Special Assignment: REVISIT
More Than A News Story – A Journalism Project
Marine Security Guards:
London & Dublin
Another Wonderful Tale of Two Cities
(This section only is unchanged from 2016 Story)
Marine Corps Embassy Security Group
The Marine Corps owns the unique capability of transforming one of its kind into a chameleon; suited and exceptionally useful in one environment and purpose, then wholly and perfectly altered to one poles apart.
The Marine Security Guard (MSG), or, officially, members of the Marine Corps Embassy Security Group, are remarkable examples of such. Battle-hardened warriors of every sharpshooter skill and warfare talent as one of hundreds – are here a fitted crew of charming, soft-spoken, lightning fast and polished agents of protection
Since in-country MSG research in London and Dublin and before the publication of this story, two terrorist attacks occurred in Brussels, the capital of Belgium, despite the country having been on its highest terrorist alert since the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris.
Because of such, more press has been given to the years-long search for several hundred more MSGs by the Marine Corps Embassy Security Group, to bolster its population from the current approximately 1,000 serving at the nearly 200 embassies and consulates worldwide.
In the last hundred years, nearly 50 attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions occurred worldwide. When attacked, MSGs are first in harm’s way. While a few assaults included rocks and bottles thrown over embassy property walls, most include gunfire, grenades, rockets, other explosives – including suicide bombers.
This Special Assignment began a decade ago, when CorpsStories Marine LtCol. Gregg Lyon was assigned to England in 2007. He insisted I come to London and write about the MSGs. Other projects prohibited this Special Assignment from occurring then, but the seed was sown, and dreams of meeting those embassy Marines danced all those years.
Of the many London locations our U.S. embassy has stood, since 1959 the iconic building on Grosvenor Square has been its home. The thirty-five-foot golden eagle sculpture on its roof ensures the building is not mistaken.
So, although LtCol. Lyon suggested a CorpsStories Special Assignment nearly 10 years ago, only now has the project jelled. Perhaps a good thing; our MSGs are presently faced with – and prepared for – very vicious threats, making our acquaintance of them – as a unit and as individuals – very important.
Any Marine, with any Military Occupational Specialty (MOS), may apply to the MSG program, which provides training in Quantico, Virginia. However, if the arduous selection process isn’t enough to narrow a candidate field, the personal life restrictions often is. MSGs must commit to not marrying during the three-year, three-embassy, tour. Although “why” was not asked, assumedly logistical issues of moving entire families across the globe every 12 months plays a significant role. And presumably, the need to house Marines all together at the embassy they protect is likely another deciding explanation.
Marine residences are very comfortable, and a professional cook is normally assigned to each detachment. Think luxe bachelor quarters: several common spaces dedicated to quiet reading, hi-tech gaming/TV/movie watching and darts/pool/bar are part and parcel to their living arrangements. Just like the embassy buildings, MSG residences appear expectedly sturdy and grand – yet are expansively fortified, even if such measures are not visible to the naked eye.
In London 2017…
“When a man is tired of London he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
Samuel Johnson, English writer, 1777
Two hundred and forty years later, on cool and bright winter days, Dr. Johnson’s statement’s truth has endured. Days leading to this revisit, your editor paced the city, remembering her MSGs from 2016, and their generous sharing of life here for a year.
Places of bustle and activity from her centers, including Piccadilly, to her corners, such as Canary Wharf, still charm. Places of solitude and peace still effortlessly found in Hyde, Regent’s or countless other parks. Places of awe and sacred inspiration from Greenwich to Westminster retain timeless affect. And places of play and festivity from Chelsea to Leicester Square shake off the day.
Of the currently 294 U.S. embassies, consulates and diplomatic missions around the world, Marines stationed at the U.S. embassy in London have much to relish, study, absorb and reminisce. Although the strong British Sterling currency translates to an expensive life, our MSGs found little, if any, thing to criticize.
Happy news that; surely a polar swing from embassy posts where life is far more challenging, and where every MSG will find also find themselves serving.
Senior Regional Security Officer Timothy Haley
Curious, your editor was, to realize so many London and Dublin MSGs saw a future for themselves in foreign service. Diplomatic security, federal agencies as civilians, is what more than half I interviewed in February 2016 and now again in January 2017 planned to achieve.
A happy surprise to have the great privilege of also speaking with London’s Senior Regional Security Officer. Yet having that generous opportunity answered that curiosity.
It took about four minutes with Tim Haley to understand why these Marines aspire to such civilian posts. “They are exemplary groups of individuals,” he remarked, referring to his MSGs.
He shared how important it is to him that Marines are included in embassy society. He wants them to feel included with the hundreds of other workers at the London post.
“We work diligently to integrate the Marines,” he said, referring to not only social aspects, but also the world of diplomacy and law enforcement.
