Top Enlisted Marine reflects on Corps’ past

25 Mar 2004 | Staff Sgt. Cindy Fisher

The gear is more advanced, the capabilities are improved, and the Marines are better trained and educated, but the basic esprit de corps remains the same, says Sgt. Maj. of the Marine Corps John L. Estrada.

The sergeant major should know. He's been keeping tabs on those changes for more than 30 years as a Marine.

For years the Marine Corps focused on coming from the sea, but new technology has greatly improved our ability to project and sustain combat power, the sergeant major said. “We proved that going into Afghanistan and Iraq. We still come in from the sea, but we can come in from other areas also, and we can reach much farther inland than ever before.

One improvement from when the 47-year-old Estrada first enlisted to now, is a piece of gear most Marines today consider old technology.

“Computers … One of the things that has really changed during my time in is computers," he said. "We can now e-mail from the field, from the desert, from anywhere in the world.”

Estrada wasn't always an advocate of computers. He was reluctant to use the new technology when first faced with it. “The earliest I started using computers was 1987 or 88. A lot of us did not want anything to do with (computers). Then I was forced to use it.”

The computer is now pervasive throughout the Corps and used for essential tasks like administration and networking, and Estrada see the value in technological advances. “We need to embrace new technology,” he said. “It's going to take us ahead and make us a better force.”

After all, new technologies, such as the MV-22 Osprey and the Expeditionary Warfighting Vehicle, are part of the capabilities bringing Marines to the fight faster, he said.

Technology, like Global Positioning Systems, usually meets initial resistance until Marines realize its value. “Some of the older folks think, ‘What happens when it stops working?’ but I think it’s what’s happening when it is working -- and it works most of the time -- that’s important.

“We should always be able to fall back on our (basic) knowledge, which we do very well as Marines,” but don’t be afraid to take advantage of the new, Estrada said.

Something as simple as a field jacket has undergone radical improvements during his career, he said. “The old field jacket was pretty bad. With all of our warfighting (capabilities), if you have a Marine who is cold and uncomfortable, he can’t concentrate on his job.” Gortex was the Corps’ lightweight, water-resistant answer.

Technology isn’t the only change Estrada has seen; the basic structure of the Marine Corps is also different.

“We have a much leaner Corps than when I first came in,” he said. In 1973, when Estrada joined, the Corps’ end strength was a little more than 196,000. Today, the Corps active duty strength is about 177,000.

The people and attitudes were different then, too. The early '70s were a time filled with racial tension, he said. The force of the '70s was partly a drafted force and some joined as an escape from other situations. “Back in the day, you could (choose to) go to jail or go to the service.

“At boot camp, we were taught … we’re all one, we’re all green.” But this wasn’t always the case. At his first duty station Estrada saw the tension caused by racial issues.

This is a situation that has vastly improved over the years, he said. “The attitude has changed. We are getting the best-qualified recruits and officer candidates in the footprints. We do a great job, to the point that I don’t feel (racism) is an issue now.”

What has held true during his career is the brotherhood, discipline and esprit de corps that first inspired him to join, said Estrada. Though born in Trinidad, he considers Washington, where he spent most of his teen years, his hometown. A simple recruiting poster of a Marine in dress blues caught his eye on Pennsylvania Avenue and hooked him into the Corps.

“It was the poster that attracted me. I had heard about their reputation for discipline, (being) the best fighting force in the world, so that’s what motivated me. I was an easy sell for that recruiter that day,” he said. 

Though the Corps' reputation got him in, the sense of belonging to the best fighting force in the world has kept him. “Our discipline has remained the same, the camaraderie and brotherhood is still the same. We’re even still flying the CH-46 helicopter,” Estrada said.

“I just wanted to continue with it. I did not know that I was going to stay in for 30 years, I have just been having fun.”

Headquarters Marine Corps