Drill field longtimer talks about every Marine's first leader: the DI
By Sgt. Ryan Smith
| | September 17, 2004
MARINE CORPS RECRUIT DEPOT SAN DIEGO, Calif. --
For the past five years, two drill instructors - one man, one woman - have locked their cold, bronze gazes upon every graduating Marine to cross Shepherd Field. And they have manned their post without ever missing a ceremony.The monument - The Known Marine - was sculpted by John Chalk and chiefly envisioned in September 1967 by retired Sgt. Maj. Bill Paxton, who was serving as a drill instructor here at the time. Paxton is also an original founder and life charter member of the U.S. Marine Corps Drill Instructor Association. He recently shared sea stories about drill instructors of yore and the monument's origins.The Known Marine was built to honor the legacy of drill instructors - past, present and future, according to Paxton. "The title would be 'The Known Marine,' because there is no such thing as an unknown Marine."Back in the '50s, I was stationed at military police with Sgt. Robert C. Roper here. We later were stationed together with Bravo Company Recon, 4th Marine Regiment in Hawaii. We got separated after that when I left to report for DI School in 1964. Then I left for Vietnam in 1965."After my tour in Vietnam, I came back to the drill field and went through DI School again. Now, Gunnery Sgt. Roper was one of my history instructors. He felt bad because he hadn't the opportunity to serve in Vietnam yet. He let us pass on our knowledge and experience of combat to the rest of the students in our class."According to Paxton, Roper then volunteered to go to Vietnam. After Roper was there a short time, the company commander, Roper and the radioman died from a direct hit by a rocket-propelled grenade."When they escorted the gunny's remains back, we went to identify the body," said Paxton. "On one of his arms you could make out his tattoo: "Death Before Dishonor" above the Marine Corps emblem, and on the other arm, a rabbit. His nickname was Rabbit because he ran all the time."No burial spaces were available at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego, but to honor the man, Col. D.W. Sherman, the depot chief of staff at the time, gave his plot to Roper, said Paxton. At the funeral, only drill instructors served as pallbearers, riflemen and escorts."The chaplain delivered the flag to his widow, who was Cpl. Virginia Roper," said Paxton. "She started pulling on the flag and said, 'No one will ever hear of her gunny again.' As a member of that ceremonial detail, I had a feeling that we should recognize all of our drill instructors."As we were carrying the gunny's casket, we could feel him saying 'Keep in step ... Keep in step.' He had a cadence that could make a dead Marine strut."With these thoughts, Paxton made a rough sketch for a monument and took it to the training aides library here where military artists and photographers served. He employed a corporal's help to flesh out the sketch. "Cpl. Patterson took my rough sketch and painted a portrait of a drill instructor the way he remembered his drill instructor with hands on his hips, a stern face and a mean look," said Paxton. "He painted it with a pedestal and chain around it. We took pictures of the artistic work Cpl. Patterson had done, and it looked like the monument was already completed."Paxton took the painting up his chain of command and was turned down many times. "They didn't feel it would be fair to the other (Marines) to have a monument for the drill instructors," said Paxton. "Finally, we convinced them that every Marine's first leader is a drill instructor."After approval finally came, and during his leave before heading back to Vietnam, Paxton made an appointment to see the Commandant of the Marine Corps. "He said it was a great idea," said Paxton. "The only thing was we would have to get an outside organization to sponsor and be responsible for the funding and dedication of it."Paxton was given a list of contractors by the Pentagon staff and a basic idea on how to get the monument started. Paxton returned to San Diego and turned over the information to the Recruit Training Regiment sergeant major before his departure back to Vietnam."Upon my return back from Vietnam, I found that the sergeant major had retired. We had to start the process all over again," said Paxton. "I approached Sgt. Maj. Leyland D. "Crow" Crawford, ninth Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, and he gave the approval to continue with it and form the Marine Corps Drill Instructor Association, and they would sponsor the monument. We got some volunteers together at a reunion in 1985 and in 1986, we formed the association."The first DI monument was erected at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., April 29, 1999. The target date for MCRD San Diego was Sept. 11, 1999, but the project had a financial shortcoming."After the dedication ceremony at Parris Island, we realized we were short on funds. Through contact with the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps and the Commandant, the funds came through," said Paxton. "With volunteers of active duty and retired Marines, the monument was ready on time for it's dedication ceremony on Sept. 11, 1999."When graduation ends and the newly minted Marines set out into the world, they pick up their seabags under the watchful, bronze eyes of two drill instructors who continue to stand guard as lasting reminders of a Marine's first leader: the drill instructor.