VMA-223 Sgt. Maj. brings unique experience, keeps Marines focused
2nd Marine Aircraft Wing
Story by Cpl. James D. Hamel

AL ASAD, Iraq (10/15/2005) -- Sergeant Maj. Courtney K. Curtis had never served in an aviation combat unit. After enlisting in the Marine Corps as an amphibious assault vehicle crewman, Curtis had spent all his time in the Fleet Marine Force with Marine Corps ground units.

As a first sergeant, Curtis deployed twice with a tank battalion, to Djibouti, Africa, and to support the initial stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Curtis had been everywhere except the Wing.

“I was told that Wing Marines lacked disciple,” said Curtis, a native of Panama City, Fl. The veteran crewman was less than ecstatic when he received orders to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 223, a Harrier squadron based at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C.

“I corrected a Marine more than once,” he recalled of his first days with the squadron. “That reinforced that this was going to be rough.”

But Curtis was pleasantly surprised. After getting to know his Marines, he realized they were just like any others.

“The difference (between Wing and ground Marines) is no difference,” he said. “Marines want to lead and are hard working. They’re continuously looking for challenges, regardless of their job.”

Curtis reported to VMA-223 in May 2005, shortly before the unit deployed to support Operation Iraqi Freedom. The leadership of the squadron was happy to have an experienced sergeant major on board to take to Iraq.

“I was excited,” said Lt. Col. David Lancaster, the executive officer of VMA-223 and Dallas native. “(Marines) all have the same ethos, but having a fresh set of eyes on how to do business is always nice, and he was able to provide that.”

The one thing Curtis’ fresh eyes saw that he did not like was the lack of emphasis placed on the development of leadership qualities. As he saw it, the development of junior leaders is what makes the Marine Corps work so well, and he wanted to emphasize that within his squadron. To do that, he started his own Corporals Leadership Course, the first class of which begins in November.

“When Marines become (noncommissioned officers), the light doesn’t switch on and all of a sudden they’re leaders,” he said. “It’s a learning experience.”

Curtis is the type of sergeant major who wants to know each of his Marines. Lancaster said it’s impressive how well he knows the squadron considering the short amount of time he’s been there.

“He comes down, talks to us and gets involved. He even tried to work on aircraft,” said Cpl. Justin R. Edwards, an avionics technician and Nashville native. “When you have a sergeant major who interacts with his Marines, it brings motivation.”

Curtis deeply believes in the mission in Iraq, and he said his Marines agree with him.
“Everyone wants to be free and we all believe in the mission,” he said. “If younger generations can grow up to be free, that’s the most important thing to the Marines.”

Curtis said his biggest challenge as a leader of Wing Marines has been to keep them inspired about how their jobs contribute to the mission. In his previous deployment to Iraq, he and his Marines had the opportunity to interact with the Iraqi people and see the positive influence they had. Many of his Marines cannot see the effect they have.

“You can’t watch a bomb being dropped as maintenance Marines in a hangar,” he said. “There are times when we have to sit down as a squadron and remind them why they are here and how what they are doing is making a difference,” he said.

In characteristic fashion, Curtis does that the same way he does everything else with his Marines, by talking to them.

“These are challenges I address on a daily basis,” he said. “Every part they have in fixing these planes helps the war. It is a challenge, and I deal with it by being down there (on the flightline) with the Marines.”