CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — Gunnery Sgt. Brian Downing is a man who gets things done — and that has earned him the respect of subordinates and superiors alike.
One officer said he counts Downing among the top three Marines he has ever served alongside. And the gunny's platoon commander called Downing “the greatest mentor I have ever had.” Staff noncommissioned officers say they are “astounded” by his example. Junior Marines describe him as a “father figure” who has their full trust.
Downing, a platoon sergeant with 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, is a fast burner who made gunny in just 10 years. He's just one semester away from a master's degree in leadership from Boston University, and while he occasionally gets a raised eyebrow when people learn he chose the enlisted ranks after graduating college, Downing said he is in it for the outcome, not the income.
“If I wanted to make money, I wouldn't have joined the Marine Corps in the first place,” he said.
Indeed, the gunny’s efforts are anything but self-serving. Unwilling to see his Marines live in dilapidated barracks, he studied the supply system to figure out how to get materials needed to renovate 90 barracks rooms, common areas and duty posts here. He scoured renovation schedules, and moved in like a hawk when older barracks were shut down, nabbing serviceable appliances and furniture.
He put in hundreds of hours of painting, decorating and landscaping. And before long, Marines were volunteering on weekends to help finish projects.
When the dust settled, the rest of the battalion followed his example. In all, the gunny helped improve the quality of life for more than 1,000 Marines. It's for these reasons that Downing is the 2016 Marine Corps Times Marine of the Year.
'A breath of fresh air'
The effort Downing put into fixing the barracks was just one example of the gunny looking out for his Marines, said 1st Lt. Adam Levey, his platoon commander. Together, they built a Combined Anti-Armor Team that just deployed for the Middle East with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, which set sail June 25.
After four deployments — including two to Iraq and one to Afghanistan — Downing knows it's important for his Marines to have what they need while downrange. Before the MEU pump, the gunny teamed with Levey and his section leaders to make a list of gear they needed, wanted or would be nice to have. Next came countless hours identifying, petitioning, and ultimately obtaining dozens of items most Marines only dream of having. If it was not authorized, Downing found a way to get it authorized.
The winners of our 16th annual Military Times Service Members of the Year awards did not seek honors for the outstanding work they performed on the job and in their communities.
That is what makes this award so special: They were nominated by peers and commanders inspired by serving alongside troops who truly went above and beyond the call of duty. In shining a spotlight on the 2016 Service Members of the Year, we salute all who have volunteered to serve their nation in uniform.
This year's winners will be honored July 14 at a Capitol Hill gala with members of Congress and other VIPs.
Once they had the gear in tow, the gunny assessed his platoon's skills and built new standard operating procedures that highlighted his Marines' training and strengths. The team had skills beyond the anti-armor mission, and he wanted to show the battalion what they were capable of.
Nearly all of Downing’s Marines have a Humvee license or ammunition certifications, for example. A few are even qualified 7-ton truck drivers. So Downing honed their land navigation skills through some hardcore training over the last 14 months. The team, which includes a dozen qualified rifle coaches, now serves as the MEU’s Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel team.
Yet platoon members are quick to point out that Downing’s greatest effort has not been spent in building barracks or building a combat-ready team, but rather in taking care of the individual Marines in his charge. He “lives by the Marine Corps motto of sustaining the transformation,” Levey said.
Downing said he goes out of his way to do this because he "can't run this platoon alone."
“I care so much more about them being NCOs than simply being a rifleman — about being a corporal of Marines than just being a radio operator,” Downing said. “You should be a good radio operator — that's the default. But I need you to be a strong, solid backbone corporal to support this platoon.”
Downing holds his Marines accountable, but he also goes out of his way to help his troops get back on track if they make a mistake. The former drill instructor is known to journey to School of Infantry-East at Camp Geiger weeks before each graduation. There, he finds the Marines who have been assigned to his battalion. He talks about the legacy they will inherit, and ensures all personal and administrative needs have been addressed.
“He was a breath of fresh air,” said Lance Cpl. David Kirby, an anti-tank missileman who remembers Downing’s initial visit well. “I had a hard time getting people to help me get my wife in [the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System]. He was on it first thing, and had it taken care of before I even graduated.
"The rest of the students were like ‘Who is that guy, and why isn’t my platoon sergeant over here?’”
Downing’s platoon stands ready to receive those new Marines as they report to the battalion. NCOs with 6th Marine Regiment attach the French Fourragere they're authorized to wear on their shoulders for the unit's involvement in three significant World War I battles, and fellow Marine are assigned to help check them in and get them settled.
Capt. Daniel Wendolowski, the weapons company commander, said Downing's ability to inspire his Marines “is simply remarkable.” Though nearly 90 percent of his platoon has never deployed, each Marine is well ahead of career milestones and has achieved multiple combat and job qualifications beyond what's required of them.
Camaraderie has been strengthened by monthly professional military education events that review tactical and ethical decisions from the Civil War through Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Marines have been to places like Fort Fisher in North Carolina and Washington D.C. The trips “breed cohesiveness,” said Sgt. Brian Willett, second section leader.
Staff Sgt. Steven Herbst, first section leader, said Downing is the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave at night.
“I’ve not seen that kind of commitment from someone in my 11 years of service," he said. "I’ve seen good staff sergeants and gunnies, but he takes it above and beyond.”