April 1, 2015 --
MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, Ariz. – Newly-promoted Master Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Draffen stood at the position of attention in front of the Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One building, aboard MCAS Yuma, Arizona, Wednesday, April 1, 2015. The collar of the MAWTS-1 air traffic control chief’s uniform lay bare for but a moment before two pairs of hands deftly pinned in place the rank he has worked over 20 years to achieve.
Attention to Orders!
Behind him, a formation comprised of friends and peers mirrored his tall stance. To his left, his wife, who he has been with since before his enlistment in 1994, secured one side of his collar. On his right, the drill instructor responsible for making Draffen into a Marine at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina, retired Master Gunnery Sgt. Michael Arnett, secured the other.
After the ceremony was over, and the formation dispersed, Draffen and Arnett had a chance to reminisce about their shared beginnings.
“He was the shortest drill instructor, and he was very skinny,” said Draffen about Arnett, recalling the ritual first contact between drill instructor and recruit known as “Black Friday.”
“Well ...” Arnett interjected with a chuckle. “The only one skinnier than me was him!”
“He was clearly very passionate about what he was doing,” continued Draffen, a native of Northville, New York. “That’s the reason why, after 20 years, it was very easy to ask him to pin me.”
“My main job was ‘knowledge hat,’” said Arnett. “My main focus was getting recruits through the academic portion of boot camp.”
“And I was the ‘knowledge recruit,’” said Draffen.
The “knowledge recruit” is picked by the platoon drill instructors and is usually one of the brighter recruits of each training cycle.
“Our platoon took number one for academics, and I didn’t do it by myself,” said Arnett. “Draffen was there on the back end, as a recruit, encouraging the guys to be the best.”
“I remember he was just hustling,” Arnett recalled. “I remember he was always trying to do his best and flying to get the job done the best he could. Obviously, that’s continued with him making master gunnery sergeant. With him now being in the top two percent of the Marine Corps, his hard work has benefited him well.”
What Comes First
“I remember talking to him during boot camp and found out that he’d just gotten married and had a kid on the way,” said Arnett, a native of Panama City, Florida. “I remember thinking to myself as a sergeant with two kids at the time, ‘Golly, he’s got a family and he’s just starting out.’”
“I was in boot camp to support my family,” said Draffen. “We ran into some financial problems, so there I was.”
Only six months away from his 21-year mark in the Marine Corps, Draffen still holds true to the lessons instilled in him by the man who taught him the fundamentals of what it means to be a Marine.
“I’d say the one lesson that he really drove home, and is something we push on our kids, is to take care of your family,” said Draffen. “He reinforced that you perform to take care of your family first, and everything else comes secondary to that.”