CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- Recently we sat down for an interview with Sgt. Major Otis Kokensparger, the former sergeant major for Marine Corps Base here, after his post and relief ceremony here May 31.
Kokensparger, a 48-year-old native of Maysville, Ky., has a wife, Melody, three son's and a daughter. Although he clocks in at about 5 feet 4 at no more than 130 pounds, he packs both the bark and bite which most people think is necessary to do the job he did. He spoke to us about his 30-years experience in the Corps and according to Kokensparger, some of his most exciting and most trying times were spent while serving here. He said he handled everything from the Post Exchange having clothes that were too big for him and having to deal with disgruntled spouses to the drama behind those little placards hanging in the general's car.
The following is an interview done by Cpl. Zachary A. Crawford from the Joint Public Affairs Office here in which he discussed the past, present and future experiences and endeavors of the sergeant major.
C: 30 years in the Marine Corps right?
C: How's it been for you?
K: It was 30 great years, it went by real quick.
C: Well sergeant major, what are some of the more memorable moments of your career? There's got to be one or two that just stick in your head.
K: The most memorable moment for me, obviously, was stepping on those yellow footprints at Parris Island (South Carolina). Nobody ever forgets that day; the day you meet your drill instructors for the first time. Graduating from boot camp would be another one; that's only memorable because you're ready to get out of there. There's a bunch more moments I can remember like my first unaccompanied overseas tour in Okinawa.
C: You were married then?
K: Man, I was married just prior to coming in to boot camp; been married for over 30 years now.
C: How'd she take that?
K: Well, you know, she was kind of (upset) initially because the longest we had been away from each other before that was when I went to recruit training. She knew about the six-month pumps and stuff, but it was going to be a whole year without coming back in between. But she kept herself busy. Hey, I got another memorable moment, you want to hear about it?
K: When we were in Desert Storm, a missile (SCUD) was flying over our heads while we were resting at the base camp. We had a patriot battery about half a mile down the road and they actually intercepted the SCUD while it was flying over our heads. It was about two in the morning, so unless you were up and about or on duty, most of the Marines were asleep. The concussion of the explosion literally lifted me out of the rack. I can remember in slow motion like it was yesterday. While I was in mid-air, you could see the tent flaps whip out about 90 degrees and after I landed I immediately got up and started putting my MOPP (Mission Oriented Protective Posture) gear on. After that I went walking out from position to position to check on the Marines because I thought it landed right in the middle of the base camp.
C: A mid-air explosion I'm guessing?
K: Yeah, and then we figured out it was the concussion that blew everybody out of their racks. Like I said, I remember that like it just happened last night. So that definitely classifies as a memorable moment.
C: Now I have to ask you that ever popular question sergeant major, what made you join the Marine Corps in the first place?
K: I actually come from a small town in Ohio - Manchester, Ohio. And in that town, if you weren't going to go to college right away, the vast majority of the people joined the service. I lived in a small town that only had about 2,000 people, three stop lights and only two of them worked. I guess they didn't have enough money to pay for the electricity needed for the third one. Anyway, I really didn't want to go to college, I didn't have the money or the desire to go, so I decided to go into the service so I could maybe learn a trade and come back and work in construction or something. The thing was this though, Vietnam was going on at the time and during that time in the early 70s, it was not the popular thing to be in, but I still had the interest in the military. During my high school years from freshman up to when I was a senior, I started to notice thing about the guys who were coming back home after they had served in the military. There wasn't anyone that I knew of who joined the service and didn't go to Vietnam, so I knew I was destined to go to Vietnam if I went into the service. Most of the people I knew went to the Army side and when they came back they didn't have the same demeanor as they did when they left. Their attitudes changed, they seemed to be more distraught, their sense of humor wasn't there and I noticed predominately from the guys who went into the Army. But, on the other hand, I also knew about half a dozen guys who went into the Marines and did their tours in Vietnam. They came back and were still the same guys they were when they left. I mean, they were still hard core, but they still had a sense of humor and they were also very personable. They didn't have any of the same problems adjusting to being back home like the other guys did. So, I made that choice to go to the Marines because I knew that when I came back from Vietnam, I would most likely be just fine like these other Marines were. That seemed to be the overwhelming deciding factor that made me become a U.S. Marine.
C: Along the same lines of keeping a humorous trait, I heard you're quite the funny man. Is that true?
K: Yes, I do think I am a humorous individual. One year in high school I was voted as "most witty" in my class.
C: So you were the class clown?
