As part of my continuing efforts to honor veterans, I recently interviewed Sergeant Major Anthony D. Vega about his 22 years of service in the United States Marine Corps.
Besides discussing all his travel and time in the Corps, as well as the ultra races he’s competed in, Vega also shared some incredible leadership lessons. (There’s even a bit in it about his Mother, who’s one incredible lady herself, serving in multiple careers in law enforcement while raising her family as a single Mom. Talk about inspiring?!) He’s also met a President in his duties as a Marine (see pic below). Here’s the interview:
Where were you born? (And/or what was your hometown?)
I was born in El Paso, TX.
When did you serve and where? Also rank attained.
I enlisted in the Marine Corps on 18 January, 1999. After graduation I attended Marine Combat Training (MCT) and was assigned the Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) of 6531, Aviation Ordnance Technician. I initially served with HMT-303 Training Squadron aboard Camp Pendleton, California where during my tenure I held the key billets of Desk Sergeant, Collateral Duty Inspector (CDI), and Quality Assurance/Safety Observer (QASO).
I was promoted to Sergeant in January of 2003 and transferred to the HMLA-269 Gunrunners aboard Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) New River, North Carolina. In February of 2005, I deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). I deployed with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) in 2006 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Sea Angel in Bangladesh.
In 2007, I deployed with the 26th MEU(SOC), where we served in support of various anti-piracy operations in Africa. In 2007, I was promoted to Staff Sergeant, completed my tour with HMLA-269 as the Staff Noncommissioned Officer-In-Charge (SNCOIC), and was selected to return to Camp Pendleton, California as an MOS Instructor for the AH-1W Super Cobra/UH-1N Huey Aviation Ordnance field.
As an MOS Instructor through 2011, I successfully achieved the title of Master Training Specialist (MTS), aiding in the transfer to the AH-1Z and UH-1Y programs, earned my Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP) Instructor tab with black belt, and was promoted to the rank of Gunnery Sergeant with the corresponding MOS of 6591 (Ordnance Chief). Additionally during this time, I graduated from Park University with a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice Magna Cum Laude.
In 2011, I reported to HMLA-469 Vengeance aboard Camp Pendleton to serve as the Ordnance Chief and deployed to Afghanistan in support of OEF. In 2014, I transferred to Naval Weapons Station Fallbrook, California and served as the Ordnance Chief and the Senior Enlisted Advisor for the Ordnance Detachment. During my tour in 2014, I was screened and selected for the unaccompanied billet of Ordnance Chief with Marine Forces Korea (MARFORK) and successfully completed a one-year tour.
In September of 2015, I executed orders to Marine Corps Embassy Security Group (MCESG) and successfully completed the Detachment Commander Course 1-16 in December 2015 upon which I was assigned to U.S. Embassy Madrid, Spain, Region 5 to serve a Detachment Commander. During my tenure, I was awarded the Department of State Meritorious Honor Award and my 3rd Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal.
Upon being selected for First Sergeant in December of 2016, I was selected and awarded to serve in the position of Command Senior Enlisted Leader (CSEL) to Region 6, Eastern and Southern Africa, MCESG, in Johannesburg, South Africa, overseeing 23 Marine Security Guard Detachments across 25 different countries. During my tenure, I attended the Navy Senior Enlisted Academy aboard Naval Station Newport, Rhode Island, successfully earning honor graduate in a joint environment. Upon conclusion of my tour with MCESG, I was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal.
After completing Senior Enlisted Professional Military Education (SEPME) and the Resilience-Building Leadership Program Trainer course, I checked into my new command in June of 2020 with 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines aboard Camp Lejeune, North Carolina where I served as the Weapons Company First Sergeant. I was selected for Sergeant Major in December of 2020 and was awarded orders to 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, where I currently serve as the Command Senior Enlisted Leader.
Who was your childhood hero?
My hero has always been my Mother. As a single parent, she raised my two younger siblings and I while maintaining a very high demanding career as an El Paso, TX Sherriff. She retired from the Sheriff’s Department after 20 years of dedicated law enforcement work, teaching us the value of hard work and loyalty with a relentless drive to never quit. Her passion as a Sherriff’s Officer was astonishing, particularly during her many years as a detective and undercover narcotics officer.
She is a shining mentor and example to us, as well as the many others she impacted throughout her career. She continues to be my hero, as she is still a dedicated law enforcement officer doing investigative work for the FBI, after concluding a second retirement as a lieutenant for the fugitive task force under the Texas Attorney General’s Office.
What made you want to join up?
I do not come from a military background, but the thought of serving my country and being able to travel the world really enticed me. I also knew I wanted to serve as a law enforcement officer one day, so the Marine Corps seemed like a right step in that direction. I enlisted in 1999 and never looked back.
Tell us some of the big lessons you learned from serving.
I hope to publish something in the future regarding the many lessons I have learned as a Marine and Leader of Marines. I am a big fan of reflection and notetaking, and as a matter of fact I have been doing it since I was a Staff Sergeant. In creating leadership memoirs at every rank, and now for every billet, I am able to reflect back on what I may have been thinking or how I may have dealt with a certain situation. Out of the many lessons I could share from my 22 years in the Corps, I will pull out a few leadership anecdotes that have always been supportive to me in my continued development:
— “Ductus Exemplo,” which is Latin for “lead by example.” Nothing is as contagious as example. Marines will never do good or evil without bringing along others for the ride. Moreover, leadership is visible; Marines do what Marines see. And much like my children at home, my daily actions, particularly how I treat Mom, has an immense impact on them.
