If you have not read "Senior
Drill Instructor Staff Sergeant Wertjes," please do
sobefore continuing. This story will make more sense.
On March 18, 1999, I was sitting in my
office as the Adjutant for First Tank Battalion in Twentynine
Palms California. The week had been long and I had duty the
next day, which I was not looking forward to. I was recovering
from a minor operation just south of the south pole, if you
know what I mean, the week before so I was not back to 100%
yet. I was unable to PT for two weeks and going from running
twice a day to none per day was really getting me down.
Into my office came my favorite First Sergeant in the
Battalion. First Sgt Reynolds was a great Marine and one of
the most competent First Sergeants I ever ran into. He was
with Company D and whenever anything came to me from there,
I knew that a cursory look-over was all that was necessary.
Often, I would go to him to inquire about correct administrative
procedures. What impressed me about him was how he always
treated me, a Second Lieutenant with the proper respect and
truly seemed to mean it. With other senior enlisted, I sometimes
get the hint of attitude that they have had more time on the
toilet than I have had in the Corps. But from First Sergeant
Reynolds, I was always treated with respect coupled with exposure
to his vast knowledge of the Marine Corps.
He walked into my office and is often the case, I was
glad to see him. We made small talk and then he went over
and looked at the picture I keep on my bookshelf of my drill instructors.
Often, I get people ask me if I had been a drill instructor
because they see the picture from across the room and assume
I am in it. I always tell that that I was not a DI (a fact
that I truly regret) but proudly display that picture for
a simple reason. "These are the men that made me a Marine."
As the First Sergeant is looking at it, he says matter-of-factly,
"So, Staff Sergeant Wertjes was you Senior Drill Instructor."
Instantly, my mind went on alert. I had been praying that
I would run into any of these men over the years and up to
that point had been unsuccessful in even finding out if any
of them were still in the Marine Corps. And it was not like
I had not tried. I always looked around anywhere I went in
my travels and hoped to one day recognize these men and had
even used the computer to look them up. But up to this moment,
no one had seen nor heard of these three Marines. With names
like "Garcia" and "Robinson," it was not too surprising. But "Wertjes" was a name to remember.
"You know him?" I asked the First Sergeant expectantly.
He said "He was my first Sergeant when I was on MSG (Marine
Security Guard) and is now the Sergeant Major of the recruiting
district in San Diego."
I was stunned into silence. I stuttered a response I cannot
recall because my mind was racing ahead to the possibilities
of contacting him.
First Sergeant Reynolds told me that he was one of the
best leaders he had ever met and was a well-respected Sergeant
Major. This came to no surprise to me, no more than a Marine
of the caliber of First Sergeant Reynolds being a product
of his association with my former Senior Drill Instructor.
He told me that he had his phone number and would give him
a call the next day.
I went home that night feeling great. The anticipation
of speaking to this great man made me feel like a kid on Christmas
Eve. But what would I say? I did not know but that night I
searched my memories and thought about why this man had such
an impact on my life. Why did I want to contact him? The answers
I got were that I wanted him to know what effect he had had
on me. I wanted him to know that the recruit he trained served
as an avionics technician for five years, made the rank of
Sergeant, went to war where the lessons of basic training
served him well, and that he made it through the MECEP to
become an officer. I wanted him to know what he had done.
The next day was a busy one. I was busy doing a million
little tasks when First Sergeant Reynolds walked in and gave
me a phone number. He said that he had called ahead and that
the Sergeant Major was waiting for my call. Instantly, I dropped
all I was doing and put a "DO NOT DISTURB" sign
on my door. My hand was shaking as I pushed each button. The
anticipation was thick as the other end picked up and I was
actually holding my breath. A woman's voice broke the silence
and I uttered words I thought I would never say.
"This is Lieutenant Grose. May I speak with Sergeant
It was surreal. The wait was torture but after a moment,
I heard a familiar voice that had not rang in my ears for
almost 12 years. I had not practiced anything up to that point
and had no idea how to start. What came out was from the heart
and it went like this.
"Sergeant Major, I was wondering if you had a little
time to talk with someone whose life you have had a life-long
"Why sure, absolutely" came the reply.
At this point, I almost called him "Sir."
"Si...Sergeant Major, my name is Lieutenant Grose
and 12 years ago you were my Senior Drill Instructor for platoon
I think that I babbled out a sentence about four minutes
long as I updated him on my life from bootcamp to the present.
I was so proud and was doing some unabashed bragging. I even
had my web page pulled up on my computer and had printed out
"The Flat Top." I thought
it said a lot about him and read it to him word for word.
He seemed to enjoy it and said that it brought back some vivid
memories. He seemed genuinely honored and happy to hear
my point of view, just as I had wanted him to feel. Even after
a decade, his approval was something that was important to
me, and he did not even know it over all of these years.
I asked him about his path in the Corps and I found out
some startling information. He started out as a supply clerk
and picked up rank fast. By the time he got to the drill field,
he picked up the rank of Staff Sergeant at the age of 24.
We were his last platoon before going to Drill Instructors'
School where he picked up Gunnery Sergeant meritoriously.
It caused a little friction among his peers because he was
so junior and so young but his talent rose above his years.
He then went to Officers' Candidate School where he instructed
future Officers. After that tour, he went to MSG duty as a
First Sergeant and then picked up Sergeant Major in record
Ironically, he was had orders to First Tank Battalion
and even had his household goods packed when he got the word
that he was going to be the Sergeant Major for the San Diego
Recruiting District. He had told his monitor, "I was
a Drill Instructor, not a recruiter!" To this, the monitor
replied, "You are a 9999. You are going to San Diego!"
How flabbergasted would I have been to check into my first
battalion as a fresh Lieutenant to be greeted by my former
Senior Drill Instructor as my new Sergeant Major?
The conversation was a wonderful experience for me. We
talked for about 45 minutes and I relayed some of the lessons
I had learned from him and told him that a simple thank you
was not even close to sufficient in showing him my appreciation.
Of course, he dismissed the need for this and told me that
my success in the Marine Corps spoke louder and made him feel
better than anything I could convey with words.
I told him of the history of how my web page came about
and that I would really like him to read the stories in contained
because a lot of them had to do with him. He was eager to
read them and I gave him the URL. After telling him a few
stories I remembered, he laughed and told me that even though
he might not remember the exact situation, it was good to
hear that the same set of moral lessons that he has always
followed and tried to instill in his Marines were the same
lessons I took from our shared experience.
In his job, he told me that once a month he goes to Indio
which is not too far from Twentynine Palms. He gave me his
email address and we would make plans to get together the
next time he was in town.
It is an experience that I am looking forward to more
than I can put into words. The last time we were face to face,
I called him "Sir" and he called me "Recruit."
Now I will be calling him Sergeant Major (a fact that I am
intensely proud of) and in a weird twist of fate, he will
address me as "Sir."