News: Baton Rouge, La., native leads Marines in Helmand province, Afghanistan
Story by Cpl. Joseph Scanlan
CAMP BASTION, Afghanistan – Noncommissioned officers are often considered the backbone of the Marine Corps. One NCO, Sgt. Warren Sparks, currently has a crucial role as an infantry squad leader with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, in Helmand province, Afghanistan.
Sparks was raised in Baton Rouge, La., by a family with generations of military service. His great-uncle and grandfather served during World War II, and his father served in the Army. Sparks chose to continue his family’s legacy during 2007 when he became a Marine.
Upon graduating Central High School in Baton Rouge, he pursued a college education at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. During his time in college, he signed a six-year infantry contract on Sept. 11, 2003, but was removed from the delayed entry program shortly after he tore his anterior cruciate ligament and broke his hand. With thoughts of joining the military still lingering in his mind, he continued to pursue an education and earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a specialization in land and resource management. With his newly earned degree, he did something unique.
“I was 24 years old at the time and I didn’t want to look back on my life and regret not doing things, so I chose to become an enlisted Marine,” Sparks said. “I wanted to do my first four years as an enlisted Marine, and then become a commissioned officer. I didn’t want to become a platoon commander with limited experience; I wanted the edge of being enlisted first and leading the trade from the ground up.”
Sparks enlisted as a rifleman and attended boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C. Following boot camp, he trained at the School Of Infantry – East and was screened for the Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon. After graduating SOI as a 0311 rifleman, he received orders to Marine Barracks, Wash., D.C., and became part of the prestigious platoon.
“I traveled across the world for two years and was able to represent the Marine Corps,” Sparks said. “I had a great time with the silent drill platoon. I don’t like to drill, but I do like looking sharp. When we travelled abroad, we represented America, and we did it well.”
After completing his tour with the silent drill platoon, Sparks received orders to 1st Bn., 7th Marines, at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif. He quickly proved his leadership abilities and became a squad leader before deploying in support of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit in Okinawa, Japan.
“Sergeant Sparks is a tier-one Marine, but I’m still extremely hard on him,” said 1st Sgt. Michael Grassl, the Bravo Co. first sergeant, and a native of Vesper, Wisc. “I expect more from him because he is not just an average sergeant. He is a very knowledgeable and wise individual.”
Sparks’ contract was close to expiring while he was in Japan, so he had to make a choice after re-enlisting to stay with 1st Bn., 7th Marines, which was slated to deploy in support of another MEU, or to become an instructor at the Mountain Warfare Training Center at Bridgeport, Calif. He chose the latter.
“Bridgeport is not for the faint of heart and it’s not for the weak,” said Grassl, a prior instructor at the MWTC. “People don’t volunteer to go to Bridgeport because they want to have a break. It’s extremely challenging as an instructor, mentally and physically.”
Mountain leaders at Bridgeport are the sole individuals advising 160 to 200 Marines on tactics, operations and how to move from one point to another over difficult terrain. They lead rock climbing during the summer and skiing during the winter. Not only was Sparks a mountain leader, he instructed the Mountain Leader Course for Marines to become instructors.
“Bridgeport is the best place to be in the Marine Corps,” Sparks said. “It’s shaped a lot of who I am, how I operate, and it’s changed how I view things.”
Although Sparks cherished his time as an instructor at Bridgeport, he desired a combat deployment before Operation Enduring Freedom concluded. When his time as an instructor ended, there were only two units left that were slated to deploy to Afghanistan. Coincidentally, one of them was 1st Bn., 7th Marines, and he chose to return to the combat center.
For the following months he was continuously in training environments in Yuma Proving Grounds, Ariz., and the Combat Center to prepare for the upcoming deployment. Early in March 2014, his hopes came true and he left the United States for Afghanistan.
“I remind my men of how many other Marines would love to be in our position right now,” Sparks said. “People are fighting to get orders to these last battalions that are deploying because combat deployments are coming to an end. I’m very thankful to be on this deployment.”
His current mission with the battalion is to conduct limited offensive operations and set conditions for the transfer of full security responsibilities to Afghan National Security Forces as well as security force assistance to defeat enemy forces throughout their battlespace in Helmand province. After his deployment in Afghanistan, Sparks plans to continue to teach, motivate, mentor and inspire Marines wherever the Marine Corps takes him.
“One of the things I tell my Marines is to not be afraid to stand up for what they believe in,” Sparks said. “Commanders don’t want lambs, they want lions. They want Marines who stand up for what they believe in, and do what is right. Making the right choice isn’t always easy and an individual may not be liked because of it, but they will be respected.”