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Legacy Marine: Wayne Steele has 41 years in

This colonel has served longer than most leathernecks have been alive

Jun. 10, 2012 - 12:27PM   |   Last Updated: Jun. 10, 2012 - 12:27PM  |  
Col. Wayne Steele is scheduled to retire in October when he returns from Afghanistan, where he is serving with 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward). He's been a Marine for 41 years, holding 17 enlisted or officer ranks.
Col. Wayne Steele is scheduled to retire in October when he returns from Afghanistan, where he is serving with 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward). He's been a Marine for 41 years, holding 17 enlisted or officer ranks. (Marine Corps)
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He’s been everywhere

Throughout Col. Wayne Steele’s 41-year career, he’s served at nearly every duty station in the Corps. An overview:
Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego [1970-1971]
• Recruit training
Camp Lejeune, N.C. [1971-1972]
• 2nd Marine Division
• 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines
• 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines
• Deployed to the Mediterranean with 26th Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU)
Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. [1972]
• Attended Marine Corps Physical Fitness Academy
• Participated in All-Marine Orienteering Team
Camp Lejeune, N.C. [Dates not available]
• 2nd Marine Division
• Tactics instructor at the Special Warfare Training Center
Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C [until 1977]
• Drill instructor duty
Okinawa, Japan [Assigned 1977]
• 1st Marine Aircraft Wing
• Marine Air Control Group 18
• Duty with the Commanding General, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing Staff Secretary’s Office
Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz. [Dates not available]
• Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1
• Assigned as the Admin Chief and Acting Sergeant Major
Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. [1982]
• Attended Warrant Officer Basic School
Camp Lejeune, N.C. [Dates not available]
• Utilities Officer Course
Okinawa, Japan [1983-1985]
• 1st Marine Aircraft Wing
• Marine Air Control Group 17
Pohang, South Korea [Exercises in 1983-1984]
• Bear Hunt
• Team Spirit
Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Kaneohe Bay [1985-1988]
• Marine Wing Support Squadron 173
Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, Calif. [1988-1990]
• Combat Service Support Detachment 14
Saudi Arabia [Served in Operations Desert Shield/Storm 1990-1991]
• Maintenance Detachment, Brigade Service Support Group 7
• Maintenance control officer
• Engineer Maintenance Company, 1st Force Service Support Group
• Company commander
Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, Calif. [1991]
• Combat Service Support Detachment 14
Camp Pendleton, Calif. [1991-1992]
• Engineer Maintenance Company, 1st Force Service Support Group
• Company commander
Somalia [Operation Restore Hope 1992-1993]
• Maintenance Detachment
• Executive officer
Camp Pendleton, Calif. [1993-1995]
• Engineer Maintenance Company, 1st Force Service Support Group
California State University at San Marcos [1995]
• Selected for the Degree Completion Program
• Earned a bachelor’s degree in history
Camp Pendleton, Calif. [Assigned until 1998]
• 1st Maintenance Battalion
• Battalion maintenance operation officer
Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, Calif. [1998]
• Marine Wing Support Group 37
• Operations officer
Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif. [1999-2001]
• Coordinated move of Support Group, Marine Air Wing Support Squadron 373, and elements of 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing from El Toro to Miramar during Base Relocation and Closure.
Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego [2001]
• Service Company, Headquarters and Service Battalion
• Company Commander
U.S. Marine Forces Korea [Until 2003]
• Assistant Chief of Staff G-4
Camp Pendleton, Calif. [2003]
• Base facilities maintenance officer
• Marine Wing Support Squadron 372
• Commanding Officer
Iraq [2004]
• Marine Wing Support Squadron 372
Naval War College, Newport, R.I. [2006-2007]
• Earned master’s degree in national security and strategic studies
Scott Air Force Base, Ill. [2007-2008]
• Marine Corps representative to U.S. Transportation Command
Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Mich. [2008-2010]
• Marine Wing Support Group 47
• Served as the commanding officer
MCAS Miramar, Calif./Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan [2010-present]
• Senior logistician and G-4 for 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward)

Col. Wayne R. Steele despises the term "lifer." He's a "professional Marine," thank you very much. Yet after 41 years (and counting), Steele, 61, has spent the better part of his time on earth serving in the Marine Corps, obtaining an astounding 17 ranks along the way, pulling duty at darn-near every base or air station in the service, and deploying in support of multiple operations dating back to the 1970s.

Today, fittingly, Steele is in Afghanistan, where he is the senior logistician and G-4 for 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward). It will be his last assignment. He's closing in on 30 years as an officer, and recently received a letter from Marine Corps headquarters stating it's time for him to retire. That is scheduled to happen in October, when 3rd MAW comes home from combat.

Few Marines make it this far — for this long and in such a curious manner. He went from private to gunnery sergeant, warrant officer to chief warrant officer 5, and lieutenant to colonel. His career overlapped with several changes that eventually reshaped the Corps' restricted officer community. Today, limited duty lieutenants and captains don't also hold CWO ranks, as Steele did in the 1980s.

Official statistics are difficult to come by, but anecdotally, few Marines make it to 30 years — let alone the Big 4-0. Steele's career path is certainly a standout, though he looks at it more simply.

"I wanted to serve my country," he told Marine Corps Times in a phone interview from Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan's Helmand province. "I wanted to be a Marine."

