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Face of Defense: Sergeant Major Reflects on Career

By Marine Corps Sgt. Juan D. Alfonso
Special to American Forces Press Service

CAMP H.M. SMITH, Hawaii, Feb. 25, 2010 – After a 30-year military career, Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. James Roberts Jr. is hanging up his uniform for the last time.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. James Roberts Jr., sergeant major of Headquarters and Service Battalion, U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific, enlisted in November 1980. After 30 years of service, Roberts plans to retire Sept. 1, 2010. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Juan D. Alfonso
  

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

His fellow Marines here say Roberts leaves behind a legacy of Marines who have learned and carry on his traditions of being a leader who truly cares about his troops, always remains positive and never is comfortable sitting behind a desk.

Roberts, the sergeant major for Headquarters and Service Battalion, Marine Forces Pacific, may be best remembered for spending time with his Marines.

“I think I walk the halls a lot,” said Roberts, who hails from Allendale, S.C. “I’m always in someone else’s office, talking to the Marines, getting to know the Marines. I’ve got to stay in touch with them. If they have questions, I want to be there to answer them. I’ve always preferred being hands-on.”

Roberts described his early years as always having something to do while growing up in a small town. It was in Allendale, he said, that he learned a work ethic that propelled him through his career as a Marine. He joined the Marine Corps after watching a recruiter enter a convenience store he worked in as a teenager. Blown away by how the sergeant presented himself, Roberts took his first step toward becoming a Marine.

“I thought to myself, ‘Man that’s a nice-looking uniform. I want to be a Marine,’” he said. “Back then I didn’t think a whole lot about serving my country. I’d seen the commercials on TV, but what really did it was when I saw that Marine and that way he carried himself.”

Roberts enlisted as a field wireman in November 1980. He attended recruit training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C.

One of the unique aspects of his career is that he never requested to be stationed anywhere. The Corps moved him from duty stations on the East Coast to Japan. He never complained and made the best of where the Corps needed him.

One such occasion was in 1984. Shortly after arriving to Albany, Ga., Roberts learned his section was overmanned and that he would not be working in the section in which he’d expected to serve.

“They offered me a couple of different jobs,” he said, chuckling. “I took assistant athletic director because it sounded better.”

It was during his time in Georgia that he decided to change his career field to utilities.

Roberts said he enjoyed working as a utilities technician because it made life better for Marines. He worked with water purification, generators and air conditioning systems -- everything a unit needs to improve the quality of life for deployed Marines..

But it took some time before he mastered his craft. Changing career fields as a sergeant required him to take advice and learn from his juniors, an experience that helped to shape his leadership style today.

“Because I [changed career fields] as a sergeant, I had to rely on my lance corporals and corporals to correct me,” Roberts said. “They knew the job, and I didn’t. That experience taught me to never lose touch with the Marines and to always have that level of communication. Sometimes, they just have a better way of doing it that you haven’t thought about. It’s all about teamwork.”

You don’t have to go far here to find people who like Roberts’ style.

“He was just driven,” said Elger Talley, a retired Marine who served with Roberts in Japan and now works here as a civilian contractor. “He and I were staff sergeants together in Iwakuni, and I just thought he was dynamic. He’s one of the top 10 Marines I’ve ever known. He was always well received, squared away. When I ran into him working here, and saw that he was a sergeant major, I could see that. Even back then as a staff sergeant, I saw that he had it in him.”

Marine Corps Sgt. Diamond Robinson, Marine Forces Pacific operations section administrative chief, said he’s learned a lot from Roberts “because of his leadership and who he is as a man.” said

“He’s impacted my life in a lot of ways,” he said. “He’s very, very, very understanding. He’s not the kind of leader that hounds his Marines. He’s straight and to the point, but you can tell there’s some compassion, that he really cares about his Marines. Just [from] the way he carries himself and all the activities he does outside of the Marine Corps, you can tell he’s a man of morals and values, and that’s something to look up to.”

With his retirement ceremony scheduled for April 16, Roberts is taking advantage of the time he has left to pass his secrets of success to the Marines under his charge.

“Be where you’re supposed to be, when you’re supposed to be there, in the right uniform and in the right frame of mind,” he said. “Keep a positive attitude with everything you do, and everything you do should be positive.

“You’ve got to embrace change,” he continued. “If you’re plan is to just do four years and get out, that’s fine, but take the opportunities to do certain things you thought you couldn’t do. The Marine Corps is a great way of life.”

He paused, and then grinned from ear to ear. “Oh, and one more thing,” he said. “Save your money. We can’t stay [in the Corps] forever. We have to prepare for the day we take off the uniform.”

Roberts officially retires Sept. 1, and he said he will dedicate the rest of his life to his college education, mentoring at-risk teenagers and working on his golf swing.

(Marine Corps Sgt. Juan D. Alfonso serves with Marine Forces Pacific.)

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