News: Through the Ranks: Staff Sergeant
Story by Cpl. Colby Brown
GARMSIR DISTRICT, Helmand province, Afghanistan — Staff Sgt. John Wheeler painstakingly pours over documents strewn across his desk. He is absorbed in the task, so when a fellow staff sergeant approaches him, he squeezes the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger in mild irritation.
But irritation quickly gives way to motivation as he lays aside the paperwork to address a question from this fellow Marine Corps Martial Arts Program instructor. The interruption turns into discussion, which transforms into an animated charade, with Wheeler countering an imaginary knife strike, then seizing and plunging it into a make-believe insurgent.
When the notional dust settles, the instructors decide it would be better to just focus on the basics, and as strangely as it began, Wheeler retrieves his pen and returns to the heap of serial numbers on his desk.
So the story goes: a typical snapshot of a typical day in the life of Wheeler. The Winston-Salem, N.C. native serves as the communications maintenance chief, communications platoon sergeant, electronic warfare officer and MCMAP instructor-trainer for 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment. In other words, he never stops working.
Fortunately, the staff sergeant is used to it. Since joining the Marine Corps in 2003, Wheeler deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom twice before coming to Afghanistan. As he has progressed in rank and experience, he has continued to shoulder more responsibility.
“You’re not just worried about your little piece of your pie anymore,” Wheeler said. “You’re worried about the mission, and you are worried about the Marines under you.”
During a normal day, Wheeler may deal with 10 tasks or 100. As the communications maintenance chief, he is responsible for fixing essentially all of the battalion’s electronic gear, and as the communications platoon sergeant, he looks after the welfare of his subordinates and ensures the platoon completes its operational requirements. Wheeler also provides the battalion with electronic warfare training, and for anyone who wants to train in MCMAP? You guessed it; Wheeler is the go-to guy.
“You always have multiple things going on at one time,” Wheeler added. “You never have the time or ability to focus on one thing at a time, so it’s almost like juggling. You’re constantly juggling. You’re always accomplishing something and moving on to the next, and you try to keep things moving forward.”
Even with all of his responsibilities, Wheeler never lets off the gas. He stays at a mission until completion, unyielding and unwilling to fail.
“[As a staff sergeant], you are expected to be on you’re A game 100 percent of the time,” Wheeler said. “There’s no more room for mistakes. There’s no more room for I don’t know. You are expected to know the answer, or if you don’t, be able to find it very quickly. As a staff sergeant, errors can be very costly, either by impacting the mission, financially [costing] the Marine Corps, or even costing a Marine their life. I’d say the learning curve is steep when a Marine is promoted.”
Wheeler maintains uncompromising standards of conduct for himself and his subordinates. When a junior Marine comes to him for occupational advice, he expects a proper greeting, not because he is haughty, but because he would do the same for his superior.
“I make sure my Marines uphold the standards regardless of where we are or what we are doing,” Wheeler said. “At the end of the day, they are still expected to conduct themselves as a Marine. If you can’t do the small things right, then why should anyone think you could do the big things right? I make sure my Marines are held to the highest standards -- the same that I would expect from myself.”
Along with Wheeler’s brand of perfectionism comes a unique passion for teaching, but he’s no bespectacled professor with tweed jacket and pipe. Wheeler, a shaven-headed, 6-foot-two-inch-tall, 200-pound Marine, has “the look,” according to his friend Staff Sgt. Lucas Cotto.
“You see him walk by, and you say to yourself, ‘I don’t want to [mess] with that guy,’” Cotto said.
Wheeler’s perpetually serious countenance is often mistaken at first for displeasure, but appearances are often misleading. In the context of his general behavior, “the look” is more of a fatherly frown. He won’t leave a Marine alone until he has taught him everything he can, and for this reason, he’s admired by his peers and subordinates.
“He portrays himself as — and is — a strict leader,” said Cotto, the battalion wire chief and native of Ilion, N.Y. “I can count on him to tell me how it is, because even though we’re friends, he isn’t afraid to tell me when I am doing something wrong. He doesn’t hide anything. I am senior to him, but I still pick up [leadership traits] from him all the time.”
