CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- Military personnel, veterans and family members gathered for the retirement ceremony of Col. Willard ‘Willy’ Buhl on Feb. 12 at Camp Pendleton, California. The service commemorated his 34 years of dedicated service to the United States Marine Corps.
Buhl’s career and lifelong journey as a Marine was forged from his desire to join the ‘family business.’
“I knew from the time that I was about 3 years old that I wanted to be a Marine,” said Buhl, formerly the director of Expeditionary Operations Training Group, I Marine Expeditionary Force. His family has had an extensive amount of service in the Marine Corps.
Buhl joined the Marines as a reservist and graduated from basic training in May, 1982. His contract was for infantry rifleman, so he attended the School of Infantry and had the opportunity to try out for the Basic Reconnaissance Course and took it.
Upon graduation from BRC and after completing follow-on training, Buhl went to his reserve unit, Detachment 4th Force Reconnaissance Company, in Reno, Nevada, in October 1982.
“I was really lucky to be a part of Recon,” said Buhl, a native of Los Gatos, California. “During my first day on the job, I did [Special Purpose Insert and Extraction] training and rappelled out of helicopters. I was like, ‘Wow, this is the greatest job in the world,’ and I’ve noticed that for the most part, a lot of my career was just like that first day.”
A few years later, Buhl said he earned his title as a reconnaissance team leader after continually demonstrating his hard work ethic and enthusiasm which made an impression on his leadership.
“One day my lieutenant at the time called me into his office and I instantly thought I was in trouble,” said Buhl. “He said, ‘I need to have a serious discussion with you corporal Buhl.’ So, I sat down and he continues with, ‘I and others here think you are very suited for a commissioning program and I’m going to encourage you to apply to be an officer.’”
Buhl said he considered that idea before attending college at California State University Chico. Due to his leadership’s influence, that became the moment when he started the commissioning process and went to Officer Candidate School after being a sergeant for a short four months.
After graduating OCS, Buhl decided he wanted to stay in an infantry-oriented job field so he attended the Infantry Officer Course with the goal of becoming an infantry officer.
“During some of our training, I was like, ‘Man, this is too difficult,’” He said. “At that point I would always remind myself with, ‘Hey, I love this stuff,’ and I couldn’t get enough every day because I always wanted a challenge.”
As an infantry officer, Buhl had 11 command positions from platoon commander to regimental commander.
“As an officer, you never forget that first day that you report and stand in front of your platoon of Marines, knowing that you are responsible for properly leading and serving them,” said Buhl, now 53 years old. “That feeling right there never changes, whether it’s 40 marines in your rifle platoon, or 5,000 in your infantry regiment. It’s an amazing feeling and there’s nothing else like it. I may have had a lot of reasons why I joined, but that’s what kept me in the Marine Corps.”
Sergeant Maj. Bradley Kasal, the sergeant major of I Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters Group, says Buhl’s leadership style is one to be emulated by other Marines, regardless of rank. Buhl and Kasal have been friends for a long time since they served and deployed together at 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.
“He’s a very professional, knowledgeable and concerned leader,” said Kasal. “He would always ensure that his Marines were set up for success and he would show genuine concern about all of their welfare. I think all commanders generally do that, but the difference is that Col. Buhl would go above and beyond to follow up on each Marine he helped out. Whether it was an administrative problem, professional problem or a medical problem, he would follow through to the end.”
Buhl went on a total of eight deployments, half of which were to combat zones, and he said only one of those aided him in gaining a perspective of what defined him – when he deployed with 3/1.
“Without question, the [3rd Bn, 1st Marines] deployment in 2004 to Iraq was definitely my most memorable deployment,” he said. “We were attacked every single day while trying to pacify an area around Fallujah and there were people murdered for assisting us. We had 33 men killed in action in our battalion, but there were over 250 combat awards for valor. That deployment defined everything that I stood for as a Marine.”
Overall, Buhl said his deployment to Iraq was an experience of a lifetime.
He said there is not a day that goes by he doesn’t think of all of those who lost their lives and he thanks God that he got to serve with them during that deployment.
Later in his career, Buhl assumed his position as the director for EOTG, where he learned another way to enjoy deployments.
“If you can’t deploy any time soon, what better job can you have other than to help train the Marines that are going to be deploying?” said Buhl.
As the director of EOTG his job was to oversee the provision of individual training in select special skills and evaluations of collective training across the range of military operations in order to prepare Marine Expeditionary Units and other designated forces to support the combatant commanders of I MEF.
He enjoyed the job thoroughly, but he was convinced that it was time for him to leave because he was ready for a new chapter in his life after serving 34 years.
“I always knew when I was little what I wanted to be, but now that I’m retired I have to figure out what I’m going to be when I grow up,” Buhl joked. “Honestly, though, I just want to be able to give back to my country, the Marine Corps and the people that I served with.”
Having this thought in mind for his next occupation, Buhl decided to become an instructor for the Distance Education Program at Expeditionary Warfare School on Camp Pendleton.
He is also looking into becoming an executive director of a non-profit organization somewhere in California working for veterans or for the youth to be able to impart some of his wisdom and life experiences.