By Marine Corps Cpl. Bobbie Curtis
Special to American Forces Press Service
June 25, 2009 - When Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Jason Eckman was promoted to gunnery sergeant on May 2, he became one of the few Marines to know the rare honor of being meritoriously promoted for combat service. A meritorious promotion in the Marine Corps is an irregular promotion that allows particular Marines who stand out above their peers to compete before a board of more senior Marines for a small number of predetermined slots to their next rank.
The promotions are harder to achieve the higher a Marine advances in rank. For this particular board, only two promotion available slots were available for all of the Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan. Eckman competed against nine other staff sergeants to earn his promotion.
Eckman describes his whole life as a pathway leading to self-improvement, with experiences that have given him the tools and drive to achieve his goals along the way.
"Everything in your career is a stepping stone to improve yourself," he explained. "I try to stay as well-rounded of a Marine as possible."
Eckman was born in a college town in Pennsylvania with a population of about 70,000 people. After finishing high school, he joined the Marine Corps with hopes that it would give him a jump start to later pursue a career in law enforcement with the Pennsylvania State Police.
He said shipping off to Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, S.C., was one of the first stepping stones toward his current success. His recruit training, he said, gave him a huge starting point that he used to establish a solid foundation.
"It starts at recruit training," he said. "To continue on, you've got to have some good mentors [and] take the things you like and discard the things you don't like to make you a well-rounded Marine."
His formula to success was simple from the beginning. He chose to learn and live by the Marine Corps' 14 leadership traits: judgment, justice, decisiveness, integrity, discipline, tact, initiative, endurance, bearing, unselfishness, knowledge, loyalty, enthusiasm and confidence.
"It's bred into you as a Marine," he said.
Upon completion of recruit training and subsequently training in his assigned military occupational specialty as a military policeman, Eckman embarked on a series of assignments and deployments that he said helped him on his quest to become a diverse Marine and "experience all the things the Marine Corps has to offer." During his first enlistment in the Marine Corps, Eckman decided to commit to the Corps and make it his career.
"Once I got in the Marine Corps, I enjoyed being in and being part of it," he said. "That's why I never got out."
He went on a deployment as part of a personal security detail for U.S. Support Group Haiti in 1999 and caught a glimpse of his future of his current assignment as staff noncommissioned officer in charge for the 2nd Marine Logistics Group commanding general's personal security detail. He also completed a West Pacific tour with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, visiting multiple countries in Southwest Asia, and served two separate tours in Iraq.
During this time, Eckman also was presented with an opportunity that he credits as one of the largest of the stepping stones, one that was key in teaching him small unit leadership skills: drill instructor duty at a place he knew all too well, Parris Island.
"Being a drill instructor was a huge stepping stone for me," he said. "The small-unit leadership you learn down there really helped me out." The challenge of forging a group of recruits with different backgrounds and personalities into a team of Marines, he added, taught him many of the skills he uses today.
Soon after finishing his tour as a drill instructor, Eckman moved to Camp Lejeune, N.C., and found himself in his current billet, one he called a great opportunity that played a decisive part in earning a combat meritorious promotion. Soon, he was here on his third deployment to Iraq.
He said being in the personal security detail is one of his favorite jobs and that the small-unit camaraderie makes it a rewarding atmosphere.
"You're working in that small unit, and it's a lot tighter," he said. "The incredible bond we have is one thing I especially enjoy."
Eckman also credits his unit's Marines as an important factor in his success, calling them some of the best in the Marine Corps.
"They talk about the top 10 percent of the Marine Corps. ... Well, I have the top 2 percent under me," he said. "They don't need guidance, and their professionalism is outstanding."
The 14-man team is made up mainly of infantrymen, along with a few military policemen and a Navy corpsman. All of the team members have more than one combat tour under their belt, giving Eckman an experienced, capable team to lead, he said.
After only four months of leading the team throughout Iraq with Brig. Gen. Juan G. Ayala, the 2nd Marine Logistics Group commander, Eckman received the combat meritorious promotion to gunnery sergeant, an event he considers one of his greatest moments.
"Obviously, I was excited about it," he said. "It was a true honor." Gunnery sergeant is one of the best ranks in the Marine Corps, he added.
"I set a goal when I came into the Marine Corps that I would be a gunnery sergeant," he said. "To achieve it in this way is one of the greatest achievements in my life."
Eckman was promoted by Ayala and Sgt. Maj. Carl Green, the former group sergeant major, in front of more than 100 other staff NCOs and officers.
Ayala's aide-de-camp, 1st Lt. Dan Meyers, is the personal security detail's officer in charge. He said he nominated Eckman because he was a natural choice for a combat meritorious promotion.
"His natural leadership and initiative was far beyond that of a staff sergeant," he said. "When it came time to put a name forward for a meritorious board, it was a no-brainer for me.
"It's really easy to write a package on a Marine who has so many accomplishments," he added, "so I was honored to put the package together." Meyers said that Eckman is the kind of staff NCO that every young officer needs, and that he's a great leader of Marines.
"I've got nothing but confidence in him," he explained. "He makes my job a whole lot easier because he's so incredibly competent. ... The Marines on his team respond well to his leadership. Their flawless execution thus far is a real testament to his ability to train them."
Eckman said that none of his accomplishments would have been possible without his wife, Jessica.
"I know that she's taking care of things back home," he said. "She misses her husband around, ... but she's able to manage and has done it now on numerous occasions."
Eckman said he still has many aspirations in the Marine Corps, including going back to Parris Island.
"I would love to go back down and be a company first sergeant, and would definitely love to be a battalion sergeant major," he said. But he added that his future in the Marine Corps depends on his wife and his 2-year old daughter, Lillian.
"Most likely, I am going to hit my 20-year mark and move on with life and be a family man," he said. "When I see [the military life] start to take a toll on the family, I am going to be a dad and husband."
(Marine Corps Cpl. Bobbie Curtis serves with the 2nd Marine Logistics Group.)