Before July 24, then-Cpl. Peyton Nott had never met a four-star general, or any generals, for that matter.

But that day, Nott received an unexpected Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal from the top general in the Marine Corps and — after the corporal gave an off-the-cuff speech at the award ceremony — a meritorious promotion to boot.

Nott, 24, didn’t come from a military family. Even so, the native of Jefferson City, Tennessee, decided at age 6 he would one day join the military. He never changed his mind, he told Marine Corps Times.

After speaking with recruiters from various branches, he found himself pulled toward what he described as the “family-like” nature of the Marine Corps.

Now a motor transport Marine, Nott is assigned to Romeo Battery, 1st Battalion, 10th Marine Regiment, at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

Beginning in February, he had to step into a billet typically reserved for gunnery sergeants, leading a team of eight mechanics and operators, according to a statement from his battalion to Marine Corps Times. The gap between a lance corporal and a gunny is one of four ranks and many years of experience.

All the while, Nott had to transfer his battery’s equipment — “over 80 pieces of rolling stock,” according to his battalion — to another motor pool.

Nott had to learn the ins and outs of a staff noncommissioned officer job: How was he supposed to request to move a vehicle from one place to another? How was he supposed to request more fuel? Were his Marines properly trained? Were they making it to their appointments?

The gunny who replaced him in July had 16 years of experience in the Marine Corps, according to Nott, who has only five.

“I became pretty worn down, but, I mean, you gotta keep pushing forward,” Nott said.

On July 24, Assistant Commandant Gen. Eric Smith was at Nott’s North Carolina base for a scheduled visit to units there, according to spokesman Maj. Joshua Larson. During his visit to Romeo Battery, Smith, who also is the acting Marine commandant, pulled Romeo Battery together into a big circle, Nott recalled.

“My battery commander said, ‘Cpl. Nott, get out here,’ and I’m, ‘Rah, sir,’” Nott said. “So I walked out, and next thing I know, (Smith) is presenting me with the award.”

Nott said Smith then told him to give a few words to the Marines in his battery. So the corporal told them what he has long thought, he recounted to Marine Corps Times.

Nott told them that it didn’t matter what military occupational specialty they were.

“What matters is we’re all here together,” Nott recalled telling his battery. “Because I wouldn’t be able to do my job if it wasn’t for the gun guys doing their part. They wouldn’t be able to do their part if it wasn’t for the communications guys.”

Then he brought up “carpe diem,” frequently translated as “seize the day,” a phrase his father taught him. He also discussed another Latin phrase he learned later on: “memento mori,” or “remember you must die.”

“We’re all going to be six feet down one day,” Nott said. “So it was really about what we leave behind. Because you never really understand the true meaning of life unless you understand that you can plant strong roots without ever sitting under the shade of that tree.”

Look out for each other, Nott told the Marines. Look out for junior Marines. Leave something behind.

Once the speech was over, Smith asked someone, “Hey, can I do this?” Nott recounted.

The corporal wasn’t sure what was going on.

Smith asked the rest of the battery who thought he should promote Nott right here, right now, according to Nott.

“And the entire battery, they all raised their hands and everything, and next thing I know I was getting promoted to sergeant,” Nott said.

According to the Corps’ promotion policies, the commandant or acting commandant has the authority to give meritorious promotions to the enlisted ranks private first class through sergeant, Larson said in an emailed statement to Marine Corps Times.

Smith had been aware of Nott’s “exceptional performance prior to the award ceremony, but Nott’s speech to the Marines about the merits of selfless leadership and his focus on taking care of his Marines to accomplish the mission inspired everyone in attendance, including Gen. Smith,” Larson said.

The promotion took place in the woods without any extra sergeant pins handy, so Smith obtained one from a sergeant in attendance and pinned it to Nott.

“I’m all out of words now,” Nott told his Marines.

Nott said the work that garnered the award and promotion was made possible by his junior Marines; he just oversaw it, according to a Marine news release.

After his whirlwind day, Nott still had a week left in the field, he told Marine Corps Times. Once he returned from the field, he gave his parents a quick call to let them know about the promotion. And then it was back to work.

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.

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