CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan -- On Sept. 19, 2011, U.S. Marine Sgt. Michael M. Estes left his hometown of Torrance, California, a sleepy Los Angeles suburb, and headed for 13 weeks of grueling recruit training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego.
At the time, Estes was a junior attending Torrance High School. While many of his peers were battling the onset of self-imposed senioritis, preparing for the upcoming academic year and submitting college applications, Estes had visions of becoming “One of the Few.”
Initially, Estes said his family and friends were conflicted about his desire to enlist.
“A lot of them supported what I was doing, and a lot of them said ‘you are just wasting your time,’” said Estes.
To complicate matters, he was also still 17 years of age. Due to Department of Defense age restrictions on enlisting in the Armed Forces before the legal age of 18, Estes needed his parents’ consent.
Estes said the decision was a difficult one for them.
“My dad was all for it," he said. “My mom wasn’t too happy.”
Nevertheless, he lobbied for their approval.
“I was just excited and ready to get out and be on my own. This was what I wanted to do, and no one could change my mind,” said Estes.
With more than a year remaining before his scheduled high school graduation, Estes was eager to finish early. He talked to a school counselor and formulated a plan to take additional courses that would count toward his graduation requirements.
With his sights set on joining the Marines, Estes, still enrolled at Torrance High School, began taking additional courses at nearby Gardenia High School. He said the academic workload would be consuming to his schedule. “I would leave the house at 7:00 a.m. and not return until 9:00 p.m. everyday,” he said. “It sucked. There were times that I asked myself what was the point of the long days. But it was worth it in the end.”
A CALL TO SERVE
Military service runs in Estes’ blood. His two grandfathers served in the U.S. Army during World War II. His father served as an Army infantryman during Vietnam and was discharged as a sergeant. His older brother also joined the Marines and currently serves as a sergeant.
Estes said the long line of military service in his family made him proud. Though when he first thought of joining himself, he said he was conflicted on what branch to join.
“I didn’t always want to be a Marine,” he said. “I just knew I wanted to serve.”
Estes' older brother left for recruit training while he was still in high school. After graduating, his brother received notification that he would be deployed and stationed overseas with the III Marine Expeditionary Force in Okinawa, Japan. Before leaving for Japan, his brother executed temporary orders aboard Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California, and in Torrance on recruiter’s assistance duties.
Estes said when he finally decided to enlist his brother came home to Torrance to watch him sign his contract. He called the moment a proud one, and his hard work to graduate early was finally paying off. The icing on the cake was having his brother there who had encouraged him from the start.
“He was definitely there to help me out,” said Estes. “I couldn’t have been happier.”
With an uncombed nest-like hairdo, and wearing a t-shirt and jeans, then U.S. Marine recruit Estes gathered a small jet-black zipper neoprene envelope packed with enlistment paperwork and filed onto a bus with 50 Marine hopefuls headed for training.
It was the last time Estes would leave Torrance as a civilian. He would return a United States Marine.
EARNING THE TITLE
Marine Corps Recruit Training has maintained a hardened reputation as being one of the most arduous entry-level training schools in the Department of Defense.
After arriving in San Diego, Estes started 13 weeks of intensive indoctrination that would test his mental and physical limits. Designed to test potential Marines’ patience, discipline and obedience to orders, recruit training is a stressful and chaotic environment. Strained voice boxes from yelling, hunger, sore muscles and lack of sleep tested his resolve.
Estes, who was now 18, said the seemingly larger-than-life drill instructors saw tremendous potential in him. During the first two weeks of training, he took on a leadership role as the platoon’s squad leader. The instructors carefully watched him lead his peers during daily activities, often without direction. Estes said he felt obligated to step up and lead. Where he saw inefficiencies in the unit, he took swift action to take charge and implement solutions.
Throughout the training he would continue to shine, always in a leadership role. Ultimately he was awarded the coveted platoon guide position, the Marine who marches with the unit’s scarlet and gold guidon flag. After enduring “The Crucible,” at the end of training, Estes’ leaders pulled him aside and advised him he was chosen to represent the entire class of graduating recruits as the “series guide,” a top leadership role amongst more than 300 other Marines.
These positions were indicative of his raw leadership talents and a sign of the success to come in the Fleet Marine Force.
After completing boot camp, Estes traveled back to Torrance while on leave to celebrate his transformation from civilian to Marine with his family and friends. Shortly after, he headed to the next phase of training at Marine Combat Training, School of Infantry-West, aboard Camp Pendleton, California.
For the next two months, Estes and his peers would learn basic Marine rifleman skills at the school. He would also continue to lead his peers in numerous leadership roles. Unsurprisingly, he shined in both of the evaluated areas including, leadership and academics, and earned the coveted honor graduate position at the end of the two month school.