He shared that he encourages those seeking higher education – which most MSGs are pursuing – to focus on communications and computer coursework, as those skills can be used in any profession whatsoever. It was noteworthy that in conversation he called them by name; he knows his Marines. Despite his very high place in their chain of command, he is not detached from them.
It is the most natural thing in the world for Marines to follow in the footsteps of those who lead them. Marines know when they are led well, protected and challenged. Senior RSO Haley is just such a leader – and apparently, who has inspired foreign service after the Marine Corps for so many MSGs.
Assistant Regional Security Officer Michael Kerns
Despite your editor’s change-of-power arrival (the U.S. inauguration occurred just one business day prior), Assistant Regional Security Officer Michael Kerns was calm, cool and collected guiding me through a myriad of interviews on that beautiful winter morning.
A long way from his Long Island, New York home, he was as comfortable to work with as an old friend.
“The embassy is a snapshot at any given time,” he said, referring to the host country itself and the U.S. employees, including MSGs, who work there.
He wants Marines to know they too can relax, and enjoy this post and all the geography and society has to offer; he has their backs.
“We encourage them to go see Europe [the continent] or Dublin, go see as much as you can.”
Master Sergeant Jarrod Duke
Master Sergeant Jarrod Duke, is a quiet country gentleman. Just months shy of 20 years in the Corps, he has deployed repeatedly and brings much brainpower to perhaps the most diplomatically important MSG post – London. Maybe he came by leadership naturally.
Although the connection between Marines’ former posts and MSG may not seem like a leap, MSgt Duke is quick to point out, “Background in the Marine Corps doesn’t matter to MSG duty.”
“These 22, 23, 24 year olds are extremely mature,” he explained. Having them arrive from school or other capitals throughout the calendar year is a, “never ending cycle,” of teaching – and learning.
“Making each other better,” is how he described his leadership over these Marines.
So well said.
Sergeant Charles Fishel
As fate would have it, your editor had the honor to interview Sergeant Charles Fishel, upon his arrival for our first MSG story, and just before his assignment departure for this one. Readers will recall the impression he left then as mature and focused, soft-spoken and optimistic; nothing has changed there.
He had graduated from one of the country’s top high schools, University High School in California. With fellow alumni who became Olympians, Broadway actors, Grammy and Oscar winning artists, Major League Baseball and National Football league stars, it is not the least bit surprising that Sgt. Fischel would leave the MSG program at the top of the game.
Royal Albert Hall, London, England
To finish off his three MSG tours in London, he went as high anyone his rank could.
But the future awaits him.
As he shared a year ago, loved ones back home are his priority. Having saved his hard-earned money over the last many months, he will soon finish his USMC contract, attend school full time, and finish his degree in sociology. Then onto work as an intel analyst somewhere in government, likely.
He has made his London days happy ones despite being far away from his new home in the colonial commonwealth. His parents visited recently, and he took them to Rome. He also visited Dublin and Amsterdam.
“It went by quickly, but meeting a bunch of different Marines, and the relationships I’ve had with them, that has been the best part,” of his tour at Post London.
The hardest part? “You know the answer to that,” he whispered with a grin. Yes, Sgt. Fischel, being away from his family.
Ultimately, it was the learning he took with him. “Becoming a leader isn’t the easiest thing, but I learned so much about leadership.”
Sergeant Benjamin Bonifacio
Hyde Park, London, England
This warrior is very focused on bringing his best to each job the Corps has given.
Sergeant Bonifacio possesses something your editor has noticed about most MSGs: a high-quality high school education.
He graduated from Freeport High School, in New York.
Freeport High is known for its innovative academics, specifically in the sciences. As well, it was ahead in distance learning development and achievement. It is in the very highest percentile of public high schools nationwide with an astounding 87 percent of its graduates going on to higher education. So, this sergeant of Marines apparently has an above average education and intellect.
Seems the only thing London lacks is hot summers.
Aside from visiting home for a couple weeks near the holiday season, Sgt. Bonifacio hasn’t strayed far from work, “I’m the type to get to know my job, so I’ve been focused on that.”
He intends to visit Rome and Paris, but for now sightseeing in and around London, “seeing the town,” as he put it, is the plan for this calm Marine.
Corporal Isaac Billanfante
Corporal Billanfante is yet another example of high school scholars making great MSG candidates.
This Marine attended and graduated from Parkview Arts and Science Magnet High School in Arkansas. It is noted for an Advanced Placement course participation of over 80 percent, and its model United Nations team, and a debate team which has taken state championships 11 out of the last 14 years. Cpl. Billanfante focused on science coursework, before graduating.
He stayed on compound until his assignment ended and was transferred to Post London.
Although he hasn’t been home years, Cpl. Billanfante has travelled extensively during his MSG duty. He has been to Spain, Tenerife, Rome, and soon will see Paris.
