops. … If you take care of the troops, they’ll take care of, in our case, the customers or the mission and you’ll achieve success. So, I cannot overemphasize how important the Marine Corps was in my business career, more important than my formal education I might add. How to manage an organization and achieve goals and results really, mostly was from my Marine Corps experience and of course sports was important to me too … my Marine Corps experience was the bedrock on which FedEx was formed.

We select, we just don’t let anybody into our management ranks, and we have to evaluate you to see if you have the ability to lead people. … The traits that a leader has, which are taught by the Marine Corps: keep your men informed, make clear the mission, look after your troops, all of those core bedrock principles of leadership are taught in our Leadership Institute. Now we also teach them … the formal aspects of management which we call Quality Driven Management (QDM) which is usually with statistics and all kinds of what other companies would call Six Sigma … quality management techniques to manage the enterprise. But since our product is a service, we don’t make automobiles or food where you can just repeat the processes.

It’s a new day every day when we put all of those tens and tens of thousands of vehicles on the street or fly all those planes, so you have to have great leadership at the first level of management to be able to accommodate all of the vagaries and vicissitudes … the weather … traffic and all the things we deal with every day. That’s why we have leader managers and not just managers. … The principles of the Marine Corps are as true today as they were when I learned them some 50 some odd years ago and they’re probably exactly the same thing as the Athenians and Spartans were teaching their troops 2,000 years ago.

Frederick W. Smith, President of Federal Express, Sept. 25, 1976.

How does your Marine training in troop welfare influence the culture of FedEx and how do you take care of your employees?We do it in a lot of different ways. Praise in public and counsel in private. We have BZs, which everybody in the naval service knows which are the two the flags that the admiral puts up on the yard arm to mean “well done.” … So, I adopted that. If you’ve done an outstanding job, a manager can give someone a BZ voucher, dinner for two, an unexpected reward sticker … on a memo, or a BZ lapel pin, it’s straight out of Marine Corps leadership and the naval services.

I think probably the most important thing is we made a commitment to our folks that if they do well, they will have an opportunity to advance. … If the company does well, we’ll share the rewards with them so that is the bedrock of that PSP philosophy. … In the military it’s quite the norm that you go from lieutenant to captain to major and so forth. So, you promote from within by definition. In the business world that’s a bit of an unknown thing in many organizations. You mean you started off as a package handler and now you’re a vice president at FedEx. We have platoons of them. That’s why veterans find it such a familiar and friendly place to work because they’re used to that extraction of discretionary effort, setting the example, keeping your troops informed. So, if they do a good job they can go as high in the organization as they want based on their abilities. … it’s very familiar to anybody that has been in the military service, particularly in the Marine Corps.

I invite anybody who has spent 35 years at FedEx to come by and see me when they retire. … There’s not a week that goes by that I don’t have several people that are informing me [they] are retiring after 35 or 40 years. I don’t know this for a fact, but I would bet that we have more long service employees at FedEx than any major company in America because that loyalty needs to go both ways and so that’s the most important part of the PSP philosophy.

Our folks had really worked hard on the front lines of keeping the at-home, industrial and healthcare supply chains operating. Most people were doing remote work. Our people were out there delivering and flying planes, so we gave all of our front-line employees a very significant bonus in January 2021. It wasn’t part of their regular pay package, but that reinforcement of focus on commitment to the mission and taking care of the customer in our particular case. It’s worked very well for us for many years.

Yes, I think people relate to these principles because they’re universal truths and they also relate to them in other parts of the world. You may have to modify it … to the culture, but the golden rule is as true in the Middle East as it is Latin America or Micronesia. Again, you have to make sure you modify it for the local culture. So, our PSP philosophy has worked for us every place, and we serve 220 countries and territories.

Now some of them are agents who are licensed to be FedEx there, but those that are actually FedEx, which is the vast majori­ty of our operations overseas, if you went to them and asked them about PSP or Qual­ity Driven Management, they would know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s a lingua franca that goes throughout the FedEx organization around the globe and again it all comes back from those basic leadership and managerial principles.

