Four Years Ago, Carl Mundy Hung Up His Sword. His Life
Would Never Be the Same.
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 5, 1999; Page C01
On a clear, chilly morning last winter, retired Marine Corps
Commandant Carl E. Mundy Jr. stepped from a car outside the
House of Representatives' Rayburn Office Building and marched
up the steps for an appointment.
It was 8 a.m., a bit early for Capitol Hill. But he was
calling on an old friend, Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), himself
a retired Marine, wounded in Vietnam and a member of a powerful
House subcommittee. Mundy, 64, who had taken off his general's
stars and Commandant's laurel in 1995, used to come to the Hill
attended by aides and advisers as a member of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff and the commander of 170,000 Marines.
This morning, as the head of the USO, the venerable but
haphazardly funded military morale agency, he was alone, in
business attire, and hat in hand. For 15 minutes, he waited
at Murtha's office. Finally, the congressman's scheduler arrived.
There had been a mix-up. Murtha would not be in. By the way,
the scheduler politely asked: "Who are you?"
Since the time his doting father took him to see the newsreels
of Marines fighting in the Pacific, and told the story about
the Marines who saved him from a mugging in Philadelphia, it
Mundy had tried to join up in high school in North Carolina,
but was discouraged by his parents. He finally signed on with
the reserves in college, hitchhiking home to tell his dismayed
mother, who urged him, in vain, to take the paperwork back.
He'd worn his uniform to propose to his wife, served in
Lebanon and the Philippines, directed battles in Vietnam, moved
32 times, reared two Marine sons, and was named commandant by
a president. He had the best job in the world, in the best outfit
in the world. And few people had to ask who he was.
Then, one beautiful June evening, in a ceremony at the Iwo
Jima Memorial, he found the Marine Band playing at his retirement,
and it was all at an end. He bought a house on a cul-de-sac
near Mount Vernon. He put his general's stars under glass in
the living room, hung his ivory-handled sword in the den and
started building shelves for the basement.
A military career can be cruel that way. You finish up,
hang out the flag, slap on a bumper sticker: "Semper Fi, Mac."
And head for the fishing hole. No more uniforms. No obvious
chain of command. For the first time in years, you pick a permanent
place to live--Mundy picked one 10 miles from the Pentagon.
And if you were a high-ranking officer, you join the boards
of corporations and foundations. Mundy joined seven.
But it doesn't replace who you were. Carl Mundy went through
what scores of high-ranking military and civilian officials
go through when they leave jobs in Washington, a town where
the job defines the person--stepping off the public stage and
plunging into the uncertain shadows of private life.
"It's almost like jumping out of an airplane," Mundy says.
"You are weightless. There's no noise, or anything like that.
The weight is off of you. You're not standing on your own feet.
You're not bearing your own weight. You're just suspended in
"You don't know whether it's time to go home and die in
a couple of years, or whether you're going to devote yourself
to your grandchildren, or whatever you're going to do," he says.
So he decided to try starting over, becoming something else,
someone else, agreeing to be Carl E. Mundy Jr., president and
chief executive officer of the USO. Only for a while, though.
After all, this was no childhood dream.
'Okay, Give Me Artillery'
Mundy was born July 16, 1935, in Atlanta, the only child
of a five-and-ten "set-up" man from South Carolina. His father's
job was to establish a store, get it rolling and then, after
about nine months, move on to another one. "I moved more as
a dime store kid than I did as a Marine," Mundy says. After
about 10 years, his father changed jobs and the family settled
in Waynesville, N.C.
In 1957, after officer training and four years at Auburn
University, Mundy was graduated as a Marine Corps second lieutenant--"one
bar pinned on by my fourth-grade sweetheart, the other one by
my mother," he says.
He shipped out in May 1958 to the Mediterranean and was
one of 5,000 Marines who assaulted the beaches of Lebanon in
July, an operation designed to protect the government from a
threatened coup and one he recalls as not the complete cakewalk
it is often said to be.
Nine years later, he was sent to Vietnam--a captain, ripe
for infantry company command, and finally bound for a real war.
