The long, winding road: looking back on the 41-year career of the Air Force's longest continuously serving noncommissioned officer.
At age 59-1/2 and completing his 41st year of continuous military service in June, he's the oldest, longest-serving chief master sergeant in the Air Force. Scoffing at any references about extinction, this giant of a mammal is very much alive and breathing, articulate and compassionate, driven and inspirational - a living specimen in an era of revered senior noncommissioned officers.
The ops tempo Marous maintains in the joint military environment of counterdrug operations will leave even the youngest of guns panting for a hit of pure oxygen. Averaging 14- to 16-hour days that involve a 120-mile round trip commute to his office and extensive volunteer work, Marous serves as the noncommissioned officer in charge of the Western Regional Counterdrug Training Team at Camp San Luis Obispo, Calif.
"You're not going to be able to put in long hours and make the sacrifices the military asks of you if you don't have passion and commitment," the chief said. "This is a profession in which the best people feel it where they live -- where their soul is."
Growing up on the north side of Pittsburgh, the idea of spending more than four decades serving in the world's most powerful air force never even registered or Marous' radar until he was four months shy of graduating from Allegheny Senior High School with no solid plans for the future.
"I ran into my best friend, Chuck Hornish, who'd recently enlisted in the Air Force and had just returned home on leave after tech school," the chief recalled. "He was really excited about what he was doing and was so proud to be a part of the Air Force -- his chest stuck out about a mile. I thought to myself, 'Whatever that is, I want some of it.'"
It was June 1962. President John F. Kennedy was becoming painfully aware of a Soviet nuclear missile buildup in Cuba. Astronaut John Glenn had just become the first American to orbit the earth. And on the north side of Pittsburgh, Lillian Marous decided to splurge on a cab ride to take her son Norman to the local military in-processing station for departure to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. The Air Force was almost 15 years old.
Transition to the blue
"Stepping into the blue" was an easy transition for Marous, who admitted he liked the regimentation, discipline and order of the Air Force.
"It wasn't a big deal for me to fold my underwear, iron my clothes and spit shine my shoes, because I was already doing that anyway."
Today, everything in Marous' world follows the pattern -- from his immaculately clean office and his impeccable uniform to his, not surprisingly, blue 1991 Lincoln Towncar -- and has been whipped into obedient submission.
Though shining his boots may have been familiar territory in 1962, using open-bay latrines wasn't.
"There were no such things as privacy stalls in basic training then," said the chief who described an Air Force that sounds much different from the one of today.
"Women were physically separated from the men. Sometimes there would be a compound established within the base where the women Air Force members -- then called WAFs -- would live. They had their own female commanders and first sergeants because men weren't in direct leadership roles over women." For airmen today, who think it's inconvenient to get a commander's approval for a pay advance, imagine having to obtain permission to get married. According to Marous, those below the rank of staff sergeant who tied the knot without prior command approval could be denied dependent entitlements.
On the subject of money, when Marous began aircraft instrument repair training at Chanute Air Force Base, Ill., as an airman basic, his monthly gross pay was $78.
"I take great delight in the surprise of airmen today, who learn that they make more in one month than I did for an entire year," grinned the chief.
Following tech school graduation, Marous found himself on a train heading back to his home state of Pennsylvania with orders to Olmstead Air Force Base. As an aircraft instrument systems specialist, Marous admitted to being "scared and intimidated" taking that first walk out to a Douglas C-117 Skytrain -- a modified C-47 -- with a toolbox in his hand.
Equally as frightening as calibrating an oil pressure gauge was being startled out of a sound sleep at 4 a.m. by a 6-foot-4, 250-pound first sergeant, Chief Master Sgt. Freddie Vilk.
"I remember jumping out of bed to the sound of my door being pounded in, and there was this voice yelling, 'Marous, pack yer s---!'"
In the weeks prior, Marous' supervisor had encouraged him to volunteer for base honor guard duty, and Vilk was responsible for mustering the detail.
"I sheepishly asked where we were going," Marous recalled, "and the booming voice replied, 'You'll know when you get there!'"
It was Marous' first real encounter with a chief master sergeant.
"He was an incredible noncommissioned officer," recalled Marous, who explained that Vilk had previously served in the Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard. "In those days," Marous said, "we referred to any noncommissioned officer with the rank of technical sergeant or higher as a 'brown-shoe Air Force guy,' "a name given to those with enough time to have started their careers in the Army Air Corps where the "brown oxford" was standard issue -- which then referred to most noncommissioned officers.
Reservations about staying
At the end of his first four years, Marous contemplated working in the private sector. With four years' experience in electronics, he received a lucrative offer in 1967 from Mellon National Bank & Trust Co. Acknowledging his attention to detail and strong work ethic, Marous was hired to oversee the accurate daily computer posting of $3 billion in checks and deposits to 250,000 customer accounts.
"At the time that I received this job offer," Marous recalled, "I still wasn't sure that I wanted to cut ties with the Air Force -- so I decided to join the Air Reserve Forces."
While Marous balanced dual careers in banking and aircraft avionics, the Air Force was heavily involved in Operation Rolling Thunder over Vietnam. Though he never deployed to Southeast Asia, Marous developed a close rapport with many of the troops who did, frequently performing maintenance on their aircraft.
Little did Marous know, he would continue serving as a reserve component member for 22 years, holding positions in avionics maintenance, weapons loading, and education and training.