I mean I still use the Marine Corps method of laying out a strategic issue for our strategic management committee, Situation, Mission, Execution, Administration, Coordination and Com­muni­cation; SMEAC. That’s what I learned in The Basic School. It’s pretty solid stuff.

Smith, second from left, in the field in Vietnam. The leadership lessons he learned during his service as a Ma­rine are the basis for his leadership philosophy at FedEx.


During one of his two tours in Vietnam, Smith, center, with Lts Peterson, left and McCool, right, eating a B-ration.

What key components did you take from your service in the Corps and how has that evolved over time?I think people are a bit more questioning today than they were in my era and would be even more so if you went back to the Korean and World War II generations. So, you probably have to put more effort into communication in the “why” rather than the “what,” but that is a good thing, that’s not a bad thing. I think communication is more intensive, particularly today with social media. You can have some incredible firestorm that erupts over some post or mistake. You see it every day in the business press. So, those communication skills are even more important, and we’ve had to get better and better at that. Biannually, I put out a letter to the entire organization to sort of set the stage as to what our board of directors is trying to do and the things we need to focus on.

For instance, two years ago I did a very extensive one on the changed world of cyber security. Your phone now is a way into your life and a potential weapon against you. Those communications as to what’s going on and why we are putting restrictions on use of your phone and clicking on this or that in your [personal computer]. It’s a more complex world and it’s a world in which the average team member is much more in­formed, perhaps erroneously, but they have all kinds of information coming at them.

So, you have to put a lot of time and effort into the communication in an organization this size to make sure everybody understands what we are doing and not only what we are doing, but why we’re doing it, and when something goes wrong, you know what we’re doing to fix it. So, those are modifications I think brought by modern technology like we are using today doing an interview 1,500 miles apart and it’s like we are sitting here in the same room.

Smith received two Purple Hearts during his tours as an infantry officer and forward air controller in Vietnam.


1stLt Frederick W. Smith, second from right, CO, “Kilo” Co, 3rd Bn, 5th Marines, with platoon leaders, left to right, Lts Jack Hewitt, Joe Campbell (KIA), Jack Ruggles (KIA), and SSgt Dave Danford in the Tam Ky area of South Vietnam in the autumn of 1967.

Outside of “Devotion,” what are your favorite films to have produced (financed) and why?Well, there have been a lot of them. I guess one of them that comes to mind is “The Blind Side.” That was a famous story about left tackle Michael Oher who was written about by Michael Lewis, one of our great authors of the day. He [Oher] was adopted by a family in Memphis. He came from a rough situation and went on to be a great football player. So, my daughter Molly found that script and we knew the family and in fact my youngest son is married to the Collins, the real Collins, who is in the movie. “The Blind Side,” I believe is the highest-grossing sports movie of all time, so obviously that’s a favorite for a lot of reasons.

The initial movie that I financed for Alcon Entertainment is still one of my favorites. It’s called “My Dog Skip” and it has Diane Lane and Kevin Bacon in it. If you watch “My Dog Skip” and you don’t have a tear in your eye in the last frame of that movie, you’re not human. … It’s based on a Willie Morris novel. Willie Morris was a great Southern writer … of the Faulkner tradition … he was the editor of Harper’s. “My Dog Skip” remains a favorite, but there’s so many of them.
Then my daughter Molly, who was an NYU film school graduate, and then worked for Alcon, the original film company I backed with these two young men that went to Princeton together, she started her own company called Black Label Media. She’s done a number of them that are favorites of mine. “Sicario,” about the drug trade and “Soldado” [“Sicario: Day of the Soldado”]. If you watch those two movies, they were several years in advance of exactly what you’re seeing on the border. They were very prescient. Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Emily Blunt. Those were great films.

“Only the Brave,” Josh Brolin was also in that one and Miles Teller and Jennifer Connelly . . . about the hotshot firefighters that saved Prescott, Ariz., and unfortunately lost their lives. It didn’t do great financially, but it’s a wonderful movie. In the military genre, “12 Strong” which was about ODA 595, the first Special Forces Group that went into Afghanistan after 9/11, it’s a remarkable story, very well received commercially. Molly was an executive producer, she’s a working producer, but she was an executive producer and helped to fund “La La Land,” which was a huge success. Of course, more recently they’ve just finished in Black Label Media two films, one of them for Netflix called “Reptile,” which is a detective story with Benicio Del Toro and Justin Timberlake.

