They hail from the infantry, artillery and armor but all were recognized last week for contributions to excellence in ground combat both on and off the battlefield.

The Marine Corps Association and Foundation's 14th annual Ground Awards dinner held in Arlington, Virginia, Thursday honored nine Marines from all four divisions and ranks from lance corporal to major.

Gen. Glenn M. Walters, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, and career air wing officer, spoke to the groundside Marines. In his remarks, he linked innovation in the Corps from lessons learned at the World War I Battle of Belleau Wood to those happening in squad bays today. 

He credited such innovations and the confidence senior leaders have in Marines at all ranks, such as those being honored, as transforming the Marines and evolving it into the fighting force that it is now and will become.

"The trust between commanders and their Marines is what makes us successful because we're never going to be big enough to do anything else," Walters said. 

Maj. David Palka, 32, was named the winner of the Lt. Col. William G. Leftwich trophy for Outstanding Leadership. Palka, a Yonkers, New York native, was honored for his work leading a team of Marines, soldiers and sailors during 67 days of sustained combat operations as part of Task Force Spartan. 

Palka and his troops provided fire support for Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi security forces.

Though honored, Palka credited his Marines' work for the recognition.

"Anyone who's served with Echo Battery at any point understands that it's a unit award," Palka said.

Chief Warrant Office 4 Christopher Jones was named the Marine Gunner of the year with the Henry Lewis Hulbert Award for Outstanding Leadership. 

The 43-year-old Indiana native was recognized for his work improving training in the Infantry Unit Leader Course and the Scout Sniper Basic Course at the Advanced School of Infantry West where he serves as training battalion gunner.

Jones also politely deflected the focus of the award on him individually. 

"I would take no credit for any of that," Jones said. "I would give the credit to the staff non-commissioned officers that work there."

Capt. Ismael Lopez was named the Col. Justice Marion "Jumping Joe" Chambers awardee for his work as an armor officer during the transition of Detachment 4, TOW/Scout Platoon, 4th Tank Battalion to 4th Civil Affairs Group.

Capt. Scott Cook received the Douglas A. Zembiec Award for outstanding leadership while serving as team commander for Marine Special Operations Team 8233 on a combat deployment to Iraq in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. 

Cook and his team "built key partnerships with militias and Sunni tribes not previously partnered" to create a coalition to defeat Islamic State fighters, according to the award citation summary. They were "solitarily instrumental" in dismantling enemy capabilities northwest of Mosul, Iraq.

Master Sgt. Kraig Kalby received the Sgt. Clyde A. Thomason Marine Special Operator of the Year award. 

While deployed in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, Kalby led his team in a "highly complex and culturally diverse area of operations in northern Iraq," according to the award citation summary. Kalby maintained strategic level relationships with the "chief power brokers of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan" during the deployment.

He also played a "crucial role" leading a response to a chemical attack on the village of Taza, putting himself at risk to confirm the use of chemical munitions and assist in the post blast analysis.

The following men won Marine of the Year awards for their individual divisions:

First Marine Division – Sgt. Andrew Brewster with 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Force Company, for his "exceptional ability and extraordinary personal initiative" while conducting long-range maneuvers in the Sierra Nevada mountains when his unit was overtaken by a storm and he led his team to a harbor site in whiteout conditions and subsequently moved back up the mountain to assist evacuating an injured Marine.

Second Marine Division – Cpl. Joel McDuffie with 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment for his work while deployed with Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force Crisis Response-Africa 15.1 as a machine gunner with Fox Company. McDuffie cross trained his platoon I machine gun and assault tactics and participated in several multinational training events with Spanish Marines during the deployment.

Third Marine Division – Sgt. Pedro Borunda with Headquarters and Service Company, Combat Assault Battalion for his work in numerous leadership positions, which included platoon sergeant of the communication platoon and wire section NCOIC.

Fourth Marine Division – Staff Sgt. Joshua Fernandez with Company D, 4th Tank Battalion for his work as platoon sergeant seeking additional training for his Marines and his volunteer work with the Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots program.

The Marine Corps Association and Foundation hold annual awards dinners for various groups in the Marines. They held the C4 Awards recognizing Marines and civilians in the Command, Control, Communications and Computers field in April.

The group has Ammo Tech awards scheduled for May 24, Intelligence Awards on Sept. 28.

Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.

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