SACRAMENTO, Calif. --
Marines have a long legacy built with the blood, sweat and tears of ordinary men and women committing extraordinary acts. The lessons of heroes like Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler, Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone and Col. Peter Ortiz are instilled in recruits before they can earn the coveted Eagle, Globe and Anchor.
To recruits, these Marines become their heroes, someone to emulate as they begin their service. Legendary tales of how Capt. Ted Williams answered his nation’s call to service at the height of a Major League Baseball career to fight in World War II and the Korean War, or how Col. Peter Ortiz once made German officers drink a toast to the Corps after hearing them curse it, are often shared among Marines to boost morale or serve as a source of inspiration.
Before their selfless actions in battle put them in the history books, most of these men and women came from modest beginnings and small towns throughout America. Each of these generations share similar values and ethics that drove them to serve in their Country.
Sgt. Maj. David A. Wilson is one of the many Marines who have followed in the footsteps of the legends before him and has spent 24 years adding to the Corps’ reputation, most recently as the sergeant major for I Marine Expeditionary Force Information Group. Here, he successfully led more than 4,000 Marines in a unit tasked with fighting in a new battlespace, the information environment. His presence will be missed by these Marines as he transfers his post to Sgt. Maj. Vernon E. Derby and heads to his next challenge as the sergeant major for Marine Corps Training Command at Marine Corps Base Quantico.
Wilson will take with him a reputation as a professional warfighter who has a knack for elevating the performance of those he leads. It is a trait that was cultivated long before he stepped on the yellow foot prints at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego.
From humble beginnings in Sacramento, Wilson was raised in a home that was as loving and supportive as it was tough and strict. Here, he was taught to give maximum effort and take pride in everything he pursued.
“I had incredible influences as a child,” said Wilson, as he took a minute to think back and reflect. “My mom was smart and an incredible teacher that was really tough on me. My dad was the disciplinarian and was very stern. I learned the most from both of them.”
Discipline was a key theme in Wilson’s childhood, a trait he said would pay dividends down the road. It laid the foundation for him to be a team player while setting him up for success as a young athlete.
“I played every sport that I possibly could. I wasn’t good at any of them, but I did the best I could, and I learned a lot of team values,” said Wilson as he smiled and held back laugher. “I learned how to contribute to a team through hard work with maximum effort.”
Wilson said his love for sports and competition has always stuck with him, and influenced his leadership in a major way. He often uses sports analogies, specifically baseball, in speaking with Marines.
Raised an Oakland Athletics fan by his dad, Wilson was drawn to baseball early on and was excited when he got the opportunity to play.
“I was eight years old when my parents signed me up for little league, and I started playing baseball,” said Wilson. “That’s what lit my fire in terms of athletics and competitiveness.”
Though short in stature, Wilson has a larger-than-life personality that is infectious to those around him. His signature swagger, which captures the attention of people who know him, came from his days as a second baseman in Parkway Little League in Sacramento.
Wilson admits that he wasn’t the most talented player, but bragged that in high school he was the number two man, and, if needed, he was ready to fill the role at a moment’s notice.
“My athletic career didn’t peak at any point, but I stuck with it because I fell in love with the sport and what it was doing for me,” said Wilson as he chuckled and reminisced on his days as a little leaguer. “As the number two man I still worked hard at practice because I was the only other guy that could play that position, and I wanted to be ready when the coach called up my name when [the starter] couldn’t play.”
As the first few innings of Wilson’s life faded, sports began to take a back seat to his social life and work he found in a local restaurant. It was at this point where he was met with an opportunity that would lead him down a path of service.