Geoff Stults, who acted in both 12 Strong and Only the Brave, was a guest on MCA’s podcast Scuttlebutt. You can listen on iTunes or Spotify or watch it off of YouTube here.

“Devotion” is a story that is close to your heart, and you have produced (financed) the film which is due out in theaters next year. Why did you choose to back the film, what do you like most about it, and what do you want audiences to take away from their experience?Then close to my heart and to anybody that has been in the naval service and the Marine Corps is the movie adaptation of the New York Times best seller by Adam Makos called “Devotion.” It’s about Jesse Brown, the first African-American naval aviator and his wingman Tom Hudner flying Corsairs in support of the Marines surrounded at the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea in late fall 1950. The film tells the incredible set of circumstances which led to Brown being shot down and Hudner deliberately crash landing his plane in 15 degree below zero weather to try to save Jesse Brown, which unfortunately was unsuccessful.

That movie comes out this summer and it’s shot with real airplanes. They’re not CGI airplanes, they’re real Corsairs, and Sky Raiders and Bearcats which they were flying up at Quonset before they transitioned to the Corsairs on the USS Leyte. … It’s a fantastic film and it’ll be out in late summer so I can guarantee you that is going to be a favorite of mine, and I think its [going to] be a favorite of any Marine or Sailor that watches it too.

Well, I funded “Devotion” because the story of these two men deserves to be told. It’s incredible to me that it never was told before now and again it’s because Adam Makos wrote this wonderful book about these two men largely unknown. People in the Navy know about Brown and Hudner, and Hudner thought he was going to be court martialed when he deliberately crash landed his plane, but he wasn’t; he received the Medal of Honor. So, he’s quite well-known in naval aviation circles, but among the general public these two men are not known. Jesse Brown was to naval aviation what Jackie Robinson was to baseball or the Tuskegee Airmen were to Air Force aviation.

In fact, President Reagan gave the commencement address at Tuskegee in 1987 and he talks at the end of his commencement address for about ten minutes about Jesse Brown and says just what I said. Every­body knows about the Tuskegee Airmen, but nobody knows about Jesse Brown who broke the color barrier in naval aviation. There wasn’t a single (African-American) naval aviator during World War II. Then in 1948, he went to Ohio State and went through all kinds of prejudice and got his wings and then ended up giving his life getting the Marines out of the Chosin Reservoir cauldron and for the United States.

It’s just a message I think getting to what I hope people will take away from the film about two men. They couldn’t be from anymore disparate backgrounds, one a sharecropper’s son from Mississippi and one from a well-to-do family in Boston who broke ranks from going to Harvard and went to the Naval Academy, and they come together. They become devoted to one another, hence the name of the movie. It’s a great example of what Dr. King said about judging somebody by the content of their character than by the color of their skin. That’s the message I think that is so needed today. I hope “Devotion” gets that message across and I think people are going to like the film.

The majority of the film’s proceeds go to the Brown-Hudner Scholarship Fund managed by the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation so there is a double benefit of seeing the film because it’s going to educate a lot of legacy Navy and Marine Corps children.


Behind the scenes of “Devotion,” a movie based on the story of Navy pilots, LT Thomas Hudner and ENS Jesse L. Brown, during the Korean War. Smith financed the production, adapted from the book “Devotion,” believing the story of the two friends deserved to be told. (Photo courtesy of Black Label Media)

What are your thoughts regarding nostalgia and what are your future projects and plans?I’m so interested in everything that is going on today. That’s just been the way I choose to live life. So, it’s not that I don’t think about the past. I think about Vietnam and a lot of my friends almost every day. I certainly think about my oldest daughter who we lost. So, I think about the past, but I’m fascinated with the future, you know drone airplanes and autonomous vehicles, robots, and these incredible genetic medicines that are coming online.

We’re very proud at FedEx for instance. We distributed hundreds of millions of doses of the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson vaccines not just in the United States, but around the world. So, think about that this pandemic happens and these incredible scientists been working on it for 20 years come out with this miracle vaccine and then because of FedEx and UPS and others, but we certainly were either the biggest or we and UPS were the biggest in distributing these things.

