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Face of Defense: Marine Corps Vet Recalls Experiences

By Marine Corps Sgt. Bryan Nygaard
4th Marine Corps District

SALISBURY, Md., Aug. 12, 2014 – The Marines at Recruiting Sub-Station Salisbury here work over 60 hours every week to recruit highly qualified men and women into the Marine Corps. When they are not out canvassing the local community looking for future Marines, they are in the office making phone calls, interviewing applicants and processing paperwork.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Max G. Neighbors, a canvassing recruiter with Recruiting Station Baltimore, and Robert L. Thomas and his Marine Corps dress blues jacket at Recruiting Sub-Station Salisbury, Md., July 21, 2014. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt Bryan J. Nygaard
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Their office frequently receives visitors who do not want to join the Marine Corps -- they just want to talk about it. These are former Marines, most of whom served before the recruiters were even born, who stop by the office to talk about their Marine Corps experiences.

The recruiters will turn away from their computer screens and listen to stories about the “Old Corps.” Many of these Marine veterans even bring in books and keepsakes from their time in the service and initiate impromptu show and tell sessions in the recruiting office. Once they are finished sharing their fond memories of being one of the few and the proud, they thank the recruiters for their time, shout “OO-RAH!” or “Semper Fi!” as they leave, usually to return with a new story to share.

One of these storytellers is Robert Thomas. Recently, the 73-year-old Salisbury native came by the recruiting office with his dress blues jacket from when he served many years ago. He was not there to show off his uniform, but he had a favor to ask of the Marines. It was a favor that turned out to be a story 50 years in the making.

Thomas was born and raised in the rural farmlands of Cambridge, Maryland. While he was a senior in high school, he decided to join the Marines, much to the chagrin of his mother.

“I knew at the time when I graduated I did not want anything to do with college,” Thomas said. “I was not ready for it and would probably have been a disaster if I had gone.”

His mother eventually conceded and signed the parental consent papers, allowing him to enlist. Thomas arrived at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina, in July 1959 and graduated the following October. His parents were at his graduation ceremony and had purchased him a set of dress blues. During that time, Marines were not issued dress blues at recruit training like they are today. Each Marine had to purchase them from the clothing and uniform store at their respective base.

Thomas was trained to be a combat engineer and was assigned to 2nd Pioneer Battalion [now known as 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion] of the 2nd Marine Division, based out of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

“We built things, we blew up things with C4, we laid out mine fields, used detonating cord and dug up mines … that sort of thing,” Thomas said.

In November 1960, Thomas went out to sea on what would be one of many “cruises.” He was attached to Task Force 88, an amphibious ready group, which embarked on a goodwill tour known as Solant Amity Cruise I. During this expedition, Thomas and his fellow Marines crossed the equator eight times, sailed in three different oceans and set foot on more than a dozen countries located throughout the continents of Africa, Europe and South America.

One of the more notable events of the tour came in January 1961 when elements of the task force landed in Matadi, the chief seaport of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to assist in the evacuation of western nationals and United Nations troops. The country, which had recently been liberated from Belgium, had fallen into civil war, prompting the Congolese government to request military assistance from the U.N. During the early 1960s, the U.S. Navy assisted the U.N. several times in stabilizing the newly independent nation, according to Thomas.

After being out to sea for more than six months, Thomas came home in June 1961, and married his high school sweetheart, Nancy. Thirty days after getting married, he left on another cruise to Vieques, Puerto Rico.

On October 26, 1962, Thomas and the rest of his unit were told to grab their gear and to write up their wills. They boarded the USS Monrovia and sailed south. This was during the tenuous 13 days in October 1962 known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Monrovia served as part of the U.S. blockade around Cuba following the discovery that the Soviet Union had placed nuclear missiles there.

“I thought we were going to war,” said Thomas, whose wife was three months pregnant at the time. “It got serious for us when we started firing machine guns off the stern of the ship. We thought something might come out of it. I was with a good group of people. I think we all knew our jobs and we were ready to do what our country called us to do.”

Nuclear war was averted on October 28, of that year when the United States and the Soviet Union reached an agreement that called for the removal of all nuclear missiles from Cuba in exchange for the U.S. removing all nuclear missiles from Turkey. After the missiles were removed from Cuba, the blockade formally ended on November 20 and Thomas returned home in December.

On June 26, 1963, Cpl. Thomas was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps. Five days later, he checked into the Maryland State Police Academy. He would serve as a Maryland State Trooper for 31 years, rising to the rank lieutenant colonel.

Barely two years had passed when Thomas heard his nation’s call once more. He decided to come back to the Marine Corps. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson ordered two battalions of Marines to protect the American air base in Da Nang, South Vietnam, furthering the buildup of U.S. forces there. Thomas and another state trooper, also a former Marine, went to the Marine recruiting station in Annapolis to see if they could get back in. The recruiter turned him away after Thomas told him he was married with a child and had another on the way.

“That is probably just as well,” said Thomas, noting that his wife probably would have shot him before he departed.

And with that, Thomas was undoubtedly done with the Marine Corps. He credits his four years in the Marines with preparing him for life.

“The Marines do an excellent job about building character and instilling responsibility in people,” Thomas said. “You learn to look out for people. You learn to take care of yourself -- to be prepared for eventualities that take place and to be adaptable so that when something raises its ugly head you can deal with it.”

Recently, Thomas read on a website dedicated to the Marines of the Solant Amity cruise that he was authorized to wear two different medals on his dress blues in addition to his Good Conduct Medal. He, like countless other veterans from World War II through Vietnam, left the service without knowing what medals and ribbons they were eligible to wear.

In order to verify that he actually was allowed to wear these medals, Thomas contacted the military awards branch of Marine Corps Manpower and Reserve Affairs. They were able to confirm what medals he was allowed to wear and then mailed them to him.

The first was the National Defense Service Medal. President Dwight D. Eisenhower established this medal in 1953 for service during a national emergency, war or armed conflict. It has only been authorized for four different time periods: the Korean War), the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War and the Global War on Terrorism. Thomas was made eligible to wear this medal because he served from 1959 to 1963.

The second medal he is allowed to wear is the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, established by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 for service in any military campaign in which no other service medal is authorized. The first campaign the medal was issued for was the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was later made retroactive for actions that took place in the Republic of the Congo.

Those two medals along with Thomas’ Good Conduct Medal, which is awarded to a Marine for every three consecutive years of good behavior, made up the three medals that he was allowed to wear on his dress blues. There was only one problem -- Thomas did not know how to put them on his uniform or the order of precedence in which they were to be arranged. So he went to the one place he knew he could find help.

Marine Corps Sgt. Randall Dobbs, a recruiter at the Salisbury station, was in the office when Thomas came by with his dress blues jacket. Dobbs looked up the order in which the medals were to be mounted, then found an old ribbon bar in his wall locker, set the medals on it and mounted the bar on the dress blues jacket.

“It felt good to do that for him,” said Dobbs, a native of Macon, Georgia. “He thinks the world for what we did for him, but that was just a five-minute project.”

That project represents Thomas’ four years of service during a perilous time when the U.S. was engaged in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Even though he never engaged enemy forces in a combat situation, he was involved in two major events of that period.

“I was not there for any conflict -- nobody was shooting at me, which was a good thing,” Thomas said. “I gave them four years to start something and because they did not, it was not my fault.”

Although he does not exactly fit into his dress blues anymore, he says it is important to show his friends and family what he earned.

“My family members were always supportive of me being a Marine anyhow, but the Marine with the medals now, they think is kind of neat,” Thomas said.

 

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