In the 1960s, when Steele was just 12 or 13 years old, he met by chance a limited duty captain while he and his brothers fetched water from a reservoir near his childhood home in New Jersey. Steele was impressed, and the officer filled him with confidence that he, too, could become one of the few and the proud.

He devoured books about the Corps and watched whatever war movies he could. When he turned 18 in the fall of 1970, as the war in Vietnam ensued, Steele enlisted in the Corps so he wouldn't instead be drafted involuntarily into the Army.

Boot camp was tough, he said. One drill instructor tried to convince Steele to leave and join the Army, and another issued a warning after accidentally stepping on the instructor's boots: "Private Steele," the DI bellowed, "I have no intention of inflicting you on the Marine Corps."

Though eager to see combat, Steele didn't make it to Vietnam. At Camp Lejeune, N.C., Steele's first battalion commander was the gruff Lt. Col. Al Gray, the future commandant who promoted him to lance corporal.

Life there was simple. Steele drove a Pontiac Polara that his dad bought him. His first paychecks cleared $59, paid in cash, an amount soon doubled by President Nixon, he recalled. But he didn't throw away his earnings.

"I was a saver," Steele said. "I lived in the barracks. I ate in the chow hall. I don't drink, I don't smoke."

Squad-bay living suited Steele just fine. One of 16 kids in his family, living with dozens of Marines wasn't much different than sharing a bedroom with four or five brothers. He was no pack rat: His wall and foot lockers housed his military gear, and his two sets of civilian clothing.

It was during his time with Lejeune's 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, when Steele got to experience life as a sea-faring Marine. The battalion deployed in 1971 as the landing team for what was then the 26th Marine Amphibious Unit, or MAU, the precursor to today's Marine expeditionary units.

"I would have been very disappointed" if he never got to experience shipboard living, he said. "That's what Marines were about."

That attitude remained strong, even as Steele, then among the junior guys in the battalion, got stuck with the bottom rack in their crowded berthing area — a bunk not far from where his fellow Marines got seasick. Steele, luckily, was known for his steel stomach, which helped him persevere through tough times and having to clean up his buddies' puke.

Staying in

At that age, Steele didn't plan on making the military a career.

"I had no intention whatsoever staying in the Marine Corps after my first tour," he said, admitting he wasn't a good lance corporal, just a thin admin guy who "didn't look that good in uniform." But a squared-away staff sergeant he met in Quantico, Va., set him straight about what it means to be a Marine and inspired him to re-enlist.

"I made corporal, and he made me a noncommissioned officer … through his mentorship," Steele said. "Marines are more than just rank. Marines are more than having a title. It's something inside of you that makes you a Marine."

Bad leadership taught him about being a good leader. One less-than-stellar lieutenant "did teach me a lot about how to treat people, because he wasn't a good people person," Steele said. "I'm not a hard-nosed individual. I am an interactive leader. … I believe in involved leadership. You should know what is going on with your Marines."

Over the years, Steele led platoons and commanded units. And he loved being a drill instructor and guiding Marines as a gunnery sergeant.

"My greatest pleasure is leading Marines, being able to mold young men and women as good citizens," he said.

He loved going to sea on ships, something he wishes more Marines could experience like his adventurous cruises to the Mediterranean and Caribbean.

And as a warrant officer, Steele fulfilled a dream of leading Marines as a commander. Over the years, he's learned that "yelling and screaming" isn't always the best way to get someone's attention. Now he reads Marines' body language, he said. "They can tell you a whole lot without saying a word."

Steele and his wife of 40 years, Vicki, have four sons and nine grandchildren. One soldier son will retire from the Army before Steele retires from the Corps.

Times have changed

As you'd suspect, Steele has seen a lot of change over the years. Enlisted pay has vastly improved, he said. Marines traded grease pencils, mimeograph machines and Willy Jeeps for computers, tablets and "monster trucks" like the MRAP and M-ATV. Uniforms have changed quite often since the days he wore the green sateen utilities — so much that he has "a small museum at home." NCOs today carry much more responsibility than Steele had as a young Marine, he said.

"Now corporals are doing jobs staff NCOs would be doing years ago," Steele said. "I wish I had the skills they have when I was their age and their rank."

It wasn't easy being a young Marine in the 1970s, a time of protests and social and economic upheaval as the nation came out of Vietnam. One time, Steele recalled, he and some other Marines attending a parade in Georgia were spit on by antiwar protesters.

"The biggest challenge I had — we had issues back then — was me trying to find myself and figure out who I was and what I was doing in the Marine Corps," he said. But somewhere along the line, he saw the example and learned the value of good leadership and what it means to be a Marine.

Over the years, he said, the institution really hasn't changed, though technology has made it much easier to find, fix and kill the enemy.

And while he's gotten older (he'll turn 62 in September), Steele is fit and squared away, nearly acing his last Physical Fitness Test. And last year, during the casualty-carry portion of the Combat Fitness Test, the colonel out legged a corporal, probably just 22 or 23 years old, who looked at Steele in utter surprise as the colonel scooted by.

"Hopefully that motivated him," Steele said. "I know he tried to beat me."

Retirement will be bittersweet, he said.

"It's disappointing because I enjoy what I do, but every Marine has to face that. There's time when someone else has to take your place."

The note he received from HQMC informing him of his retirement date caused him to reflect on something retired Commandant Gen. Chuck Krulak often said: "One day the Marine Corps will break your heart and say it's time to go." Steele is getting close, but he's not done just yet.

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