When Estes enlisted in the Marines during 2011 he said he was just eager to go. Although he initially wanted to join the infantry, like his father, he said he just wanted to be a Marine and chose a military occupational specialty from the available list at the time. He signed a contract to become an Electro-Optical Ordnance Repairer. The military occupational specialty would put him in charge of some of the DoD’s most expensive weapons optics that keep the warfighter capable. Admittedly, he said he didn’t know too much about the job at the time.
Despite all of this, after graduating MCT, he left San Diego for Fort Lee, Virginia, to a joint military school where he would learn his new craft. For more than six months Estes studied thick equipment manuals and completed thousands of hours of classroom and field training. He said the field training is where he gained the most knowledge of the complicated weapons systems he would soon be responsible for maintaining.
Estes said he is proud of his job and the service he provides to the corps.
“People bring me the broken gear they want to use. I fix it and give it back to them,” he said.
Primarily he responsible for maintaining military-grade weapons optics that go on rifles to heavy artillery equipment such as M777 howitzers and Tube Launched Optically Tracked, Wire-guided missile systems.
Shortly before graduating the Virginia school, he was promoted to lance corporal. The question begged, where did he fall out in the standings? In a monotone yet confident tone of voice, Estes replied, “There were many smart people there,” but, “I was the class leader.”
His top performance came as no surprise to his leadership there. He said he was ready to hit the operating forces and test out his skills. With Fort Lee in his rear-view mirror, Estes headed westward to Camp Pendleton, where he joined 1st Maintenance Battalion, 1st Marine Logistics Group.
FLEET MARINE FORCE
Estes said arriving in the operating forces was a long awaited step in his journey. He was ready to implement the knowledge and leadership he had gained.
Shortly after arriving at his new unit, he said many of his fellow Marines were off attending leadership and intermediate training schools. His leadership was immediately put to the test in their absence. Excelling, within months he was quickly rewarded with a meritorious promotion to corporal.
“I was pretty stoked about that,” said Estes. With the new rank came added responsibilities. “After I got promoted they changed me to the secondary repairable noncommissioned officer in charge,” said Estes.
Now a corporal, Estes also took on the unit's most senior position, platoon sergeant.
He continued to excel in these positions. His unit leaders nominated him to be the unit’s Marine of the Quarter. His work was also being noticed by the logistics command’s top Marine. To Estes’ surprise, on March 13, 2012, he was named NCO of the Year by then Brig. Gen. John A. Broadmeadow, commanding general, 1st MLG.
Estes said there is no specific path that he followed.
“I was just doing my job,” he said. He credits a solid foundation of leaders who were there to mentor him. “I guess I had good leadership who took care of me, “said Estes. “I think I was just doing my job and was given the opportunity to excel.”
Before receiving word he might get an opportunity to be one of the last Marines to deploy to Afghanistan, Estes recalled a conversation with one of his leaders, Master Sgt. James D. Warrington, a native of Canton, Texas, and ordnance section officer in charge.
“My master sergeant came to me and said, ‘Are you ready?’” Confused, Estes replied, “For what?” Warrington said, “To go on a board.”
If selected, the board would mean another meritorious selection for Estes, to sergeant. At the time, he had only served as a corporal for less than nine months. Master Sgt. Warrington said he was more than ready for the advanced rank.
“He’s a fire breather. He’s tenacious, aggressive and eagerly ready.” said Warrington.
While most Marines advance to the position of sergeant in approximately four years, Estes did in less than two. Promotion in his field is also very competitive.
“I did not expect to get put on a meritorious board,” said Estes.
As with any new found success, he was met with some envious criticism. He recalled comments from other Marines during that time that fixated on his young age and rapid advancement.
“I know it’s hard not to look at it like that,” said Estes. “I don’t look at it like that. It goes in one ear and out the other. Age is just a number. It doesn’t bother me at all.”
The peripheral comments don’t seem to faze Estes much, unless you are talking about his brother.
“My brother was in for probably just over three years and picked up meritoriously (sergeant) as well,” said Estes.
Both Marine sergeants now, Estes said his older brother could no longer pull rank on him as a corporal. Mixed with a little competitiveness and envy that he reached sergeant quicker, Estes said his brother “Was still mad, there is the sibling rivalry.” Warrington calls their friendly rivalry a healthy one.
“They are very close to each other. His brother is what drives him to be competitive,” said Warrington.
With new polished black chevrons, Estes was once again ready for more responsibility. The possibility of testing his skills and leading Marines in a combat zone was in his future.
Like many Marines who enlisted during the past decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, Estes expected he would get an opportunity to deploy. As the Marine footprint in Helmand province has decreased from a high of 21,000 in 2011 to approximately 4,500 currently, Estes doubted a deployment would be in his future.