Sunken Gardens, Kensington Palace, London, England
In London, “I like the architecture everywhere, especially Victorian architecture,” he shared.
With an eye for aesthetics, he sees his future after the Marine Corps in filmmaking.
“I would like to attend UCLA or the University of Denver. I’m interested in film production. I think I would love it. It wouldn’t even feel like I am working,” he said with a big smile.
Considering all he has accomplished thus far, and how relatively young he is, this exceptional Marine is only limited by the sky above.
Sergeant Shanise Hargrove
Historic Hotel Staircase,
Kensington Gardens, London, England
Sergeant Hargrove, is a New Yorker with a quiet side. Just don’t mistake her very soft-spoken and gentle-spirited demeanor for weakness; she is all warrior.
The Sergeant graduated from Bell Port High School. Immediately afterward she attended Suffolk County Community College, pursuing General Studies. The next year she joined the Corps.
“I wanted to travel and see a different side to the Marine Corps,” she said regarding becoming an MSG, “and eighty percent of the decision was I was recommended to do it.”
So far, she has enjoyed London, and sought to know it better. The sergeant has taken day trips to the coast. Brighton Beach was very nice, she shared.
“Lots of museums and history, a different environment. I like the community, and the food,” she said with a smile.
“Nothing bad about London Post, just good.”
Next, she will wrap up her degree in psychology, which she has earned more than 60 credits toward.
“I’d like to live somewhere warmer,” when she begins work as a therapist or counsellor.
Sergeant Hargrove’s warm and kind demeanor will certainly make her a welcome addition to that community.
Sergeant Daniel Banda Alvarado
With a ready smile, Sergeant Banda Alvarado was a pleasure to meet.
He graduated from Frederick Douglass High School, then joined the Marine Corps. After Parris Island, he was stationed at Camp Foster, Okinawa Japan.
“The weather is the best thing,” he said about London. “Nigeria and Japan were very hot; and I love cold weather,” he said grinning.
“I love being able to go and see so much,” said the sergeant, who has been to Paris, Dublin, and seen most of England, including Stonehenge, via sightseeing trips.
“History is my favorite subject,” he shared, explaining visits to, “lots of museums,” again said with a smile.
The hardest thing is being away from family, he shared. He has had visits from family members and friends from the US and from previous duty stations.
Sergeant Banda-Alvarado dreams of graduating from college, then owning a Mexican restaurant. Any of such dreams will come to fruition, without doubt.
The Orangery, Kensington Palace, London, England
Corporal Jared Singleton
Regent’s Park, London, England
Corporal Jared Singleton came to the Marine Corps after living a bit of adult life.
Tthis Marine graduated from Fossil Ridge High School, one of the highest ranked secondary schools in the U.S., falling in the top five percent of all high schools. Yet another MSG with an exceptional education.
Immediately after graduating, he attended a year of college, then went to work for a discount tire company, and worked his way up to manager.
“I just wanted to see the world,” Corporal Singleton said of his decision to join the Corps six years after school.
He attended basic training in San Diego, then recieved his specialized training before joining the fleet.
“I’m not a city person, to be honest,” the corporal explains, regarding his MSG post. As well, it is a very expensive city.
Still, he is happy to see different cultures, and has travelled to Dublin and Edinburgh, where he took his parents upon their recent visit.
Best of all? Julie is still the cook at the Marine House, “she makes wonderful food, still,” he shared with a happy smile.
Wonderful news, that – for all London MSGs.
Sergeant Austin Thom
Sergeant Thom is from Minnesota. Your editor’s research for her book series, Great Marines, revealed this Marine’s home state has produced an unusually high number of U.S. Marine Corps recipients of the Medal of Honor: ten, in total.
“I wanted to see the world,” he said of his decision to become an MSG.
Sgt. Thom shared he has enjoyed visits Spain and the Canary Islands.
“There has been so much experience toward leadership,” which he values, he shared.
Post-Marine Corps he plans to study renewable energy, or energy science, a passion he is currently researching by growing his own tomatoes and bell peppers in his room at the Marine House. Quite an accomplishment, considering the lack of often sunshine.
He is a Marine who not only thinks, but does.
News Agent, Mayfair, London, England
Sergeant Mitch E. McDonald
Dorchester Hotel, London, England
As with Sergeant Fishel, it was a wonderful surprise to revisit with Sergeant McDonald.
He gave us perhaps the best quote of the 2016 story when he said, “Pubs are conversations with beer, instead of beer with conversations, like in the States.”
He hasn’t failed to pursue the finer points of pub life.
“Nice people here in London. Soho and Camden; fun nightlife.”