— Critique vs. Criticism. I like to think that Critique is the art of Criticism. Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain – there is a true mastery in being able to properly critique as a leader, and not simply criticize. Many leaders, particularly young ones, learn this lesson too late in life and do a lot of irreversible damage to our organization. We live in a world of regressive cycles, and I am here to break them.
— The importance of accountability, organizational culture, and being a good person.
— Mental Maps. Only through adversity, and overcoming adversity (all things mental, physical and emotional), have I developed the mental maps I can often draw upon to show me the way forward and help me in any situation I may face. This is also the reason I like to read; the countless years of experience one can learn from by simply reading a book!
What was your most harrowing experience, that you’re willing to share? (This can be a training event, as I think most civilians aren’t aware of how dangerous even peacetime service can be.)
I am going to go a different way with this one. Without a doubt, the most harrowing experience I have had was the 2015 Spartan Ultra in Lake Tahoe, NV. I am a big fan and advocate of Obstacle Course Racing (OCR), the challenging ones — not the weekend warrior mud runs. I have been doing OCR since its inception in 2008.
The Spartan Ultra, the race that many consider the holy grail in OCR, was not on my mind. The 50K race with over 75 obstacles against mountainous terrain was not on my to do list at the time. Up until 2015, I was competing in the lower distance races, always looking for the ever-dubious podium finish.
At the time, I had my eyes set on the Spartan Beast in Temecula, CA upon my return from deployment. Although I was well trained and prepared for that race, I was not acclimated to the weather and the heat became a unrelenting factor that caused me to have a terrible run. The heat was so bad, Spartan was literally closing the race behind my group of racers! They ultimately let us finish the 20K race, but I was left with a wave a disappointment and raw emotion, as I had trained so hard for that competition. That battle later became famously known at the “Hellmecula Beast.”
Determined for redemption, I registered for the Spartan Ultra 50K that was taking place the following weekend in Lake Tahoe, NV. It was a complete bypass of “weight classes” for me, as I had never gone that distance on an OCR before, much less in such elevation. I felt good however and proceeded on.
The Spartan Ultra was a harrowing experience from the start of the race, with the announcer telling us that over half of us would not finish the race. And he was right- only about 250 of 1500 actually finished that race. It was the first time Spartan had held an Ultra in that type of elevation and environment. Many were dropped due to hypothermia and injuries, others for simply quitting or not reaching their time hacks.
I wanted to “tap” at the halfway point (where you are authorized to access pre-staged gear you set up the night before in a transition area). I arrived there at the half way marker at about 6 hours, and was freezing after coming back down one of the highest peaks in the area at 9,000 feet. As I sat there and contemplated my life decisions up to that point, I reached into my bag and found some pink sticky notes my family had left for me that I was unaware of.
The notes were filled with words of love and confidence, telling me to not quit and that they believed in me. These notes were not only from my beautiful wife, but from my two daughters. In that instance, and as I looked around at others in the transition area packing their gear away to quit and go home, I asked myself, “How can I go home and face my daughters to tell them that Daddy quit?”
I finished my meal, changed my socks and shoes, replenished my racing supplementation and told myself, “Just go.” I did it in 13 hours, and I could not have done it without those little notes my family left for me. I carried them with me for the second half of the race. After 32 miles, over 70 obstacles, 200 burpees, 9,000 feet of elevation, and a mild case of hypothermia, I finished that race — it was the hardest thing I had ever done, and probably will ever do.
What do you wish those who have never served better understood?
I would wish for those who have never served to understand the significance of being inside a positive organizational culture, with an ethos that is enriched with strong values of honor, courage, and commitment. I would wish for those who have never served to understand that as humans it is healthy mentally, physically, and emotionally to be a part of something greater than an individual self. And lastly, I would wish for those who have never served to understand, particularly in the Marine Corps, that we are sending better products back into society much better then they came.
Creating better products to society, I believe, has always been one of the primary goals of the United States Marine Corps. We are not only breeding the very best warriors in the world, but also the very best people.
Are there any service members that you know, or served with, that you’d like to honor their sacrifice by naming?
On the night of 22 February 2012, my Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 469 (HMLA-469) suffered a tragic loss. Vengeance 97, crewed by Major Nathan Anderson, Captain Michael Quin, Sergeant Justin Everett, Lance Corporals Corey Little and Nickoulas Elliott and Vengeance 98, crewed by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Budrejko, our Executive Officer, and Captain Benjamin Cerniglia, a mustang and friend, experienced a midair collision during a training mission near Yuma, Arizona resulting in the death of all seven Vengeance Marines. The Vengeance family felt a tremendous loss that night, and I would like to honor them and their beloved families as I close out this interview; Vengeance 97/98 WWNF.
I wanted to thank Sgt Major Anthony D. Vega for sharing just a small slice of his very long service to our great country. As I’ve said before, I really enjoy spotlighting the great sacrifice that so many have made for this country.
And in that line of thinking, I need your help. If you know a veteran you’d like to have honored, then please email me. Veterans seem to NEVER nominate themselves. lol. So, if you have a father, mother, brother, sister, friend, family member, etc, please reach out to me and tell me about them.
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stan R. Mitchell
P.S. Comments are open below. I love hearing from everyone, but if you attack someone, say something stupid, etc, I will delete your comment with a quickness. Sorry. My bar. My rules.
P.P.S. Your daily reminder… Before you comment anywhere on social media today, please remember: The vast majority of Americans are decent, loving, great people. Please pause and don’t name-call the other side with such anger and venom. They are mothers and fathers and folks not much different than you. Let’s re-unite this country with one kind conversation at a time.
About me: My name is Stan R. Mitchell and I write fast-paced novels. No, I mean blistering fast. With great suspense & twists. To date, I’ve written ten books. You can find them here: amazon.com. #USMC #SemperFidelis