CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- It was 9 a.m. on a Monday morning in Hawaii when a young Sgt. Carl Green heard a knock on his hotel room door. He had spent the weekend partying out in town, celebrating his recent departure from the Marine Corps. He had originally planned on re-enlisting, but only if he got selected to become a drill instructor. That didn’t happen so Green decided to head back home to South Carolina and look for work. Before going anywhere, he planned on taking a 20-day vacation in Hawaii.
He opened the door – it was his unit’s career planner.
“Green, they want to give you the drill field,” he said.
“But I’m out of the Marine Corps,” said Green.
“I already talked to the CO [commanding officer]. We can fix that.”
Later that afternoon, Green walked into work, where two days earlier his fellow Marines had thrown him a going away party. He raised his right hand and recited the oath of reenlistment. And just like that he was back in the Marine Corps and on his way to become a drill instructor at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C.
Green has come along way since that fateful day nearly 30 years ago. He recently relinquished his post as the sergeant major of II Marine Expeditionary Force and retiring from the Marine Corps. Throughout his 34 years of service, 13 of which were served at his present rank of sergeant major, Green sought to be the best at whatever he put his hands to and to take care of the Marines under his charge.
He grew up in Seabrook, S.C., a mere 12 miles from Parris Island where he would go through recruit training and eventually serve as a drill instructor. He was one of 14 children that included 8 brothers and six sisters. He boasts that his parents instilled in him discipline before he joined the Marine Corps.
“I think honor, courage and commitment was developed in the Green family,” said Green. “I was very respectful because I was taught that at home. Growing up, it was always sir or ma’am – there just ain’t no other way. My mom and dad were the hardest parents ever, and I love them for that today. I commend the Marine Corps for keeping me on track.”
From a young age, Green looked for challenges. When two of his older brothers joined the Marine Corps, he decided he wanted to join too. They said he wouldn’t make it through boot camp.
Green went to his local recruiter and signed on the dotted line. The recruiter convinced him to choose artillery forward observer for his MOS (military occupational specialty).
“I just went with the flow because I wanted to be a Marine,” said Green. “[Artillery] sounded pretty decent until boot camp where our drill instructors were giving us our [specific jobs]. They said, ‘Oh, forward observer. Life expectancy: three seconds on the battlefield.’ I was like, ‘Oops!’”
Forward observers are responsible for directing artillery and mortar fire in support of ground combat units. Typically, they are attached to infantry units and have to act as the eyes and ears of long range weapon systems.
“It all turned out great. I love being a forward observer.”
His first duty station was at Camp Lejeune, N.C., before being transferred to Marine Corps Base Hawaii. His battery commander at Hawaii was Robert O. Work, who currently serves as the Under Secretary of the Navy. During this time, Green deployed four times, visiting countries such as Singapore, Thailand, Korea and Hong Kong.
After re-enlisting in the Marine Corps, Green reported to Parris Island, S.C., to achieve his goal of becoming a drill instructor. He soon found out that succeeding at being a D.I. was going to be one of the most challenging things he had ever done. While working as new D.I., his leaders worked him from sun up to sun down.
“That was where I had the best leadership I’ve ever had in the Marine Corps,” said Green. “Hands down the best leadership I’ve ever had.”
Several of his superiors who mentored him during that time, including retired sergeants major Ron Fetherson and Reverend James E. Moore, were present during Green’s relief and appointment ceremony.
Green also met his wife Zelda at Parris Island, beginning a partnership which has lasted 22 years. A friend introduced them, and Green said he knew “she was a winner.” The next day after work, he decided to pay her a visit. He was still wearing his service uniform with the iconic “Smokey Bear” drill instructor cover on top of his head. He refers to the instant where Zelda saw him wearing his uniform as the “Lou Gossett moment,” referring to the actor’s memorable portrayal of a drill instructor in the film, “An Officer and a Gentleman.”
“I think I stole her heart,” said Green. “She won’t admit to it though.”
Zelda said when she met her husband, Carl was a natural disaster waiting to happen.
“I was the guy always looking for a challenge,” said Green. “I think she reeled me in and settled me down. We got married and have three beautiful kids…life has been good.”
Green also pointed out that he would not be where he is today without his wife.
“My success is her success,” said Green. “I’m here because she was one of those guys…who got me to where I am today: across the finish line.”
After his tour on Parris Island was done, Green headed back to the Flee Marine Force. He continued to rise through the ranks, deploying across the world and serving in many different capacities throughout the Corps. In addition to his numerous personal awards earned throughout the years, Green has also been awarded the Honor of Saint Barbara Award. It is a recognition named in honor of the patron saint of artillery and each year it is given to a service member who has demonstrated superior capability in the artillery field.
For Green, it was never about getting awards. It was just about being the best and helping others.
“I never had an ego of trying to be this or trying to be that,” said Green. “I just wanted to try to do the best of whatever I could do and the job that I had at any given time. If you put me in charge of cleaning toilets, I wanted to be the best toilet-cleaner. Everything I do I wanted to do with perfection.”
After more than 20 years of service, Green finally deployed to a combat zone, deploying three times to Iraq between 2004 to 2009.
One of Green’s more memorable moments in Iraq came when he was the sergeant major for 2nd Marine Logistics Group. While on a convoy to Fallujah, Green witnessed an IED (improvised explosive device) detonate in front of his vehicle.
“It’s a sound that you will never forget,” said Green. “Just that impact…I was like, ’Wow!’”
While in Iraq, Green would frequently visit the hospital where wounded Marines would be brought in on a daily basis to be saved from wounds sustained from combat. The images of them changed his perspective on combat.
“When I was a young Marine, we would run around singing songs that said, ‘Everyday we pray for war!’” said Green. “We wanted to go so bad until we actually had to go. Yes, I still wanted to go because the pride was there, but this was not how I thought it was going to be. This is not what you see on TV.”
Whether leading Marines overseas or back in the U.S., Green has employed a very simple philosophy: treat people the way you want to be treated.
“Treat people with dignity and respect and watch the transformation," said Green. "If you disrespect someone, you’ve lost them. You’ve lost them! He or she will never come back to you for any advice if you disrespect them. But if you treat them with respect and dignity, you will see them transform. Yelling and screaming – it’s a copout. A copout for a lack of leadership. You get nothing from it.”
Green attributes his leadership skills to the leaders he has had since being in the Marine Corps. He values mentorship and said it is what has kept him serving for so long.
“If I’m mentoring you, you don’t have to thank me,” said Green. “I just want you to pass it on. If I give you a good tip, just pass it on. You have just learned something and now you’re going to teach it to another guy, they’re going to teach it to someone else and it continues to grow. As Ron Fetherson would say, ‘Now you have my DNA. If you get my DNA, you spread it throughout the Marine Corps. If you do that, the Marine Corps will be in good hands.’”
When asked what he will miss most about the Marine Corps, Green was quick to reply, “The people.”
“I’ve got nothing against civilians, because I’m about to be one, but the people you meet in the Corps are the best you will ever meet in your life,” said Green. “The quality of the people you meet in the Marine Corps you just don’t see in the civilian world.”
If Green could give one piece of advice to Marines as he departs into the world of being a civilian, he said it would be to never forget where you came from and how you got there.
“We all came into the Marine Corps and we got to where we are today because of someone or some people. There is very little that I did to get me here. It was those who mentored me and gave me the guidance to one day possibly get the opportunity to compete for this position.”