CAMP SCHWAB, OKINAWA, Japan --
“When I retired, I didn’t look forward to going out into the civilian world. I really didn’t,” said retired Master Sgt. Robert W. Alexander Jr. “Because you’re not going to find that brotherhood bond that you find in the Marine Corps or in the recon community. We take care of our own. We have a saying: ‘Never Above You, Never Below You, Always Beside You.’”
Alexander served about 24 years as a reconnaissance Marine before retiring in 2010. During his time in, he wore many hats, including point man, team leader, platoon sergeant, recon instructor at the Basic Reconnaissance Course, instructor for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training, company gunnery sergeant, helicopter rope suspension training master, dive supervisor for open and closed-circuit diving, executive officer and assistant director to the Jungle Warfare Training Center on Okinawa. At one time, he was wearing four hats at once.
Alexander enlisted in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, on October 14, 1986, and hit the ground running.
Six months in the fleet, he and Marines with Company C were returning from night amphibious training in Subic Bay, Philippines, aboard a U.S. Navy, Aircraft Rescue Vessel (AVR) when they were surprised by a sudden jolt. Their boat had crashed into an unmarked, unlit barge attached to a buoy.
“When I came to, mass chaos and everyone was in friggin’ pain,” said Alexander. “I got my flashlight out and saw my platoon sergeant who was in a pool of blood on his stomach, and I immediately did first aid on him. He had a large piece of wood sticking out of his back and he was going into shock.”
Alexander used what he learned in boot camp -- “Start the breathing, stop the bleeding, protect the wound and treat for shock” -- to treat his buddies and potentially save his platoon sergeant’s life.
Over 28 years later, Alexander received his fourth Navy and Marine Corps Commendation medal, June 23, at Camp Schwab, for his quick thinking and life-saving actions from that night. The award was approved and signed by the Secretary of the Navy, The Honorable Mr. Ray Mabus.
“I will say for him, he’s a special person. I don’t know where the blueprints for him came from,” said retired U.S. Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Douglas Kennedy, Alexander’s friend and a corpsman for 26 years. “You read the report on what happened. He was a young Marine, and he remembered one thing from boot camp: ‘We’re brothers in arms.’ He wasn’t the most senior guy there. He just said, ‘Hey, my family is in need.’”
Kennedy, a seasoned veteran in the hospital corps who has served in both operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, explained that the situation would have given him pause.
Alexander remains humble beside the fact.
“My favorite memory was being allowed the honor of being allowed to serve with recon Marines,” said Alexander. “I’m no hero, but I walked among heroes, and I got to do that with my family.”
Alexander’s love for his recon brothers is a “life-long bond” formed through shared suffering and joy.
“Infantrymen would have to come via (amphibious assault vehicle) or small boat and get on the beach and do their thing,” said retired U.S. Marine Sgt. Maj. G.A. “Butch” Vasquez, a friend of Alexander and a former reconnaissance Marine. “A recon Marine might have to come out of a submarine, or swim 3,000 meters to a beach, or go by boat, then handle the surf. He must be very confident. He must be in very good shape to endure that and thereafter. And once he gets to the beach, then he has to get out of his wet suit … add all that gear, and go on a three or four day patrol.”
Vasquez said all Marines go through the similar trials, but recon Marines go the extra mile to answer the calling to be challenged.
Recon Marines are tasked to go behind enemy lines to be the eyes and ears of the commander. They operate for days, their only sustainment being what they carry with them, trekking long distances in harsh environments.
“Because we do additional things and additional challenges, we form a special kinship with those in our community,” said Vasquez. “We are very particular about maintaining those relationships, and generally you can count on a recon brother, especially if you’ve served together, to support you. More than just the cliché, we use, ‘Take care of your brothers and your sisters.’ It goes beyond that.”
Alexander still remains an active part of the reconnaissance community.
He is an advocate for donating and support of the Marine Reconnaissance Foundation. He gives rides to Marines who are waiting at the bus stop at Camp Schwab. He makes a point to attend 1st Recon Battalion’s annual reunion in California, staying in touch with old recon brothers and mentoring his younger recon brothers even as a retiree. He constantly reminds them of a motto he lives: “Always say you did, rather than you wish you had.”
He summed up how he felt about his career choice in two sentences.
“It was definitely worth it. If I could do it all over again, I’d do it in a heartbeat,” said Alexander.
Kennedy described Alexander’s personality with a quote from one of his sergeant’s major when he was still a young corpsman.
“I just picked up E-4, and he said, ‘You’re a leader now and you gotta use one four letter word every day … It was care. He said, ‘You want to be an effective leader, care.’ I’ll say that about Master Sgt. (Alexander). If you looked up care, you’d probably see his picture.”