Sgt. Maj. Leonard Maldonadoâ€™s last day as Marine Attack Squadronâ€™s 214 sergeant major and his last tour of duty in the Marine Corps was a blessedly cool evening for Yuma, Ariz. Perhaps the weather received notice that his 26 years of faithful service to Corps and country was coming to end and responded accordingly.
â€œItâ€™s humbling to think a homeboy from New Mexico couldâ€™ve made it this far,â€ said Maldonado, a native of Farmington, N.M., to the audience present for his retirement.
While Maldonado relinquished his position as the squadronâ€™s senior enlisted advisor to Sgt. Maj. Charles Williams, recruits at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, Calif. prepped for the next dayâ€™s training towards becoming a U.S. Marine.Â Elsewhere, Marines in Afghanistan and on ships continued to conduct operations.
The Corps released a valuable member of its ranks June 8, but still continued, stronger than before. Marines such as Maldonado are to thank for that perpetuation.
â€œThe Marines were in the cards for me when I was in ninth grade,â€ he said.
Maldonadoâ€™s father served in the Korean War with 5th Marine Regiment. His five other brothers also served. Their time in uniform was commemorated in a room at Maldonadoâ€™s grandmotherâ€™s house.
â€œThere were photos of all my uncles,â€ he said. â€œI was going through some stuff and I happened to stumble across my fatherâ€™s boot camp yearbook.â€
That one moment of discovery would lead to more than two decades of service.
Maldonado shipped off to boot camp on June 16, 1986. From there, he began his career as a dispersing clerk in Okinawa, Japan. He would deepen the Maldonado footprint in Korea when he deployed there in support of Operation Bear Hunt in 1987.
Maldonado went on to do a tour in Camp Pendleton, Calif., and Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. He ruminated on how the Corps changed since heâ€™s been in.
â€œThe biggest advantage to my upbringing in the Marine Corps is we didnâ€™t have all this technology,â€ said a smiling Maldonado as he worked on an email. â€œWord was passed in formation. I was able to pick out things from individuals, like the way they carried themselves.â€
He agrees transition from formations to electronics as the preferred medium of communication has both ups and downs.
â€œWe have email, texting… we can almost guarantee instantaneous changes to plans,â€ said Maldonado.
However, â€œWe do not take the opportunity to address Marines face to face. Itâ€™s really easy to appear harsh and aggressive over email,â€ he said.
â€œWhat hasnâ€™t changed is Marines are still the roughest, toughest bunch around,â€ Maldonado added. â€œWe always represent ourselves proudly and take care of one another.â€
In 1994, then Sgt. Maldonado reported for drill instructor duty at Parris Island, S.C.
â€œWhether you joined in 1950 or 2012, your part of a family,â€ he said. â€œEverything I know about the Marine Corps told me if you want to make the Corps better, going to the drill field was the way to do it.â€
The star-centered chevrons of sergeant major appeared on Maldonadoâ€™s uniform in 2007, whereupon he reported for duty with Marine Air Control Squadron 1. Previously, he served as Landing Support Companyâ€™s first sergeant with 3rd Transportation Support Battalion, based in Okinawa, Japan.
â€œMaking the transition into the Air Wing with MACS-1 was simple for me due to the fact MACS-1 was structured more like a battalion,â€ Maldonado explained. â€œVMA-214, however, exposed me to the life of a flying squadron.â€
A history buff, Maldonado jumped at the chance to further the VMA-214 Black Sheepâ€™s storied history.
â€œFrom that, Iâ€™ve gained new respect for the young Marines responsible for keeping this machine running,â€ he said.â€
As a sergeant major, Maldonado has seen the ups and downs of the Corps throughout both enlisted and officer ranks. How does one maintain a cool head when in the Corps for 26 years?
â€œThe secret to my success is my beautiful wife Madonna,â€ said Maldonado. â€œSheâ€™s been the glue to the Maldonado household from start to finish.â€
And there you have it.
Maldonado received the Meritorious Service Medal at his retirement, with Madonna receiving a certificate of appreciation. Lt. Col. Troy M. Pehrson, the commanding officer of VMA-214, closed the ceremony and retirement with a fitting quote.
â€œTwo words: simply outstanding,â€ Pehrson said. â€œMy dictionary just got a new definition of the word Marine. Itâ€™s Maldonado.â€