It’s not that I don’t take great pride in the past and don’t think about the past, but I’m still actively interested in the future. I think as you get older, and I’m 77, if you don’t do that, you tend to maybe concentrate a bit too much on the rear-view mirror and not enough on things to be active and involved.

I think that FedEx which is now an enormous operation as I told you, almost 700 planes, 200,000 vehicles, 5,000 facilities, and 700,000 people in our system around the world. It’s a lot of fun for me to come to work every day and still be active in the management of the company. Now, make sure you and everybody … under­stands, just like any great organization it’s run by a team. And we have a fabulous pres­ident and great executives in marketing and sales.

The CEOs of our operating companies of which we have three major operating com­panies and three smaller ones, so, [we’ve got to] come together every month as a team and I enjoy the synthesis of ideas, strategies and programs with my business partners. It’s very stimulating and it’s a lot of fun because we are in the center of everything. Everything. Medicine, we’re in the middle of that, com­puters, production of almost anything that you can think of that is manufactured, we’re right in the middle of that. If you want talk about European politics, Chinese politics, Australian politics, Brazilian politics, we’re in the midst of all of it because we serve all of those countries.

It’s something that I enjoy and this team that’s running this place when I go over the side, as we say in the naval service, it won’t miss a beat because the people that make up that strategic management team are just terrific. I can promise you I learned a long time ago as a very young man as a platoon leader that you want to make sure you have a good succession plan because in those days people often had to call on them. So, we have great management depth and great management training, so I think your readers need to understand … I’m just a representative of that managerial team.

One of my roommates at language school when they sent us out to learn Vietnamese in a compressed curricula in 1967 was General Carl Fulford, and I always tell Carl that he drove me out of the Marine Corps because you could tell he was going to be a general and I was not. … All kidding aside, I have maintained many friends in the Marine Corps throughout the years with Carl, Sen. Jim Webb, LtGen Ron Christmas, I could keep going on and on about all my buddies from the Marine Corps. I’ve always been extremely grateful for what the Marine Corps taught me. A lot of my service was not pleasant, but it shaped who I am, and I owe a debt of gratitude to the Marine Corps, and I was glad to come to this interview and tell you that.

Frederick W. Smith with Senator Elizabeth Dole, head of the American Red Cross, during the announcement of FedEx’s support for worldwide disaster relief. (Photo courtesy of Frederick W. Smith)

Editor’s note: Effective June 1, Smith will step down as chairman and CEO of FedEx and will assume the duties of executive chairman.
Author’s bio: Joel Searls is a creative and business professional in the entertainment industry. He writes for We Are The Mighty. He serves in the USMCR and enjoys time with his family and friends.Image

Frederick W. Smith with FedEx’s first DC-10 widebody aircraft.

Winsome Earle-Sears: “Leadership is Not What You Say: It’s What You Do”

Exclusive Interview

Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor, Marine Veteran

By Sara W. Bock

Courtesy of the Office of Lieutenant Governor Winsome Earle-Sears

In the 1980s, while serving as an electrician at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., Corporal Winsome Earle observed a display of leadership that left a distinct and lasting impression. Assigned to their unit’s quality control section, Earle and her fellow Marines were working around the clock in preparation for a routine Inspector General inspection and were quickly growing exhausted.

“Our warrant officer came out to our platoon formation after we had come back for the evening and we still had another four or five hours to go after we had worked a long day, and he encouraged us,” she recalls during an exclusive interview with Leatherneck, Feb. 18. “I don’t remember the words because all I remember is … He was moving equipment with us, he was inspecting equipment, he was doing all kinds of things. He got more out of us that day than the days before. And I learned that leadership is not what you say: it’s what you do.”

It’s a memory that the first female lieutenant governor of Virginia, Winsome Earle-Sears, continues to call to mind today and strives to emulate as she finds her footing in the Commonwealth’s second-highest office. The affable Republican, who also is the first Black woman to hold statewide office in Virginia, was sworn in Jan. 15, alongside newly elected Governor Glenn Youngkin. Together, they’ve taken the helm of a state with a strong military presence, home to nearly 700,000 veterans and 27 military bases, including the Defense Department’s headquarters, the Pentagon.

