Memoirs of Hejlik
NORFOLK, VA – After nearly 42 years of active service (44 total service years), Lt. Gen. Dennis J. Hejlik, Commander, U.S. Marine Corps Forces Command and U.S. Marine Corps Forces Europe officially retired at a ceremony held at Marine Barracks Washington, often called “8th and I” in Washington, D.C., July 23.
He has seen every major conflict the United States has encountered since the Vietnam War, and through it all, he has been a mentor, a leader and a role model for Marines – touting the Corps’ core values of “Honor, Courage and Commitment” to the very end.
A change of command ceremony was held onboard Naval Support Activity Hampton Roads on July 20, where he was relieved of command by Lt. Gen. John M. Paxton, Jr., who served most recently as Commanding General, II Marine Expeditionary Force and Commander, U.S. Marine Forces Africa.
“We’ve been friends for 30 years, they won’t miss a beat up here,” Hejlik said about Paxton. “The battle rhythm will continue … he’s a great Marine, a great gentleman, so there is no doubt in my mind that things will continue. When you move from one commander to the next, things always get a little bit better, and they will with Lt. Gen. Paxton.”
In late 1967, Hejlik was drafted into the Army, but instead of going into the Army, he decided to enlist in the Marine Corps in February of 1968. His thought was, “I’ve been drafted, I have to serve my country and I’m going to serve my country, but at the time I said, ‘You know, I’m going to serve with the best – the Marines.” And he did until 1972 when he was honorably discharged as a sergeant and left active duty service. He was later commissioned in 1975 through the Marine Corps Platoon Leaders Course (PLC) program, because “I realized how much I liked being a Marine and I came back.”
“When I got to the Platoon Leaders Course and The Basic School in Quantico, Va., I really started to enjoy the infantry … being out in the field, leading a platoon of Marines,” said Hejlik, who recalled that as an enlisted Marine he wasn’t infantry and worked on aircraft. “I actually had a flight contract and I dropped [it] in order to be an infantry officer.”
In the past 40 years, Hejlik said that technology has changed the face of the Marine Corps, but the core of the Marine infantry has stayed consistent.
“The biggest change, I think, has been technology,” he said, “because the basic tenant of the Marine infantrymen has stayed the same, and I am Marine infantry. Technology, when you look at Skype, MySpace, Facebook and all those things that are out there – that’s changed the face of war, if you will – but it’s also changed the face of the Marine Corps.”
In looking to the future, Hejlik feels that joint services will continue to be prevalent in the Armed Forces.
“In this day in age, with limited resources, you have to fight ‘joint’ and you have to fight ‘coalition,’” he said, “but that doesn’t mean that we should ever lose our identities as separate services – Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard – we should never do that because we are all a little bit different and I think that difference makes us stronger as we come together. I think that we will continue to fight joint and coalition and that really is the wave of the future.”
He also feels that there will be a greater dependence on the naval force.
“I think you will see more dependency upon the naval force, meaning our forces forward deployed aboard naval ships – Navy and Marines; I think that you will see smaller scale events; I think you will see Marines working in smaller units, enabled obviously by technology as it continues to grow,” he said. “So, I see more dependency upon the Navy and the Marine Corps as we are forward deployed.”
Above all, Hejlik said the state of the morale of the troops remains high.
“I think the state of the morale is very good … I think it’s excellent, I only speak for the Marine Corps obviously, but I see it here also with the Navy,” he said. “I think it’s great because the Marines and the Sailors, they’re doing what they signed up to do – that’s to deploy, that’s to go to combat, and that’s to be taken care of and have a quality of life … and they’ve got all of that. I would say that there is probably a little fraying around the edges because the operational tempo is very high right now, in both the Navy and the Marine Corps. So, that’s one of those things that we have to continue to watch and continue to take care of our Marines and Sailors, and the morale will stay good.”
Of Hejlik’s many command assignments, there are two on which he feels he has had the greatest impact.
“Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command [MARSOC] – I stood that unit up in early 2006 as the first commander, as the Marine Corps came into special forces, and that’s where I think I had the greatest impact as far as the service goes,” he said.”
Hejlik shared some advice for Marines to get the most out of their service to this country.
“Stay true to our core values – Honor, Courage and Commitment,” he said. “They have a tremendous responsibility with the reputation of the Marine Corps being warfighters for the last 236 years. They have to stay true to that. I always tell them to remember the words of Gen. [Charles C.] Krulak years ago, ‘America doesn’t need a Marine Corps, America wants a Marine Corps,’ and that’s a responsibility they have to carry forward.”
As Hejlik leaves the service, he is surrounded by his very supportive family, including his wife Sandy, his children and grandchildren who have been his biggest champions throughout his career.
“Family is everything to me. My wife and children and our grandchildren, they have supported me as have brothers and sisters on both my wife’s side and my side, and aunts and uncles have supported me for the last 42 years,” he said. “Everyone leaves service at one time or another. What you want to leave with is a family that is intact, that has supported you and loved you over the years. And I even take it a little bit further; I really consider the Marine Corps [to be] family. I tell that to the Marines – you’ve got to think of it that way – the Marine Corps is family. You take care of one another, and we look out for one another and we make sure that we are doing the right thing.”
Hejlik’s career can be best summarized by those who had the distinct pleasure of serving with and under his guidance.
“Your outreach and commitment to enhancing both allied and joint warfighting readiness reflected an increased partnership capacity and military-to-military cooperation across Europe and the Atlantic,” said Gen. James F. Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps. “By revitalizing the Marine Corps’ relationship with the Navy at the waterfront, you helped shape our naval integration and expeditionary operations for years to come.”
“His legacy to the Corps will impact Marines for years to come,” said Sgt. Maj. Yolanda Mayo, Squadron Sergeant Major, Marine Air Control Squadron 24. “Throughout a career that has spanned 40-plus years, Lt. Gen. Hejlik’s inspirational presence has influenced countless Marines and Sailors; these same men and women who are now, and will continue to promote his sense of devoted leadership to those who serve, and the many yet to come.”
Although the Marine Corps is losing a great Marine, the Hampton Roads community is gaining one. Hejlik and his family have found solid roots in this area, and as he says, “This is a great Navy town, both my wife Sandy and I love being here.” He plans to stay engaged with the local community and with the Marine Corps as a senior mentor off and on part-time, but mostly he plans to spend a lot of time with his family catching up.
“It’s an emotional thing,” he said, “because after all these years, being a U.S. Marine is what I am, it’s what I do … it defines me. It defines me as a military member. So, it will be very emotional, but like all of us, I’m looking forward to new adventures, new chapters and being engaged and helping Sailors and Marines wherever I can.”