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A Trail of Footprints

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Col. Bradley Ward’s career path has brought him back where he began

By Sgt. Dana Beesley

The hallowed and historic yellow footprints are every aspiring Marine’s first steps aboard MCRD Parris Island. In 1988, Recruit Bradley Ward found himself on those footprints, and only a few years later Drill Instructor Sgt. Ward was the Marine welcoming recruits off the bus to stand on them.

Now, nearly 33 years later as the Recruit Training Regiment Commander, Col. Ward watches over every recruit as they begin their journey to becoming a United States Marine, and he carries the life lessons from every chapter of his career with him.

Ward was born in Texas to a hard-working blue collar family; his father was an Army veteran who worked in an oil refinery and was the first of his own family to graduate college. The importance of education and hard work was instilled in him from a young age. Ward was the first and only member of his family to make the decision to join the Marine Corps and he said it was the challenge that initially drove him to want to enlist.

Col. Bradley Ward, right, graduated from Parris Island in 1988 and returned to serve as a drill instructor aboard the depot before making the decision to become a Marine Corps officer. Photo courtesy of Col. Bradley Ward, USMC.

“I suppose pride had everything to do with me walking into the recruiting office,” Ward said. “It was tackling the hardest challenge and not going the easier route with one of the other branches of the military.”

Ward still credits his drill instructor, Sgt. Lee, as the inspiration behind his own desire to train recruits. He submitted a package for Drill Instructor School once he reached three years in service and eventually found himself on Parris Island once again. He said he had already planned the rest of his enlistment out after that point, intending to pursue a college degree in the civilian sector once his contract was up and he had completed a tour on the drill field.

What Ward didn’t anticipate was being meritoriously promoted to staff sergeant while serving as a drill instructor. With a new rank and set of responsibilities, he decided to remain on active duty to complete his college degree. He ultimately achieved his goal, receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in criminal science from Park College; today he not only possesses four master’s degrees from various universities, but is also a graduate of multiple esteemed military schools.

Ward said his strongest desire to become a commissioned officer came after he left Parris Island to train Marine Corps Officer Candidates as a sergeant instructor on Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. After realizing the opportunities available to him upon his promotion and the completion of his degree, Staff Sgt. Ward decided to apply to the Enlisted Commissioning Program (ECP).

“Ultimately it was the realization that as an officer I could have a greater impact on a larger number of Marines,” Ward said. “After becoming a (staff noncommissioned officer), I began to realize that I would always be enforcing policies dictated by someone else. I wanted to be the one making policy and ensuring it was carried out according to my vision and intent.” 

While at OCS, Candidate Ward learned of his selection for gunnery sergeant, and found himself facing a proverbial fork in the road of his career; he could either choose to drop-on-request from OCS and continue on the enlisted path to first sergeant or remain at OCS in the hopes of pinning on second lieutenant bars upon graduation. Ward still remembers standing at the foot of his company commander’s desk and responding, “This candidate is right where he belongs.”

The rest of Ward’s illustrious career as a commissioned officer spans multiple states, countries and continents. He went on to become a Marine Officer Instructor (MOI) at George Washington University. He served at the behest of the 36th Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford. He commanded both air and ground combat elements. Through the myriad experiences he has had and Marines he has mentored, he says he credits his success to maintaining his infectious positive attitude and remaining humble in every aspect of his life.

Col. Bradley Ward, Recruit Training Regiment Commanding Officer, gives a few words of encouragement July 17 to a new Marine during an Eagle, Globe and Anchor ceremony aboard MCRD Parris Island. Ward graduated from Parris Island in 1988 and returned to serve as a drill instructor aboard the depot before making the decision to become a Marine Corps officer. Photo by Sgt. Dana Beesley, USMC.

“I believe in being a good human being first,” Ward said. “I don’t know that one can be a good or effective leader if they’re not first a good person. In order to ‘reach’ your Marines it’s important to know them and treat them as you would want to be treated.”

In contrast, Ward sees this leadership style as how he plans to approach his new position as a commander in charge of thousands of drill instructors, officers and recruits, having been in each of their shoes at one point in his life and seeing the toll that the drill field can have on each of his Marines.

“I hope to earn the trust of the Drill Instructors because they all know I know what they deal with every day,” Ward said. “The psychology behind the pressures of a drill instructor largely go unnoticed. Understanding this helps me shape my interaction and communications with our drill Instructors – I can only hope my approach makes a difference.”

When asked how his unique experiences as a prior enlisted Marine and drill instructor have benefitted him as a commander, Ward first insisted that he was not set apart from other officers because of his years on the enlisted side.

“I remain humble because I know I’m no better than anyone else,” Ward said. “I’m older, with a great deal of experience and have enjoyed promotions along the way, but I’m not better. I recognized early in my career that rank and years of service doesn’t equate to intelligence and value; so, I treat everyone as though they might have the answer to the most difficult problem of the day. If you give yourself completely to your Marines then there’s nothing else left to offer.”

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