CAMP KINSER, OKINAWA, JAPAN --
Atop Hill 44 in Chuncheon, South Korea, on April 22, 1951, Marine Corps radio operator Private First Class Herbert A. Littleton, without hesitation, gallantly gave up his life for his fellow Marines as he took off his radio and hurled himself onto an oncoming grenade. Through his sacrifice, the surviving Marines were able to use his radio to call in reinforcements. For this act of supreme courage, Littleton was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for Military Valor. The Marine Corps has since honored Littleton’s commitment to service by awarding noncommissioned officers who have made outstanding contributions to its operational communications mission in his name.
Sgt. Neal Copenhaver, the data systems NCO in charge with Data Platoon, Communications Company, Combat Logistics Regiment 37, 3rd Marine Logistics Group, has been awarded the 2020 PFC Herbert A. Littleton Noncommissioned Officer Trophy for Operational Communications Excellence, after a rigorous selection process competing against the best and brightest communications NCOs across the Marine Corps.
Copenhaver, originally an assault amphibious vehicle crew member, laterally moved to communications with minimal knowledge about the MOS. Already a sergeant at the time, Copenhaver credits his humility and his fellow Marines for setting him up for success in his new field.
“When I LAT moved, I didn’t know anything about [communications]. I was a sergeant of Marines and I didn’t know how to do the job,” Copenhaver confessed. “So, I sat next to a lance corporal and said, ‘Hey, teach me what you know.’ and I was humble enough to learn from the junior Marines.”
Serving as the NCOIC for Data Platoon, Copenhaver says his success as a leader hinges upon his ability to motivate his Marines.
“I am good at one thing and that is motivating Marines. You can do more with motivating Marines than you can do with any skill or any knowledge.” Copenhaver said.
Copenhaver is a firm believer that motivation can help boost any unit morale.
“If your Marines come in and they’re exhausted and the work is monotonous then you should motivate them,” Copenhaver elaborated. “If you love what you do then you never have to work a day in your life, right?”
According to 1stLt Matthew Fukuhara, Sgt. Copenhaver's communication detachment commander on a recent CLR-37 exercise at Combined Arms Training Center Mount Fuji, Japan, Copenhaver set the example for excellence with his own performance on a key real world mission.
"At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in III MEF, Sgt Copenhaver successfully and admirably rose to the challenge in support of a real world mission as part of Task Force Medical’s reconstitution of the aircraft-carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) in Guam as well as CLR-37’s first ever Marine Corps Combat Readiness Exercise at Camp Fuji."
Copenhaver’s dedication to service and mission success was once again demonstrated when he taught himself how to operate a mobile broadband kit. The MBK is a compact, lightweight communication device that supports the Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations mission, being tactically efficient and mobile while replacing stacks of bulky, hard to transport communications equipment traditionally used for field operations.
“When we received [an MBK], it looked like it hadn’t even been opened up.” Copenhaver said. “So I just opened it up and I started messing with it, started turning it on, seeing how much battery it can have, and seeing what it can do.”
After contacting a few connections at other units, it soon became clear to Copenhaver that no one had taken the time to understand the new piece of equipment.
“I messaged the manufacturer and asked if they had any supportive documentation and they sent me some manuals which helped,” Copenhaver said.
After learning everything he could about the MBK, he then passed the knowledge on to his Marines.
“As soon as I learned as much as I could about [the MBK], I took it up to the little classroom we have in Comm’ Company and took them through different scenarios to basically force them to dig into it.” Copenhaver said. “It worked really well! Now they can be the first points of contact if something goes wrong.”
As Copenhaver’s time in the Marine Corps comes to a close, his advice for success in the fleet boils down to three key pieces: reading, staying humble, and unwavering vigilance.
“I’d categorize it into three most important things: one [is] to read books, read knowledge, study… Comm is a very technically-oriented MOS and lives depend on our technical ability and how knowledgeable we are,” Copenhaver explained. “The second point would be to stay humble. A very smart man once said to me, ‘Even the dumbest person in the room knows something that you don’t know.’ and I try to keep that in the back of my mind every time I go to work,” Copenhaver continued. “The last point is something I heard from a warrant officer in the Army who became a prisoner of war, ‘When you walk around the zoo, the animals don’t act like they would in the wild… they’re slower. If you go see the wolf, the wolf paces. The wolf paces because his spirit has not been broken and he’s never going to let anyone bring him down.’ and I think that’s pretty good advice.”
Although the battlefield looks incredibly different from the one on which Pfc. Littleton paid the ultimate sacrifice nearly 70 years ago, proficient communications Marines are still just as important. Copenhaver’s tenacity and adaptability were demonstrated in his ability to master new technologies and lead Marines to adapt to become more tactically efficient in a field environment. To Copenhaver, though, it’s just a day in the life.
“I just did my job. I had great support, great Marines working with me, and fantastic leadership.”
3d MLG, based out of Okinawa, Japan, is a forward-deployed combat unit that serves as III MEF's comprehensive logistics and combat service support backbone for operations throughout the Indo-Pacific area of responsibility.