'Top Grunt' leads aviation Marines on the ground
By Cpl. David Christian
| Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton | November 16, 2000
MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON --
He's the only infantryman on the flight line, and his name is "Top Grunt."
"Someone put the name on my placard outside my office, and it has been my nickname ever since," said MSgt. Robert D. French, squadron gunnery sergeant, Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 39, Marine Aircraft Group 39.
A junior Marine said French is respected.
"Top Grunt is a Marine you look up to," said LCpl. Samuel A. Lobato, administrative clerk, MALS-39. "He keeps you on your toes, and he's straight up."
To keep the Marines of MALS-39 "straight up," French recently started a two-day rear area security training program.
"I'm not here to hurt anyone, nor to prove a point about how hard grunts are, nor to make grunts out of these Marines," said French. "My job is to keep their minds attuned to some infantry-related skills, which may save them or their buddy's lives some day."
The training program teaches radio and communication procedures, two-man fighting-hole skills, perimeter security, patrolling, hand-and-arm signals, fire team/squad/platoon formations and field sanitation.
Training also includes teamwork games.
"We break down from all the tactical stuff later in the day and whip-on some Viking games like tug-of-war, railroad-tie-carry and sand-bag-relay to build up our camaraderie," French said.
"We even sit around later in the evening and have all the staff NCOs and officers tell their reasons for becoming a Marine, and what it means to them. Then we allow the junior Marines to express their views as well," he continued.
French said the training allows the Marines to make friends with someone other than their everyday buddies they work with.
Then they camp for the night, awake the following morning to a tactical reveille at 3:30 a.m., exercise extreme light and noise discipline, put on all their gear and hike out of the field.
"We go on a three-and-a-half mile route up and over a few wonderful hills which this base has to offer," French said.
Training ends as they head to the chow hall for breakfast, the armory to clean and turn-in weapons, then back to the hangar.
"Usually about 85 percent of the Marines say they had a blast," French said. "The others are just glad to be out of the field."
How French got out of the field and ended up on the flight line is a long story.
Born September 1962 in Campbellsville, Ky., he grew up on a farm with two younger brothers, who are now former Marines.
French said he did not see a big financial future in farm life, so he decided to join the Corps straight out of high school.
He graduated from high school May 15, 1981, and on May 19, was in his recruiter's car headed for processing to Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C.
Like any other recruit, French said he had his doubts during boot camp.
"It wasn't the most pleasurable thing," he said. "But I figured I'd keep my mouth shut and do what I was told."
French said he didn't want to quit or go back to Kentucky.
"Fortunately, there was light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "And I've been in ever since."
French joined the Corps to be a mechanic because working on cars is one of his hobbies.
A couple of days before boot camp graduation, he was told the Corps was full of mechanics.
He learned his first lesson in "suckin' it up" in the Corps, when his senior drill instructor said, "0311 - congratulations, you're gonna be grunt!"
French learned his second lesson in suckin' it up, because he "really didn't want to be an infantry guy," he said.
He received orders to Infantry Training School here.
French was disappointed because infantry training was demanding.
"Training was like boot camp times ten," he said.
He graduated from ITS, October 1981, and reported to Marine Barracks, Keflavic, Iceland, for guard duty.
There he encountered another surprise.
"Guard-duty work hours were six to eight hours on, then eight hours off so we could eat and sleep, then back on for another six to eight hours," he said. "I actually started to miss field training, because it was easier than guard duty."
Being in a different country presented its own challenges.
"It was a culture shock, but being a very small detachment, everybody blended into the unit real quick," he said.
French began to quickly advance in his career.
He learned that if he was squared away and did Marine Corps Institute lessons, he would get promoted faster.
Leadership came naturally to him, and when it came to positions of responsibility, "no one else wanted the job."
French was promoted to private first class in November 1981.
Then he was meritoriously awarded the rank of lance corporal in March 1982 and corporal in September 1982.
French was sergeant of the guard by the time he left Iceland in the winter of 1982.
In January 1983, he reported to E Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, Camp Lejeune, N.C., as a fire team leader in a rifle platoon.
Within weeks, the squad leader left the Corps on terminal leave. So French became the new squad leader.
He continued to study even more.
"I spent a lot of time in my NCO cubicle in the squad bay, studying the 'grunt's bible,' the FM 6-5 Marine Rifle Squad manual," he said.
His once-negative attitude about being in the infantry was quickly changing.
"I started to like grunt training," French said.
His hard work paid off.
Once again, he was meritoriously promoted and became a sergeant in August 1983.
