USS BLUE RIDGE, Off the coast of the Republic of Korea -- Aboard the USS Blue Ridge at sea, Marines are working hard during exercise Ulchi Freedom Guardian 2013. Among them stands a Marine with many years of experience behind him, with the keen eye of a senior leader, and who is a mentor, teacher and a father figure to those around him.
Master Gunnery Sgt. Lars M. Luther, 47-years-old, of Templeton, Calif., has almost 30 years of accumulated service with the Marine Corps, and will be retiring in a few short months. He is currently on the USS Blue Ridge as the operations chief, a position which requires much experience in order to manage the many moving parts of the exercise.
Luther joined the Marine Corps on Feb. 13, 1984, entering recruit training in San Diego, Calif., when he was just 17-years-old.
“The best thing about the Marine Corps is that you serve your country and the Corps, but you fight for your brothers and sisters standing next to you,” said Luther. “That camaraderie that you build you will never find in the civilian world, or anywhere else. The Marine bond is a bond that you will never experience outside of the Corps.”
His years of service are mostly with the Marine Corps Reserve and he has served on many missions throughout the years. He was called up for three tours of combat service in Iraq between 2002 and 2007.
At the time Luther enlisted, the uniform he was issued was the heavy cotton tricolor pattern, and each Marine had to iron their own eagle, globe and anchor emblems onto the left breast pocket of their blouses. Marines also spent hours each evening starching and ironing their uniforms to a razor-sharp crisp edge.
“Back in my day, you had to learn the hard way,” said Luther. “Now we are very reliant on technology. Although technology enables us, it also distracts us from the basics. You can do the same thing with a ruler, a compass and a radio. And if you have to do it that way, it builds your confidence that you can really do it yourself.”
The boots Marines wore at that time were of heavy, black leather, which each Marine had to shine, many using spit and polish, usually every day, unless they were in the field.
“I like things as simple as morning formations, which you don’t see much any more,” said Luther. “I look to my left and right, those are the men and women in my platoon. That personal interaction is what we are losing through relying on email. The personal interaction makes us what we are, and the only way you will learn about your fellow Marines is to physically and verbally interact with them. You can see the true character of the Marine when you interact that way. You can’t see that in an email.”
Luther joined the Corps when C-rations in metal cans were being used, instead of the modern day Meal Ready-to-Eat. When the first MREs were passed out, he remembers, they appeared in dark brown bags with only 6 types of meals, including popular hotdogs, known as the “four fingers of death,” and the unpopular egg omelets.
“Marines are odd animals; we don’t fit into any category,” said Luther. “You don’t join this organization, it is a calling. We are tough on each other, and we shouldn’t try to be perfect. You know what civilians want us to be? They want us to be tough, mean, obnoxious sons-of-guns who can get the job done. When America says that they are sending in the Marines, it must be a rough situation, and the enemy must psychologically bolster themselves for encountering us.”
Luther was assigned an artillery military occupational specialty out of boot camp. He worked with early versions of Marine Corps’ indirect fire assets such as the M114 short tube, and the M110A2 and M109A3 self-propelled howitzers, which have long been phased-out.
“The most challenging part of the Marine Corps for me was my first live-fire artillery mission,” said Luther. “After all the exercises and practice, I had to make the call to send the fire mission, knowing that your brother and sisters are also nearby. If you are wrong with your calculations, they die. You have to have your stuff wired, if not, people die. Doing that for the first time it is a heavy responsibility, but it is what we are trained to do.”
He served in Egypt during Exercise Bright Star with (at the time) Brig. Gen. James N. Mattis, a venerable figure in the Corps, following 9-11.
“You must take care of each other as Marines, without the Marine, you don’t have a mission,” said Luther. “Even when they make a mistake, the Marine must know that they are still be supported by their fellow Marines. We are so worried about what everyone else thinks of us, and being politically correct, we have forgotten what it means to be a Marine.”
He has also served as a Marine advisor to the Navy, was a member of I MEF staff, and participated in many exercises across the Pacific.
“We can’t let our Marines quit because we must see something in them,” said Luther. “They need motivation and acceptance, and at the same time need boundaries as well. And if the Marine messes up, is disciplined, but then they are accepted again, they are even more a part of the team. With the current form of paper discipline, we lose some of that. We have lost bringing our Marines back into the fold. No Marine should ever feel alone, our team is our strength.”
“Build your Marines’ confidence by letting them do their job,” Luther advises. “They must feel as if they are contributing and part of the team. And we must allow them to fail sometimes. Evaluate what the effects will be, and if you can, let them go down that road toward failure. Everyone has to experience failure to really learn. The greatest reflection on your leadership is evaluating if your Marines are becoming more proficient. It might not have been pretty, but if they learned and built confidence, you have succeeded.”
Back at home in California, Luther serves as a deputy sheriff for the San Luis Obispo County Police Department. He has been at every position in the division, and carries his Marine Corps work ethic into his civilian job.
“No matter our challenges, the Corps is an organization that you will never experience again,” said Luther. “Our esprit de corps and our pride as service members are rare in the civilian world. The civilian world is all about making money, but true pride comes from being part of a team. If someone joins the Marine Corps for a paycheck, they are a fool. You don’t come here for money. You enter the Marine Corps because you want to be part of something that is beyond most people’s imagination.”
Married since 1991, and with one daughter, his family has been very supportive of his career with the Marine Corps.
“I grew up and matured in the Marines, and now I am looking at retirement,” said Luther. “That thought of the unknown, not having the regular contact with Marines, it is difficult. It is the fear of the unknown now, but the Marine Corps will always be a part of me.”
On the USS Blue Ridge, with only a few months of service left, he is still a mentor. He often brings Marines around him together for impromptu lessons.
“Now Marines, there are only a few colors on these maps, do you know what they represent?” he asks. “Have you ever tried to read a map using a red-lens light?”
The 19-year-old Marines admit to him that they do not know the colors of the map, nor have they ever used a red-lens light to read a map.
With the patience of a father, Luther begins to teach them. “Now when I was a Lance Corporal, back before you were born…”