“At the time, I was in high school, and I had a job working at Stage Coach Restaurant on Florence Road in Sacramento as a dishwasher, bus boy and a waiter in the afternoon when it wasn’t busy,” said Wilson. “My senior year, a recruiter approached me one day and asked me what my future looked like, and I very clearly did not have a good answer. Quickly, the panic sunk in and I thought to myself, ‘Oh man what am I going to do next? Graduation is only a few months away. Am I going to keep working at the diner for $4.25 an hour and work my way through junior college?’ As this panic is running through my head, the recruiter asked if I had ever thought about joining the Marine Corps.”
Faced with the daunting question of what his plans were after high school, Wilson drew on the only knowledge he had about Marines as he considered life in the armed services. It was a memory he had from 1988 while on a Tiger Cruise, an event that allows the families of Marines and sailors to experience life on a Naval ship, aboard the USS Carl Vinson with his brother, a nuclear technician assigned to the ship, and father. Here he was exposed to Marines for the first time.
“The Marines made an immediate impression on me and it was clear that my brother had tremendous respect for them. Throughout the week I saw Marines do the absolute coolest things,” said Wilson, wearing a smile ear to ear as if suddenly transported back to his days on the USS Carl Vinson. “At the time, ‘Top Gun’ was still a popular movie, and everyone wanted to see the F-14 Tomcat and go up on the flight deck and have their picture taken with the pilots. Well the Marines were shooting the M60 E3 machine guns off the fantail and repelling off the hanger deck, and that drew me in over the pilots.”
Those early images of Marines were burned into his memory. According to Wilson, the thought of becoming one of them repelling down the hanger deck or firing the machine gun was enough to win him over and start him on the path to becoming a Marine.
“When I look back on it, I thank God that a Marine Corps recruiter found me,” said Wilson. “The seed was planted early on in my life, but I didn’t make the decision to join until that recruiter approached me in the hallway. He drew the line from what I knew about Marines to the opportunities the Marine Corps would offer me. It became the perfect career and life choice for me.”
Thanks to work ethic developed through his upbringing and playing youth sports, Wilson found success early in recruit training and was meritoriously promoted to private first class. He would go on to earn four more meritorious promotions.
“That was a result of great mentorship. I had corporals and sergeants who demanded the best of me and would not accept anything less than that,” said Wilson, as he gave credit to the leaders he had early on as a machine gunner.
His successes did not come easy. Much like the athletes he admires who spend hours at batting practice, or fielding grounders, or pitchers perfecting their pitch in the bullpen, Wilson too would work tirelessly, rehearsing his infantry skills and breaking down battlefield studies to ensure he was at his best when his Marines needed him.
“I remember kicking down doors repeatedly in the same spot so I could make sure I knew I could kick in that door, and it would swing the way I wanted to,” Wilson said as he recalled his training. “I took advantage of every shot I was able to take on the range, so that I knew when I pulled the trigger I would hit my mark.”
Wilson’s work ethic did not stop with him. Like the noncommissioned officers who led him, he demanded the best from his Marines. All of his hard work and dedication would be tested in battle, where individual mistakes could lead to loss of life.
In 2002, Wilson and his Marines were assigned to Battalion Landing Team, Company L, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, where they deployed to the Middle East.
On October 8, off the coast of Kuwait on Faylaka Island, two terrorists opened fire with automatic weapons on the Marines who had been conducting training.
“That was the first time I had been around shots fired in anger,” said Wilson. “Those Marines went from a training environment to being thrown into a real scenario and were able to make the mental transition instantly.”
Thanks to the fast actions of a handful of Marines, the terrorists were quickly killed, but the damage had been done. When the dust had settled Lance Cpl. Antonio J. Sledd and Lance Cpl. George R. Simpson had been wounded with Sledd eventually succumbing to his wounds.
“You don’t know when you are going to be thrown into it, and as Marines we have to train for that which is incredibly difficult. We have to be ready to adapt and on that day those Marines, who had never experienced combat, did just that and responded heroically,” said Wilson in a reverent tone.
It was only the beginning of what would be a long deployment for 3rd Bn., 1st Marines. While on leave, shortly after returning from their deployment, Wilson’s unit was recalled to board new ships and depart for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 where they were constantly tested in combat.
