CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. --
His journey began in the mid-'70s as an adolescent on the streets of Detroit, which he resolved to leave after one day on the "wrong side of 8-Mile Road."
"I got dropped off in an area for my newspaper route, and while I was waiting for my ride to come back, a couple kids in the neighborhood saw me and started calling me the N-word while throwing rocks at me," said 49-year-old Sgt. Maj. Derrick Christovale Sr. "I've never really experienced anything like that before. I wanted to get away."
He paused for several seconds before returning to his story.
He said he watched a lot of television as a kid, and it made him see that the whole world wasn't like Detroit. He dreamed of going to California.
Growing up with several family members in the military, serving appealed to Christovale. He first considered enlisting in the U.S. Air Force until he was asked by the recruiter, "What can you do for Air Force?" He didn't know what to say. So he left the recruiting office.
Christovale's girlfriend at the time was working as an assistant to Marine recruiters, and she often spoke about how the recruiters would ask her to bring Christovale to the office. At that time, he said he didn't know much about the Marine Corps.
His Uncle Jim, a combat cook who served during the Korean War, shared countless stories about his experiences in the Corps.
Uncle Jim's stories gave Christovale a better understanding of what the Marine Corps had to offer, so he decided to visit the recruiters who had been asking for him.
After taking the written entry exam for the armed services, the Marine recruiter asked him the question that would make his dreams of getting away a reality: "Parris Island or San Diego?"
In 1982, he boarded a flight and traveled to Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. Countless emotions were running through him, he said. He was nervous, anxious and thrilled, but above all else, he was happy.
His head tipped back and his eyes widened while recalling his first steps on the yellow footprints. "It was a culture shock."
Three months of boot camp passed. Through sickness, good days and bad, and even being yelled at for smiling too much, his day came. Christovale marched with his platoon at graduation and earned the title of United States Marine.
Upon completion of boot camp, Christovale reported to Basic Combat Engineer Instruction School, Camp Lejeune, N.C.
In April 1983, Christovale arrived at Camp Hansen, Okinawa, Japan, trained in construction and demolition, and ready to operate. He loved the Corps, and he would take charge of anything he could get his hands on, like leading cleanup and taking charge of the engineer tool room, among other things.
Through continuous displays of leadership, Christovale earned meritorious promotions to the ranks of corporal and sergeant.
As his career progressed, he served at installations in North Carolina, Arizona, Southern California and Cuba.
Returning to the depot in 1992, Christovale went on to serve as a drill instructor in the same company and battalion he was in as a recruit: Company F, 2nd Recruit Training Battalion.
After completing his duties as a drill instructor, Christovale reported to 1st Combat Engineer Battalion at Camp Pendleton in 1994. In 1996 he was promoted to the rank of gunnery sergeant and later appointed company gunnery sergeant for Headquarters and Service Company.
"I will never forget attending the weekly meetings at 1st CEB when you were the H&S Company gunnery sergeant," said Sgt. Maj. Chad M. Butts, Marine Air Control Squadron 1, in an e-mail to Christovale. "I learned a lot from you, especially about being a good Marine, and have tried to emulate your professionalism in my career since then."
Christovale smiled as he began to speak about his experiences while serving with Headquarters and Support Company and Company C, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, during the battalions maneuver from Kuwait to Baghdad in 2003.
"We kicked off the war. 'One Five' was the first unit to cross the line of departure," Christovale said. "We moved across the desert - did and saw amazing things.
"There was a sandstorm that grew so bad that vehicles had to stop. There was zero visibility. We ended up wearing our gas masks in order to breathe because the sand was so bad. We were in our vehicle and couldn't see our hands in front of our faces. We couldn't tell where we were or if enemies were moving toward us. The sounds, the feeling, the whole experience was amazing."
Christovale, who retires October 1, said of his entire 31-year career, his only regret is not serving on Marine Security Guard duty.
"MSG is something I really wanted to do early on in my career, but for some reason, I got kind of sidetracked," Christovale said. "I didn't do it. I made it into the drill field, so that was a great honor being a drill instructor, wearing the campaign cover, and being a part of making Marines.
"If I had to share my proudest moment, it would be going to Parris Island, S.C., and watching my son graduate (recruit training) - standing on the parade deck with him, wearing the same uniform and being on the same team, serving on active duty with him."
Christovale's last assignment wearing the uniform has been serving as the senior enlisted leader for Camp Pendleton in addition to his regional responsibilities for five Marine Corps installations in the southwestern United States.
Into retirement, he plans to stay in the area. A long way from Detroit.