He was jubilant.
Then, to his crushing disappointment, he was assigned to
a staff job in DaNang: "You didn't want to go home and tell
your kids that you were in DaNang the whole time," he says.
Any Marine officer "worth a hoot" wanted to direct men in combat.
But Vietnam had plenty of that to go around. And in September
1967, near Con Thien, he got his wish. The Marines regularly
battled it out in that area with disciplined North Vietnamese
soldiers--"incredible people to fight," he notes.
"It was kind of a slug-it-out," he says. "There wasn't a
heck of a lot of maneuvering. You kind of waited for them to
come to you and fought, and then you went out to find them and
then you fought. Nobody had brilliant strategy."
But combat, he says, was thrilling.
"In those periods of engagement, when he's shooting at you
and you're shooting at him, or when you can see them or when
they're coming at you . .. it is the most exhilarating moment
of your life," he says.
"It's a symphony: You can hear sporadic small-arms fire.
That grows. When you know you're engaged is when you hear your
machine guns start. And his machine guns pick up and by that
time you realize, 'Okay, give me artillery.'
"And then you gotta see what's going on, and you go up on
the ridge . . .and here they come," he says. "You almost think,
'Boy, I wish I had a camera.' It's beautiful."
End of the Line
The night before Mundy took the Commandant's job, on July
1, 1991, he and his wife went to the Iwo Jima Memorial, the
Corps' shrine in Arlington.
It was dusk and Mundy slowly walked around the 30-foot bronze
Marines--frozen like gods at the moment of the flag-raising
on Mount Suribachi, and mounted atop a black granite base with
the Corps' battles etched in gold.
Belleau Wood. Meuse-Argonne. Wake Island. Bataan. Guadalcanal.
"Lord," Mundy prayed. "Don't let me do anything to screw
up the Marine Corps." His petition was granted. But he stumbled
Nominated by President Bush, he spent the bulk of his tour
under President Clinton, a period of drastic military downsizing
and turbulence over military social issues.
Early in 1993, Mundy, an opponent of "open homosexuality"
in the service, was criticized for circulating a conservative
group's anti-gay video among the Joint Chiefs of Staff. One
angry editorial writer called him "this yahoo of a Marine officer."
In August of that year, he was rebuked when the Marines
sought to ban the recruitment of married individuals to cut
down on domestic discord in the Corps. The president was "astonished."
Mundy apologized for "blind-siding" the administration.
Two months later, he appeared on "60 Minutes" and told a
national TV audience that Marine test scores showed minority
officers did not shoot, swim or read compasses as well as white
officers. The statement--taken out of context, he argues--drew
outrage, and two days later Mundy apologized again. The lesson,
he says now: "Never, ever go on '60 Minutes.' "
But his four years also coincided with 50th-anniversary
commemorations of World War II. Mundy got to attend ceremonies
at Iwo Jima, Tarawa and Saipan, places he had watched flicker
through the newsreels years before, with exotic names his father
Four months after the commemoration at Iwo Jima, Carl Mundy's
tour ended. On the evening of June 30, after he had formally
handed over the Commandant's reins to his successor, Mundy,
his family and friends gathered again at the Iwo Jima Memorial,
this time for his retirement ceremony.
As the band played, his eldest son, Carl III, read a simple
order signed by the Navy secretary, which Mundy now has memorized:
"Effective midnight, 30 June, 1995, you are retired from
active service in the Marine Corps. On that date you will have
served 41 years, nine months and 23 days as a United States
Right Man for the Job?
It's a long way from Iwo Jima to Bob Hope and the Dallas
Cowboys cheerleaders, and the USO job was not one that Carl
The legendary organization, founded 10 months before Pearl
Harbor as the United Service Organizations for National Defense,
has famously provided food, entertainment and moral support
to service men and women during and in between all the nation's
wars since 1941.
Supported only by public donations, its fortunes rose and
fell, often sharply, with each conflict: Money poured in during
wartime and dried up in times of peace.
