Military bases have become a hub for many retired service members. Some of the benefits of living near a military installation are access to great facilities, including the gym, pool, commissary or auto hobby shop. However, these are not the driving factors causing them to settle down in a military community. Many times, it is simply practical. The retiree may have been stationed there completing his or her last assignment. The purchase of a home, combined with established relationships and activities of the family, results in growing roots.
Some military retirees become defense contractors, so living in the military community just makes sense. A great benefit to retiring and remaining in a military community is a strong social network, accentuated by comrades whose friendship spans decades. Such is the case for a group of retired Marines in Jacksonville, North Carolina, who refer to themselves as the Graybeards.
A majority of the Graybeards are old infantrymen who retired as Master Gunnery Sergeants. There are also a few Sergeants Major and a smattering of other MOSes. The characteristics of their previous service are interesting but not the defining factors of their unity. They are bound by something the Marine Corps calls esprit de corps. It is a brotherhood. They come from the same generation and have shared experiences spanning three decades of service. Some of them served together, some briefly crossed paths or they served with mutual acquaintances at different times.
The Graybeards came together in November 2020 when they mustered for attendance at a fellow Master Gunnery Sergeant’s retirement ceremony. Laughter, bear hugs and beaming smiles filled the air as they realized how many of them settled in and around Camp Lejeune. The retirement ceremony became an impromptu reunion.
Soon thereafter, the Graybeards began to gather for lunch one Friday each month. They met at the Staff Non-Commissioned Officers Club on base until it shut down. Then, they reluctantly relocated to the Officers Club, which admittedly had better chow. Closure of the SNCO Club was bittersweet as it indirectly represented the passing of an era. Each of the Graybeards feels they served in the Marine Corps at just the right time. The monthly luncheon is a rejuvenating experience which all look forward to.
Like many veterans they drift into criticism of where the Corps is heading but spend very little time on negative or disparaging talk. Most of their banter is a mix of retelling hilarious stories from their time in uniform or harassing each other with a slew of inside jokes. Their volume and laughter draw quite a bit of attention, but their obvious camaraderie is a shining example to those Marines still on active duty. It shows the bonds among Marines are lifelong.
There are war stories, name calling, trash talking and solid life advice exchanged during these informal luncheons. Occasionally discussion grows serious as life events are shared. The Graybeards support and encourage one another in a manner counselors or therapists could never achieve.
In a world often depicted by the media as being full of strife between those of different ethnicities, the Graybeards stand out in stark contrast. Their sameness overshadows the differences in skin tone. They are of the generation that were taught by their Drill Instructors, “You are all green. You may be light green or dark green, but you are all green.” They are combat veterans who fought (and bled) with men whose backgrounds differed greatly from their own. Their shared values, sense of mission and their common experience as Marines cement an enduring bond that transcends the factors which divide others. All who look upon their merry conduct can see their love for one another is genuine.
Another touch point the Graybeards maintain is a group text, initiated by one member known as the “Minister of Information.” Each morning begins with a text, “Good morning brothers!” followed by an exchange of humor, nonsense, and sitreps. They still speak in Marine lingo, talking about field day Thursday, libo formations, and threatening one another with NJP (Non-Judicial Punishment).
Old Marines like the Graybeards enjoy routine and each has established his own battle rhythm. They still PT regularly, albeit on a reduced scale. Though each of them held a senior rank with an accompanying level of influence and responsibility, to see them all together one might think they were still 19-year-old Lance Corporals. If laughter is indeed good medicine, then the Graybeards maintain a solid prescription. The strength of camaraderie and belonging keeps bringing them back. They each know if they find themselves in need, they have a whole squad of brothers who will swoop in to assist.
The Graybeards on Camp Lejeune began with a chance encounter but continue today because they know that the most important thing to invest in is people. Relationships matter. Semper Fidelis.