On Aug. 4, 2013, he got his chance. “They asked everyone who would like to be deployed, and I wanted the experience,” he said. During August he administratively transferred to Combat Logistics Battalion 7 for the upcoming deployment to southern Afghanistan.
The news of a deployment for Marines usually follows with excited or nervous phone calls to their loved ones. Estes said he was quiet about it at first. One person in particular was kept in the dark, his mom.
“I told her I was going to Hawaii for a while,” he said. “She wasn’t too happy about that.”
The million dollar secret couldn’t be kept forever though. Estes said after a while he expected she would figure something was up, “I thought it was for the best (at the time), that’s all that really mattered,” said Estes.
Before he and the Marines deployed during January of 2014, they conducted pre-deployment training at Camp Pendleton in order to be able to handle the high volume of work here. Since arriving in Afghanistan Estes has been vital to CLB-7’s mission. He said he has enjoyed the opportunity to work with both U.S. and coalition forces.
“My job is to support whoever I can,” said Estes.
In April, Estes and a small group of CLB 7’s logisticians traveled outside of the wire to one of the last remaining forward operating bases in northern Helmand, FOB Sabit Qadam. The small base sits along the dusty banks of the Helmand River in Sangin District, a dangerous region with illicit drug and Taliban insurgent activity. Estes led a “contact team” of Marines there to conduct ordnance maintenance for the security forces guarding the base.
Warrington said independent assignments are important for Estes' growth, who was counted on without prior experience.
“I knew coming here I would have to mentor him because you are leading Marines differently as a sergeant,” said Warrington.
He pointed to Estes’ strong work ethic as a major factor to his continued success in Afghanistan.
“The Marines know him. They know his character,” said Warrington.
Although Estes will not boast about his abilities, he believes in a strong work ethic as a leader.
“Anyone you work with long enough you can see their work ethic,” he said.
Warrington said Estes has balanced his responsibilities remarkably well and also taken on voluntary tasks outside of required work. Before deploying, Warrington told him, “Always take of your Marines."
Estes has taken this to heart. When he is not keeping DoD weapons of war ready for the next fight, he is training Marines in martial arts. Prior to deploying, Estes earned his black belt in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program. At Camp Leatherneck he has led more than five MCMAP courses for logistics Marines looking to “belt up,” many classes taking place after working hours or early mornings.
Estes said excitedly if the chance were to present itself he would like the opportunity to attend the Marine Corps Martial Arts Instructor Trainer course in Quantico, Virginia.
His leaders said his passion for teaching others and focus on bettering the Marines around him is what sets him apart from his peers.
“He develops the Marines around him and gets the overall Marine concept,” said Capt. Glen Tedtaotao, Estes’ commanding officer.
The mission and focus for all U.S. Marines and coalition forces under RC(SW) has shifted. While military advisors continue to train, advise, develop and support the Afghan National Security Forces aboard Camps Bastion and Leatherneck, an enormous effort is underway to drawdown force levels and equipment to zero by the end of 2014.
He said that the redeployment of personnel and reduction of resources has been taxing on his ability to support the security forces protecting the base.
“As more people go home and as resources are dissipating, you have to scrounge a bit more,” said Estes.
A BRIGHT FUTURE
Estes has served in the Marines for less than three years. During that time, he has been meritoriously promoted to corporal and sergeant and impressively led his peers in virtually all places he has served.
While his immediate plan is to reenlist and begin taking college courses, he said there is still a lot of time that may shift his course. Estes said he is interested in pursuing the Marine Corps Special Operations Command or if he leaves the Marines to cross the “thin blue line” and join the Los Angeles Police Department.
Despite this, with two years left on his current contact he realizes now is the time to focus on developing as a leader of Marines.
“This is what I wanted to do, but I still have a lot to learn.”
Estes is an unassuming leader and incredibly humble. He handles being a 20-year-old sergeant with style and brushes off the criticism.
“Of course people say things,” said Estes. “There are always the spectators who say he is only 20.”
Those who know him say that his age bears no impact on his professionalism and devotion to the mission and his fellow Marines.
When he exits Afghanistan later this summer, Sgt. Estes plans on returning home to Torrance to catch up with family and friends. It’s hard to say if anyone is surprised by his success.
“I’ve never really asked,” said Estes. “But I know they are proud. There are a lot of good people there.”
During May, the city of Torrance hosted the 55th Armed Forces Day Parade, an event that annually honors all branches of the Armed Forces and citizens of their community who serve the nation.
Torrance can be especially proud of Sgt. Michael Estes. He is a model representative of their community and represents the highest character the nation expects of a U.S. Marine.
Wherever Sgt. Estes lands next, rest assured he’ll go there with confidence and ask for little fanfare for his achievements.
“That’s just the way I am.”