AR RAMADI, Iraq -- The Marine Corps forges leaders and professionals by refining the qualities that are inherent in those who serve. But, sometimes people are professionals before they become the ‘First to Fight.’
Such is the case of Sgt. Randy Edwards, a heavy equipment operator with the “Sandsharks” of Marine Wing Support Squadron 371. Before becoming a Marine, he had already been a Soldier and a carpenter.
While in high school, Edwards had an itch that needed scratching. That itch was joining the military.
“The Marine recruiter at the time told me he didn’t want to talk to me until I had my high school diploma,” said Edwards, a Grants, N.M., native. “I wanted to join the military. I wanted to join the Marine Corps, but I just couldn’t wait.”
The 17-year-old joined the Army reserves on a two year contract. During the summer break of his junior year at La Plata High School in La Plata, Mo., he attended basic training at Fort Benning, Ga. After graduating high school, he went back to Fort Benning for his Advanced Individual Training as an infantryman.
“In the Army I was infantry, so that helped me as a Marine with that type of stuff,” he said. “I already knew the weapon systems and I was already in good physical shape, too.”
In 2000, a year after completing his contract with the Army and working in a civilian job as a carpenter, he joined the Corps.
“When I came in I wanted to be an infantrymen, figuring it would be the easiest transition for me,” said the heavy equipment operator. “It was closed out at the time. So, I didn’t know what to do and I said ‘What’s the next closest field?’ My recruiter said the engineer field and just kind of picked the (military occupational specialty) for me.”
Although there was room for improvement, Edwards had plenty of experience in the skilled labor field, which translated well for him. He spent his teenage years working construction, masonry, and framing. In high school he took vocational education courses in carpentry and later became a journeyman carpenter during his time as a reservist and up until he joined the Corps.
“I was a journeyman carpenter before I came in, so I worked around heavy equipment and had been doing construction anyways,” said Edwards, who is a platoon sergeant. “It was a smooth transition. The only thing I hadn’t done was operate the heavy machinery, but I had been around it the whole time, so it’s been an easy MOS for me.”
While deployed, the heavy equipment section of ‘371 provides two types of support; the first is using fork lifts and cranes to move things like pallets of water and storage containers, the second is planned missions which involve months of planning and require heavy equipment to complete. The missions are referred to as “dirt work” because heavy equipment, such as the130 G graders that are used for leveling out surfaces, is used to move dirt and shape things like roads, helicopter landing zones, and fuel pits. The missions can take from a few days to a few months.
The heavy equipment operators spend most of their time at home learning the equipment and preparing for deployments.
To hone their skills, they spend time material handling with the crane and fork lift and learning how to use different types of heavy equipment in the training pit. The Sandsharks worked with Arizona’s Bureau of Land Management prior to the current deployment fixing access roads to beaches and parks.
“No one complained and everyone had a good time because at the end of the day it actually meant something,” said Edwards. “The roads had been washed out and we needed to fix them back up. We spent 10 days out there and everyone had a good time because they actually got to learn something which made my job easier over here because they knew a little bit more than they had.”
Throughout Edward’s seven years in the Corps, he has been to two duty stations, Marine Corps Base Iwakuni, Japan and Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz. Between the two duty stations he is currently serving on his fifth deployment. His deployment from Iwakuni was spent in Korea and all succeeding deployments have been to Iraq from Yuma.
He has worked with nearly every MWSS in the fleet throughout his deployments and believes they are the best place for a heavy equipment operator to become proficient and learn new skills.
“If you ask any Marine which MWSS has the best heavy equipment operators, they are going to tell you it’s them,” said Edwards. “You have to let your work speak for you and people have been noticing our work.”
As a senior sergeant he has become the go-to-guy on “dirt work,” normally landing the project manager slot on any excavation or earth moving job sites.
“On every project related to dirt work in our unit he’s the superintendent,” said Lance Cpl. Michael Dixon, a heavy equipment operator with MWSS-371. “Everyone in our unit knows he has tons of experience and knows what he’s doing. Like back in Yuma, he was in charge. He’s not the senior man, but the chief warrant officer lets him do it.”
Throughout their careers, Marines pick up on and learn different things, for Edwards being a good leader is the most important thing he has learned.
He spends extra time teaching his Marines, ensuring he passes on all of his knowledge, according to Edwards. He also treats his troops with respect, treating them better than he feels he was treated as a young Marine.
“He wants to make sure you learn something from your four years or however long you’re in,” said Dixon. “I think he feels that if he passes on ‘dirt work,’ which is something he’s passionate about, he has taught me something I can teach once I’m a (non commissioned-officer).”
Dixon, a Las Cruces, N.M., native, believes Edwards goes out of his way to teach, because when he first arrived in Yuma, Edwards immediately began teaching all of the new heavy equipment operators “dirt work”.
“Making mistakes is part of the job, but he will jump in the cab with you and show you what you did wrong instead of just saying you screwed up,” said Dixon.
Edwards feels he has worked hard at everything he’s ever done and believes he’s good at what he does, but feels he has plateaued and wants to try something new. He plans on leaving the Corps and continuing his college education.
“The way I look at it, the (Marine Corps) is the foundation for the rest of my life,” said Edwards. “My sense of accomplishment was I wanted to make sure I was a decent person when I got out, and I am.”