"For a period of about six years," Marous admitted, "I was unsure of my long-term commitment to the Air Force, so I kept extending my enlistment in one-year increments. Finally, when I hit 10 years' time in service, I thought to myself, 'Who are you trying to fool? You're not going to leave!'"
Beginning in 1972, he went back to four-year enlistments in the Air Guard, where he spent 21 of his 22 reserve component years.
Marous has a deep appreciation and understanding of not only the mission, but the rich history behind the reserve forces. "Many folks are quick to dismiss our guardsmen and reservists as nothing more than 'weekend warriors.' V/hat they fail to remember is that the tradition of Reserve service goes back more than 366 years to Colonial times."
Incredible as Marous' military career sounds to this point, his civilian career packed an equal wallop. His resume, spanning four pages and reading like a Fortune 500 "Who's Who in America," chronicles a 24-year civilian career path that involved management positions with BankAmerica, The Schneider Group and General Nutrition Corp. In addition to that, he was radio host for a weekly program broadcast on Pittsburgh's Radio Information Service, called "American Business World."
Something was missing
In 1989, after more than 20 years of juggling military and civilian careers, Marous felt as though something was missing in his life.
He realized the hole forming inside him wasn't related to the "quantity" of things he was accomplishing, but rather the "quality."
Marous' civilian job paid well, but it just wasn't as fulfilling as his military career.
"It occurred to me that I was spending most of my five weeks annual vacation plus authorized military time serving with people I cared about the most -- those wearing the Air Force uniform," he said.
Coincidentally, a few months before Operation Just Cause started, Marous was offered a 30-day temporary duty assignment at the Pentagon to help spearhead an operation that would eventually become the Counter-drug Plans Branch. As the organization evolved, Marous was given an opportunity that he couldn't refuse -- the chance to return to active duty.
"My family thought of having me committed," said Marous, who estimates that returning to active duty resulted in $20,000 less annual pay. "The money was irrelevant. Serving in the military means being a part of something bigger than yourself and your bank account. There are intangible rewards that I value so much more." He missed the full-time camaraderie, opportunities to mentor and sense of being on a cohesive team.
Of all the teams for Marous to join, none were busier than the men and women supporting law enforcement nationwide and abroad in the war on drugs.
"In Central America, our aircraft were responsible for tracking and identifying planes and watercraft that were smuggling drugs," he said. "They would then alert customs and law enforcement agencies who would intervene and carry out arrests."
Statistics show that three-fourths of the billion-dollar counterdrug budget in the early 1990s went into detection and monitoring of the 4,000 to 8,000 covert air and ship movements each year.
After spending nearly 10 years in the nation's capital, Marous -- along with his wife of 19 years, Geraldine -- transplanted his native East Coast roots to California in 2001, where he first served as liaison officer to the National Interagency Civil-Military Institute and then played a vital role in creating and operating the western regional counterdrug training team, a joint operation with the Army National Guard. Foregoing the convenience of living close to his office at Camp San Luis Obispo, Marous and his wife chose to reside on Vandenberg Air Force Base, 60 miles south of the post.
"I wanted to live in an Air Force military community because I love being with my comrades. The Air Force isn't just what I do -- it's an integral part of who I am."
Looking back on a 41-year career, the chief attributes his staying power to the sincere enjoyment of doing things that directly impact other people's lives. An avid proponent of community service, he maintains active life memberships in more than a dozen military organizations -- to include being one of only two enlisted board members of the Air Force Historical Foundation.
"The reason they elected me is because they knew I was willing to work," he grinned, acknowledging his reputation as a man who's not afraid to roll up his sleeves.
As if possessed by some "old school" work ethic that has become obsolete through the passing of time, Marous is showing no sign of slowing down as his mandatory retirement date approaches with his 60th birthday in October.
"Unless they Stop-Loss me, which wouldn't break my heart," the chief added with a wink.
Marous said that he'd stay on active duty if the Air Force would allow him to continue to serve and do what he loves best -- even without pay.
When asked how he'd like to be remembered, he replied, "We all take something out of life, and we all put something back in. I'd like to be known as a guy who put back more than he took out. By doing that, we have a positive impact on our units, our communities and consequently the world."
RELATED ARTICLE: Spanning the years
1962 Basic training
1962 Technical training
1963 Instrument repair specialist
1971 Avionics instrument technician
1974 Maintenance training manager
1980 NCOIC, ancillary training
1982 NCOIC, operations & training
1987 Base education manager
1989 NCOIC, Joint Counterdrug Plans Branch
1991 Joint Military Support Directorate, counterdrug operations NCO & data manager
1992 Joint Counterdrug Task Force, liaison/action officer
1995 Regional counterdrug coordinator
1996 Executive, Joint Counterdrug Board
1998 Liaison officer, Headquarters Civil Air Patrol (concurrent with Counterdrug Board executive and continuous to present)
2001 Liaison officer, National Interagency Civil-Military Institute
2003 NCOIC, Western Regional Counterdrug Training Team
Climbing the ladder
Airman Basic June 26, 1962
Airman Third Class Jan. 1, 1963
Airman Second Class June 1, 1965
Airman First Class Jan. 1, 1967
Staff Sgt. Jan. 1, 1970
Tech. Sgt. Oct. 1, 1983
Master Sgt. May 1,1986
Senior Master Sgt. Dec. 1, 1991
Chief Master Sgt. Aug. 1,1997
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|Date:||Jul 1, 2003|
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