CAMP LEATHERNECK – Twenty years is the retirement goal for many young Marines, but one Marine’s time in service nearly doubles that mark.
With 37 years in the Marine Corps, the “Grand Old Man” of Regimental Combat Team 7, Lt. Col. Jeffrey J. Kenney, intended to retire during 2003. But as the war against terrorism continued, he said, he couldn’t say goodbye while other Marines were serving in combat.
“I just couldn’t retire during a war,” said Kenney, who serves as officer in charge of the team’s Afghan security force. “I thought I could help with my experience.”
Kenney joined the Marine Corps in 1975 with, he says now, no intention of re-enlisting. After serving with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, he decided to stay in because he enjoyed being a platoon sergeant with his Marines and hoped to earn a spot in Marine Reconnaissance.
“When I joined, I wanted to do four years and get out,” said Kenney, who hails from Hartford, Conn.
Four years turned into 37 for Kenney. From his days with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, to his current assignmnet with RCT-7, he has served with 2nd Marines, 7th Marines, 8th Marines, Marine Corps Recruiting Command twice, Marine Corps security guard duty, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, infantry officer course twice, and the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
Kenney, 55, is what Marines call a mustang. He served his first 12 years as an enlisted Marine and was commissioned as an officer in 1987.
Kenney uses his experience as a prior-enlisted member to mentor and teach the Marines around him.
“He can relate to the younger enlisted Marines,” said Maj. Rudy Salcido, commander of the regiment’s Headquarters Company. “He brings a wealth of knowledge to the table. He’s able to mentor down from the junior Marine all the way up to the senior officers the same way.”
Salcido, from Tucson, Ariz., said when he attended infantry officer course during 2001, Kenney was the director of the course.
“He set the example,” Salcido said of Kenney. “Every time he stepped in, he did it at the right time. As a student, I could tell it was leadership at its finest.”
Salcido noted he considers Kenney one of his role models and still comes to him for advice.
“I’ve seen him mentor some of my other mentors,” Salcido said. “That’s what he is -- he’s a lifelong mentor.”
Being well-respected by his fellow Marines does not make Kenney immune to the good-natured ribbing Marines often share.
“They make jokes about me knowing Chesty Puller or Dan Daly,” Kenney said. “They’ll see the old recruiting pictures from World War II and ask me if that helmet was comfortable.”
The Marine Corps will celebrate its 237th birthday on Nov. 10, 2012. As is tradition, Kenney will receive the first piece of cake as the oldest Marine present. It is a familiar custom.
“This will be my third [Marine Corps] birthday as the oldest Marine,” said Kenney. “I was kind of expecting it this year.”
Many Marines will never be part of the birthday cake-cutting ceremony. The oldest Marine receives the first piece of cake and the youngest receives the second. Kenney can recall both experiences.
“I joined when I was 17,” Kenney said. “My first two years in the Corps, I was the youngest Marine at the ceremony.”
Kenney is more than twice the age of the youngest Marine sharing his current assignment, and has more time in the Marine Corps than the youngest Marine has in life.
“It’s humbling to see him still working the way he does,” Salcido said. “It’s humbling to see the energy he still brings after all these years.”
This is Kenney’s 12th and likely final deployment, he said. He brings his own credibility to the line in the Marines’ Hymn, “We have fought in every clime and place.”
“I will definitely retire before 2015,” Kenney said. “I don’t want to hit that 40-year mark.”