MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, Ariz. – Newly promoted Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Draffen stood at attention in front of the Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1 building here April 1. His uniform’s collar lay bare for a moment before two pairs of hands deftly pinned in place the rank he has worked 20 years to achieve.
Behind him, friends and peers mirrored the air traffic controller’s tall stance. To his left, his wife, who he has been with since before his enlistment in 1994, secured one side of his collar. On his right, retired Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sgt. Michael Arnett -- the drill instructor responsible for making Draffen into a Marine -- secured the other.
After the ceremony was over and the formation dispersed, Draffen and Arnett had a chance to reminisce about their shared beginnings.
“He was the shortest drill instructor, and he was very skinny,” Draffen said about Arnett, recalling the ritual first contact between drill instructor and recruit known as “Black Friday.”
“Well, the only one skinnier than me was him,” Arnett interjected with a chuckle.
“[Arnett] was clearly very passionate about what he was doing,” continued Draffen, a native of Northville, New York. “That’s the reason why, after 20 years, it was very easy to ask him to pin me.”
“My main job was ‘knowledge hat,’” Arnett said. “My main focus was getting recruits through the academic portion of boot camp.”
“And I was the ‘knowledge recruit,’” Draffen said.
The knowledge recruit is picked by the platoon drill instructors and usually is one of the brighter recruits of each training cycle.
“Our platoon took No. 1 for academics, and I didn’t do it by myself,” Arnett said. “Draffen was there on the back end, as a recruit, encouraging the guys to be the best.”
“I remember he was just hustling,” Arnett continued. “I remember he was always trying to do his best and flying to get the job done the best he could. Obviously, that’s continued with him making master gunnery sergeant. With him now being in the top 2 percent of the Marine Corps, his hard work has benefited him well.”
Family Comes First
“I remember talking to him during boot camp and found out that he’d just gotten married and had a kid on the way,” said Arnett, a native of Panama City, Florida. “I remember thinking to myself as a sergeant with two kids at the time, ‘Golly, he’s got a family, and he’s just starting out.’”
“I was in boot camp to support my family,” Draffen said. “We ran into some financial problems, so there I was.”
Now six months away from his 21-year mark in the Marine Corps, Draffen still holds true to the lessons instilled in him by the man who taught him the fundamentals of what it means to be a Marine.
“I’d say the one lesson that he really drove home, and is something we push on our kids, is to take care of your family,” Draffen said. “He reinforced that you perform to take care of your family first, and everything else comes secondary to that.”