Wheeler channels these traits into managing a unit. He prioritizes the tasks that need to be accomplished and assigns them to his Marines. He finds work for idle hands, especially if they are his own. He continually scrutinizes operations within his platoon, company and battalion.
“The way I feel about it is [as a staff sergeant] you’re almost always responsible for everything either directly or indirectly, so my view is the big picture,” Wheeler said. “The [non-commissioned officer] is definitely what makes the Marine Corps function, but at the end of the day, the staff sergeant is usually the one … explaining about what went on that day, especially if something went wrong.”
Wheeler views the Marine Corps as more than an occupation; to him, it’s a way of life. Fellow Marines know this, but not because Wheeler runs around, manically chanting cadence and bellowing “Ooh-rah!” They can tell by the way he carries himself.
“The only thing that comes to mind when I think of Staff Sgt. Wheeler is that he is a Marine,” said 1st Lt. Ron Davis, the communications officer for 1/3, a native of Raeford, N.C., and Wheeler’s boss. “He is exactly what I imagined when I thought of a Marine when I was 18 years old, and I wanted to be like that Marine, so I joined.”
Ever since he can remember, Wheeler has wanted to join the Marines. When asked if he plans on staying in the Corps, Wheeler unhesitatingly answered, “Absolutely.” His father was a Marine, so Wheeler was no stranger to the commitment it would take to become one.
Since joining, Wheeler said he has never looked back. In fact, he believes every able-bodied male should serve his country.
Cpl. Wesley Tucker, a ground communication technician non-commissioned officer and native of Jasper, Ala., claimed that Wheeler is “always motivated.”
“It’s hard to explain, but just by first glance, he can tell if something is wrong or not,” said Tucker. “And he keeps you on your toes. He is always trying to better himself and us. I have learned more from him than I can explain. I want to lead in the style he leads.”
Wheeler said watching Marines grow into leaders is the greatest reward, and being a part of the Corps’ successes goes along with his belief of being a part of something bigger than himself.
“I’m constantly thinking about what I can do to make my Marines better,” Wheeler said. “[Are] there any personal issues that I need to take care? How can the platoon improve? How can the company improve? … It turns it into a lifestyle instead of a clocking-in-and-clocking-out thing.”
Even when Wheeler takes a break, he really isn’t. He’ll head to the gym, where he briefly escapes the ordered chaos of the staff non-commissioned officer world to focus on one thing: pumping out that last repetition.
“It’s good stress relief,” Wheeler said. “I try to break up a portion of the day with a work out. It’s 30 minutes to an hour where you don’t think about what you have to do that day or what you need to accomplish. It’s definitely my escape. It’s usually the only piece of [me] time that I get.”
Although his schedule is crammed, Wheeler continuously looks for the occasional chance to contact his wife, whether through email or phone. When going outside the wire, he said, seeing the local children “snaps me back to my children, and all I can think about is what they might be up to.”
“I don’t know if you ever get used to being away from your family,” Wheeler added. “You learn how to deal with it a little better, but I don’t think I could ever get used to it. It definitely sucks, and [the separation] never stops. You get your personal time when you can, where you can.”
Despite all of Wheeler’s responsibilities, he never seems distracted from his work. It’s as if he’s constantly searching for a better way to accomplish the mission, and his Marines say that appearance literally is reality.
“He is the most well rounded Staff NCO I have ever worked for,” said Cpl. Cody Kapotak, communication maintenance non-commissioned officer and native of Anchorage, Alaska. “How he is able to take all of his responsibilities and manage them very well is a statement to what kind of leader he is. And to go along with all of his responsibilities, he always has the answer and always challenges us to become better at our jobs, exercise more, learn more MCMAP. I don’t know how he does it, but he never stops.”
Editor’s Note: ‘Through the Ranks,’ is a series of feature articles about a day in the life of a deployed Marine from 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment. Each article will highlight an individual’s personal experience through the perspective of his rank. This is the fifth article of the series.
First Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, is currently assigned to Regimental Combat Team 1, 2nd Marine Division (Forward), which heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest) and works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Forces and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.