Sears served just one enlistment in the Corps, but her identity as a Marine is ingrained in her, and she believes her experiences on active duty prepared her for the responsibilities of her office, which include presiding over the Senate of Virginia where she is responsible for casting tie-breaking votes.

The newly elected lieutenant governor of Virginia, Winsome Earle-Sears, served as an electrician in the Marine Corps from 1983 to 1986. She credits the Corps with teaching her important lessons about leadership and self-discipline that she continues to implement today.

Born in Jamaica in 1964, Sears traveled to New York City as a child to live with her father in the Bronx. She describes an upbringing in which politics and government were frequently discussed—particularly by her grandmother, who was heavily involved in Jamaican politics and with whom she had a cherished bond.

“We just always talked politics. We read two different newspapers every day so that we could be able to have discussions about things,” Sears said, describing family debates about hot button issues, to which she adds, “Jamaicans are very political.”

Sears attributes this in part to the period of democratic socialist rule in Jamaica during her childhood years. “It just destroyed us,” she says. “We understood that you’ve got to get involved in government … Sometimes it takes you growing up and having a family that you start seeing things and you think, ‘No, this is not the future I want for my children.’ So, you get involved, and you can either light a candle or you can curse the darkness. To light the candle is to find the solution. To curse the darkness is to be a victim. And you know in the Marine Corps we always say there are no problems, only solutions and other options.”

Winsome Earle-Sears waves to the crowd after being sworn in as Virginia’s 42nd lieutenant governor in Richmond, Va., Jan. 15. (Photo courtesy of the Office of Lieutenant Governor Winsome Earle-Sears)

Sears attributes this in part to the period of democratic socialist rule in Jamaica during her childhood years. “It just destroyed us,” she says. “We understood that you’ve got to get involved in government … Sometimes it takes you growing up and having a family that you start seeing things and you think, ‘No, this is not the future I want for my children.’ So, you get involved, and you can either light a candle or you can curse the darkness. To light the candle is to find the solution. To curse the darkness is to be a victim. And you know in the Marine Corps we always say there are no problems, only solutions and other options.”

Her grandmother’s influence not only sparked an interest in politics and a responsibility to get involved, but also set her on the path to becoming a Marine. Sears was 18 years old when her grandmother died, and although she was enrolled in college and set to begin classes that coming fall, she found herself flailing.

“It just so happened that my mother in Jamaica happened to have a Jet magazine open to the ad with, ‘The Few, the Proud, the Marines.’ And I thought, ‘Yes, this is what I need. I need some discipline. I need a reason to live. And the Marines can sure do that for me,’ ” Sears recalls. “So that’s what happened. I joined the Marine Corps, and I got several reasons to live and a lot of discipline. It was one of the best times of my life for sure.”

Then-PFC Winsome Earle is pictured here in uniform in 1983. Born in Jamaica, the young Marine became a U.S. citizen while serving on active duty.

After stepping on the yellow footprints at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., in January 1983, Sears quickly learned that she would have to lose what her drill instructors referred to as her “New York attitude.”

“One time the drill instructor said to me, ‘Private Earle, you’re not going to make it, you understand me?’ And I thought, “Wait a minute. I can’t go home a failure!’” she recalls, referring to the DIs as “masters of psychology,” and adding, “You know, the Marine Corps, they see things in you that you don’t even see in yourself.”

The newly minted Marine, who was raised with the mentality that it’s important to acquire a trade or skill, found her niche as an electrician, attending the Marine Corps Engineer School at Courthouse Bay on Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C.

“Man, was it out there in the boondocks!” Sears says with a laugh, recalling that she was the only female Marine in her class. “Being a woman Marine is one thing, and then being a woman Marine in such a field just really makes you one of the very few.”

After completing her military occupational specialty (MOS) training, Sears was assigned to Camp Pendleton, where she was one of just a few women in her unit. She describes how she quickly realized that she had to prove herself capable of meeting the same standards as the male Marines around her, who she says were more than willing to help her out. The gesture was nice, she said, but she knew she had to rely on her own merit in order to make it.