Getting around is remarkably easy; perhaps one of the best world capitols regarding transportation, your editor also experienced.“The ease of travel and free public transportation with troop cards,” were a valuable asset of this post assignment, the sergeant shared.Outside the city had its own draw. Sergeant McDonald has traveled extensively: to Paris, Brighton Beach and Seven Sisters Cliffs, and Birmingham were just a few of his destinations.
At work, he has enjoyed working under MSgt. Duke. He brings a relaxed experience to the unit, said the sergeant.As we learned last year, this Marine has a passion for computer science, and as expected will be attending college in the very near future. “I just got accepted,” he said with a massive grin.
The world awaits this easy-going and brilliant Marine.
…and Dublin 2017
“When I die Dublin will be written in my heart.” James Joyce 1882-1941
|U.S. Embassy, Dublin, Ireland|
Making a way to our Dublin embassy on a winter day, evergreen lawns were a welcome surprise.
A mental to list to visit here or there becomes long on these cool and sunny, long walks. This ancient city of captivating architecture and luscious eateries remains a gloriously motivating experience.
Dublin’s population is pleasant, always. Quiet mornings on the streets or in coffee shops involve whispered pleasantries. Lunchtime in pubs, where delicious meals abound, happy discourse continues on subjects including weather, politics, news.
As day turns to night the streets are live with unwinding workers enjoying the conversation and spirits for which this stunning city is renown.
Our Marine Security Guards are beloved in this town; and expectedly, are happy to arrive, and sad to depart – yet do so with much in the happy-memory bank.
Staff Sergeant Kenneth T. Gilkey
Staff Sergeant Kenneth Gilkey was on the job when your editor had the honor to meet him. He had happily settled in to Dublin.
“The people are really nice people. Extremely nice, extremely helpful,” he said was the best part of his assignment there.
“Worst part? The uncertainty of what could happen,” a very reasonable position for Marines who carry the title of MSG.
The best thing about being in Ireland? “Being in Ireland,” SSgt. Gilkey said with a grin; “there is nothing hard,” about it.
He graduated from Elder High School, which is nationally recognized for its successful football program.
He stayed on active duty for several years, having served in combat repeatedly, during War on Terror.
The staff sergeant has an easy-going disposition; striking considering how much he has expectedly served through.
Ballsbrige Post Office, Dublin, Ireland
Sergeant Justin M. Henry
|Rooftops , Waterloo Road, Dublin, Ireland|
Rooftops , Waterloo Road, Dublin, Ireland Sgt. Henry says Post Dublin is not a bad way to complete this significant professional accomplishment.
Compared to former posts, the sergeant says the quiet of Ireland is very welcome. “Nothing here gets everyone worked up,” he said with a grin.
After graduating from Lakeside High School he worked at the home of the Masters, Augusta National Golf Club.
He began his journey toward a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Georgia Southern University, completing three semesters, before joining the Corps.
He has learned much about leadership from his MSG duty stations, apparently.
In Ireland, the most challenging thing is driving the curvy rural roads, “it is very quiet and relaxed here,” he said.
This young leader hopes to finish his engineering degree at Georgia Tech after completing his service to the Corps.
Home to the U.S.’s sunny South will arrive a very mature young leader.
Sergeant Shane McCutcheon
Sergeant McCutcheon has an Irish name, with the Irish spelling; which means he’s a welcome lad in Dublin.
But his upbringing is far departed. He was raised in California. Many major-league football and baseball players call this same region home.
After graduating from nearby Hillcrest Christian School, this young warrior immediately joined the Marine Corps.
The best thing about a former duty station in Africa were the embassy staff, “best Marine and embassy community,” the Sergeant shared.
And he loved the citizens. “They were very good, very respectful. It was very hard to see difficult life is there,” he shared, as well.
In Ireland, he is geographically closer to home than he has been in years. “All my friends want to come from the states,” to visit he laughed.
This Marine has big dreams and goals, once his USMC contract is complete. Clearly anything could happen very easily for this Marine.
|Sussex Road, Dublin, Ireland|
Restaurant in Downtown Dublin, Ireland
Sergeant Eric Greenlee
Sergeant Greenlee is a California native who relishes the international travel the Corps has offered him.
Originally from wine country, he values varied cultures and locations. In the fall after his graduation from high school, he joined the Marine Corps.
“I pride myself on getting out seeing the area, because I won’t get that opportunity later,” he said.
After attending MSG school,he was stationed in southeastern Europe, a post he loved.
“The people were very friendly, and contrary to popular belief, are always trying to help,” he shared.
He also shared that the sites there are very beautiful and have luxury resorts; and the people were the best part of being stationed there.
The hardest part was getting around, “transportation was challenging,” he explained.
So far, Ireland has no downside, in this relaxed Marine’s view. “You can go out any given night, and the city has such an up-beat energy.
“People speak English, which is a plus,” he grinned.
Special thanks to those U.S. Marines, State Department staff and confidential advisors
whose contribution to this story was invaluable.