CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – Master Gunnery Sgt. Johnny Mendez, operations chief and the senior enlisted in his military occupational specialty, 7th Engineer Support Battalion, 1st Marine Logistics Group, of Las Cruces, N.M., is coming up on his 25th year in the Marine Corps. He takes great pride in his job as a combat engineer and loves to be surrounded by Marines. From his days as a drill instructor to his present responsibility as the MOS’s most senior Marine Mendez has maintained his honor and believes it’s every Marine’s duty to do the same.
Q: What made you want to join?
A: Throughout high school I knew I wanted to take it on, because I used to sit and look at my dad’s albums as a kid from when he was in 82nd Airborne. I wanted to try to follow in his footsteps, but I also wanted to figure out how to outdo him. So, the Marines just caught my eye.
Q: Looking back, would you have thought you would have stayed in the Corps for this long?
A: No way. I didn’t even think about it. The first time I was about to re-enlist, I went home to New Mexico, and I talked to my old man. After I talked to my father and he said if you’re going to do this, then you have to outdo me. So I sat down and thought to myself, ‘How am I going to outdo him?’ So, I told him ‘Alright dad, you got a deal. I’ll outdo you.’ So here we are, going on 25 years later, I outdid him. My first re-enlistment was on the USS Pearl Harbor.
Q: What’s been the most memorable experience so far in your career?
A: I think my most memorable experience was going down to the drill field as a corporal. It sticks out in my mind because of all the amazing support I had from my noncommissioned officers and staff noncommissioned officers. They fought to keep me in the Corps. At that time, it was just like it is now. Young sergeants and young corporals were competing to hold their positions in the Corps. And that’s where I was during that time. I was competing to preserve my spot as a young corporal. I couldn’t do anything to improve my cutting score, and I had tried to go to the drill field five times. Finally, on the fifth try, thanks to my NCOs and SNCOs, I got in.
Q: Wasn’t going to the drill field as a corporal almost unheard of?
A: It was. I was one of two. There was another combat engineer corporal in the class with me. It was an extreme experience because of the fact that you were the two junior guys in a drill instructor class with a lot of sergeants and SNCOs. It was motivating. It was a true honor and a growing experience, because I never thought I would share a class with a lot of senior-enlisted guys. I was the most junior out of the entire class, and the Marine who later became my mentor throughout my career was the senior guy in the class. He was a staff sergeant at the time, but he later took the master sergeant route instead of the first sergeant route when the time came. Seeing him make that choice and with his guidance, I knew I wanted to take that same route.
Q: What was so appealing to you about the master sergeant path?
A: Just watching the few master sergeants work as an expert in their MOSes … everyone knows that their technical expertise is reliable, and I wanted to be a part of that. There’s something about being one of 21 in the entire Marine Corps. I never thought I would make it this far or this high in the rank structure. To make it that far, that’s what I wanted to be a part of. I wanted to shoot for the stars.
Q: What did you like most about being on the drill field?
A: It was a great feeling to know you were making a difference. No matter where you were, what position you were at, you were making a difference. Having parents come up to you and thank you on graduation was an amazing feeling. I did my quota in the ‘House of Knowledge,’ so I was teaching series upon series of recruits and sharing my knowledge with the Corps’ future Marines. I was helping to mold them into Marines. You have the first effect on their career. I never forgot my drill instructors. As a matter of fact, my senior drill instructor promoted me to staff sergeant. That’s the kind of impact he had on me.
Q: MOS-wise, what has been the most memorable experience for you?
A: Taking my last unit, 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, Charlie Company, 1st Platoon, out to combat was probably my most memorable. We became a very tight-knit group. That year, we were the only platoon to make it back whole. I sat side-by-side with lance corporals and privates first class. Rank didn’t really matter to us. We went through hell and back together. I will never forget that. We were in Fallujah in 2006 together. It was nice to engage with my junior Marines in an environment like that. That’s the one thing I advise to my fellow senior enlisted – to never forget where they came from. Especially being a platoon sergeant like I was. We thrive off the needs of the Marines. I’m not here for me. I’m here for them.
Q: What was that deployment like?
A: We did dismounts, route clearances and we were making patrol bases in the middle of a ‘hornets’ nest.’ It was dangerous. As combat engineers, we were had to go reinforce positions, sometimes making new positions in the middle of an enemy territory. A lot of the times while we were doing that, we were getting shot at, we were getting mortared or we were getting into a firefight. It brought us together by the end. We became a band of brothers. At the time it was very difficult. You were communicating with the outside grunt units. You expect them to be providing security and to have your back, but within that security bubble, you establish your own security. Then in the midst of all that, you’re building a patrol base with the materials around you. You’re doing this construction while at the same time, having to engage the enemy. It is very adrenaline filled and intense. You have to rely on every Marine knowing their job. You have to rely on your NCOs and your junior Marines being adequately trained for that situation. That particular group of Marines was outstanding. They did everything as I expected them to and then some. One time we were building a structure and we were receiving enemy fire on and off for 30 hours. It was pretty intense.
Q: What makes your MOS vital to mission accomplishment?
A: I think it’s very important to have combat engineers. It’s a very important portion of our operations. We’re reinforcing the ability to survive in our positions if under attack; we sweep for improvised explosive devices and land mines in order for Marines to travel safely. Without engineers, it would become a difficult fight. Our reinforcements keep Marines alive.
Q: What is one piece of advice you think junior Marines should know?
A: My advice to any Marines is to carry with them a sense of honor. It’s not just a uniform. I tell my Marines that they’re all heroes, because that’s what comes to mind when the public sees our uniform. They automatically see a hero. It’s our job to uphold that honor and maintain our pride as Marines. It’s also having the honor to talk to your Marines. It takes five minutes to change someone’s life. I try to get out of my office every day to talk to my Marines, even if it’s just for five minutes, it might make a difference. It might give a Marine that extra bit of motivation they needed or it may even give that Marine the opportunity to come forward and talk about something they need to get off their chest. It’s important to maintain that unit cohesion and sense of family within the ranks of the Marine Corps.
Q: What do you love most about your job?
A: Having the ability to build something from nothing, but then also having the ability to blow it up. We have both of those capabilities within this MOS, and I think that’s a pretty awesome thing. I take a lot of pride in knowing that these Marines have the ability to conduct demolitions, and at the same time, knowing that they can build a safe structure of Marines in need. I love being a combat engineer. I take a lot of pride. You can tell just by looking at my phone number. The last four is 1371, and that’s our combat-engineer MOS.
Q: What’s it like to be the senior-enlisted Marine in your job field?
A: It’s very difficult to be on top of everything, but that’s the responsibility that comes with being the senior leader. I don’t know everything. I’m not an encyclopedia, but I can definitely tell you where and how you can find the answers to your questions. I’m still constantly learning things from my junior Marines. There are privates and lance corporals out there who can teach me something, and they’ve done it before.
Q: What would you say to new NCOs who are trying to develop their own leadership style?
A: You gather knowledge from everyone. You see the way different people lead, and you take a little from every leadership style to create and mold your own. Leadership isn’t something that’s always solid, it’s a flexible thing. People are always adding characteristics to their leadership style that make it better or taking away the ones that don’t. Mendez doesn’t know when he will retire, but what he does know is that he will continue to bestow his knowledge on his junior Marines with the hope of leaving a lasting thumbprint on the Corps.