“You have to dig your own ditch, you have to pull your own weight and you will get the respect that’s deserving of you,” said Sears.

Sears, center, accepts the Iwo Jima Association of America’s first-ever “Spirit Award” during its annual gala in Arlington, Va., Feb. 19. The award was created as a tribute to Medal of Honor recipient and Iwo Jima veteran Hershel “Woody” Williams.

She recalls another instance in which she learned to take responsibility for herself: a formation for which she thought she was well-prepared but soon found out otherwise.

“My boots were spit shined, my cammies were excellently pressed, everything was good,” Sears said. But it turned out that her glasses had a few fingerprints on the lenses that she had missed. “And because of that, I didn’t get the day off like all of the others did. I remember thinking, ‘But they’re glasses!’ Details matter … If you’re going to do something right, do it right the first time. No excuses.”

It’s lessons like these that became part of Sears’ leadership philosophy, one that’s to this day heavily influenced by her service in the Marine Corps. She’s also driven by a deep sense of duty to the country that once welcomed her as a young immigrant. Soon after taking the oath of enlistment, she took another oath to become a U.S. citizen.

After leaving active duty in 1986, Sears went on to pursue a wide array of endeavors, including earning a master’s degree; running a homeless shelter; serving as a vice president of the Virginia State Board of Education; starting a small appliance, electric and plumbing business alongside her husband, Terence, who also is a veteran Marine; and receiving presidential appointments to the U.S. Census Bureau and the Advisory Committee on Women Veterans, which reported to the U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 2001, she served one term as a state legislator. Her varied experiences have afforded her a unique perspective of government, of service and of what it means to be an American.

As Lieutenant Governor-elect, Sears attended a cake cutting ceremony at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Va., in celebration of the Ma­rine Corps Birthday, Nov. 10, 2021. During the event, she had the opportunity to visit with veterans, friends of the Corps, and active-duty Marines.

“I think sometimes we as Americans take our liberties for granted, and we don’t understand that you have to fight for your liberties. That you are the government,” Sears said. “Government depends on you being involved. Government depends on you demanding that your leaders represent you and represent you well. That they take your phone calls. That they look out for your best interests, that they’re not there for themselves. That the political leaders understand that they represent you.”

When she ran for the office of lieutenant governor of Virginia in 2021, a significant plank of her campaign was veterans’ issues, including a push to eliminate all state taxes on the first $40,000 of military retirement pay and expand Virginia’s veterans care centers and workforce transition programs. She’s looking forward to tackling issues that are unique to female veterans, adding that while you don’t have to be a veteran to understand how veterans are affected by policy, it makes a difference when you “speak the same language.” She has increasingly been hearing from veterans across Virginia who are seeking help in various capacities.

Sears recalls that as a young female Marine, she quickly learned she had to “dig her own ditch” in order to earn the respect of those around her. Even decades later, her identity as a Marine is still an integral part of who she is today.

Sears believes that it’s essential that veterans hold offices at all levels of government—not only to advocate for issues that affect military-connected populations, but also because of the unique skillsets and attributes that veterans bring to the table. Most importantly, perhaps, is an understanding of what really matters, and a shared identity not as Republicans or Democrats but as Americans. She encourages veterans who are interested in running for of­fice to understand the sacrifice and work involved. To them she says, “Give it your all.”

“As veterans, we don’t care if you’re Re­publi­can, Democrat, Green Party, whatever party you are,” said Sears. “When we raise our hands to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States, we understand that we’re going to die for everybody. Not a political party. We are willing to give our lives for our country and those in it. So, we have a totally different perspective. We’re not so vitriolic sometimes. We understand that you can disagree without being disagreeable … not that veterans are without fault, but I think there is something special about a veteran being in office, having already once raised our hand to uphold the Constitution—it’s not something foreign to us. We’ve done it before.”


Sears, Governor Glenn Youngkin, and Attorney General Jason Miyares, together with their spouses, join hands after being sworn in at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Va., Jan. 15. (Photo courtesy of the Office of Lieutenant Governor Winsome Earle-Sears)