Base Sergeant Major looks back on career, Marine Corps

8 Jun 2012 | Lance Cpl. Paul Peterson

One last time on the parade deck. For the man who loved drill, boot camp and the Marines he served, it still hasn’t set in he’s leaving.

Born in Graham, N.C., Sgt. Maj. William C. Rice graduated Graham High School in 1982 with his eyes set on Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C. It was Rice’s dream to become a Marine.

“I went to the recruiter three times,” said Rice. “I never received a phone call back. I was beginning to think they didn’t want me. I walked in the last time, and the recruiter didn’t need to sell me on anything. I’ve always wanted to be a Marine, so I enlisted.”

Rice waited only a few weeks after his graduation to embark on what would become a historic 30-year career in the Marine Corps. From the very beginning, his journey was filled with an air of mystery.

“They said, ‘Go into the airport, and they’ll find you,’” remembered Rice. “It started right off with the yelling.” He confessed, “You don’t know what to expect. Really and truly, you have no concept of what’s about to happen to you.”

Rice loved the experience of boot camp. The structure, discipline and camaraderie he found in the Marine Corps inspired him, and the feeling followed him throughout his career.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some great people,” said Rice. “It probably won’t hit me I’m not going back to work as a Marine for a week or two; maybe a month … I’m not ready to go.”

In 1986, when his career was still in its youth, Rice was assigned to Marine Security Guard Battalion, Quantico, V.A. It was a formative moment that opened doors for Rice, doors leading him to some of the great moments in world history.

Meritoriously promoted to staff sergeant, Rice found himself in charge of security for the last Cold War summit between Russia and the United States. As heavy seas rocked the American and Russian ships anchored off the coast of Malta, the leaders of two superpowers declared an end to the Cold War. The humble Rice referred to the whole experience as “a very interesting time.”

The Marine from a small North Carolina town journeyed through Sri Lanka, China, Hong Kong and Cyprus on his long road to Malta, but the conference wasn’t the last surprise MSG duty had in store.

“(MSG duty) was a highlight of my career,” said Rice. “I got to see and do things I never dreamed of doing and most people can’t even fathom.”

Years after returning to the United States, Rice received a letter informing him he was to be knighted. Rice promptly placed the letter into a shredder, believing it to be a practical joke. Little did he know, the letter was nothing to laugh at.

A few months after destroying the first letter, Rice received another one, written partially in Italian. He called in his contacts and discovered his selection for knighthood was legitimate. To this day, Sir Sgt. Maj. Rice does not know who selected him or why. Perhaps it was some shadowy conclave who remembered his service in Malta or something else he did on MSG duty. Rice said he’ll probably never know for sure.

From knighthood to sergeant major of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, his is a career spanning more than time.

As Rice built his career, he drew upon some of the leaders who mentored him. He said he admired their professionalism and keen sense of concern,as well as the fact they truly cared about his success. Even with his retirement on the horizon, Rice intends to continue to lead, mentor Marines and give back to the community.

“You can’t change thirty-years in the Marine Corps, and you can’t change the Marine way,” said Rice. “I think you’ve got to believe in the Marine Corps’ system. You’ve got to believe in the society of the Marine Corps, and you’ve got to adhere to the customs and courtesies. It’s made us who we are for more than 230 years, and you can’t stop it now. It sets us apart from everybody else.”

When asked to describe himself, Rice laughed and replied, “short hair, wears cammies and about six-feet tall.” After a little more prodding, he relented, “I would like to think people see me as a man of integrity, a man of honor who does the right thing for the right reason. (Also), about six-feet tall, wears cammies and has short hair.”

Rice admitted he can’t even remember how many times he reenlisted. He lost track around his fifteenth year. Thirty years as a Marine did, however, leave an indelible impression upon Rice, and he encourages the next generation to pursue with vigor the opportunities they have.

“They’ve got a lot of advantages we didn’t have (when I enlisted), and they’re a lot better at utilizing those advantages,” said Rice. “If we went to war in the 1980s, we would not have been as prepared as the Marines of today. We would have gotten there, but it would have taken a while.”

There are missed opportunities Rice regrets. He said he would have liked to travel and experience even more, and retiring is one of the hardest things he did during his career.

“You always have good days and bad days, but the good far outweigh the bad,” said Rice. “Looking back, I have nothing but fond memories. The bad ones kind of fade away because they are usually short lived, and they’re quickly replaced by the good. It will hit me eventually.”