Lately, Sgt. Maj. Carlos Ruiz has been telling enlisted Marines to reflect on what pulled them toward the Marine Corps in the first place.
Then he asks them to think about the moment when they first held the eagle, globe and anchor pin that signified they had officially become Marines.
“Did you cry?” Ruiz will ask.
“‘Of course we didn’t cry, Sergeant Major,’” is the invariable answer, according to Ruiz.
“No, you probably shed a tear, right?” is Ruiz’s usual response. “Because it felt like winning. And maybe some have not experienced the feeling of winning, or accomplishing something.”
In time, a leader will help create the kind of community that once drew you to enlist, Ruiz then tells those Marines. And then you may become a leader who will do that for others.
“Can I create what someone created for me, for those Marines?” Ruiz told reporters Aug. 1 at the Pentagon. “That’s something that I’ve been working through lately.”
Ruiz, the outgoing sergeant major of Marine Forces Reserve and Marine Forces South, will step into the role of sergeant major of the Marine Corps on Thursday during a ceremony at Marine Barracks Washington.
He will begin what is likely to be a four-year term, amid a gummed-up confirmation process in the Senate that means some of the military’s top officer jobs are now filled by acting instead of confirmed leaders.
In the discussion with reporters Aug. 1, the soft-spoken sergeant major mostly declined to wade into specific items on his agenda.
“I think I want to listen, first, to the force,” he said.
But he talked about his own journey in the Marine Corps, the broad strokes of the issues he plans to take on and the values he hopes to instill in Marines.
Ruiz came to the United States from Sonora, Mexico, at age 11 and went to high school in Arizona. When he was trying to enlist, he was still getting comfortable with English and had to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery entrance exam three times, he said.
“I think if I had to take the ASVAB today, I’d probably be OK,” said Ruiz, who now holds a bachelor’s degree in organizational management from the University of Arizona Global Campus, according to his official biography.
In a LinkedIn post shortly after Ruiz was announced as the next top enlisted Marine, Lt. Gen. David Bellon, commander of Marine Forces Reserve and Marine Corps Forces South, wrote of Ruiz’s doggedness in trying to enlist, “He never quit. He has not quit since.”
Ruiz graduated from Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego in 1994 and became a supply warehouse clerk, according to his bio. Regardless of his job, he thought of himself “as a Marine first,” he told reporters.
He did stints as both a recruiter and a drill instructor, two notoriously tough jobs. Recruiting duty taught him how to persevere in the face of rejection, he said. Making Marines taught him discipline, attention to detail and intensity.
“Through all of that, I’m probably a better father, a better husband, not just a better Marine,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz did one tour in Iraq and two in Afghanistan, according to his bio, plus deployments to Kuwait and on a Marine expeditionary unit.
As a sergeant major, he most recently served as the senior enlisted leader of Marine Forces Reserve and Marine Forces South. Many of the Marines he led there are reservists who are no obligated to serve in the Marine Corps: “They come because they want to,” Ruiz said.
To keep those Marines flying across the country and taking time away from their family each month, Ruiz said, the Corps needs “to continue to give them a vision of the future of the Marine Corps and how they fit.”
Active duty Marines are also volunteers, he stressed.
“If we don’t continue to invest in … medical, pay, housing, what is the value proposition for service?” Ruiz said.
These quality-of-life issues for Marines and their families have been areas of focus for Ruiz’s predecessor, Sgt. Maj. Troy Black.
As the top enlisted Marine, Ruiz said, he wants to emphasize pride and discipline, which were also focuses of the recent guidance to the force from Gen. Eric Smith, the acting commandant.
On the topic of relaxing the beards policy — which is, mostly, no beards — Ruiz declined to wade in.
“I don’t know,” he said with a laugh. “I think I’ll stay away from that one for now.”
But he said, “I just think, OK, you could have been whatever your job is anywhere else, and you chose to be a Marine. And you knew there was this crazy demand on your fitness, your mental toughness, your uniforms, the discipline.”
“Don’t be mad when I hold you to the standard you wanted to be a part of.”
Ruiz will become the senior enlisted adviser to the commandant at an unusual moment in Marine Corps history, when there is no official commandant.
Smith, the assistant commandant, took on the duties of commandant July 10, after the statutorily required departure of his predecessor, now-retired Gen. David Berger.
Smith is also the White House’s pick to become the next commandant. But the refusal of Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Alabama, to confirm senior military nominees, in protest of the Defense Department’s abortion policies, has left Smith without Senate confirmation and without a designated assistant.
The White House in July nominated Lt. Gen. Christopher Mahoney for the assistant commandant job, but Mahoney is also stuck in the Senate limbo.
So of the three perhaps most prominent Marine leadership positions — commandant, assistant commandant and sergeant major of the Marine Corps — only the last will be filled with the permanent choice for the job until at least September, when the Senate is set to reconvene.
“We continue to march,” Ruiz said of the confirmation delay. “We continue to move forward.”
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.