MARINE CORPS LOGISTICS BASE ALBANY, Ga. -- Some men join the Marine Corps to find themselves. Others join to escape. One Marine unintentionally did both. He joined the Corps to get away from his past and in doing so, found his future.
Sgt. Maj. Charles Tonn, Materiel Command sergeant major, joined the Marine Corps in the early 1970s because it was literally the only branch of service that would take him.
"Many people looked at the military as a last resort, and I guess I did too," said the 30-year veteran.
After working at a lumber mill in Michigan, Tonn decided to join the Marine Corps. He walked in to the recruiter's office and three days later found himself in San Diego under the charge of some not-so-nice drill instructors. Friday should also mark the first time he has seen his mom and three sisters together in 20 years.
As he prepares to retire Friday, he reflects on his time spent in the Corps.
"I really didn't know what to expect. But I learned a lot while I was there," said Tonn, who invited one of his former drill instructors to attend his retirement ceremony.
Tonn said he gained a good foundation in boot camp, and from there things could only get better.
He helped lead Marines to take the Kuwait airfield in the Gulf War. Tonn said after the mission, the Marines were exhausted from little food and rest. But he as impressed by the way they seemed to wait until the job was done to let it affect them. He also served in Kosovo with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Tonn was in charge of stopping smugglers from crossing the borders. Marines in his charge stopped several weapons shipments, and once word got out that the Marines were on patrol, smugglers went out of their way to avoid them.
"I love how all it takes is one. You just have to say the word Marine, and nobody wants to play with you," said Tonn.
Tonn said that when he arrived at MatCom headquarters here, he was amazed to see how everything was done behind the scenes. He said that every staff sergeant and above should be required to visit one of the maintenance depots.
"All Marines in the fleet know is one of three things, we need something, we want something or we need something fixed," he said. "If Marines were at least required to take a tour of the facilities, they would gain a greater appreciation and understanding for what it takes to accomplish that mission."
Tonn said that since the time he has come into service, the quality of Marines has changed. "There is not as much of a drug problem as there was when I joined," said Tonn. "I think anyone in uniform who does drugs now is just an imposter who doesn't know what being a Marine is."
Despite the progress in technology and training the Corps has made through his 30-year tenure, Tonn said some of the basic problems that existed when he joined are still around.
According to Tonn, racism and sexual harassment are very big problems in the Corps that should be addressed with great concern. Because they are difficult issues, sometimes Marines believe they are helping each other by looking the other way, but they need to take a stand and spread the word that they will not be tolerated. Tonn said that a good rule of thumb was, when faced with a questionable situation to "just ask yourself if you would let them say or do that to a family member?"
Tonn was also concerned about the focus of some of the me mbers of the Corps current leadership. Within the past four years, Marines in leadership positions have been more concerned with their personal agendas than the Marine Corps as a whole.
"When they are faced with difficult decisions, instead of asking 'what is the best thing for the Marine Corps,' first, that question is about the third or fourth question on the list," said Tonn.
One thing he learned and would like to pass on is that Marines can manage with very few tangible items. Things such as determination, esprit de Corps and commitment far outweigh physical objects, he said.
Tonn said that one Marine that helped give him some of those intangible was Sgt. Maj. Anthony Reese. Tonn first met Reese in a noncommissioned officers school where Reece was an instructor, then later served under him in the fleet.
"Whether he was in the classroom or in the trenches, he was the same," said Tonn. "No matter where he was or what he was doing, he always represented the highest standards of the Marine Corps."
Tonn also spoke highly of Sgt. Maj. Jim Lewis. Lewis was a leader who made sure he had time for the Marines under him.
"He would find time to listen to you and he would give you the best advice on the information you gave him. He was amazing," said Tonn, as though he was talking about an acclaimed sports hero.
"If you are a good leader, you can get Marines to do anything," he said. "You can tell a Marine to go into a burning building, and he will do it. You just have to know how to lead."
Tonn said he has a great deal of confidence in the current generation of Marines fighting the war on terrorism. He said he has no doubts of the outcome either.
"No one can compete with Marines," he said.
Now, he just wants to make up for lost time with his family.