GETTYSBURG, Pa. --
As darkness fell over Gettysburg, Pa., April 27, a cool, spring wind swirled around the roughly 70 Marines from Marine Wing Support Squadron 271. The wind brought the threat of rain, but also the warm, comforting scent of charcoal from a campfire and airy, musical notes from the absentminded strumming of a guitar in the distance.
The Marines from MWSS-271, staff noncommissioned officers and noncommissioned officers, came from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C. to the site of the historic Civil War battle with one expressed purpose – to see how they could grow and learn together as enlisted leaders.
The Marines set up camp in the yard next to the home of Seamus Garrahy, a man who departed the Marine Corps as a corporal in 1968. Though Garrahy left the Corps, the Corps never left him. Now 70 years old, Garrahy has spent the last 30 years showing a small stature can conceal a big heart, opening his home to any and all Marines who wish to visit and camp out. His home has adopted an affectionate title – Marine Barracks Gettysburg.
The first night, thunder and rain came with fury and purpose, rattling the Marines in their tents. But the next day, as the Marines toured the storied battlegrounds, the dark, foreboding clouds surrendered the fight to clear, blue skies.
Sgt. Maj. Brett C. Scheuer, the sergeant major for MWSS-271, led the exploration of the battleground. A history enthusiast whose great-great-grandfather fought in the Battle of Gettysburg with the 102nd New York Infantry Regiment, Scheuer said he hoped his Marines departed the experience with an understanding of their history.
“It’s important to carry on our traditions and our history as our junior Marines become senior leaders,” Scheuer said.
Scheuer said ultimately, the main goal was team building, to heighten camaraderie and esprit de corps.
Sgt. Manuel D. Ayala seemed to embrace the sergeant major’s message and the purpose of the trip.
“It’s amazing to be in a location like this,” said Ayala, a field wireman with MWSS-271’s Headquarters and Service Company. “I’ve read some books on the battle, but it’s nothing like being here and walking the terrain.”
Ayala said he believed there were tremendous similarities between the human experience in warfare during the Battle of Gettysburg and what Marines go through today.
“Everyone here fought for what they believed in,” Ayala said of the Civil War troops. “They fought for the men to their left and right, and they fought to protect their families. That’s also the case for everyone I’ve ever served with.”
The Marines made several stops on their tour, visiting the site of Pickett’s Charge, Big Round Top and Devil’s Den, among others. It was touching for many to connect southern Pennsylvania’s lush, rolling countryside, with green grass speckled with yellow wildflowers, to the violent clash that made the region famous.
“Gettysburg was a turning point in the fight against slavery and the preservation of our nation,” said Gunnery Sgt. Hugo R. Duran, the company first sergeant for MWSS-271’s Engineer Co. “This trip has renewed my sense of patriotism.”
Duran also expressed high hopes for the leadership lessons that could be learned from the experience.
“Everyone has a leadership style, I can’t say mine is better or more effective than anyone else’s,” Duran said. “We have so many different leadership styles here among the 70 staff NCOs and NCOs here today, so there’s a lot that can be learned.”
Staff Sgt. Joshua D. Hanson, the H&S Co. gunnery sergeant, said that engaged leadership holds up the institution and sets standards to follow.
“By getting the senior staff NCOs and the NCOs together, this trip provided the chance to for the NCOs to engage their senior leaders on a different level and allowed the Marines the chance to build a stronger bond,” Hanson said. “I think the sergeants and corporals will come back with a lot more motivation. I had several conversations with NCOs who asked me about my style of leadership; I explained that my style of leadership evolves with every Marine I meet, and I adopt something from their style. A lot of sergeants and corporals will come back and implement that with their junior Marines, and that will build a more cohesive group, not just at a unit level but at the squadron level.”
After touring the battleground, the Marines returned to Marine Barracks Gettysburg where Garrahy and several local Marine veterans had been busy cooking steaks and chilling beer for the Marines to feast on.
“Steaks and beers” night is a part of the institution of Marine Barracks Gettysburg, an opportunity for the visiting Marines to share stories of the past and present with Garrahy and his crew of vets.
“There is nothing better than hanging around Marines,” Garrahy said. “This place wouldn’t be home without them.”
“What we do here is just a little bit of what we can do to give back and show these guys and gals how much we appreciate what they do,” said Stan Clark, who left the Marines as a staff sergeant in 1976 and now helps Garrahy support the Corps in any way he can.
Clark manned the grill earnestly, producing juicy steaks nearly as thick as they were wide. The steaks were coated in Gung-ho Sauce, Garrahy’s own special recipe.
As the Marines dined and shared stories, they were given but one rule – they were not under any circumstances allowed to feed Recon Marine, Garrahy’s golden, shaggy-haired dog with a penchant for hanging around the picnic tables.
It was the second time the Marines from MWSS-271 had visited Marine Barracks Gettysburg, and Scheuer presented Garrahy with a plaque thanking him for his hospitality.
As the sun dipped below Big Round Top, the boulder-strewn hill that served as the left flank of the Union defense more than a century ago, Garrahy’s wife, Linda Bell, played “Taps” on the bugle, in chilling remembrance of the more than 50,000 lives lost near where the Marines now stood.
Scheuer said educational trips like the one to Gettysburg benefit every Marine in the squadron. He said after last year’s trip, the squadron didn’t have a non-judicial punishment for 90 days and didn’t have a court martial for nine months.
“It certainly renews the sense of leadership and perspective for the NCOs who go on the trip, but it also shows the younger guys, the lance corporals and the privates first class, that rank has its privileges,” Scheuer said.
Cpl. Robert W. Hartnett, a food service specialist with the squadron, said he was a lance corporal the year before and was unable to attend the trip, but when he saw the more senior Marines come back, it was inspiring.
“When they got back last year they wouldn’t stop talking about it, so it made me envious, made me want to get promoted so I could be like them,” Hartnett said. “Now, being here, seeing guys like Seamus, those guys are influential and impactful. It’s our job to uphold the traditions and standards they set and continue to uphold. They have a big heart for the Marine Corps.”
“What I learned here was not about the Battle of Gettysburg. I looked to the sergeant major and the steaks and beer crew and I took away a message of selflessness,” Hanson said. “It’s not about me – it’s about taking care of the Marines around me. We’re a family, it’s what we were taught when we first enlisted; it’s what many of us enlisted for. Trips like this solidify the base of engagement and cohesion that are so important.”