After World War II, it almost shut down when the troops
came home. It faced financial collapse in the mid-1980s. In
the early 1990s, after a huge boost from the Persian Gulf War,
it went into another nosedive, losing 50,000 donors in about
a year. There were fears it might not meet its payroll.
In 1995 the USO was still struggling. Its president, Chapman
B. Cox, a former assistant secretary of the Navy and a Marine
Corps lawyer during the Vietnam War, was stepping down after
six years in the job.
"We needed somebody with stature," says Edward J. Christie
Jr., a senior vice president at the USO who helped search for
a replacement. Someone "who people outside these four walls
Several weeks after he retired, Mundy had dinner with Cox,
an old acquaintance, who asked him if he would be interested
in the USO job. "I don't think so," Mundy replied. He'd had
other offers. Virginia Military Institute wondered if he'd be
interested in the top job there. He wasn't sure what he was
going to do.
But Cox kept after him. Mundy visited USO headquarters at
the Washington Navy Yard, in a building soon to be torn down,
and found it "kind of dumpy." He met with the USO search committee
and asked what they were looking for.
Stability, organization, planning, they said . . . and fund-raising.
"Wrong guy," Mundy said he replied. "I can do all the front
three for you .. . but I'm not a fund-raiser." He left, thinking
he was out of the running. But by the time he got home, after
driving through the rain, the head of the search committee was
on the phone offering him the job.
Mundy groaned. He hated begging for money. Plus, USO morale
was poor. Focus was bad. Stability was questionable. Many people
either didn't know what the USO was or thought it had died years
before. The Marine Corps it wasn't. Not by a long shot. But
he still said yes. They faxed him a contract before he hung
The Drill Is Gone
Mundy has a terrific USO spiel. He tells the story of how,
as a boy, he helped his mother spread mayonnaise on dozens of
sandwiches, and how the whole town would go down to the USO
center in the high school gym to give the GIs food, pencils
and writing paper on Saturday night.
He tells how he waited in the rain for hours in Vietnam,
water dripping off his helmet, to see a Bob Hope USO show in
1967, and how even today young service men and women constantly
gravitate to USO centers in far-flung spots seeking a precious
sliver of home. (The nearest USO installation to the Balkans
is in Tazar, a former MiG base in southwestern Hungary, just
north of the Croatian border. The group plans to send the Cowboys
cheerleaders to entertain U.S. troops in the Balkans over the
Fourth of July holiday.)
In the three years since he took over, he has shaken things
up at the organization. He ended superfluous operations--things
like the big, money-losing gift shop on Okinawa and the organization's
scholarship program. He went temporarily into the red to acquire
a $250,000 state-of-the-art computer system. He started an endowment,
doubled the donor base and reduced staff turnover. Now he is
preparing to formally ask Congress--for the first time in USO
history--for a government appropriation. It would be a one-time
infusion of $50 million to permanently shield the USO from the
vagaries of private funding.
Mundy cheerfully tells everyone that he has the second best
job in Washington--but the distance between Number one and Number
two seems vast.
His spacious office at USO headquarters on the third floor
of the Navy Yard's Lejeune Hall is strikingly spare--decorated
with the USO and American flags and a framed Rockwellesque painting
depicting a World War II-era American street scene. But the
room is devoid of the personal mementos that one expects in
an executive's office.
He has told the USO he will serve for another year, maybe
two. And so, despite his diligence, there is a sense of temporariness,
a feeling that he will set the organization on a sound course,
that he will give it his intellect and experience, but that
his heart was long ago taken by another.
One day recently, as he talked in his office, two solitary
Marines were practicing a drill on a basketball court across
from USO headquarters on Eberle Place.
They were from the Marine barracks on I Street SE, where
Mundy once lived. They were practicing a drill for a morning
colors ceremony, a routine done with slow, careful steps and
gold-handled swords. Mundy had always relished Marine ceremony.
And he had promoted the sword as the symbol of the Corps.
But this day, though his window looked out on the court
below, he was busy in Suite 301--a CEO in a big, bare office,
across a narrow street and an unbridgeable divide from the life
he had really loved.