Wilson would go on to deploy several more times in his career to include the historic Battle of Fallujah as part of Operation Al Fajr and Operation Phantom Fury.
After his tours, Wilson was assigned as an instructor at the Staff Noncommissioned Officer Academy to teach the lessons he had learned from the war overseas. Here he excelled and was recognized with the Instructor of the Year award in 2006.
“His approach to leading Marines and Sailors is genuine,” said Sgt. Maj. Brian O’Toole, sergeant major of 1st Radio Battalion. “He truly cares about each and every one of them. He has always understood that it is the people who make this organization what it is today.”
Wilson has served in many leadership positions with various units, some of which were recognized for excellence. Most notably in 2014, Marine Attack Squadron 311 was named Attack Squadron of the Year by the Marine Corps Aviation Association with Wilson as their sergeant major.
“He is focused, like so many of us are, on ‘Player Development.’ How do we get the most out of each individual? How do we get them to bring their best every day?” added O’Toole. “Over the years, Wilson has perfected this. Regardless of type of unit or mission, his reputation has always been above reproach. When you have a charismatic leader who has been tried and proven on multiple battlefields and has enjoyed success at every level, he's the guy you want to follow and learn from.”
While at I MIG and throughout his career, Wilson preached three things every Marine needs to do to be prepared when they are called up.
“Be a student of the game,” Wilson said. “You need to learn the history and understand that you are not the first one to go through this. I wasn’t a student of the game until Capt. Matt Reid pushed me to it, and, without a doubt, I haven’t stopped.”
Wilson believes in order to be successful in training and on the battlefield, Marines must learn from those who have served before them and learn from their actions. Through this, leaders will continue to build on victories and continue to strengthen Corps readiness.
“The second thing is work your ass off,” said Wilson with a chuckle. “Nothing comes easy. You can’t just read a book and get all the answers or just show up and say you’re a Marine and have it be true. It comes with tremendous work. The things that we need to do to excel as Marines take drills and exercises to hone those skills.”
Wilson paralleled training to the way people hate football practice, because it’s so demanding and arduous, but when the Friday night lights are burning, everybody wants to play. If individuals don’t put in the work during those physical practices, athletes will fail and disappoint the ones who have put long hours in.
“Lastly, always set the example,” Wilson added. “I love our traits and our Corps values and something that has always rung true to me is to lead by example. Be the Marine that others look at you and say, ‘I’d follow him into the gates of hell stabbing demons in the face.’”
These principles were developed over a lifetime that started with a stern upbringing in a humble Sacramento home, reinforced through adolescent sports, guided by the lessons learned from generations of Marines and refined over a career in the military. They have allowed Wilson to build on the long legacy of the Corps and inspire Marines of I MIG to be a championship caliber unit, capable of taking on the challenges of engaging unknown enemies in an ever evolving battlefield.
“It’s hard not getting emotional and passionate when talking about the Corps,” said Wilson, with a deep breath, as if trying to take in all of his 24 years of service. “I know that every time I put this uniform on I do my best to make sure if the ghost of [Lt. Gen. Lewis B. ‘Chesty’ Puller] or John Basilone are watching me, they’d be proud.”
Along the outside wall of the I MIG sergeant’s major office are two rows that bare the pictures of previous sergeants major that have filled his seat. It’s a tribute to their dedication and service, like in a hall of fame. There they serve as a constant reminder to future Marines of the bar that has been set. At the end of the bottom row is an empty spot ready to be filled with a portrait of its newest member, and though Wilson will be moving on to continue to advance Marines, his legacy will remain at I MIG with his image on the wall ready to inspire.
“I would hope that my legacy has something to do with the impact on other Marines,” said Wilson, with a satisfied smile. “And that when I walk out the gates for the last time, people will nod their head and say ‘I learned something from him.’”