ON BOARD USS PELELIU, At Sea - Men and women join the Marines everyday from all over the country. Regardless of their background or where they come from, their motivation to join comes from a handful of similar goals or aspirations. When Sgt. Maj. Richard D. Cunningham, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit graduated from high school, he wondered where life was going to lead him.
Fortunately, life led him to lead Marines.
Cunningham grew up in New Richmond, Wis., a small, blue collar farming community where family, friends, and hard work are the foundation for success.
“I came from a big family, three brothers and four sisters. My Dad was a truck driver and my mom was a stay at home type,” said Cunningham. “I started working as a farm hand at an early age and gradually worked my way up to working in a hardware store in town when I turned 16.”
A couple of years later, Cunningham found himself at a crossroad familiar to many.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” stated Cunningham. “Essentially I had one of three choices. Join the service, go to college, or work on the farm,” he added.
None of his family members attended college. However, there was a resounding sense of patriotism throughout his home and community. And he was surrounded by men who understood what it meant to serve their country.
“My father served in the Army during WWII, and my two brothers served in the Army, one of which served in Vietnam.” said Cunningham.
After consulting his brothers about the U.S. Army, Cunningham approached his guidance counselor, who was a former Marine.
Cunningham, who was impressed by the attention-to-detail and precision of Marines, wasted little time making a decision. He joined the Marines.
It didn’t take long for Cunningham to begin idolizing the Marine drill instructors.
“The way they carried themselves was inspiring,” said Cunningham. “I made it a goal to become a drill instructor.” he added.
Five years into his career, Cunningham achieved his goal and found himself training recruits at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego.
The Corps had come full circle for Cunningham.
Keith W. Padgett, a 41-year-old personal trainer and stay-at-home father, is one of many influenced by Cunningham during his tenure as a drill instructor. Padgett, who kept in touch with Cunningham during his time as a Marine, lost touch with his former drill instructor.
A former Marine corporal who served from 1989-1993, Padgett recently contacted Cunningham 20 years after their two lives crossed paths at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego.
“I'm constantly trying to find guys, being a Marine is something that I carry with me still, and always will,” said Padgett. “Cunningham was just a little more special than the rest,” he added.
However, their reunion will probably be a little more pleasant than their first encounter.
“On the day that we picked up our drill instructors, [Cunningham] lost his voice from screaming so much,” said Padgett. “He was mean and a lot of the guys hated him.”
Cunningham was just one of the drill instructors assigned to Padgett’s platoon. But he stood out in the eyes of Padgett.
“As a drill instructor, Sgt. Cunningham was a demon, a maniac with all of the Marine wisdom,” said Padgett. “I learned from him how to be a Marine,” added Padgett.
Padgett went on to graduate from recruit training as the Company Honor Man, the highest possible achievement by any recruit, and credits Cunningham for his success.
“He continually railed against complacency and resting on your laurels," said Padgett.
Despite the hundreds of Marines he’s led and countless memories as a Marine, when shown a picture of the two on graduation day in 1989, Cunningham knew exactly who it was.
“That’s Padgett!” said Cunningham with a smile.
Padgett’s accomplishment as the Company Honor Man wasn’t forgotten by Cunningham either.
“[Padgett] stood out amongst his fellow recruits. He had a military presence and excelled. He was like a sponge, retaining everything he was taught,” said Cunningham.
Cunningham was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal for his role in making 400 new Marines as a drill instructor. Two decades and hundreds of Marines later, Cunningham realizes he found his calling as a Marine while he was a drill instructor.
“After I received my [award] for my successful tour as a drill instructor, I knew I had a knack for leading Marines,” said Cunningham.
Cunningham is now in his 27th year as a Marine and has 2,300 Marines under his charge. He achieved the highest possible enlisted rank, and recently received his ninth Good Conduct Medal, a medal received on a triennial basis for honorable service.
For Padgett, learning his former drill instructor is now a sergeant major came as no surprise.
“Of all of the Marines that I have known, he would be the one to do it,” said Padgett. “If he retires at 30, try and let me know. I'd like to try and make it to the party.”
Padgett’s desire to track down Cunningham 20 years after their lives crossed paths illustrates the life-long bond created between Marines.
“It’s a good feeling to know I had such an impact on Padgett. Padgett was successful as a Marine and I know he applies what he learned to his life now,” added Cunningham.
A trait Cunningham attributes to his parent’s work ethic, leadership is the focal point of his position now as a sergeant major.
“We’re so much smaller [than the other branches] and our style of leadership is what sets us apart,” said Cunningham. “Marines have a tradition of excellence and we can’t drop the torch,” he added emphatically.
For now though, Cunningham continues to leave his mark, leading Marines now just as he did then.
“Sgt. Maj. Cunningham leads by example,” said Col. Roy A. Osborn, Commanding Officer, 15th MEU. “As my senior enlisted advisor I rely on his experience to maintain the Marine Corps’ high standards and unit cohesion. And I agree whole heartedly with Mr. Padgett when he says, there is no resting on your laurels with Sgt. Maj. Cunningham.”
The ripple effect of his decision to join the Marines will impact the Corps and Marines forever.
“Marines are more connected than most. Sgt. Maj. Cunningham made that kind of impression on every recruit he trained to include Keith Padgett,” said Osborn. “Sgt. Maj. Cunningham carries himself with a polished, professional bearing that is infectious to those around him. There are young Marines on this deployment who will remember him 20 years from now. That is the type of Marine Sgt. Maj. Cunningham was 20 years ago and the Marine he is today.”
Cunningham is currently deployed aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu during a routine deployment in the Western Pacific.
This work, Service Impacts Marines Then and Now, by SSgt Kenneth Lewis, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.