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08-24-07, 07:17 AM
August 24, 2007
Marine recruiter retires

By Alison Knezevich
Staff writer

TEAYS VALLEY — Tony Lester never planned on being a Marine.

But on Wednesday, the master gunnery sergeant retired from the U.S. Marines Recruiting Station in Teays Valley with 21 years of service — and having achieved the corps’ highest enlisted rank.

His fellow Marines call him a strong and emotional leader who has such a soft side they nicknamed him “Big Heart.”

The 41-year-old grew up in Baileysville, Wyoming County, where his father was a coal miner and a preacher. He wanted to study business in college.

“In those days, there was no Promise Scholarship and things like that to help kids go to college,” he said. “So I really didn’t have money to go to college.”

His senior year of high school, a friend introduced him to a Marine recruiter. Throughout the year, Lester resisted joining the military.

But he still couldn’t find a way to pay for college. “I just woke up a few days after graduating and thought, ‘What am I going to do?’” he said.

Two days after he graduated from high school, he enlisted.

He never regretted that sudden decision. “If I had to do it over again, I really wouldn’t change a thing,” he said. “And that really means a lot to me.”

Lester spent the bulk of his career on recruiting duty, working almost the whole time for Recruiting Station Charleston. The station, now located on W.Va. 34 in Putnam County, is the headquarters for Marine recruiting for parts of five states: West Virginia, Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

He retired as the station’s operations officer and also served a two-year tour as a regional trainer in New Cumberland, Pa.

He watched as population has shrunk in some areas of the recruiting district, especially the southern part of West Virginia.

The basics of his job hadn’t changed much since Lester started working in the 1980s because “kids are kids,” he said. But teens today are much more informed than this generation was.

“[The difference between] what kids know about us now as opposed to then is just astronomical,” he said.

Lester loves to compete, but his real skill lies in his ability to connect with people and to teach others, Marines at the recruiting station said.

“He’s taught me to take more time, to listen, to look at the bigger picture,” said Master Sgt. Paul Sites. “I’ve learned to be more sincere.”

Now, Lester will start a new job as a Junior ROTC teacher at Sissonville High School, teaching subjects such as leadership, flag etiquette and physical training.

The job will allow him to spend more time with his family, who had to move frequently as Lester was transferred throughout the recruiting district.

He and his wife, Judith, his high school sweetheart, have two daughters. Shanna is 17, and Emma, 13 months. “I’m planning college for one and changing diapers for the other,” he said.

Lester won numerous awards throughout his military career, including Recruiter of the Year, Staff Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge of the Year, three Achievement and two Commendation Medals, and the Centurion Award for recruiters who have enlisted more than 100 people.

Before Lester cleared off his desk, it wasn’t the awards that stood out, said Capt. Donald Traves: “The most prominent thing he had was a picture of his family.”

To contact staff writer Alison Knezevich, use e-mail or call 348-1240.