K: Oh no, not even. I was just quick witted. But that only comes from being around family members who have a quick wit and see the humorous side of things. Marines are kind of like that. Most people think that Marines are morbid individuals and have a morbid sense of humor--but in fact, Marines can look at the worst incident and find a joke in it. Just like when I was a drill instructor, I use to make it my mission to say something to the recruits before we put them to bed at night that would make them laugh. Then of course I'd say, "knock it off!" That is also how I knew when we had a problem with any of our recruits. If something was genuinely funny, and one of the recruits wasn't laughing, that's how we knew who we needed to watch a little more closely. There should always be a time in boot camp where a recruit should laugh and if you are not doing that, you're not doing your job as a D.I. I bet even Chesty Puller and Smedley Butler had a sense of humor.
C: OK sergeant major, I'm going to ask you a couple questions and I don't want you to get too defensive or offended. Is that alright?
C: I've heard from another source and it's my understanding that you have had trouble in the past buying clothes.
K: That's funny you ask that Crawford, I actually brought this up to the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps during the Sergeant Major's Symposium. Marine Corps Community Services, for the most part, does a lot of great thing for the Marines and their families. There is no doubt about it. But, because of my physical stature, and also due to the fact that the lord has blessed me with a toppling 63 inches. That's without shoes; five-four with my shoes on. I can almost never buy clothes at the PX. I guess clothes are just made kind of big in today's day and age but I can go to no PX within the United States Marine Corps who carries a small shirt. They are mediums, larges or extra larges and if they do have a small, the sleeves on a short-sleeve shirt usually end up past my elbows. So I usually have to go to town to find store with clothes that'll fit me. But I tell you what, I can buy a pair of jeans in the kid's section that you'll pay twice as much for in the adult section. I even have to special order my running shoes. That's just the way it goes I guess. Believe it or not, people complain about how small that statue of Lejeune(Gen. John A. Lejeune) is out there on the traffic circle, but its actually life size statue. He was five-three.
C: What about putting blood stripes on white trousers? How does that issue sit with you.
K:I know there's some talk about that. If we are going to put red blood stripes on white trousers, then we need to also need to wear little red rubber balls on our noses because if we are going to start dressing like clowns, we should look like them.
C: Here's a good one sergeant major. How do you correctly mark a general's government vehicle?
K: Who told you about these things?
C: Some staff NCOs I know.
K: Well, back in the day all of the cars used to be metal, but now they're made of everything but metal so the old way of marking it with a magnetic placard is outdated. These vehicles aren't base motor's vehicles and the Marine Corps does not own them. We lease them for a year, turn them back in, and get new ones--so we can't modify them in any way. We finally came around to using the dash placards with a special designed dash board mount. It seems to be working alright.
C: As the base sergeant major, how do you keep everyone happy?
K: You don't. It's impossible to keep everyone happy at the same time. You're always going to have a disgruntled patron whether it is a readiness multiplier, a service member, a visiting guest, retirees, a civilian federal worker, or even a disgruntled commanding officer. President Lincoln once said "you never please all of the people all of the time but some of the people some of the time." You have to choose you your battles and fight them till the end. I always say to myself "who am I here for?"
C: How has the job of being the base sergeant major changed and developed since you've been here?
K:The job has actually changed for the better. It doesn't have anything to do with the different generals I've had work with, or anything to do with technology. The main reason it's gotten better since 1999 was because of my own personal education. I say that because when I got here, I had to learn a lot about what the base sergeant major had to do and what he is responsible for. I've had a lot of help. Help didn't just come from the general or the chief, but it came from the Corporal Crawfords of America; it came from the Gunny Smiths, it came from the Mr. Collins and the civilian workers who teach you how to do business. It comes from the Dr. Lingles from Coastal Carolina Community College; and from being affiliated with the Military Affairs Committee in town(Jacksonville, N.C.) and the veteran's organizations. These people help you learn about the community and learn about the base. So basically, what I'm saying is, my knowledge of the inner workings of the military and civilian communities was gained by effectively making changes for the benefit of everybody. The knowledge base increases because of the experience and on the job training. The only bad thing is that around the time you have learned almost everything there is to know and you're ready to leave that position behind, it's time for someone else to come in and learn it all over again.
Kokensparger will retire June 12 at W.P.T Hill Field here. He has set plans to move back to Ohio with his wife to work as a Marine instructor for a Marine Corps ROTC program. He will still wear his Marine Corps uniform and in his wards "enhance discipline" at Ripley Union Lewis Hunnington High School in Ripley, Ohio.