During October 1983, he was deployed to Beirut, Lebanon, as a multinational peacekeeping force stationed aboard the USS Guam.
Shortly after leaving the United States, the USS Guam was ordered to detour to Grenada for Operation Urgent Fury. Their mission was to rescue American college students on the small Caribbean island and rid growing Cuban communist activity.
French arrived in Grenada with the first wave of helicopters landing in an area with live fire.
This was his first encounter with real combat.
They accomplished their mission in about seven days then continued to Beirut.
After returning to the States in June of 1984, French was transferred back to Camp Lejeune.
In November 1984, he changed his military occupational specialty to 0313, light armored vehicle infantryman, and was assigned here as a student at the Light Armored Vehicle Infantry Training School at San Onofre.
His next tour sent him to Panama, for Operation Just Cause in December 1989. Their mission was to take communist ruler, Emanuel Noriega, out of power.
French was the vehicle commander of an LAV-25, which led the attack for the first two objectives within the mission.
French was promoted to staff sergeant while in Panama, which changed his MOS to 0369, infantry troop leader.
He returned to the United States in March 1990 and attended the Staff Noncommissioned Officer Career Course at Quantico, Va., and graduated May 1990.
French went back to his home unit, 2nd Light Armored Infantry Battalion, Camp Lejeune.
In June 1990, he was assigned to Infantry Platoon Sergeant School, Camp Lejeune.
He had to withdraw from school August 1990, because he was deployed to the Persian Gulf for Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
French was sent aboard the USS Gunston Hall, attached to 4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, which had the role of "deception operations" off the coast of Kuwait.
"We took the concentration of a lot of the Iraqi forces off of our friendly forces ashore to help make the ground war a complete success," he said.
This was the first time in French's career that he was not actually on the front lines.
"That hurt, but as the old warrior saying goes, 'We can't be there for every battle,'" French said. "The Gulf became my turn to sit and watch ... from the berthing area of the ship. We were there waiting to be called upon to act. But, my career isn't over yet, and there will be more conflicts."
French returned to Camp Lejeune in May 1991, and completed Platoon Sergeant School in September.
He reported back to his unit with orders to MCRD San Diego to be a drill instructor in January 1992.
French enjoyed being a drill instructor for three years with 10 recruit training cycles.
"Being a DI was the most rewarding job I've ever done," he said. "It's the place where the most professional Marines are gathered together in one location on Earth."
During his DI duties, he was meritoriously promoted to gunnery sergeant in July 1994.
French reported to 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion here at Los Flores, March 1995.
During his three-and-a-half years with 1st LAR Bn., he was the first sergeant for Headquarters and Service Company for four months.
French graduated from the Staff Noncommissioned Officer's Advanced Course at MCAS El Toro, September 1995.
He returned to 1st LAR, where he served as the company gunnery sergeant for D Company.
One of French's biggest career disappointments happened in April 1998 when he was selected for master sergeant instead of first sergeant.
"It was a dagger in the heart at first," French said. "My goal was to one day be a candidate for Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps."
Once again, he sucked it up - "grunt-style."
"You take some time off; get a breath of fresh air; reread your oath to God, country, Corps and family; reread the staff NCO Creed; and just realize you have to be the best master sergeant you can," he said.
In July 1998, French reported to MALS-39 as a master sergeant select, serving as squadron gunnery sergeant for a unit of approximately 800 Marines.
Transferring from infantry to the air wing was a big change for French.
"The biggest impression I try to make is that Marines are Marines, regardless of their MOS," he said. "Take your orders, continue to march and your direct deposit will still hit on payday."
French's wife, also a Marine, said he's outstanding.
"He is the true definition of a Marine," said GySgt. Shara L. French, lead facilitator, "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," 1st Force Service Support Group. "He is loyal and devoted to his family, friends and the Corps. My husband is my hero and best friend."
French's boss said he respects him.
"Master Sergeant French has many strong character traits, which make him one of the finest staff (noncommissioned officers) I have had the pleasure to serve with in the past 19 years," said LtCol. Timothy J. Reeves, commanding officer, MALS-39. "I have absolute confidence that no matter the complexity of any task he is assigned, I can be 100 percent assured (he) will achieve superior results."
French's dream for the future is simple.
"I would like to get selected for master gunnery sergeant, which would put me back on the other side of the ridgeline from the air station," he said. "It would take me back to the ground side. And eventually, I would retire from the Corps as a master gunnery sergeant of Marines."
No matter what happens, French said he will always be "Top Grunt" to the Marines of the 3rd Marine Air Wing.