The Marine Corps motto, Semper Fidelis (always faithful), guides Marines to remain faithful to their mission, each other and country—no matter what. It’s not an easy task to live by, when the words “always” and “faithful” are part of your job and being. Although there are many Marines to be proud of, South Jersey’s own Sergeant Major Paul G. McKenna stands out as a shining example of what the Marine Corps is all about, and what leadership and patriotism looks like.
During McKenna’s 30 years in the Corps, the Trenton native’s assignments have ranged from drill instructor to Guard Chief at Camp David. Currently, he serves as Sergeant Major for 3d Marine Division, III Marine Expeditionary Force in Japan—a job that McKenna feels is the “…best assignment I have ever had or will ever hope to have in the future.”
His combat history began in 1992 in Somalia (Operation Restore Hope), then Kuwait (Operation Iraqi Freedom) and several tours in Afghanistan until 2009 (Operation Enduring Freedom).
Throughout his career, Sergeant Major McKenna has received many commendations and awards including the Meritorious Service Medal with Gold Star, Presidential Service Badge and Combat Action Ribbon (CAR).
We were honored to talk with him and gain a deeper understanding of the man and the Marine, in his own words:
Growing up in the great state of New Jersey, I was always a part of an athletic team (football, wrestling and baseball) in high school and briefly in college. The pride of belonging to a team led me to the Marine Corps, and my years have been spent well serving the greatest fighting force in the world, the varsity team for the greatest nation on earth.
Without thought, I would again step on those sacred yellow footprints at Parris Island, SC, because being a Marine has given me more than just a career, it has been my life. My family and I have endured years of letters, long distance phone calls and sporadic emails to and from hostile and friendly locations. They allowed me to help protect the freedoms our nation enjoys. In my book, that is the way to live, and U.S. Marines have been doing it for more than 239 years.
My motivation to succeed is always being an exemplary leader to my Marines…the kind of leader they want to emulate as they move up the leadership ladder. I have always let my actions, not my words, motivate the junior Marines I serve with. I want my personal leadership example to inspire them to not be content with merely being a “good” Marine, but to strive to be a “great” Marine!
In December of 1993 we were deployed to Mogadishu, Somalia in support of Operation Restore Hope. There had been a series of attacks to coalition forces where Somalian children were throwing handmade explosives at coalition forces. On one patrol, a small Somalian child wearing only flip flops and ragged shorts covering his grossly under nourished body approached us with both of his hands behind his back. An interpreter repeatedly gave commands for him to stop and to remove his hands from behind his back. At some point, the patrol was halted and the child stopped less than 20 meters from the front of the patrol. However, his hands were still behind his back.
All of us thought that he was hiding a weapon or explosive behind his back, and we were prepared to stop this threat before he could do us harm. Then a young officer (Lieutenant Jim Lewis) not more than 24 years old made his way to the front of the patrol and took charge. As you can imagine all of us were reliving the reports we were given of the recent attacks, and thought that we needed to neutralize this potential threat before a hand grenade or worse would be thrown at us.
We were all screaming at Lieutenant Lewis to let us take care of this threat. But Lieutenant Lewis remained calm, clear headed, and continued talking to the child. What seemed like forever, was actually only minutes as we hunkered down behind war torn buildings in a desolate city street in the heart of Mogadishu.
Lieutenant Lewis finally convinced the child to remove his hands from behind his back…. There was nothing in his hands. In fact, the starving child did not have hands. We later learned that he was born with this tragic birth defect and hiding his hands because he felt ashamed to show them to the Americans who he thought appeared larger than life and physically perfect. I think about that young child and wonder if he survived the horrific conditions in Mogadishu, but I am so proud to have witnessed the human element of the American spirit that day.
I often tell the U.S. Marines and sailors of 3d Marine Division that being born in America is like hitting the lottery, and earning the title U.S. Marine is like hitting the Powerball!
Corporal Ron Payne was killed in Southern Afghanistan on May the 7th, 2004—the first U.S. Marine killed in Afghanistan. He stood nearly 6’7” tall and to say he was a giant among Marines would be understatement. I was in Ron’s company, 1st Sergeant assigned to an infantry battalion based out of Camp Lejeune, NC.
On the evening of May 7th, Ron was leading a small reconnaissance team in search of a high value Taliban insurgent when his team was ambushed. Ron’s actions that night allowed the rest of his team members to survive and live on. I was honored to recover Ron’s body and escort it off the field of battle. In doing so, I removed one of Ron’s identification tags and stuffed it into one of my pockets.
Days later, we [the U.S. Marines of his battalion] were still engaged with a formidable enemy in some of most ghastly places in southern Afghanistan. Our company stopped for the night and settled down for some much needed rest. Scanning the cold, hard dirt outside my vehicle looking for a piece of it to lay my head, I rolled up my utility shirt to use as a pillow. I could not get comfortable, because every time and way I positioned my head something kept poking me. I remember standing up and yelling at the men around me, telling them how much I hated this place and the people we were sent here to help. Continuing to swear, I threw my utility shirt to the ground and I heard a small ping… it was Ron’s identification tag. My emotional state did a 180 degree turn as I picked it up off the ground and started to smile. You see, this was Ron’s way of telling me to stop bitching, and to appreciate and cherish the opportunities I still had, that he no longer did.
Ron’s bravery on May 7th inspired all of us in that battalion to treasure every moment we have with each other: our families, friends and our brothers!
I am married to the lovely Michela McKenna and our children are my pride. Three of our children have served on active duty in the U.S. military: Patrick and Scott as U.S. Marines and Katelyn as a U.S. Soldier. Kathryn (Katelyn’s twin) is a full time college student in Pennsylvania while Brittany enjoys the successes of helping run a small business in Virginia.
Everything in life is a balance, and my wife and I have managed to strike that balance in our family.