CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- On June 25, 1975, Jeffrey J. Kenney, then 17 years old, enlisted in the United States Marine Corps from Hartford, Connecticut, and began recruit training at Parris Island two weeks later.
He’s held 13 ranks, deployed multiple times, and has received many awards. More than 41 years have passed since Jeffrey J. Kenney swore to uphold and defend the Constitution for the first time. On December 21, 2016, Kenney – now a colonel – will wear the Marine Corps uniform for a final time.
Kenney grew up in Meriden, Conn., surrounded by military influence. His father and all of his uncles had served in the armed forces, all but two of them serving during World War II. There was no pressure from his family to join the military, but enlisting felt like the proper thing for him to do.
“I thought serving the country was something you should do as a young man before you move on with the rest of your life, because we owe so much,” said Kenney.
“He always wanted to be a Marine as far back as I can remember,” said Carmela Kenney, his mother.
He could have gone to college or joined any service, but the Marines interested him because of their history of being warfighters.
“The Marine Corps appealed to me because I wanted to be a warrior more than just somebody who’s in the service,” he said. “I wanted to be someone who, if need be, would fight, and I figured, what better service than the Marine Corps?”
Originally, the Marine Corps assigned Kenney to serve in an intelligence capacity, but his warfighting spirit pushed him to become an infantryman. Following a short stint at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., and serving on Marine Security Guard duty, Kenney arrived at Camp Pendleton, Calif., to serve as a platoon sergeant with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.
Eventually, Kenney became a reconnaissance man, transferring to 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, also as a platoon sergeant. He later became a recruiter in Pueblo, Colo., winning recruiter of the year in fiscal year 1983. As a result, he was meritoriously promoted to the rank of gunnery sergeant, and sought a new direction for his career.
“I was only 25, and I said, ‘I’m too young to be the First Sergeant,’” said Kenney, who applied for the Marine Corps Enlisted Commissioning Education Program, and was selected. He attended the University of Colorado at Boulder, subsequently commissioning as a 2nd lieutenant in 1987.
“I became an officer because I thought, ‘I want to be the guy making the decisions.’ I [also] liked the idea of being tactically in charge,” said Kenney.
Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, Kenney served as a platoon and company commander for various units, and was an instructor at The Basic School and Infantry Officer Course at Quantico, Virginia. In 1996, as the commanding officer of Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, he won the Leftwich Trophy, awarded to company commanders in the ground combat element in recognition of outstanding leadership.
“The company deserved that trophy, not me,” said Kenney.
Kenney made a strong impact on the young Marine officers under his charge at TBS and IOC. Col. Christopher J. Douglas was once a student under Kenney, and credits him for his success in the Marine Corps.
“[Kenney] has strong character and unquestionable integrity; you would follow him anywhere,” said Douglas, who is currently assigned to 4th Marine Division and works as a narcotics detective for the New York State Police. “He’s the Marine Officer you want to emulate.”
“We were obsessed with getting better,” said Kenney. “If you aren’t trying to get better, you’re getting worse. If you’re not attacking, you’ll get attacked. You can never be satisfied with good enough.”
By 2006, Kenney was a major, and had completed multiple deployments, including a combat tour during Operation Iraqi Freedom the previous year. On May 25, 2006, serving as an advisor for the 2nd Brigade of the 7th Iraqi Army Division, Kenney’s vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device. The blast killed two Iraqi soldiers in the vehicle, and left Kenney with life-threatening injuries.
“I had almost 30 fractures, my lungs were collapsed, my skull was busted in the back, my eye sockets were fractured, my jaw, collarbone and four vertebrae were broken,” recalled Kenney, who spent the next several months recovering.
Kenney could have easily retired at this point in his career. But he chose to continue battling, in both his recovery and the wars he was committed to win.
“[He thought] ‘am I ever going to be okay? Am I going to be the guy I was?’ So it was brutal for him. But, he did it,” said Lori Kenney, his wife. “The best thing was for him to go back to work.”
Following a lengthy rehabilitation process, Kenney not only went back to work, but served as an advisor on two more combat deployments.
He now serves as the officer-in-charge of Expeditionary Operations Training Group, II Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters Group.
“Whenever I’m in charge of guys, whenever I’ve got a mission in the Marine Corps, I’m a better man than if I was just by myself. It makes me better than I am,” said Kenney.
Kenney and Douglas have known each other for more than 20 years. Douglas says he still seeks mentorship from Kenney, and the two remain close friends.
“From an early time… he was one of those people who stressed physical preparedness, and inoculating yourself for [combat],” said Douglas. “He’s the type of person that if your son had to go to combat, you would want him to lead him.”
“He’s dedicated, he’s driven. Whatever he does, he does well,” said his mother.
“At all costs, too,” adds Lori. “It may not be the path he thought it was going to take, but it’s a path he doesn’t regret.”
Upon retirement, Kenney hopes to work as a civilian contractor or a teacher. No matter what he chooses to do, he’ll always give credit to the organization he gave 41 years of his life to.
“I still owe the Marine Corps. I have gotten way more from the Marine Corps than I was able to put in,” said Kenney. “I’ll always be grateful. I thank God there is such a thing as the United States Marine Corps. Otherwise, what would I be?”