CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- When Marines approach the front door of the 22 Area chow hall on Camp Pendleton, food is likely the only thing on their minds.
The chow hall alone sets an inviting atmosphere, with surfboards hung on the walls, a beachfront feeling, and a variety of food options, but between the front door and chow stands retired Gunnery Sgt. Chuck Carter.
The man, now 77, stands up straight under a Vietnam veteran hat full of pins and a gold gunnery sergeant chevron. He’s a few inches under six-feet, but remains strong, quick, and full of motivation.
“All I know is Mr. Carter is the one who brings everybody here, and he makes everyone happy,” said Helen Davila, project manager of the 22 Area chow hall.
For more than fifteen years, Carter has stood at the front door of the 22 Area chow hall to greet Marines next to a small stereo that plays Marine Corps cadences loud and proud for all to hear.
“If I don’t have my box on, Marines ask me where my box is at,” Carter said. “It gets them going in the morning, puts a little pep in their step.”
His energy is infectious and noticeable to most at a first glance, always wearing a smile and referring to everyone as a friend.
“When I first met him, I was like ‘wow.’ He’s so active and energetic,” Davila said with a laugh as she looked in Carter’s direction. “He’s giving motivation for all those Marines coming in the building.”
For Marines newer to the Corps, Carter serves as an example of loyalty and motivation.
“Whenever I come in, no matter how early it is, whether the sun is shining or it’s dark outside, he’s always there to greet me at the chow hall and every other Marine that comes through,” said Lance Cpl. Matthew Thomas, a frequent visitor of the 22 Area chow hall. “He’s an inspiration to us all and has his motivational music on which keeps us going.”
Most Marines only know Carter for his cadences and positive attitude. Many don’t know a boxing champion, coach of past champions, crew chief in Vietnam or simply a Marine that served 29 loyal years to the Corps also sits behind the counter.
“Every year he puts up his displays in our building and the Marines love it and say, ‘Wow, Mr. Carter you did this,’” Davila laughed.
In 1954, Beaumont, Texas, only knew an 18-year-old who liked to fight, who had a twin brother and a dream to make more money.
But, in the same year, Carter and his brother, T.L. Carter, were transformed into the Pvt. Carter brothers.
“I joined the Marine Corps thinking I’d make a lot of money,” Carter said. “It was $79 a month—that was a lot of money in those days. And I enjoyed it, so I just stayed.”
In Texas, many ran track or boxed. Carter said he wasn’t fast enough to run track, which left him one option. His twin brother did neither, and Carter often protected him. Boxing instilled confidence in Carter.
“It helps you to show people you can be anything you want to be with boxing,” Carter said. “It doesn’t matter how little or how big you are, if you can box and hold your own as another man, you can pretty well make it.”
After joining the Marines, he fought intramural fights called ‘smokers’ between different companies. Carter won and became a part of the Marine Corps team in 1956. When you fight Marines, you fight the best in the world, he said proudly.
“It’s an individual sport. When you get in that ring and that bell rings, you have no one to help you but yourself. If you couldn’t remember what your coach told you, you’d be in a jungle,” Carter said.
In the '50s, Carter only knew his new life in the Marine Corps, boxing and a young lady he’d get to know over the next half century.
“I met my wife in 1959, at the church, believe it or not, singing in the same choir together,” Carter said with a smile. “Some kind of way we just thought, ‘you can sing and I can sing’ and we started talking. We’ve been together 53 years now.”
His wife never liked boxing, Carter joked. She couldn’t stand to watch her husband fight, but she never left his side and kept him in good form.
“She’d make sure I stayed ready, ‘go to sleep, don’t eat this, don’t eat that,’ and I said, ‘ok honey, ok honey’,” he laughed.
Nearing, 25, Carter’s life seemed to be in full stride. He had a wife, a career and a passion. However, he never depended on others for his success. He was used to fighting both in and out of the ring.
“The physical training was hard, it was very hard,” Carter explained. “And you had to do it on your own sometimes, you can’t just depend on going to the gym. You have to shadow box, run, and this and that. And you can’t be like nobody else. You have to be yourself.”
If a boxer tries to imitate Muhammad Ali or the other famous boxers, they would be lost in the ring, Carter warned. A boxer has to make his own style.
“I was known as a classic fighter,” he said firmly. “I didn’t get hit very much, but when I got hit, I got hit.”
Toughness was one of Carter’s trophies. He made a name for himself in the Marine Corps, a man who always strived to push his gloves faster and his feet lighter around the ring. Finally, the hard work paid off.
“One of my most memorable moments was when I was on the Marine Corps boxing team,” Carter said without hesitation. “I think I joined to prove I was tough, and I won the championship in 1962.”
He said he never intended on turning pro. He wanted to be the best in the Marine Corps and felt he had a good chance to do so. To Carter, he didn’t have to leave the Corps to fight the best in the world. In the '60s, coaches asked him to coach other members of the team while continuing to fight.
“I just wanted to show the guys what I know,” Carter said. “If you fought for me, you had to be the best. If you did what I said, you were going to be successful. If you did anything differently, you weren’t going to make it, because I had been there. I knew what the ring was all about.”
For more than a decade, he had been a successful fighter and an ambitious coach. He coached Leon Spanks in 1976 who won the Interservice Championship at Cal Palace in San Francisco and took gold in the Olympics that year.
Spanks later beat Muhammad Ali for the Heavy-Weight Title. In 1972, Carter was acknowledged for his efforts, winning Sportsman of the Year. He became known as "California Coach Carter" over the course of his career.
However, Carter’s passion for coaching and fighting was put on hold while America asked him to assume a different role as a crew chief in Vietnam. But he approached Vietnam like he did anything else: kept moving his feet, pumping his fists and surviving with toughness.
“Vietnam was pretty bad times,” Carter said quietly looking down. “I like to forget about that and think about the good times. When you think about bad times, that’s when you really feel bad. I always want to think that everyday is a good day.”
Life in the Marine Corps, especially during Vietnam, took a certain attitude of perseverance that boxing brought Carter.
“I went through a lot of stuff in the Marine Corps, but I was tough and I was going and I said ain’t nothin’ gonna stop me. I survived just being tough,” he said with his normal enthusiasm.
All great things come to an end, Carter’s career in the Marine Corps as well. After nearly thirty years of service, a garage full of trophies and certificates, Carter left the Corps as a gunnery sergeant.
After the Marine Corps, he became a bus driver and later worked at a nuclear plant, two jobs he said weren’t right for him.
“I wanted something that I could be around the Marines I like and so I got here and, I’m not getting rich, but I enjoy working with the Marines every day,” Carter said.
He spoke endlessly about his love for his job. Every Marine that he motivates makes his day.
“I’d say know your job, know people and don’t be afraid to smile at people,” Carter said with a nod of his head.
Sitting in front of a wall of old pictures, newspaper articles and awards; Carter reflected on his life in the Marine Corps and since.
“I did most everything I wanted to do,” Carter said thinking back. “I boxed. I did everything. I’ve had a good life.”